King of Rome


Jon can’t recall his original source for this but you can certainly find a version on June Tabors Aqaba and it was written by Dave Sudbury. It’s based on a true story and Jon Says, “Beautiful song this. It has spawned many imitations but none have matched it.” I can certainly agree with the first part of that statement as this was another that had me (ahem!), a little moist eyed. Having heard Dave’s version attached to a YouTube montage of pictures, it’s not the most accomplished performance I’ve ever heard, but it’s honest and I should not detract from a great song. It would be rude not to give you a link to his website here, as this has a real emotional impact in the marriage of the simple telling of the story and the attendant hopes and dreams that can only be imagined.  You’ll find the actual titular bird here, stuffed and mounted, as it has long since raced its last. As a complete aside, although I’ve never had anything to do with pigeons, I used to drink regularly in a pub which had lots of pictures of racing birds and particularly close ups of their eyes adorning the walls, which was kind of odd… But they served a bostin’ pint.

You can buy the September digital album now from all good download stores:


31 Responses to “King of Rome”

  1. Simon Dewsbury says:

    I never realised that this was based on a true story, I remember June Tabor at a concert telling the audience that she first heard it at a song writing competition she was judging and fallling in love wit h the song. Great to see the actual King of Rome on the link. Again, a great rendition by Jon.

  2. muzza says:

    Oh Bliss………my dad kept racing pigeons from the late 40s and this song captures the joy of watching the flock fly round and round the sky on a sunny morning and then shaking the old food tin to bring ’em back down to the loft.On race days we scanned the skies and the excitement when a bird arrived…enticing it into the trap and the feverish scramble to get the “Racing ring” off its foot…..jump on my bike and cycle like the wind for 3 miles to get the ring sealed into an official timing clock…phew…
    Ref the photos of the eyes……..there are loads of theories as to how to spot a champion bird and one was “The eye has it”………I still have the book!
    This song really does capture the ethos of the “Racing pigeon man”.

  3. SRD says:

    For the first time I find Jon’s mannerisms overpowering the song to the extent that I can say I don’t like it.
    I too originally knew the song from June Tabor, both recorded and live, and always considered that hers is the best presentation, although the Youtube version posted by comedyhunter is also good in it’s own way, but, a few months back, we went to see Breabach at the David Hall, South Petherton and Ewan Robertson’s version was superb, with just the right amount of male pathos, but don’t rely on the version that’s available on Youtube, of him singing it, where he allows mannerisms again to overpower the song, the way he sang it with Breabach was much simpler.

  4. Jon Boden says:

    Just to clarify – I did get this from June Tabor (sorry Simon – crossed wires) and yes – her version is better than mine! Great album too (Aquaba).

  5. StephenH says:

    Another great song choice, Jon. I’ve been singing this around here (in Canada) for a number of years, and it always seems to move people (and, no, I don’t mean my singing moves ’em towards the doors!). I often introduce this by saying that I never understood the English working class fascination with racing pigeons until I heard this song. One of the best moments in Ken Russell’s quirky film, “In Search of English Folk Song” – I may not have gotten the title quite right- comes in the form of June Tabor’s perfromance of this song. And thanks, “Admin”, for the link to Dave Sudbury’s website, as I’ve never been able to give anymore info about the song than the author’s last name. cheers

  6. Shelley says:

    This song made me cry the first time I heard it (sung by June Tabor) and still does.

  7. Jerry Simon says:

    I’ve only heard this before by Sarah Matthews, who does it beautifully. V moving.

  8. Mary says:

    Has not downloaded from itunes, are the songs no longer available vis podcsat on itunes? Loved this song, but have not heard June Tabor’s version.

  9. Nick Passmore says:

    Mine hasn’t downloaded either – or today’s (“On A Monday Morning”) Is there a problem with i-tunes? Wouldn’t want to miss any of these…
    On which subject, I bought the virtual album of July’s songs from itunes, having been a bit slow off the mark subscribing to the podcast. Is there any way of getting hold of the songs from June, though?
    Enjoyed your performances at Shrewsbury, Jon, and looking forward to seeing you and John at Builth Wells next month, which is just down the road from us…

  10. John Burton says:

    Weird turnaround for me with this one. I have been re-listening to a lot of the downloaded songs recently and find some of them a bit slow for me.
    However this one I now find a bit rushed.
    I guess you can’t please em all Jon.
    Just keep up the good work anyhow.

  11. Lenora Rose says:

    Nice version. I first fell for this song through June Tabor, too, but for me the best rendition was at the Winnipeg Folk Festival when Vance Gilbert stepped away from his mike and sang it without amplification for a workshop. I was standing near the back.

    As Nick Passmore remarks, I’d noticed the June songs are neither MP3’d nor listenable right now. Will we have to wait for a June album at the other end of the project, or were they meant to be available sooner?

  12. Jane Ramsden says:

    A real heart-warmer, and a song I have heard before, which is rare for me on here as I am not so knowledgeable as some! I recognised the tune first, more than the words, so am left wondering where I heard it before and by whom, but could well have been June Tabor’s version.

  13. Nick Passmore says:

    Got it now…. lovely! Thanks for sorting that!

  14. Simon says:

    Thanks Muzza, I never did understand the eye pictures, but that makes sense of it now. I don’t know whether the landlord kept pigeons or had done, but it was an odd little pub, still very traditional and quite ‘cloth cap,’ even in the early 80s, despite being pretty central in Sutton Coldfield (posh, north Birmingham.)

  15. Sol says:

    Only familiar with this from Sarah Matthews’ great version. Thanks so much for the links!

  16. […] Posting this song gives me the opportunity to point you in the direction of Jon Boden’s project A Folk Song a Day. This blog does what it says on the tin; that is record and post a folk song every day for a whole year. Jon posted his version of The King of Rome on September 5th. […]

  17. Jane Ramsden says:

    This is taking me back to my grandmother’s attic in one of Lister’s mill houses, which was full of pigeons, as she gave it over to them what was injured and owt could fly in the open skylight! She had budgies from time-to-time as well. They were all called Billy, either Blue or Green! You see, the eccentricity had to come from somewhere!

    My father always maintained that her chronic bronchitis was psitticosis, whereas I think it was from the fibres of working on velvet production in the mill that Lister’s was famous for. The company supplied more than 1,000 yards to Westminster Abbey for the Coronation of George V in 1911, and as late as 1976 supplied the velvet for the curtains in the White House in Washington.

    The growth of the textile trade took a terrible toll on Bradford’s citizens in the beginning. In the middle of the nineteenth century, life expectancy in Bradford was just 18 years of age, but it took a new & dynamic Council just 50 years to make it a civilised place in which to live. The textile industry was then world-famous by the time it became a city in 1897.

    All this from a pigeon song!

  18. Rosie says:

    Its a funny thing, I never liked June Tabor or anyones elses version of this song but this is great .Lovely concertina.

  19. Diana says:

    What a delightful tale. Lovely to think it is based on a true story.

  20. Old Muzza(NW Surrey.UK says:

    To get the feel of the song…….. attached is a Youtube link that gives the full story of a man’s love of his birds……other links available show the spectacle of the mass release at the start of a race.

  21. Jane Ramsden says:

    So that’s what you get up to in your spare time, young Muzza! And there’s me thinking something completely different for ‘a man’s love of his birds’ and ‘the mass release!’ No wonder you couldn’t keep yer socks on… hahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!

  22. Old Muzza(nw Surrey) says:

    So you still dip in now and then Janey….

  23. Jane Ramsden says:

    I have to keep my eye on you, Muzzy! Lol.

  24. Old Muzza(N.W.Surrey UK) says:

    I listened to a Radio 4 programme just yesterday (Sunday3rd Sept) about a pigeon owner following the ages old tradition of attaching light weight whistles to the tail feathers. He had 3d printed his own designs and here was a sound bite of his flock at a mass release and the whistles were tuned to different notes………..the downside………..instead of the gentle swish of wings……a bit of a cacophony that is sure to annoy the neighbours

  25. I was sent the Song Search vinyl album to review ~ I think I was meant to make comparisons etc (I am the worst reviewer ever btw) by Stirrings editor of the time
    There were some great songs on there and I identified with The pigeon song ~ tear in eye too, as my uncle and cousin kept pigeons in lofts at Ardsley, Barnsley (on Doncaster rd) and flew them in races
    When I run singarounds at festivals and one lassie is there the Pigeon is always requested (she’s from Doncaster) and though not a “sweet” singer always impresses in her interpretation most fitting for this working class song and values ~ a miner’s pastime

  26. OldMuzza (NWSurrey UK) says:

    Here’s raising a glass to my old dad and all those old fellas that kept (and keep) pigeons.
    Hopefully they were all lifted up on shining wings!

  27. OldMuzza (NWSurrey UK) says:

    Oh for the wings of a dove….or some Turtle Dove pinions as requested by Cyril Tawney in ‘Grey funnel line’.. they are all magical!

  28. OldMuzza(NWSurreyUK) says:

    My annual Happy childhood pigeon memories…Thanks Jon

  29. OldMuzza (NW Surrey-UK) says:

    I’ll be raising a glass (tankard) to the old fellas who kept pigeons down the years….and the pigeon messengers who served through mankind’s induced horrors of war.

  30. Linda says:

    Been away but back to chastise you Muzza

  31. Old Muzza(NW Surrey UK) says:

    Good to have you back Lindy Lou…….I’m standing by!

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