“Notes On Old Tunes” was a series of articles written in 1886-7 by Frank Kidson for the Leeds Mercury Newspaper. He was known to many as “the musical Sherlock Holmes” for his forensic investigation into the origins of folk songs. Aided by his vast collection of books, broadsides and manuscripts Kidson was able to trace a song’s passage through time and uncover the oldest, and what he regarded to be the truest version of an air.
This series of blog posts “New Notes On Old Tunes” focuses primarily on the songs, taken from the Frank Kidson collection, that feature in “The Search For Five Finger Frank” CD and show by Pete Coe and Alice Jones.
It is perhaps fitting that the first song featured in this series of blog posts should be “The Sprig of Thyme” as this song was obtained from Mr Charles Lolley, a key contributor and collaborator of Frank Kidson’s. Lolley first made contact with Kidson in response to the ”Notes On Old Tunes” articles. They corresponded extensively on the matter of folk songs and the collecting of them and they soon developed a firm and longstanding friendship. Indeed, Lolley submitted a large number of songs and tunes to Kidson’s vast collection.
This version of “The Sprig of Thyme” came from Mr Charles Lolley and seems to be a variant of the song hailing from the East Riding. This is, indeed, where Lolley was born and raised; in Hemingbrough and later Howden, but he also acquired many songs from his mother (who was apparently born in Brompton, London) and he also later moved to live and work in the north-east of Leeds. In light of this information and the scant detail given by Frank Kidson in his book ”Traditional Tunes”, it is impossible to identify this particular version of the song as originating from one specific geographical location.
“The Seeds of Love”, “Let No Man Steal Your Thyme”, “Garner’s Gay” are seemingly all variants of “The Sprig of Thyme” although this would appear to be a matter still very much up for debate amongst folk song scholars today. Many argue that the differing symbolism and language utilised in ”The Seeds of Love” and “The Sprig of Thyme” sets them apart, making them distinct from one another. It is also suggested, for various reasons, that “The Seeds of Love” is a song from the male perspective whereas “The Sprig of Thyme” is from a female perspective. In the Folk Song Society Journal Vol 1 (1902) Frank Kidson, himself, writes: “The air and words of ”I Sowed the Seeds of Love” are so entangled with those of “The Sprig of Thyme” that the two ballads are often regarded as identical”.
This version of the song features thyme, rue and an oak tree. In this instance it is likely that the thyme symbolises virginity and that rue is a symbol of regret. The oak tree, interestingly, appears to have been entirely edited out of the version printed in ”Traditional Tunes”. Between the 4th and 5th verse Kidson has inserted only a line of dots which appears to indicate an omission. Since becoming familiar with his workings, I am of the opinion that this is an act of censorship. Kidson genuinely seems to be disapproving of obvious sexual symbolism and it is possible that, to him, the overtly suggestive image of the oak tree was an unnecessary inclusion in the song’s narrative. In “The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs” Steve Roud and Julia Bishop include this additional verse, taken from a very similar version of the song from a broadside printed by Forth of Hull.
In “Traditional Tunes 1891″ Frank Kidson writes:
“There are several ballads extant in the same strain of allegory. The better known one, “I Sowed the Seeds of Love,” is an instance; they appear to date from the latter end of the century. The tune is pretty, and, I think, is not much corrupted from it’s original form.”
The Sprig of Thyme
Come all you pretty fair maids,
That are just in your prime,
I would have you weed your garden clear,
And let no one steal your time.
I once had a sprig of thyme,
It prospered both night and day,
By chance there came a false young man,
And he stole my thyme away,
Thyme it is the prettiest flower
That grows under the sun,
It’s time that brings all things to an end,
So now my thyme runs on.
Now my old thyme it is dead,
I’ve no room for any new,
For in that place where my old thyme grew,
Has changed into a running rue.
I’ll put a stop to that running rue,
And plant a fair oak tree,
Stand you up, stand you up, you fair oak tree,
And do not wither and die.
It’s very well drinking ale,
And it’s very well drinking wine,
But it’s far better sitting by a young man’s side,
That has won this heart of mine.
(the 5th verse is not printed in Frank Kidson’s Traditional Tunes 1891)
“The Sprig of Thyme” features as track 7 on disc 1 of “The Search For Five Finger Frank” by Pete Coe and Alice Jones.
“The Search For Five Finger Frank” CD and the book “Traditional Tunes” by Frank Kidson are both available to purchase online. You can also buy them directly from us at one of our gigs; have a look here to see where we’re playing!