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The Queen of the May / As I Walked Through the Meadows

[ Roud 594 ; Master title: The Queen of the May ; Ballad Index SWMS190 ; VWML AGG/7/136 ; GlosTrad Roud 594 ; Wiltshire 357 , 1059 ; DT QUEENMAY ; trad.]

Fred Hamer: Garners Gay David Herd: Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs Bob and Jacqueline Patten: A Somerset Scrapbook Frank Purslow: The Wanton Seed James Reeves: The Idiom of the People Steve Roud, Julia Bishop: The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs Cecil Sharp: One Hundred English Folksongs

Shirley Collins recorded The Queen of May in 1958 for her second album, False True Lovers. Alan Lomax commented in the album’s notes:

[This song,] from Cecil Sharp’s English Folk Songs, tells the second part of the story introduced by My Bonny Cuckoo. When the cry of the cuckoo echoed through the meadows on the eve of the first of May, the young men and women went out together to gather May blossoms and to make love among the springtime blossoms. So deep-rooted was this pagan fertility practice that Protestant ministers were still unsuccessfully trying to eradicate it late in the 19th century. The feeling still lingers in rural England, especially in the lyric songs. It was a misfortune that prudery was at its height. At the time Cecil Sharp was collecting and publishing, fifty years ago, in order to be able to introduce his folk-song finds into the school system, he was forced to bowdlerise the texts and transform many innocently erotic but extremely beautiful songs into the pallid, sentimental pieces which finally turned many Britons against folk music. This, I feel sure, is one of the songs Sharp had to censor. What really happened that May Day morning under the oak tree was probably not legalised in the original folk version that Sharp collected. Of course, it is not possible for an American to cast stones in regard to censorship, for today American school text book editors behave far more prudishly than did Sharp, and poor Baring-Gould in the worst years of the mauve decade.

John Kirkpatrick and Sue Harris sang Queen of the May in 1974 on their Topic album The Rose of Britain’s Isle.

Manny Aldous of Great Bricett sang The Queen of May on the Veteran anthology Songs Sung in Suffolk (2000), with words quite similar to those of Shirley Collins. John Howson commented in the sleeve notes:

This attractive little song was a popular 19th century broadside and was published amongst others by Catnach in London, and Russell in Birmingham. It turns up in many song collections including the Hammond Manuscripts (D509) where it was collected from Sam Dawe in Beaminster, Dorset in June 1906. Although the lines are in a slightly different order the words are basically the same. In the notes of the book The Wanton Seed, where that version is published, Frank Purslow describes it as “an 18th century minor art-song which has kept its place in the tradition fairly well.” Fred Hamer also came across a version in Bedfordshire sung to him by Harry Scott. That tells the same story but with a quite different word set.

Magpie Lane sang this song as As I Walked Through the Meadows in 1993 on their Beautiful Jo album of songs and tunes of Oxfordshire, The Oxford Ramble. Andy Turner learned the song from Fred Hamer’s book Garners Gay and also sang it with the title Queen of the May as the 7 May 2012 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week. Fred Hamer collected the song from Bedfordshire singer Harry Scott.

Mick Ryan and Paul Harris sang The Queen of the May in 2004 on their WildGoose album Something to Show. They noted:

Ian Palmer, a stalwart of The Ram Folk Club in Claygate, Surrey, found The Queen of the May in a collection of English traditional verse, and put this lovely tune to it.

Belshazzar’s Feast (Paul Sartin and Paul Hutchinson) sang Queen of the May in 2010 on their One Little Indian album Find the Lady. And the Andover Museum Loft Singers conducted by Paul Sartin sang Queen of the May in 2012 on their WildGoose album The Bedmaking. They noted:

Paul first heard this performed by local musicians Mick Ryan and Pete Harris.The traditional words were set to music by Ian Palmer.

Rob Williams sang Sweet Queen of May in 2012 on his CD Outstanding Natural Beauty. The songs on this album were originally collected in April-June 1905 from Jane Gulliford of Combe Florey by the brothers Henry and Robert Hammond.

Bryony Griffith sang The Queen of May in 2014 on her CD Nightshade. She noted:

I found this in the new EFDSS online Full English Digital Archive in the Frank Kidson Collection [VWML AGG/7/136] . This version (although I’ve changed it a bit) was collected from a 71 year old Mr Hargreaves of Pontefract on 6 May 1908. I originally arranged it in four-part harmony for my singing group, The Shepley Singers.

Bryony conducted Queen of the May at Soundpost Full English Weekend 2015:

Bob and Gill Berry sang Sweet Queen of May on their 2018 WildGoose CD Echoes of Alfred. They noted:

The words of this song were collected by Frank Kidson, sung by Elizabeth Parkes in Trowbridge in 1906 and set to a new tune by Bob. The tune was inspired from the beautiful Catholic Hymn Bring Flowers of the Rarest (Queen of the May). This is as near to a Parlour Song as we get.

Mishaped Pearls sang Queen May on their 2018 CD Shivelight.

Jack Rutter learned The Queen of the May from Bryony Griffith’s album. He sang it on his 2022 download EP Covers.


Shirley Collins sings The Queen of May

As I was a-walking to take the fresh air,
The flowers all blooming and gay,
i heard a young damsel so sweetly a-singing,
Her cheeks like flowers in May.

I said, “Pretty maiden, may I go with you,
Through the flowers to gather some May?“
The maid she replied, “My path it is here,
I pray you pursue your own way.”

So she tripped along with her dear little feet,
But I followed, and soon I drew near,
I called her my pretty, my true love so sweet,
So she took me at last for her dear.

I took this fair maid by the lily-white hand,
On a green mossy bank we sat down;
I gave her a kiss on her sweet rosy lips,
A tree spread its branches around.

Now when we did rise from that sweet mossy grove,
In the meadows we wandered away;
And I sat my true love on a primrose bank,
And picked her a handful of May.

The very next morning I made her my bride,
Just after the breaking of day;
The bells they did ring, and the birds they did sing,
As I crowned her my Queen of sweet May.

Bryony Griffith sings The Queen of May

When the winter is gone and the summer is come,
And the meadows are pleasant and gay.
The lark in the mornings how sweetly do sing
And the small birds on every spray.

Young Johnny the ploughboy, he’s as fresh as a rose,
He cheerfully sings at his plough,
While the blackbird and thrush sing on every green tree,
𝄆 And the dairy maid’s milking her cow. 𝄇

As I walked through the fields to take in the air,
And the flowers were blooming and gay,
I heard a young damsel so sweetly did sing,
Her cheeks like the blossoms in May.

I said, “Pretty maiden, why do come you here
In the meadows this morning so soon?”
The maiden replied, “For to gather some May,
𝄆 For the trees they are all in full bloom.” 𝄇

I said, “Pretty maiden, shall I go with you
Through the meadows to gather some May?”
But the maiden replied, “Oh I must be excused,
For I fear you will lead me astray.”

Then I took this fair maid by the lily-white hand,
On the green mossy banks we sat down.
And I plucked her a kiss on her sweet ruby lips,
𝄆 And the small birds were singing around. 𝄇

So when we arose from the green mossy banks,
Through the meadows we wandered away.
I placed my true love on a primrose bank,
And I plucked her a handful of May.

And when we returned, she gave me a smile
And thanked me for what I had done.
And I placed a small sprig on her snowy white breast.
𝄆 And believe me, there ne’er grew a thorn. 𝄇

Then early next morning I made her my bride,
That the world might have nothing to say.
And the bells they did ring and the bridesmaids did sing,
𝄆 And we crowned her the Queen of May. 𝄇