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(What's) The Life of a Man? / The Fall of the Leaf

[ Roud 848 ; Ballad Index K264 ; Bodleian Roud 848 ; Wiltshire 1008 , 1092 ; trad.]

Early to Rise Everyman's Book of English Country Songs The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs The Folk Handbook Old Wine New Skins The Life of a Man

Harry Holman sang The Life of a Man on 16 December 1959 at The Cherry Tree in Copthorne. This recording made by Brian Matthews was included in 2001 on the Musical Tradition anthology of songs from country pubs, Just Another Saturday Night. Ken Stubbs included this version in 1970 in his E.F.D.S. book The Life of a Man. Holman also sang this song on a Mike Yates recording made in 1972-1974 on the 1975 Topic album of countryside songs from Southern England, When Sheepshearing's Done.

George Townshend of Lewes, Sussex, sang The Life of a Man to Brian Matthews in 1961. This recording was included in 2000 and 2012 on his Musical Traditions anthology Come, Hand to Me the Glass. Rod Stradling noted:

Quite a common song in southern England, with only two examples known from out of the area (both being from Ontario, Canada). Roud has 26 versions of which 14 are sound recordings, and four of these are from Sussex—all by people George knew.

Unusually, there are no Broadside versions listed, despite the fact that it's undoubtedly the sort of song which would have been lapped up by the printers … which might mean that it's a fairly recent song. However, Vic Gammon mentions the textual overlap between this song and The Moon Shines Bright as well as various May songs, and suggests that the song may not be all that modern. His feeling is at least 18th century, although he's not sure I can give any hard evidence as to why he thinks so.

The Yetties sang What Is the Life of a Man? at the 1968 Towersey Village Festival. This recording was included in the following year on the anthology Festival at Towersey.

Jumbo Brightwell sang The Life of a Man in 1975 on his Topic LP of traditional songs and ballads from Suffolk, Songs from the Eel's Foot. Mike Yates noted:

First I’ll compare (man) to a tree,
Which you sometimes all green may see;
Bit suddenly his leafes doe fall
That he was beautify'd withall

These lines, printed by Frances Coules sometime during the period 1646-74, form part of a long blackletter broadside The Life of Man—concerning how fickle his estate doth stand, flourishing like a Tree, a Vine, or dainty Flower. The comparison of man’s life to that of a tree was not, however, new even in the 17th century. More than two thousand years earlier Homer had written, “As leaves on trees, such is the life of man” and, for all we know, this notion may have been old then. The Life of a Man was printed on numerous 19th century broadsides which possibly s explains why it turns up fairly frequently today. I recently recorded a similar version from Harry Holman of Copthorne in Sussex, and this can be heard on the record When Sheepshearing's Done.

Mike Yates also collected What Is the Life of a Man in 1975 from Archer Goode of Cheltenham. This recording was included in 2004 on the Musical Traditions anthology of song from Mike's collection, The Birds Upon the Tree. He noted in the accompanying booklet:

The following lines, from a blackletter broadside of c.1570, are typical of a period when the Church controlled all things moral. If you lived a good life on earth, then you would go to Heaven. If not, then the doors of Hell were beckoning.

Young Men, remember! Delights are but vain,
And after sweet pleasure comes sorrow and pain.

Writing about this period, Tessa Watts says, “The memento mori ballads were based on the assumption … that ordinary people could turn the objects of daily life into visual allegories for death and the world beyond.” (Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550-1640, Cambridge, 1991, p.138). Plants, especially flowers, were extremely popular in this respect.

The life of a man it is but a span,
It's like a morning flower;
We're here today, tomorrow we're gone,
We're dead all in one hour.

(from The Moon Shines Bright collected by Cecil Sharp from Mrs Gentie Phillips of Birmingham, 26.9.1910)

It was the Greek poet Homer, however, who first compared man's death to the fall of the leaf. “As leaves on trees, such is the life of man”, and several blackletter broadsides are based on this idea. Our present song however, probably began life in the early 1800's when it was printed, as The Fall of the Leaf, by a handful of northern broadside printers, including Sanderson (Edinburgh), Ross and Walker (both of Newcastle), Stewart (Carlisle), Dalton (York) and Harkness (Preston). Surprisingly, most collected sets have come from the south-east of England.

Paul and Linda Adams sang The Fall of the Leaf in 1978 on the Fellside anthology Among the Old Familiar Mountains and in 1978 on their Fellside album The Best of BBC Radio Carlisle's Folk Workshop.

Harry Upton sang The Life of a Man in 1978 on this Topic LP Why Can't It Always Be Saturday?. This track was also included in 2015 on his Musical Traditions anthology with the same title, Why Can't It Always Be Saturday?.

Johnny Collins and Friends sang The Leaf in 1982 on their Traditional Sound album Free & Easy.

Jeff Wesley from Whittlebury, Northamptonshire, sang Life of a Man in 1988 to John Howson. This recording was included on the 2006 Veteran anthology of English traditional folk singers It Was on a Market Day—Two. Mike Yates noted:

Although the song The Life of a Man can only be dated to the early part of the 19th century (the broadside printers titled the song The Fall of the Leaf) the idea behind the song, that life on this earth is short and transitory, has been around for a considerable time. Both Homer and the Buddha compared our lives to that of the falling leaf, as did Christ:

Learn a lesson from the fig-tree. When its tender shoots appear and are breaking into leaf, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see all these things, you may know that the end is near, at the very door. (Matthew 24, 32).

In the 16th century there were quite a number of blackletter ballads composed around the same idea.

Young Men, remember! Delights are but vain,
And after sweet pleasure comes sorrow and pain.

According to Tessa Watts (Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550-1640, Cambridge, 1991, p.138), “The memento mori ballads were based on the assumption that ordinary people could turn the objects of daily life into visual allegories for death and the world beyond.” Plants, especially flowers, were extremely popular in this respect. Take, for example, this verse from the carol The Moon Shines Bright that Cecil Sharp collected from a Mrs Phillips of Birmingham in 1910:

The life of a man it is but a span
It's like a morning flower
We're here today, tomorrow we're gone
We're dead all in one hour.

Keith Kendrick sang The Life of a Man on his 1992 Fellside CD Home Ground.

Maddy Prior and Peter Knight sang What's the Life of a Man? in 2004 on Steeleye Span's CD They Called Her Babylon. Peter Knight noted:

I have always loved this song because the sentiments conveyed reflect my own feelings.

John Kirkpatrick sang What Is the Life of a Man on his 2011 CD God Speed the Plough. He commented in his liner notes:

The simplest ideas are always the best. It's hard to think of another song that puts us in our place so gently but so firmly—just another strand in the world of nature. Under the title The Fall of the Leaf this was well-known as a broadside ballad during the nineteenth century, and remains a popular and well-loved piece amongst traditional country singers to this day. The different versions don't vary that much from singer to singer, and why should they, when this is such a perfect match of words and music?

Bellowhead recorded What's the Life of a Man (Any More Than a Leaf)? in March 2012 for their album Broadside.

Andy Turner learned The Life of a Man from Harry Upton's album and sang it as the 14 April 2013 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week.

Sarah Hayes sang Fall of the Leaf on her 2015 album Woven.

Edgelarks (Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin) sang The Life of a Man in 2017 on their eponymous album Edgelarks.

Chris Foster sang The Life of a Man, accompanied by the tune Greensleeves, in 2017 on his CD Hadelin. He noted:

Another song from Jumbo Brightwell's recycled Christmas card collection. He recorded if on his album Songs from the Eel's Foot (Topic Records 1975). The shift of gear at the end was inspired by New Orleans funeral bands. The Greensleeves tune was noted by Cecil Sharp from fiddler Henry Cave of Nettlebridge, Somerset, in 1907. It was passed on to me by Ray Campbell.

The Hungarian group Simply English sang What's the Life of a Man? on their 2017 CD Long Grey Beard and a Head That’s Bald.

Lyrics

Harry Holman sings What Is the Life of a Man?

As I was a-walking one morning at ease,
A-viewing the leaves as they hung on the trees,
They were all in full motion, or appearing to be,
And those that were withered, they fell from the tree.

Chorus (after each verse):
And what is the life of a man, any more than the leaves
A man has his season—so why should he grieve?
Although in this wide world, he appears bright and gay,
Like a leaf, he will wither and soon fade away.

Did you not see the leaves, but a short time ago,
They were all in full motion, appearing to grow,
The frost came upon them, and withered them all,
Then the rain came upon them—and down they did fall.

If you go to yonder churchyard, many names there you'll see,
Who have fallen from this world, like the leaves from the trees,
What with age and affliction all on us will call,
Like the leaves, we will wither and down we shall fall.

George Townshend sings The Life of a Man

As I was a-walking one morning at ease,
Viewing the leaves as they fell from the trees,
They were all in full motion, appearing to be,
And those that were withered, they fell from the tree.

Chorus (after each verse):
What's the life of a man, any more than a leaf?
A man has his season—then why should he grieve?
Although in this wide world, he appears fine and gay,
Like a leaf, he shall wither and soon fade away.

You should have seen the leaves, but a short time ago,
They were all in full motion, appearing to grow,
'Til the frost came and bit them, and withered them all,
And the storm came upon them—and down they did fall.

Down in yonder churchyard, many names you will see,
That are fallen from this world, as the leaves from the tree,
Old age and affliction upon them did fall,
And death and disease came and blighted them all.

Archer Goode sings What Is the Life of a Man?

As I was out walking one morning at my ease,
A-viewing the leaves as they fell from the trees,
They were all in full motion, appearing to be,
And those that were withered; they fell from the trees.

Chorus (after each verse):
What is the life of a man, any more than the leaves?
A man has his season—so why should he grieve?
Although for a time, he appears blythe and gay,
Like the leaves, he must wither and soon fade away.

Now don't you remember, a short while ago,
The leaves were in full motion, apparently so,
A frost came upon them, and withered them on (up?)
A rain came upon them—and down they did drop.

If you go in yonder churchyard, many names there you will find,
Old friends have left this wide world, like leaves in the wind,
Old age and affliction on them it did call,
And those that were withered, oh, down they did fall.

Harry Upton sings Life of a Man

As I was a-walking one morning at ease,
Viewing those leaves as they hung on the tree.
They were all in full motion, they all seemed to be
And those that were withered, they fell from the tree.

Chorus (after each verse):
What is the life of a man any more than a leaf?
A man has his seasons and so do a leaf.
We're all in this wide world, we are not here to stay,
Like a leaf we shall wither and soon fade away.

Did you not see the leaves but a short time ago?
They were all in full motion, appearing to grow.
The frost came upon them and withered them all
And down came the rain and down they did fall.

You go down yonder churchyard ,the names there you'll see,
Who have fallen from this world like a leaf from a tree.
What when age and affliction upon us all,
Like a leaf we shall wither and down we shall fall.

Jeff Wesley sings Life of a Man

As I was a-walking one morning at ease,
Viewing the leaves as they grew on the trees,
All in full motion appearing to be,
And those that had withered they fell from the tree.

Chorus (after each verse):
What’s the life of a man any more than a leaf?
A man has his seasons so why should he grieve?
Although in this world we appear fine and gay,
Like a leaf we must wither and soon fade away.

When I saw the trees just a few days ago,
How beautiful and green they did all seem to grow.
A frost came upon them and withered them all.
A wind came upon them and down they did fall.

If you walk in the churchyard, there you will see
Those that have fallen like leaves from a tree.
When age and affliction upon them did call,
Like a leaf they did wither and down they did fall.

Steeleye Span sing What Is the Life of a Man?

As I was a-walking one morning at ease
A-viewing the leaves as they fell from the trees
All in full motion appearing to be
Like those that had withered, they fell from the tree.

And if you'd a-seen those trees just a few days ago
How beautiful and green they all seemed to grow.
But a frost came upon them and withered them all,
And a storm came upon them and down they did fall.

Chorus:
What's the life of a man any more than a leaf?
A man has his seasons so why should we grieve?
Although in his world we appear fine and gay,
𝄆 Like a leaf 𝄇 we must wither and soon fade away.

If you look in the churchyard, it's there you will see
Those that have passed like a leaf from a tree.
When age and affliction upon them did call,
Like a leaf they did wither and down they did fall.

Chorus

What's the life of a man?