I was listening to Billy Bragg covering songs of Woody Guthrie in which he talked about folk music being the ultimate form of recycling. Unlike pop, everything in folk is recycled.

Thinking ’bout this when looking up who to watch at todays Folk Festival, and Lau in particular (their name means “natural light”). They are a Scottish trio and all I knew about them is they’d played with other people I recognised.

One of the songs they cover is “The Unquiet Grave”, an English folk ballad that dates from 1400. It’s about a man who laments the death of his love and cries by her grave for ‘twelve months and a day’. She eventually gets fed up of the noise and asks if he wouldn’t mind shutting it. He asks for a final kiss and she tells him that it would kill him. I think he probably gives up at that point.

It’s been covered by Luke Kelly / The Dubliners, Kate Rusby and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy among others. This is a video of Lau covering it –  but to be honest, the Kate Rusby version on Sleepless (1999) is better.

Going back to Billy’s musings, he talks about Woody finding his Appalachian roots which in turn go back to Scotland. One of the songs he learnt from his grandmother was “Gypsy Davy” which we’d know in Ireland as “The Raggle Taggle Gypsy”. It was written down in 1610. There’s a bit I’ll leave out where he’s going from that to singing gypsy balladeers, the minstrel tradition and the fact that Woody was the first punk rocker. He then gets on to the Amercian cowboy song “The Streets of Laredo” which was set to the tune of “St. James Infirmary”, which is in turn was based on an Irish/British folk song of the late 18th century called “The Unfortunate Rake”. The folk song version is about a lad who goes to sea, catches VD from prostitutes, then cannot return to the one he loves. In the American version, gambling and alcohol are the causes of the sorrow. As the original goes:

Get six jolly fellows to carry my coffin,
And six pretty maidens to bear up my pall,
And give to each of them bunches of roses,
That they may not smell me as they go along.

Muffle your drums, play your pipes merrily,
Play the death march as you go along.
And fire your guns right over my coffin,
There goes an unfortunate lad to his home

And of course, the refrain of “beat the drum slowly, play the fife lowly” from “The Green Fields of France” originates from there as well.

Here’s an 1932 variant on St. James Infirmary:

Jimmie Rodgers – Gambling Barroom Blues (St James Infirmary)

Get six gamblers to carry my coffin.
Six chorus girls to sing my song.
Put a jazz band on my tailgate
To raise hell as we roll along.

This is the end of my story.
So let’s have another round of booze.
And if any one should ask you just tell them
I’ve got the St. James Infirmary Blues.

Let’s take another example. This week I watched the BBC program where Rupert Everett talks about the life of Lord Byron. He’s been credited with the poem “So we’ll go no more a-roving” which he included in a letter in 1817, and which was published finally in 1830. However, this is probably derived from a scottish folk tune “The Jolly Beggar” which was written down in 1776.

The poem also features in the chorus of the song “The Jolly Beggar” as recorded by Planxty. I would say that Planxty was the first concert I ever went to, at the Savoy Cinema in Galway, probably around 1972 when the “Cliffs of Doneen” was in the charts.

When I came to London, it was to the borough of Haringay. This is where The King Blues (a punk/folk/ska band) come from. Here’s a very different clip of them covering the Byron poem for the BBC poetry sessions:

The King Blues vs Byron – BBC Poetry Season

I rest my case: it’s all connected.