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The Black and Bitter Night

[ Roud - ; Mudcat 48354 ; Peter Bellamy]

Mike Waterson sang The Black and Bitter Night in the role of Henry Cabell in Peter Bellamy’s 1977 ballad opera The Transports. This track was reissued in 2004 on the Watersons’ anthology Mighty River of Song.

According to Peter Bellamy this song was “written for Cabell to sing, when, not being clairvoyant, he doesn’t know he’s in for a happy ending.” This was one of the few songs from The Transports that Peter Bellamy incorporated into his solo stage act, the only one he played on a regular basis, and which he recorded in 1985 for his album Second Wind. This recording was subsequently reissued on the Free Reed 3CD anthology Wake the Vaulted Echoes.

Peter Bellamy commented in the Second Wind sleeve notes:

I began writing tunes “in the traditional idiom” in 1969 specifically for Kipling’s folk-based poetry, and a few years later decided to see if I could write songs of that nature without his help. The culmination (to date) of this notion was a ballad-opera called The Transports. My only regret about the project was that I blundered into giving all the best bits to other people and singing all the boring bits myself, so this seems like a goot opportunity to have a go at my favourite song in the set, The Black and Bitter Night. Our hero is less than delighted to be left in Norwich gaol while his lady and baby are whisked off to become members of the first colony of white Australians. He is unaware that I (and history) have a happy ending in store for them at the end of disc 2.

Also in the same work was a piece written for the late, truly great Bert Lloyd. Entitled The Robber’s Song this was deemed too lighthearted by the producers of the 1983 performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, so I reworked most of the words and all of the tune for the occasion. The result is Abe Carman, which here appears on record for the first time. Substitute “Napoleon Bonaparte” for Abe’s name in the first line and you will get a clue as to the methods we “traditional idiom” composers frequently employ. In this case it was unwitting, though, so don’tcall it Plagiarism, please? How about The Oral Tradition in Action? Thanks.

The Black and Bitter Night was also sung

  1. by Cockersdale on their album Doin’ the Manch’ (1988). This track was also included on the 2004 re-recording of The Transports,
  2. by Grace Notes on their album Down Falls the Day (1993),
  3. by Damien Barber on his album Boxed (recorded 1995, released 2000),
  4. by Damien Barber and John Kirkpatrick with The Wilsons and Grace Notes on the 2004 re-recording of The Transports


Mike Waterson sings The Black and Bitter Night

It is cold, sad, and lonely in this dismal cell;
No solace comes up with the day.
My heart knows an anguish that no tongue can tell
Since they’ve taken my true love away

Chorus (repeated after each verse):
Oh, the black and bitter night and oh, the weary day
My love has been snatched far, far from my sight
And the transports will bear her away

When first in this prison so deep was my pain
Then she came and she banished dismay
But now in despondence I’m drowning again
For they’ve taken my true love away

Though surrounded by horrors yet we found delight,
For where love is, no sorrow can stay.
But misery and squalor swim back to my sight
Now they’ve taken my true love away

Why, the grasses still grow and the streams still down flow
And the blackbird still sings on the spray
But in dank, deary dungeons there’s nothing but woe
Since they’ve taken my true love away

Well, if I were a seagull, I’d fly to her side,
And it’s there that I wish I could stay.
But soon the cruel prison ships leave with the tide
And they’ve bearing my true love away

If I were a herring I’d wait by the slip
Though I waited a year and a day.
Then through the wide ocean I’d follow the ship
That is bearing my true love away

So lovers, cling fast to each pleasure you find
And cherish each moment of play
For all you will have is what stays in your mind
Once they’ve taken my true love away


Thanks to Wolfgang Hell who kindly provided me with the sleeve notes of the The Transports LPs. I changed a few words to the actual singing of Mike Waterson and added the missing fourth verse from the Mudcat transcription.