Shepherd of the Downs


As Jon says, “This is another classic from the Copper family,” then rather more surprisingly adds,  “The Witches of Elswick used to perform this on roller-skates, I can’t remember why exactly but I’m sure there was a good reason.” We’re back in shirtless, purple beehive territory then, although someone can possibly explain. Any road, this is possibly one of the oldest songs in the Coppers’ considerable repertoire, being discovered in a manuscript notebook printed around 1700. Although it subsequently appeared in several important collections, including Allan Ramsay’s attractively titled Tea Table Miscellany, it wasn’t much favoured by the main broadside printers in the 19th Century and as such, it is really down to the Coppers that the song survives at all. Despite that, the shepherd and the maid, or nymph, were a popular pairing with poets, song writers and other artists, although the story certainly has its roots in antiquity and can be found in Greek mythology (probably other ancient tales too.) There’s the sense of a union with nature with the shepherd unburdened of any worldly concerns, mixing in a desire for a return to Eden like paradise and a simpler, purer life. This link is interesting showing a poem by Christopher Marlowe and a riposte by Sir Walter Raleigh no less. The notes are instructive, as Raleigh’s picking over the Shepherd’s offer of love seems somewhat cynical.

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21 Responses to “Shepherd of the Downs”

  1. Matthew Edwards says:

    An utterly gorgeous song, and sung here with a nice subtle accompaniment. I for one wouldn’t object to hearing another voice join in with some of these songs – hearing the way the Coppers sing this song is an object lesson in how to blend voices together.

    There wasn’t much on Mudcat about this song so I’ve taken the liberty of adding a little more to Admin Simon’s comments. I don’t know how to add links here but I expect somebody can help.

    I love the rather acute psychological insight in the line:-

    “He knew not what ailed him, but thought it was love…”


  2. admin says:

    Matthew, thanks and yes, I agree. I’d go further and say because he is unburdened of worldy care he’s somehow in a state where love, in it’s purest form, finds him.

    As to links, if you simply copy and paste them into the box it should suffice. I have access to the back end do do it differently. If you can’t get it to work I’ll refer you onto Ben for tech stuff.

    Mudcat is often a bit opaque, partly down to the multiple titles that these songs are known by. As I’m now on there daily trying to sort the wheat from the chaff, I know it can be trying. I obviously struggled here, as you did. There’s an open invitation to all to add your own thoughts or threads to any post anyway and if anyone can add further insight here it will as always be appreciated.

    As for other voices, that will come for sure. We had to get a number of tracks in the can to get started, but stay tuned as Jon is developing ideas on the hoof.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by glynis powell, Jon Boden. Jon Boden said: Latest Post: Shepherd of the Downs […]

  4. Reinhard says:

    The Copper Family Songbook has this line as “He knew not what hailed him” and both Bob and Ron Copper and Peter Bellamy and Louis Killen dutifully reproduced it. That’s real folk tradition 😉 “Ailed” makes much more sense though, and I’m glad that the Witches and Jon sing it this way.

    And I wonder if the first line should not be “… being weary of his sport”.

    Some people muttered about Jon accompanying himself on some previous tracks. But I think it is a good replacement here and in Two Young Brethren. A single unacompanied voice might have been been a bit bland when you’re accustomed to full blown glorious harmonies.

  5. Matthew Edwards says:

    Ok, here is a link to the Mudcat thread on ‘Shepherd of the Downs’:-

    Reinhard’s Mainly Norfolk site also adds a brief note on the roller disco routine as performed by the Witches of Elswick!


  6. admin says:

    Thanks Matthew and indeed to Reinhard. I’d missed the Witches note in skimming down to the lyrics, but that made me chuckle.

  7. admin says:

    By the way people Matthew’s thread on Mudcat is highly recommended and very good work indeed. The older version adds significantly to the understanding of this. Brilliant stuff!

  8. Jane Ramsden says:

    I really like the olde worlde soothing quality of this one. And further to the debate about ‘to accompany or not’, I think this song/tune lends itself to string accompaniment, which might very well have been how it was presented in its earliest day, but I can’t know for sure, of course. Someone out there might!
    Maybe on the ‘hailed/ailed’ issue, the meaning of ‘hailed’ might be ‘beckoned’- then again, it might just be the singer being posh and putting an ‘h’ where one ought not to be!

  9. admin says:

    Jane, Simon here just checking in, as I’ll be away and computer less from tomorrow and just want to be sure all is set fair. I recommend that you have a look at Matthew’s Mudcat link in his post above if you have the time, it’s very instructive. There’s a mixed bag and a surprise on the way, I’m sure you’ll what’s to come.

    Have a good week one and all and keep the comments coming.

  10. Jane Ramsden says:

    Thank you, Simon, and hope you enjoy the holiday! You’ll need it after all this! Appreciate you sign-posting me to Matthew’s link as I am one of the lazy, less-knowledgeable ones who ought to read all offered, but has little time and gets overwhelmed. Sometimes even the notes allude to a base of common knowledge, songs and famous folk figures I am not familiar with.
    Matthew’s link was informative though, so thank you Matthew! Seems the main accompaniment in this song was other voices rather than strings, and what I suspected might be the case with aspiration of words, adding ‘h’s’ and dropping them, was probably the case. I’m on some sort of wavelength then….hahahaha!

  11. admin says:

    Jane -I thought you’d like that. I think we’re all learning here, I know I am. I realise that some of the basics probably need addressing at some point and hope to set up a glossary with some of the common terms and also the characters, sources, etc. It’ll take a bit of doing along with all the other stuff that’s required, but I’ll do my best. I know I’ve had to ask stuff that others here would probably take for granted and I don’t assume that everyone has the same knowledge base, hence all the links and bits I add in trying to tell the story of the song. In the meantime, if you have specific questions please feel free to ask, but save them up for a week. I’d better go now anyway as packing, cooking and general chores need addressing. I’ll try not to think AFSAD for a week, although I doubt I’ll manage it.

  12. Sue says:

    This is one of my favourite Copper songs, and I do think this version misses out from not having the harmonies. Sorry …..

    Loving the song a day thing though!

  13. Jo Breeze says:

    More about Shepherd of the Downs from the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at the English Folk Dance and Song Society.

    There are 9 records of Shepherd of the Downs in the Library, all of which come from the Copper Family.

    We used the Roud number to cross reference against different titles for the song. When searched on Roud No. 1215, this rises to 17 records; also known as The Shepherd Adonis or The Shepherd of Dona.

    If you wish to see more detail on each record, change the ‘output’ to ‘record’ and press ‘submit query’.

    There is one record of the song in the Francis Collinson collection.

    We use the Roud index and the Take 6 online collections in the search for information on Jon’s selections.

    For more information, or to carry out your own search for songs, please visit
    If you need any help accessing the library online or have any questions, please contact the VWML on 020 7485 2206 or

  14. Old Muzza(NW Surrey-UK) says:

    There seems to be lots of these young maidens roaming about when all a poor shepherd like me wants to do is lounge about with not a care in the world…
    One such maiden had me trekking all over the place for a whole day, looking for her spotted cow……….I try and steer clear of them these days.

  15. Old Muzza(NW Surrey-UK) says:

    Thanks to Reinhard…the Coppers in all their glory on video on Mainly Norfolk

  16. Diana says:

    Another great song and also enjoyed the video on Mainly Norfolk. It is always worth a visit there as there is usually a lot to interest one.

  17. Reinhard says:

    Thank you for your praise 😉

    I’ve just added a link to Andy Turner’s A Folk Song a Week version of A Shepherd of the Downs to compare to Jon’s.

  18. Diana says:

    Praise given where praise is due. I also look at Andy’s Folk Song a week. I am out of practice so here goes 😀 Have I made it.

  19. Elle Jay says:

    If you like the Marlowe and Raleigh, you might enjoy the modern cynicism of C Day Lewis’s poem of 1935:
    Come, live with me and be my love,
    And we will all the pleasures prove
    Of peace and plenty, bed and board,
    That chance employment may afford.

    I’ll handle dainties on the docks
    And thou shalt read of summer frocks:
    At evening by the sour canals
    We’ll hope to hear some madrigals.

    Care on thy maiden brow shall put
    A wreath of wrinkles, and thy foot
    Be shod with pain: not silken dress
    But toil shall tire thy loveliness.

    Hunger shall make thy modest zone
    And cheat fond death of all but bone—
    If these delights thy mind may move,
    Then live with me and be my love.

  20. Diana says:

    @Elle Jay: Thank you. Know the poem, but like a lot of others I am sure, I only remember the first two lines.

  21. Pemsey says:

    Great to hear this one again: 1 – it’s a great song from the Copper family. 2- it reminds me of been back down hwome in Sussex . 3 – it always pops up when I’m on holiday somewhere warm & dry!

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