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Sleeve Notes for Nine Witch Knots by Rubus

Nine Witch KnotsTraditional song done in stunning new arrangements.

Rubus combines the talents of
Emily Portman (voice & concertina),
Christi Andropolis (fiddle, viola & voice)
David Newey (guitar) and
Will Schrimshaw (drums)

Individually they all play integral parts in the new wave of outstanding young musicians on the British Folk scene.


This is the debut album of this exciting new band. The content of the album is soundly traditionally based with exciting, often intricate and innovative backings. The backings, however, never get in the way of the story told by the songs.  Rubus combines the talents of Emily Portman (voice & concertina), Christi Andropolis (fiddle, viola & voice) David Newey (guitar) and Will Schrimshaw (drums). Individually they all play integral parts in the new wave of outstanding young musicians on the British Folk scene.
Emily, a graduate from the innovative Newcastle Folk Music Course was a member of the much-respected Devil’s Interval. Christi hails from New York and combines the influence of her American roots with a flair for traditional Scottish and English fiddling. Over the last few years David has gained himself a reputation in traditional and contemporary acoustic music, playing all over the country, including Sidmouth,  Broadstairs and Fareham/Gosport festivals, as well as a wide range of appearances at venues as disparate as the Royal Concert Hall in Glasgow to the Troubador in London. Will has come to folk music relatively recently and is a PhD candidate at Culture Lab., carrying out research into the use of sound and its particular impact upon behaviour.

Track Notes

1 Cecilia
Trad. Arr. Portman, Newey, Andropolis, Schrimshaw.

Cecilia, disguised as a highwayman, holds up and threatens to shoot her boyfriend as a test of his loyalty. Some may see this song as celebrating a feisty feminist before her time; but it could also be seen to tread a fine line between militancy and madness. This version comes from the singing of Mabs Hall of Sussex, (Ripest Apples, Veteran VT107) who leaves us to make our own minds up about the lovers’ fate.

2 Cornish Young Man
Trad. Arr. Portman, Newey, Andropolis.

Here’s a story about a man who goes in search of his dream woman and finds her, without the help of speed dating or the internet. Cecil Sharp collected this melody from a Mrs. Harriet Young of West Chinnock, Somerset, just down the road from my hometown of Glastonbury. Though we never discover whether this Cornish lad’s love is reciprocated I like to believe that they live happily ever after.

3 Golden Ball
Text: trad. tune: Portman; Arr. Portman, Newey, Andropolis, Schrimshaw.

‘The Golden Ball’, found in George Kinloch’s The Ballad Book is a variation of ‘The Maid Freed from the Gallows’, also known as ‘Prickle Holly Bush’. In this variation, as in the chantefable of the same title found in Joseph Jacobs’ More English Fairy Tales, the protagonist asks her family for her golden ball, often a symbol of lost youth. A linden tree replaces the usual gallows tree and, most striking of all, it is transformed from a tale of true love to a celebration of super-grannies; for it is non other than the grandmother who hobbles over the hills, clutching the golden ball, just in time to save her granddaughter‘s neck. Kinloch gave no melody or source for his text, but I imagine a formidable old woman in a rocking chair impressing her grandchildren with the hangman’s marks still on her neck.

4 Willie's Lady
Trad. Arr. Portman, Newey, Andropolis, Schrimshaw.

A ballad about the age-old problem of jealous mother-in-laws. To make matters worse, and much more interesting it this case, this mother is also a witch (a doubly branded woman) who puts a spell on her blonde bombshell of a daughter-in-law, rendering her perpetually pregnant. Luckily Billie Blind, a magical helper who saves the day in various ballads, helps to trick the witch into revealing her spells which include nine witch knots tied in the lady’s hair. Superstition once had it that all knots should be untied and animals freed to ease a difficult birth. Although the ‘master kid’ is probably a phrase that has distorted over time, I like the image of a baby goat running around under their bed! ‘Willie’s Lady’ was the first ballad I learnt and it has remained with me as a mongrel hybrid, mis-remembered from the singing of Ray Fisher who adapted the Breton melody ‘Son Ar Chistr’ to fit the text, and Martin Carthy who anglicized the Scots dialect.

5 Greenwood Sidey
Trad. Arr. Portman, Newey, Andropolis, Schrimshaw.

A revenant ballad of the darkest kind in which a mother is visited by the ghosts of her children. My source for this version of ‘The Cruel Mother’ is Birmingham singer Cecilia Costello, who recounted how her father would sit her on his knee and say ‘now don’t you do what this cruel mother did’. It seems this song has long acted as a moral tale, first emerging in print in the seventeenth century, at the same time as the crime of infanticide became registered as an offence separate from homicide. Disturbingly, Vic Gammon tells us that ‘more people (overwhelmingly women) were executed for infanticide than for witchcraft in this period’ (see Vic’s book Desire, Drink and Death in English Folk and Vernacular Song,1600 - 1900). At a time when female worth and virginity were so intertwined and postnatal depression was unheard of, is it surprising that infanticide was running rife when this song emerged? Rather than damning the protagonist as a cruel mother I think of her as a desperate woman caught in the trappings of a time when illegitimate pregnancy could result in being outcast from family and society. The final descriptive verses of the lady’s transformations appear to describe the penance she must serve via metamorphosis.

6 She's like the Swallow
Trad. Arr. Portman, Newey, Andropolis.

Passed onto me by the wonderful Chris Coe, ‘She’s like the Swallow’ can also be found in The Penguin Book of Canadian Folk Songs, selected by the aptly named folklorist Edith Fowke.

7 Watchet Sailor
Trad. Arr. Portman, Newey, Andropolis, Schrimshaw.

A song about those notorious jack-tars who come home from sea and steal the hearts of the ladies! Farmer and singer George Withers sang me ‘Watchet Sailor’ when I asked him for a song from Somerset. Of course, as George said, songs have always moved around and to get caught up in squabbling over their origins can be a thankless task, but as it mentions the town of Watchet we’re going to claim it for Somerset!

8 Sheep Crook & Black Dog
Trad. Arr. Portman, Newey, Andropolis.

A story of love-gone wrong, again. For a change the heart-breaker is a woman who, being upwardly mobile, soon forgets the promise she made to a lowly shepherd. Ewan MacColl evidently developed Queen Caroline Hughes’ superb version, but I like what he did with it, so I nicked it (with a little help from Sandra Kerr!).

9 Rolling of the Stones
Trad. Arr. Portman, Newey, Andropolis, Schrimshaw.

Not a heavy rock anthem but a ballad of sibling rivalry better known as ‘The Two Brothers’. It can be found in Bronson’s The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, sung by Mrs. Mary E. Harmon of Cambridge, Mass. When collating my favourite parts of British and American variants, I came across a beautiful version from Scottish traveler Lizzie Higgins and decided to sing both Scottish and American tunes interchangeably. Remarkably I have found that these two melodies, from opposite sides of the Atlantic, harmonize with each other. In some versions Susie charms her true love out of his grave with her banjo, or even ‘small hoppers’, but tempting as it was, I found I couldn’t sing either of these with a straight face! Some versions end with Susie’s ‘charm’, but I wanted to find out what happened next. At this point the story transforms into another ballad: ‘The Unquiet Grave’. The song shows that it can be a risky business waking the dead after a year and a day have passed.

10 My son David
Trad. Arr. Portman, Newey.

Perhaps the sequel to ‘Rolling of the Stones’, here a mother gradually uncovers the truth about the origin of the blood on her son’s sword. I imagine that this mother already knows what has happened, as mothers often do. The incomparable Louis Killen gave me this song, whose own source is Jeannie Robertson.

11 Sowing Song
Text: Thomas Carlisle, Tune: Portman, Arr. Portman, Newey, Andropolis.

In Folk Songs of the Upper Thames this song is described as ‘a superior piece, not heard out of North Wilts’. With a bit of detective work I discovered that in fact the text started life as a poem entitled ‘The Sower’s Song’ by Thomas Carlisle! I’m not sure how it worked its way from Scotland in to the Wiltshire tradition but I think it makes a great song.