Variations on “The Ash Grove”

[Last Updated on February 26, 2010. First published on Hubpages and then de-indexed.]

Folk tunes have a long shelf life. They get re-used often with different lyrics, and we can learn a lot about the values and preferences of different periods by the contrasting lyrics that are set to the same tune. Take “The Ash Grove”. The original words were in Welsh, and they told the story of a young woman’s violent death at the hands of her father, who was trying to kill the lover of whom he disapproved. But once set in English, there is no violent father. There is just a bittersweet tender parting between lovers. What does this tell us about the Welsh and the English? Or is it the period in which the different lyrics were written that determines the tenor of the song?

And then there is the filk version, written in the twentieth century, that tells the of a man incapable of falling in love. Or the filk of that filk, about how a woman selects a lover at a filk sing based on his musical performance.

Before we get into all that, let’s give the original lyrics a chance.

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Llwyn Onn lyrics

Ym mhalas Llwyn Onn gynt, fe drigai pendefig,
Efe oedd ysgweiar ac arglwydd y wlad;
Ac iddo un eneth a anwyd yn unig,
A hi nôl yr hanes oedd aeres ei thad.
Aeth cariad i’w gweled yn lân a phur lencyn,
Ond codai’r ysgweiar yn araf ac erch,
I aethu’r bachgennyn, ond gwyrodd ei linyn,
A’i ergyd yn wyrgam i fynwes ei ferch.

Rhy hwyr ydoedd galw y saeth at y llinyn
Â’r llances yn marw yn welw a gwan;
Bygythiodd ei gleddyf trwy galon y llencyn,
Ond ni redai cariad un fodfedd o’r fan.
Roedd golud, ei darpar, yn hen ac anynad,
A geiriau diwethaf yr aeres hardd hon,
Oedd, ‘Gwell gennyf farw trwy ergyd fy nghariad
Na byw gyda golud ym mhalas Llwyn Onn.’

Y lloer oedd yn codi dros gopa’r hen dderwen
A’r haul a fachludai i ddyfnder y don.
A minnau mewn cariad a’m calon yn curo,
Yn disgwyl f’anwylyd dan gysgod Llwyn Onn.
Mor wyn y bythynnod gwyngalchog ar wasgar
Hyd erchwyn cyfoethog mynyddig fy mro:
Adwaenwn bob tyddyn, pob boncyff a brigyn
Lle deuai cariadon i rodio’n eu tro.

Mor hir y bu’r disgwyl o fore hyd noswyl,
Mor gyndyn bu’r diwrnod yn dirwyn i ben:
A minnau mor hapus, ac eto mor glwyfus,
A’m meddwl a’m calon yn eiddo i Gwen:
Cysgodion yr hwyr oedd yn taenu eu cwrlid,
A hir oedd ymaros ar noson fel hon;
Ond pan ddaeth fy nghariad cyflymai pob eiliad,
Aeth awr ar amrantiad, dan gysgod Llwyn Onn.

Welsh Music and The Ash Grove website

http://www.contemplator.com/tunebook/wales/ashgrove.htm

The original words in Welsh were high drama about spontaneous feelings of love, and the despair that they can evoke when thwarted. It was about a love so strong that the lovers would rather die than be parted.

This was a song about limerence. It was right for its time and place, but when English lyrics were written to the same music, the passion was tuned down, to accomodate a society that found that much drama distasteful.

English version of the Ash Grove as used in courtship

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The sedate, stately lyrics of the English version were a nice showcase piece for a young woman of marriageable age to display her musical talents,

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As The Ash Grove became associated less with spontaneous feelings between lovers and more with the manipulations and machinations of the battle of the sexes, satirical versions began to come out. The song I’ve embedded below, “When I was a Young Man” features lyrics by Peter Beagle. My favorite line, needless to say, is “I betrayed her before she had quite finished speaking so she swallowed cold poison and jumped into the sea.”

When I was a Young Man

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Suzette Haden Elgin and her songs
This masculine version of the courtship process naturally required a feminine response, and we find a more than adequate reply in the Suzette Haden Elgin classic. “When I was a Young Girl.”

Equally satirical, but much more gentle in its treatment of discarded suitors, this filk of a filk of a filched song is also a classical example of filks about filking.

Because the tune of “The Ash Grove” had by now come to be associated with selecting and discarding mates, there arose a need to explain how a musical performance can itself serve as a selective device in sorting through suitors. The words of “When I was a Young Girl” by Suzette Haden Elgin, reproduced with permission below, take this to its ultimate conclusion.

I don’t have a performance of the song to embed, but I’ve provided accompaniment by a harpist in case you’d like to sing along with the lyrics!

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When I was a Young Girl

by Suzette Haden Elgin

(COPYRIGHT SUZETTE HADEN ELGIN — ALL RIGHTS RESERVED)

When I was a young girl and searching for lovers,
I found them under rocks and I found them in bars;
but now that I’m older, my taste is much better,
I find them at filksings behind their guitars.
I find them back of banjos and mandolins and autoharps,
I find them a capella and decked with kazoos!
And it gives me no trouble to make my selection,
for I know how they’ll perform by the songs that they use.

There’s the flashy guitarist with the voice of a drunken angel,
whose careful renditions are flawless as silk;
he always has mastered the very latest lyrics,
when his turn comes around you get quality filk.
But he’ll leap from your bed at the strangest of moments,
with a cry of, “I’ve got it! That chord is a B!”
Oh, beware of the lover who leaves on his thumbpick,
come all ye young maids and take warning by me!

And then there’s the filker who’s funky and mellow;
his songs have the tang of a bright autumn day.
The casual ease of this charming young fellow
might lead you to fancy he’d shine in the hay.
But he’ll ask you hard questions at the strangest of moments,
like, “If you could be an insect, which one would you be?”
Beware of the lover so laid back he’s falling over,
come all ye young maids and take warning by me!

And next is the young man whose specialty is dirges;
more ose than the dankest drizzle, he mourns and he moans…
He sings of dying chieftains in songs with thirty-seven verses
and he plays only minor notes on the instruments he owns.
You may think him romantic, poetic and frantic,
but DOWN is his preposition — he loathes levity…
Beware of the lover who weeps over his keyboard,
come all ye young maids and take warning by me!

Let’s turn now to the young man who’s tone-deaf and tuneless,
knows only one chord — and he always sings flat.
When you hear him lurch into a song that’s nearly decomposing
and ask everyone to sing along, take notice of that!
He’ll care more for your pleasure than the beats in his measure,
and he won’t be devising lyrics while stroking your knee…
Oh, give me the lover who flattens every Bardic Circle,
come all ye young maids and take warning by me!

Conclusion

Lyrics to a successful composition come and go, while the music remains. But the music only carries so much of the meaning, while the lyrics reflect the values of the culture as it is currently constituted. Sometimes lyrics from different periods coexist side by side, reflecting not just the prevailing culture, but also subcultures within it. This is true of many songs and most especially those that have entered the filk canon.

(c) 2010 Aya Katz

About Aya Katz

Aya Katz is the administrator of Pubwages. When she is not busy administering, she sometimes also writes posts like a regular user.
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