Variations on "The Ash Grove"

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.

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.

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.

Image Credit: The Ash Grove Website
Image Credit: The Ash Grove Website

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, as seen in this clip from Pride and Prejudice.

English version of the Ash Grove as used in courtship

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

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.

Ash Grove -- Harp

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!

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

Peter S. Beagle books

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Comments 8 comments

Putz Ballard profile image

Putz Ballard 6 years ago

Wonderful hub.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 6 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Thanks, Putz Ballard! You are a fast reader! I had only just finished tweeting this, and there was your comment!


Paraglider profile image

Paraglider 6 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

Unfortunately, the tune was hijacked by the 'Mayor of Bayswater' version that is certainly not for polite company. The trouble is that when you've heard this version on rugby buses all through school, it's hard to put it out of your head and give a fair hearing to proper versions. Rather like trying not to think 'Lone Ranger' when hearing William Tell Overture.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 6 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Paraglider, I'm not familiar with "The Mayor of Bayswater". Should I look it up or leave it alone, for fear of being corrupted?

It's true that becoming acquainted with a piece of music in one context can make it hard to give it a fair hearing in another. But there should be some way to cleanse the cultural palate and try again!


iantoPF profile image

iantoPF 6 years ago from Sunny California

what a wonderful Hub. I've seen Pride and prejudice so I'm familiar with that version, but I had no idea about those filk versions. Tremendous.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 6 years ago from The Ozarks Author

IantoPF, thanks! I'm glad you liked it! The Peter Beagle version was in The Last Unicorn. The Suzette Haden Elgin filk is often performed at bardic circles!


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 2 years ago from Essex, UK

Nice to find this hub Aya as it features one of my ten all-time favourite pieces of music - a folk melody whose name will be unfamiliar to many but whose tune will be universally known. Folk songs are a passion of mine (as will be obvious from my username) and many have an interesting and constantly evolving history as you have indicated here is the case with the lyrics of the Ash Grove. My favourite version here is the harp recording. Thanks. Voted up.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 2 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Thanks, Greensleeves Hubs. I like folk music very much, too.

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