Tomorrow is the birthday of Maddy Prior, one of the vocalists for the British folk band Steeleye Span. The Span was an acquired taste for me in the late Seventies, which statement is enough to indicate how far I was from being “punk.” SS came from the flourishing of Brit traditional folk that influenced some of Dylan’s tunes, and subsequently Fairport Convention and Led Zeppelin, as well as lesser known bands like Gentle Giant, Pentangle, the Strawbs. The Span was unique among them for playing traditional songs almost entirely. And the arrangements they came up with could be heavy, could be catchy, could be typical of prog-rock. Almost every major Brit band in the period 1968-75 had some truck with trad.
And when I say such wasn’t punk, I should be careful. Today’s song is pretty damn punkish in its attitude. Scurrilous, even. When Johnny Rotten sang “God Save the Queen” he was spoofing on British royalty. Today’s song hails from a time—the Jacobite uprising—when the Hanoverian line was in dispute because the Stuart line had prior claim. The problem, of course, was that the Stuarts were Catholics trying to rule a Protestant country. Bad form, that. It all goes back to the creation of the C of E, which, as national institutions go, is also under fire in this tune. Singing a song denouncing the Hanoverians in 1973 was pretty toothless, true, but it’s good to be reminded that the line that ended with Queen Victoria wasn’t without its opponents.
“Cam Ye O’er Frae France” references the fact that James III of England (and VIII of Scotland) is in exile in France. Someone coming “over from” there would be bringing tidings of the possible return of “the Pretender” to kick some butt, particularly that of “Geordie Whelps” (George I) and his son “Geordie” (who would be George II). The song is fraught with topical references so that “Saw ye Geordie’s grace riding on a Goosie” is a slur on George tupping his mistress, Countess von der Schulenberg. She’s being called a whore too, of course. And there are slurs about Geordie’s wife, “the loom of Geordie,” getting worked over—“he would drive a trade”—by a “blade,” or rakish chap (in this case, a Swedish count). All of this is factual—the King had a mistress and the Queen a lover, but it’s said in such a bold, ribald fashion: “Geordie he’s a man, there is little doot o’t” (doubt of it), which of course makes it doubtful.
Then there’s the part where the speaker seems to be saying that, with cloth, if it’s bad, we can haggle about its worth, though it doesn’t make much difference because we’ve lost everything—plaid (the clan’s colors), and bonnet and sword and house—but at least we’ve got a Geordie (the king’s son)! Though the reference is also to the “lost” (or exiled) king, and, with more ribaldry, it also references the outlook of George I, who is a cuckold: though the cloth (the wife) is bad, he doesn’t complain because it makes no difference—though he’s been undermined in house and home, still, “we hae a Geordie” (he has a son). The cleverness of this figure, perfectly clear, perfectly masked, and tongue-in-cheek, is wonderful. (Elsewhere on the album the Span apprise us of the sexual innuendo having to do with weaving with the wonderfully bawdy “The Weaver and the Factory Maid.”)
And of course the real point of the song is in insisting that Jocky (James III) has gone to France, with his mother, and “there they’ll learn to dance” (how to wage war), and “dance a jig with Geordie” (give him what-for) when they cam o'er frae France. But the line is also a dance measure so that the “Madam, are ye ready?” fits in with the dance itself. The most irresistible verse is the one at the end, where a roll-call of funny names—Sandy Don, Cockalorum, Bobbing John, all actual persons recognizable by their attributes—sets up the hopes of the Jacobites: Mony a sword and lance swings at Highland hurdie / How they'll skip and dance o'er the bum o' Geordie!
But it was not to be and Jocky never did sit the throne.
Cool song, and why is it my choice for Maddy Prior’s birthday? Because her vocal on the song has long been a treasured delight, even in the days when I had but little idea of what the hell she was saying, much less what any of it might mean. Because the album is called Parcel of Rogues, after the title song which visits withering Scottish scorn upon the British and the Parliament of Scotland members who “sold out” Scotland in an Act of Union, it was clear enough to me that this was a song putting down “Geordie,” the British king, in favor of the Pretender in France. And that’s about all I got. I used to think it had something to do with a weaver’s or farmer’s revolt having to do with paying tithes to the (illegitimate, in their view) king. Or it might even have been about rival trades. I don’t think anyone can miss the direness of the “dance a jig with Geordie” bit, whatever is going on otherwise.
Anyway, Maddy and the Spanners have come up with a great arrangement—it’s brisk, lively (blythely), bonny, and full of a kind of martial underpinning. This is the kind of thing that gets the blood up when you want to do some harm to the powers that be. We have this sort of thing in this country, of course, with all the name calling on each side of our two party system, but I’d give something to see such wit and knowing winks in our political cartooning. Or compare it to Johnny Rotten’s “God Save the Queen” which is so blatant it can barely be called a lyric. Ah, but “he's done a' he can, wha can do withoot it?”