Wild Mountain Thyme: The Story Behind the Spell
The essence of springtime distilled into song. Could there be a better way to describe Wild Mountain Thyme? From its very first line, the song captures the joy of spring and leaves its listeners in a springtime spell. Most recently recorded by Revels on the CD/cassette The Wild Mountain Thyme: Revels Songs for Spring, Summer & Autumn, it has been recorded by many of the great folk music revival singers from Joan Baez to the Clancys, to Jean Redpath who used to end every concert with it.
The version of Wild Mountain Thyme heard so widely today was fashioned from traditional sources by an extraordinary family of singers, the McPeake family of Belfast. Before the McPeakes got hold of it, the song that became Wild Mountain Thyme underwent many sea changes. It appears to have originated in Scotland, where variants such as Queen Among the Heather, Heather on the Moor and Skipping Barefoot Through the Heather are still sung.1 The Scottish poet Robert Tannahill (1774-1810) wrote new words to the song and titled it The Braes of Balquidder.2 It achieved a good measure of popularity among Scottish singers. Irish migratory workers brought the song from Scotland to Northern Ireland. Francis McPeake, a talented Belfast singer and piper learned the song around the turn of the century.
Born in the year 1885, Francis McPeake had been steeped in the folk music tradition of Northern Ireland. He wrote that his interest in the music that surrounded him began when he was six. By age eleven, McPeake was playing flute with his father and his two older brothers. In his teens, McPeake learned to play the Uilleann pipes from Blind John O’Reilly of Galway and was soon winning prizes in piping competitions.3 Later, when McPeake had children of his own, a family band evolved. It was in family musical sessions around the fireplace that the McPeake version of Wild Mountain Thyme came into being.
When Francis McPeake learned Wild Mountain Thyme, it probably had a refrain similar to this one from a version of The Braes of Balquidder collected in Nova Scotia:
Will ye go, Lassie, go, to the braes of Balquidder
The song tells of a young man's attempt to convince a woman he has just met to accompany him to the braes of Balquidder. At first she refuses, but when he tells her that he "can surely find another," she changes her mind. After their trip to the braes, the couple get married and live happily ever after. The McPeakes transformed this song in several ways. First, they gave it universal appeal by setting the action in an idyllic but unspecified locale instead of being firmly set in a specific place. Inviting the lass to go where "we'll all go together," changed the refrain from an invitation to a seduction to an invitation to a community celebration. Finally, they eliminated the narrative element of the song and substituted of traditional "floater" lyrics such as:
I will build my love a tower by yon clear crystal fountain
This transformation from a narrative to a lyric gives the song its dreamy, gentle flow and air of timelessness.
The McPeake’s contribution to folk music was not limited to teaching the world Wild Mountain Thyme. British Folklorist Peter Kennedy wrote that the McPeake family marked "a turning point for folk music in Britain" in that they were the first to blend traditional roots with untraditional accompaniment styles and instruments. Traditionally, Irish folk songs were always sung unaccompanied. Long before the Clancy Brothers even knew what a banjo was, Francis McPeake was making bold experiments in instrumental accompaniments for these folk songs. As early as 1913, the great collector of Irish music Francis O'Neill was writing of McPeake's unconventional use of the Uilleann pipes to accompany folk songs.5 The combination of McPeake's harsh, highly ornamented vocals and the unconventional harmonies produced in the interplay between his voice and the bagpipes produced a sound reminiscent of the folk music of the Balkans. Alan Lomax, in fact, compared McPeake's music with the music of Macedonian shepherds.6
The McPeake Family first recorded in the 1950's as a duo with McPeake
and his son Francis Jr. both singing and playing pipes. Later the group
expanded to a trio. James, Francis Sr.'s youngest son recalled:
The McPeakes went on to tour England, Europe and America. At the time of their American tour in 1965 the group consisted of the 80-year old Francis Sr., joined by his sons Francis Jr. and James, and his grandchildren Francis III and Kathleen, and a cousin, Tommy McCrudden. By then the McPeake family members accompanied themselves on a cornucopia of instruments: Uilleann pipes, Celtic harp, banjo, guitar, bass fiddle and tinwhistles. The McPeakes disbanded in the late 1960’s, but their introduction of instrumental accompaniment to the performance of traditional songs created a new musical idiom that has had a profound and lasting impact on Irish folk music.
Peter Kennedy's Folk Songs of Britain and Ireland. In the 1950's, the great American folklorist, Alan Lomax, managed to convince a very reluctant BBC to permit Peter Kennedy of the English Folk Dance and Song Society to produce a radio series on folk music in Britain. Kennedy, Lomax, Shirley Collins, Seamus Ennis, Hamish Henderson and several other folklorists fanned out across Britain and Ireland recording songs. They discovered a wealth of material which was first broadcast over the BBC and then released as a 10-record series with a companion book. Both the records and the book were titled The Folk Songs of Britain and Ireland.
This collection is significant for a number of reasons. First, many of Britain's greatest source singers were discovered in the course of the project. Singers such as Jeannie Robertson, who Lomax dubbed the "Queen" of the ballad singers, and Flora McNeill, the great Scottish Gaelic singer, might never have been known outside of their communities, let alone recorded, had it not been for this radio project. These recordings also gave listeners a chance to hear subtleties in traditional performance style that formerly would have been lost in the process of transcribing the performance into written music.
Finally, Peter Kennedy's recordings give us a chance to
hear the great source singers in their prime, for by the time they were
rediscovered and re-recorded in the folk music boom of the 1960s, their
voices had aged. The record set has been released several times under
several different labels, most recently, Topic Records, London. The book,
a whopping 824 pages of musical nirvana, is published by Oak Publications
of New York City and is available in most good bookstores.
Sam Henry's Songs of the People (University of Georgia Press, Athens, GA:1990) which spent its first forty years as a series of Irish newspaper articles collecting dust in a Library of Congress archive, is the largest single collection of Irish folk songs in print. This massive and magnificent collection of 690 songs features lively commentary on the songs and singers. It also features an immense and immensely useful bibliography and a discography to match. The story of how the manuscript was rediscovered and finally published makes for some very interesting reading.
For lovers of parodies, nothing can beat the Kipper Family's The Ever-Decreasing Circle (Dambuster Records, Dam012, London: 1985). A deft send-up of seasonal recordings such as the Watersons' Frost & Fire, The Ever-Decreasing Circle contains a Wild Mountain Thyme parody, The Wild Mounting Time, as well as such gems as Arrest those Merry Gentlemen, and Joan Sugarbeet.
Most of these books and recordings can be found by phoning the The House
Thanks to Sandy and Caroline Paton of Folk Legacy Records in Sharon
CT and to
1) Henry, Sam. Sam Henry's Songs of the People. Gale Huntington
(ed). p. 232.