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Sweet Nightingale

[ Roud 371 ; Ballad Index K089 ; VWML SBG/1/1/90 ; Wiltshire 990 , 991 ; trad.]

Canow Kernow The Constant Lovers Songs of the West

Inglis Gundry included Sweet Nightingale in both trio and duet setting in his book of songs and dances from Cornwall, Canow Kernow (The Federation of Old Cornwall Societies, 1966). The words are from Robert Bell's Ancient Poems of the Peasantry of England (1857) and the tune was collected by Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould from E.G. Stevens of St. Ives, Cornwall. Gundry commented that

Baring-Gould tells us that “a good many old men in Cornwall” gave him this song “and always to the same air”, which may explain why it is still so widespread. “They assert,” he continues, “that it is a duet”.

The words of Sweet Nightingale were first published in Robert Bell's Ancient Poems of the Peasantry of England, 1857, with the note: “This curious ditty—said to be a translation from the ancient Cornish tongue… we first heard in Germany… The singers were four Cornish miners, who were at that time, 1854, employed at some lead mines near the town of Zell. The leader, or captain, John Stocker, said that the song was an established favourite with the lead miners of Cornwall and Devonshire, and was always sung on the pay-days and at the wakes; and that his grandfather, who died 30 years before at the age of a hundred years, used to sing the song, and say that it was very old.” Unfortunately Bell failed to get a copy either of words or music from these miners, and relied in the end on a gentleman of Plymouth who “was obliged to supply a little here or there, but only when a bad rhyme, or rather none at all, made it evident what the real rhyme was. I have read it over to a mining gentleman at Truro, and he says it is pretty near the way we sing it.”

One of the lyrics in [Thomas] Arne's ballad opera Thomas and Sally (1761) has similarities with the words given by Bell, but Arne's tune is quite different.

Gundry did not mention that this in not the innocent pastoral idyll that it looks at first glance: To “hear the nightingale sing” is an euphemism for making love, in the same way that the “Cuckoo's nest” is an euphemism for the region of such activity.

Derek Sarjeant sang The Sweet Nightingale on his 1962 EP Folk Songs Sung By Derek Sarjeant. Jack Parkinson noted:

The Sweet Nightingale is one of the many songs collected in the West Country by Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould in the early days of this century. Derek learned it during his schooldays, but points out that although this is a Cornish song the nightingale is not heard in that country.

Charlie Bate from Padstow sang The Sweet Nightingale at a concert presented by the English Folk, Dance and Song Society at the Royal Festival Hall, London on 4 June 1965. This recording was included in the same year on the EFDSS EP The Folksound of Britain.

Emmet Spiceland sang The Nightingale in 1968 on the Irish album Ballads for Drinking and the Crack.

Sandy Denny and Mick Groves of The Spinners sang Sweet Nightingale on the BBC 1 TV Show “The Spinners” on 22 April 1971. This recording was included in 2007 on her 3CD+DVD set Live at the BBC.

Peter Bellamy and Louis Killen sang Sweet Nightingale live at the Folk Studio, Norwich, on 22 June 1971. A concert recording was released half a year later on their LP Won't You Go My Way?.

Bill Smith sang the Nightingale in a January 1982 recording that was included in 2000 on his Musical Traditions anthology of “songs and stories of a Shropshire man”, A Country Life.

Yet another English song which we think of as being well-known, yet Roud has only 39 instances, of which only two are sound recordings—one from Cornwall and one from Derry; all the other sources are printed. Bill probably learned this at school, and only sang the final two verses […]

This video shows Sevenoaks (Charlie Snooks, vocals; David Jordan, double bass; Mark Potts, guitar) performing Sweet Nightingale at the Eden Project, Cornwall, in April 2007:

Jane and Amanda Threlfall sang The Sweet Nightingale as the title track of their 2008 CD Sweet Nightingale. They noted:

You don't get them much better than this—a song about something so exquisitely simple and beautiful as a bird singing in its natural habitat. It's the perfect example of intellectual richness through the fewness of wants.

From English County Songs, by Lucy Broadwood and J. A. Fuller-Maitland (London: J.B. Cramer, 1893), which adds, “Sung by Messrs. Upfold and Stanford, farmers, now dead, at Cranleigh, Surrey”. The song was noted down from a now rather formal sounding Mr Grantham, a carter, at nearby Holmwood.

Apparently, each final line should have been shared between two voices, like Upfold and Stanford probably did, one answering the other.

Jon Boden sang Sweet Nightingale as the 13 May 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. He commented in his blog:

A gentle little song with a great chorus. We sing this at Royal Traditions nights at the Royal in Dungworth.

Corncrow sang Sweet Nightingale as the title track of their EP Sweet Nightingale.

Jackie Oates, who played viola on Corncrow's EP, sang Sweet Nightingale on her 2011 CD Saturnine. This video shows her as part of the John Jones and the Reluctant Ramblers gig at Broadwindsor in 2010:

Jackie Oates also sang Sweet Nightingale together with Sam Lee in 2011 on the WildGoose anthology of songs sung by Watchet sailor John Short, Short Sharp Shanties Vol. 2. Doug Bailey commented in the album's online notes:

Not a shanty, of course—although Sharp initially noted it as ‘capstan’—later scoring the word through. He did not publish it. The Rev. Brockington later quoted [John] Short as saying “'tis not a shanty, but I often used to sing it on board ship.” It was one of Short’s favourites (one wonders how many other songs he had apart from the shanties!) and he is noted as singing it at the Watchet Manorial Court Leet dinner in 1931—at the age of 92—when he “entertained the company with shanties and Sweet Nightingale”.

The oldest form of the song seems to have its origins in a Thomas Arne operetta of 1761, called Thomas and Sally, as a dialogue between the Squire and Sally. Apart from one Sussex version which retains an Arne verse containing cows and violets, all the other versions collected in the field (as it were) are remarkably similar, and distinct from the Arne dialogue—a fact which would usually indicate dissemination from a singular broadside text (however often that text may have been published). What distinguishes Short's version from the more widely known Cornish version that was popularised by Charlie Bate, is the first stressed note on the supertonic which has the knock-on effect of eventually varying the third and fourth lines—not easy to master if you're used to Cornish variant of the tune.

Since we gave it to Sam and Jackie to record for the project, we discovered that it was often sung in the West Coutry as a dialogue/duet piece—serendipity! On the CDs it is recorded as a ‘bonus track’—apart from the shanties, but there for the sake of completeness.

Kirsty Bromley sang Sweet Nightingale in 2011 as the title track of her EP Sweet Nightingale.

Emily Portman sang The Sweet Nightingale at the Fife Traditional Singing Festival, Collessie, Fife in May 2011. This recording was included in the following year on the festival anthology, The Little Barn of Yarn (Old Songs & Bothy Ballads Volume 8). The album booklet noted:

The song was first published in Robert Bell’s Ancient Poems of the Peasantry of England (1857) with the note: “This curious ditty—said to be a translation from the ancient Cornish tongue … we first heard in Germany … from four Cornish miners, who were at that time, 1854, employed at some lead mines near the town of Zell.” The song is not the innocent pastoral idyll that it looks at first glance—to “hear the nightingale sing” is clearly a euphemism for lovemaking in the same way that the Cuckoo’s Nest is euphemistic in the well-known Scottish song.

Jon Wilks talked with Jackie Oates about Sweet Nightingale in February 2020 in Episode 4 of his Old Songs Podcast.

Lyrics

Sweet Nightingale as printed in Canow Kernow

My sweetheart, come along, don't you hear the fond song,
The sweet notes of the nightingale flow?
Don't you hear the fond tale of the sweet nightingale
𝄆 As she sings in the valley below. 𝄇

Pretty Betty, don't fail, for I'll carry your pail
Safe home to your cot as we go.
You shall hear the fond tale of the sweet nightingale
𝄆 As she sings in the valley below. 𝄇

Pray let me alone, I have hands of my own;
Along with you, sir, I'll not go.
For to hear the fond tale of the sweet nightingale
𝄆 As she sings in the valley below. 𝄇

Pray sit yourself down with me on the ground,
On this bank where the primroses grow.
You shall hear the fond tale of the sweet nightingale
𝄆 As she sings in the valley below. 𝄇

This couple agreed to be married with speed
And soon to the church they did go.
Never more she's afraid for to walk in the shade
𝄆 Or to sit in these valleys below. 𝄇

Sandy Denny and Mick Groves sing Sweet Nightingale

Pretty maid, come along, don't you hear the sweet song,
The sweet notes of the nightingale sing?
Don't you hear the fond tale of the sweet nightingale
𝄆 As she sings in the valley below. 𝄇

Pretty Sandy, don't fail, for I'll carry your pail
Safe home to your cot as we go.
You shall hear the fond tale of the sweet nightingale
𝄆 As she sings in the valley below. 𝄇

Pray let me alone, I have hands of my own,
And along with you, sir, I'll not go
For to hear the fond tale of the sweet nightingale
𝄆 As she sings in the valley below. 𝄇

Come sit yourself down with me on the ground,
Stay here where the primroses grow.
You shall hear the fond tale of the sweet nightingale
𝄆 As she sings in the valley below. 𝄇

This couple agreed and were married with speed
And soon to the church they did go.
No more is she afraid for to walk in the shade
Or 𝄆 to lie in the valley below. 𝄇

Peter Bellamy and Louis Killen sing Sweet Nightingale

My sweetheart, come along, don't you hear the fine song,
The sweet notes of the nightingale flow?
Don't you hear the fond tale of the sweet nightingale
𝄆 As she sings in the valley below. 𝄇

Pretty Betsy, don't fail, I will carry your pail
Straight home to your cot as we go.
You will hear the fond tale of the sweet nightingale
𝄆 As she sings in the valley below. 𝄇

Pray leave me alone, I have hands of my own,
And along with you, sir, I'll not go
For to hear the fond tale of the sweet nightingale
𝄆 As she sings in the valley below. 𝄇

Come sit yourself down here with me on the ground,
On this bank where the primroses grow.
Here we'll hear the fond tale of the sweet nightingale
𝄆 As she sings in the valley below. 𝄇

So she sat herself down there with him on the ground,
On the banks where the primroses grow.
And she heard the fond tale of the sweet nightingale
𝄆 As she sings in the valley below. 𝄇

Now this couple agreed to get married with speed
And straight to the church they did go.
Never more she's afraid for to sit in the shade
𝄆 Nor to lie in the valley below. 𝄇

Links

See also the discussion in the Mudcat café thread Cornish Nightingale, and the related song On Yonder Old Oak as sung by e.g. the Millen Family and the Dovetail Trio.