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Cambridgeshire May Carol

[ Roud 305 ; Ballad Index JRSF238 ; VWML RVW2/1/39 ; trad.]

Shirley Collins sang this May Day carol on her 1967 album The Sweet Primeroses. It was also included in her compilation CD Fountain of Snow and on the anthology The Season Round. She commented in the original album’s sleeve notes:

Wherever May Day is still observed in Britain it is still fairly pagan, even though sometimes, as in this song, it has Christian bits grafted on. It’s not all ribbons and blossom though, for the terrifying black hobby horse still dances through Padstow in Cornwall to welcome summer in. I learned this from Jean Ritchie, who was taught it by Rossell Wortley. I love what this song evokes so much that I sing it all the year round.

Mary Humphreys and Anahata sang the Cambridge May Song in 2004 on their WildGoose album Floating Verses. Mary Humphreys noted:

This song was collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1907 from Fowlmere resident ‘Hoppy’ Flack [VWML RVW2/1/39] . He was one of the longest-serving members of a band of May carollers which visited the cottages in the villages of Thriplow and Fowlmere collecting money and ale on May eve. Hoppy related to RVW that one May eve having been given so much to drink during the proceedings, he fell into a ditch and couldn’t get out again. His companion, loth to lose the money they would collect carried on without him and Hoppy lay in the ditch until day listening to the song as it went further into the distance.

The words attached to the text had a very gloomy turn to them and seem to have departed considerably from their pagan origins. I have gone to other May carols, particularly the neighbouring Bedfordshire one, and ‘borrowed’ some verses. It becomes a much more celebratory song without the threat of Hell and Damnation.

They also sang the Cambridge May Garland Song on their 2012 album A Baker’s Dozen where Mary Humphreys noted:

A version of this song is sung by the band of Northstow Mummers, of which we are members. Our merry band takes a May garland around Cambridge city centre every May Day. The song originates from the north of Cambridgeshire but there are many photographs of children taking May garlands around the local villages during the last century. As in all good traditional customs such as souling and molly dancing there is a reference to collecting money somewhere in the song.


Shirley Collins sings the Cambridgeshire May Carol

Arise, arise, you pretty fair maids,
And take your May bush in,
For if that is gone before tomorrow morn
You would say we had brought you none.

Oh, the hedges and fields are growing so green,
As green as grass can be;
Our heavenly father watereth them
With his heavenly dew so sweet.

I have got a little purse in my pocket
That’s tied with a silken string;
And all that it lacks is a little of your gold
To line it well within.

Now the clock strikes one, it’s time we are gone,
We can no longer stay;
So please to remember our money, money box
And God send you a joyful May.