I wrote last time of John Barleycorn and have been thinking since of double meanings in folk songs. These are not usually terribly deep or terribly hidden – a typical example is the old equation of human and earthly fertility, which makes most references to ‘sowing seed’ suspect. An interesting variant on this theme is The Lazy Farmer, which, given the farmer’s failure to sow corn and reap a harvest, must be, I think, the only song to cover male impotence. Here’s a version of The Lazy Farmer from Maclaine Colston* and Saul Rose’s 2009 CD Sand and Soil**; I suppose I should add a warning: it contains a few rude words so caveat auditor to any with more delicate ears than mine!
After that touch of cheerful vulgarity, I’d point out folk songs can contain more esoteric double meanings too. Using a disguise to test a lover’s loyalty and affection is a common motif in folk song and folk stories, though I am always amazed at one lover’s inability to recognise another. A pared down variant of this theme occurs in The Bold Fisherman. A fisherman courts a woman and then reveals he’s a lord in disguise before whisking her off to marry her. Here it is, again from Sand and Soil, and played on a magical combination of melodeon and hammered dulcimer.
So far, so standard, so pretty and so charming. However, one of the more useful books I’ve bought in my time is Cecil Sharp’s One Hundred English Folksongs and number 42 is The Bold Fisherman. Sharp notes in his introduction that there is likely more to this song than may be apparent on first listening:
‘I have always felt there was something mystical about this song, and I was accordingly much interested to find the same idea had independently occurred to Miss Lucy Broadwood who, in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society (Volume v, pp.132, 133), has developed her theory in a very interesting manner. She believes that the “Bold Fisherman,” as it appears on broadsides, is but a “vulgar and secularized transmutation of a mediaeval allegorical legend,” and points out that the familiar elements of Gnostic and Early Christian mystical literature… are all to be found among variants of this ballad.’
So there you go: from the profane and earthy to the sacred and refined in a single album – that’s one of the reasons I like folk music.
* Tenuous link of folksong to fantasy: Maclaine Colston played his dulcimer on the soundtrack for The Lord of the Rings films.
** Can’t recommend it highly enough. If you’re someone who thinks you don’t like folk music, try this album!