Jon calls this “One of the finest ballad melodies going, as discovered by Nic Jones. I heard this first from a brilliant version on Martin Carthy’s Signs Of Life album, and have had the great privilege of playing on Martin Simpson’s equally brilliant version. No surprise then that I didn’t opt for a guitar accompaniment on this one…”
Mainly Norfolk has Nic’s original LP notes and you’ll see from that the suggestion that he has adapted the tune from Christie’s Traditional Ballad Airs, although the use of the word “basically” suggests a tweak. This is another of the Child collection (#58) and a good epic tale of Scottish origin. Wiki here suggests a basis in historical fact, although Sir Patrick Spens has no historical record. It suggests two voyages shipping Scottish royalty across the sea and I’ve read elsewhere that this ballad is an amalgam of both. If they both ended so badly then that would seem an exceptional tragedy. I was intrigued by the lines about
“Last night I saw the new moon
With the old moon in her arm,
and have read that this is caused when light from the sun is reflected off the earth creating a crescent shaped halo effect. Wiki also offers a good list of the various recorded versions of this. Martin’s version that Jon refers to is from the excellent True Stories, on which Jon plays fiddle. It’s easy to see the appeal of this great ballad and I think it works really well unaccompanied, as it has such a strong narrative to it and it gains the sense of the epic tale handed down. This link will give you all manner of Child collection variations that the singers amongst you may find useful for your own variations.
You can buy the February digital album now from all good download stores: