May Day Songs

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May Day 1
May Day Songs
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May Garland with doll, from Hone's Every-Day Book, illustration probably by Cruikshank This article is focused on traditional English May Songs which are used when visiting. There are hundreds of charming May Songs known in Europe, many going back to the earliest time that music was notated. There is so much information about May Day that I have divided it into four separate pages on this website. To make it easier to find the various topics, here is a Table of Contents for all four pages.

Table of Contents
Freya (different page)
Invocations
May Day Revels, Part 1 (different page)
Walpurgis Night
Customs for Children
Hawthorn Tree Songs
May Dew Songs
May Day Songs (this page)
Visiting Songs
Syllabub Recipe
May Day Revels, Part 2 (different page)
Furry Day Dances
Maypole Dances
Tree in the Wood Song (Summerisle or Maypole Song)
Morris Dances
#visit
The custom of visiting at May seems to be part of the tradition of “luck-visits” which are recorded from ancient Greek Pagan times and in many other times and places. Luck-visit customs are described in the Golden Bough, Vol 2, p. 63 and p. 79ff, and in other descriptions of folk customs. At the May Day luck visits in England, people took branches of May flowers to the houses of their neighbors and offered them with songs and good wishes. In return they were offered food or drink and by the 1800’s, perhaps coins. This was an opportunity for flirtation, the main participants being young men and women. During the day, children also participated, often carrying a pair of decorated garlands in which a doll, known as the May Queen, was placed.

I have chosen several songs that are the most popular. There are about a dozen traditional May Songs in English but they are difficult to separate because the titles are interchangeable; almost all are simply titled “May Day Song” or “May Day Carol.” Some that were recorded by folk song collectors are known by the district in which they were first collected such as Buckworth or North Bedfordshire. Some of the verses in these songs are known as “floating verses” because they are found in all songs used for luck-visits, even in Wassailing Songs at the Winter Solstice.

Many of these songs were christianized by adding a puritan verse, either at the beginning or end, but those verses were obviously tacked on and often they do not even fit the meter. I have discarded most of these verses or entirely skipped those songs in which they are prominent. In some verses it might make more sense and it fits the meter better to substitute “Lady” for “Lord.” The reference to the fertilizing rain or dew of the “heavenly father” is probably very old, going back to Pagan times, and refers to a Weather God such as Thor or *Perkunos.

May Day Song or Mayer’s Song
This version “as sung at Hitchin in Hertfordshire” is one of the most widely known of the May Songs because it is mentioned in Hone’s Everyday Book and in Popular Music in the Olden Time by Chappell. It starts out with the line “We have been rambling all the night...”, and the tune is more or less the same as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman.” It is given with the music notated in Chappell (p. 753), who quotes it from Rimbault. However, it is so heavily christianized that once that aspect is removed, not much is left and there are much better songs. The first verse is:

We have been rambling all the night,
and almost all the day-a,
And now returned back again,
we’ve brought you a branch of may-a

May Song
The words, and music for this are published in EFDSS (1961), p. 81-82 along with many other variations. The words are also given for the Waterson:Carthy version on the CD Holy Heathens, and the lyrics only are given to various May songs on the Mainly Norfolk site. I did not like this song at first because some of the verses seem to be christianized. But then it seemed to me that it would make sense if one verse were sung by men (I picture some grumpy old guy in a cassock), and then the next verse might be sung by the village women, with their hands on their hips, and wearing large white aprons and mob caps.

Another variation of the May Day Song was collected by Lucy Broadwood and published as the Bedfordshire May Day Carol in 1908. The lyrics and a scan of the sheet music (at the bottom of the page) are available at Bedfordshire May Day Carol

The Bronham May Song, as it is specifically called by folk song collectors, and the Northill May Song which is very similar (and published in Garners Gay, p. 35), have a Night Song and a Day Song, with the same tune. The Night Song was used when young people would go from house to house on the night before May Day and leave branches of hawthorn flowers or May flowers at the doors of their neighbors. The Day Song was used the next morning when everyone went from house to house singing and welcoming the spring. They were greeted by the householders who offered them whatever hospitality was popular at the time. One of the drinks they used to share at this time of the year is Syllabub and I give a recipe at the end of this article.

Night Song
We’ve been rambling all of the night
And the best part of this day
And now we are returning again
We’ve brought you a branch of may.

A branch of may, so fine and gay
And at your door it stands.
It’s nothing but a sprout, but it’s well-budded out
By the work of our Lord’s hand.
[“our Lady’s hands” would fit the meter better]

Wake up, wake up, you pretty fair maid,
Wake from your drowsy dream,
And step into your dairy house
And fetch us a cup of cream.

If not a cup of your cold cream
A jug of your brown ale [or “beer” which rhymes]
And if we should live to tarry in the town
We’ll call on you next year.

Day Song
Men:
Remember us now May is here
And now we do begin
To lead a life in righteousness,
For fear of death and sin.

Women:
Repent, repent, you wicked old men,
Don’t die before you do!
And when the day of judgment comes
The lord will think on you.

The hedges and fields are closed all around
With several sorts of green.
Our heavenly father waters them
With his heavenly showers of rain.
[in some versions “with his dew so sweet”]

I have a purse here in my hand
Rolled up with a silken string
And all that it wants is a coin or two
To line it well within.

The clock strikes one, it’s time to be gone
No longer can we stay.
God bless you all, both great and small
And send you a peaceful May.

The May Song is performed by Waterson:Carthy on the Holy Heathens CD, and a close variation of it is the Cambridgeshire May Carol sung by Shirley Collins which can be heard on YouTube. The Northill May Song is performed by Magpie Lane and can be listened to on MySpace. A version by the Indiana University Children’s Choir singing May Day Carol with Brent Gault conducting can also be heard on YouTube. I included a link to this last one because the version of the song is fairly simple and therefore easy to learn, and not because the video is hilarious.

May Carol sung in the Appalachians
The words and music for this are published in Singing Holidays by Oscar Brand. This version was collected in the United States and like a number of traditional songs that were remembered in the mountains, it has a very conservative character.

This morning is the month of May,
the finest of the year.
Good people all, both great and small,
I wish you joyful cheer.

I’ve brought you here a bunch of may,
Before your door it stands.
It’s well set out, and well spread out,
and fashioned by God’s hand.

I’ve wandered far, through all the night,
and also through the day,
And when I come your way again
I’ll bring a branch of may.

My song is done, I will be gone,
I can no longer stay.
God bless you all, both great and small,
And send a joyful May.

Unfortunately, there is no recording of this that I know of but it can be sung to the same tune as the previous songs. There is a CD put together and sung by Jon Boden for May which includes Hail, Hail, the First of May and Hal-An-Tow. It's available through Amazon.com.uk, that is, in the UK. This CD has many other traditional folksongs on it too, including American prison work songs, which I really like.

Mummers’ Dance by Loreena McKennitt
This variation on the song is recorded by Loreena McKennitt on various CDs. The words for some verses and the chorus are traditional, while other verses and the melody for them seem to have been written by her. The words are printed from the discography for the Nights at the Alhambra CD and they are copyright to her.

When in the springtime of the year
When the trees are crowned with leaves
When the ash and oak, and the birch and yew
Are dressed in ribbons fair.

When owls call the breathless moon
In the blue veil of the night.
The shadows of the trees appear
Amidst the lantern light.

We’ve been rambling all the night
And sometime of this day,
Now returning back again
We bring a garland gay.

Who will go down to the shady groves
And summon the shadows there
And tie a ribbon on the sheltering arms
In the springtime of the year.

The songs of birds seem to fill the wood
When the fiddler plays
All their voices can be heard
Long past their woodland days.

We’ve been rambling all the night
And sometime of this day,
Now returning back again
We bring a garland gay.

And so they linked their hands and danced
Round in circles and in rows.
And so the journey of the night descends
When all the shades are gone.

A garland gay we bring you here
And at your door we stand.
It is a sprout well-budded out
The work of our Lord’s hand.

We’ve been rambling all the night
And sometime of this day,
Now returning back again
We bring a garland gay.

This is recorded by Loreena McKennitt on the Nights at the Alhambra CD, see her website at Quinlan Road. The longer version of Mummers’ Dance can be heard on the Live at Paris and Toronto CD, disc 1.
#syllabub
Syllabub Recipe

Syllabub Syllabub is one of the treats sometimes shared among the Mayers. At one time they were offered “a syllabub of warm milk direct from the cow, sweet cakes and wine” for example in Northumberland, according to the Golden Bough, Vol. 2, page 67. Here is a recipe for it given from A Choice Collection of Cookery Receipts. Syllabub is very different but very good, and it is appropriate to the season.

1 pint of white wine
1 lemon, pared, steep in the wine for two hours
juice of one lemon, add to wine
sugar to taste
1 quart of cream, warm
Put all in a bowl and whisk until thick.

Here is a simpler recipe for Syllabub, in case you don’t happen to have a cow handy.
½ cup cream
1 level tablespoon of sugar.
Warm the cream (30 seconds in microwave) and whisk to bubbles. Add:
½ cup white wine
Pour into a glass and drink. There were supposed to be lemon parings and lemon juice but these aren’t needed because the wine will serve as an acid to thicken the cream. This is a recipe for one, make as many as you like.

For more May Day Songs, see the first section of May Day Revels, Part 1 which gives songs for Walpurgisnacht and Hawthorn songs. This is followed by the May Day Revels, Part 2 which includes Furry Day Songs and Dances, Maypole customs, the Tree in the Wood song and two Morris Dances which are suitable for Maypole dancing.

References
The Golden Bough, by James George Frazer, MacMillan & Co. Ltd., London, 1919-1920 (12 vol. edition)
Garners Gay, collected by Fred Hamer, English Folk Dance Society Publications, Ltd., London, 1968
Every-Day Book by William Hone, William Tegg & Co., London, 1826. This is on the net at Hathi Trust Digital Library, with May 1st beginning on p. 570.
Singing Holidays, The Calendar in Folk Song, by Oscar Brand, Alfred A. Knopf, NY, c. 1959.
Popular Music in the Olden Time by W. Chappell; Cramer, Beale & Chappell, London, 1859.
English Folk Dance and Song Society Journal (EFDSS), London, Vol. 9, No. 2, Dec. 1961.
Oxford Book of Carols, ed. by Percy Dearmer, R. Vaughan Williams, Martin Shaw, Oxford University Press, London, 1928, 1964
The Story of the Carol by Edmondstoune Duncan, The Walter Scott Publishing Co, Ltd., London, 1911.
English Traditional Songs and Carols, collected by Lucy E. Broadwood, Boosey & Co., London, 1908.

This page was originally at pierce.yolasite.com/maydaysongs but Yola crashed and burned, so it has been moved to this site.

© 2011, last updated 3/13/2013, piereligion.org/maydaysongs.html