Leeds Folk Songs And Ballads

Every so often, I come back to folk songs and folklore. And here were are again. Some of these have appeared in the blog before, but not all. For me, the folk songs and folklore are the bedrock of stories, a way to the heart of a community, a people. A chance to understand a place and the people who live there.

Well, sometimes…

It’s a curious thing, but root around as much as you like, you won’t find a whole lot of folklore, be it, tales, songs, or music that’s strongly connected to Leeds. Lancashire, especially the greater Manchester area, has plenty of industrial folk songs, and there are some from West Yorkshire. But Leeds…you’re on a hiding to nothing.

Before 1800, Leeds was a small town, around 7,000 people in 1700 and 30,000 a century later; neither rural nor metropolis. But with the factories came the people, and over the next hundred years the population rose tenfold. However, they created little in the way of songs about the place that became home.

There are a number of broadside ballads, written and sold generally for specific events, and the distinction between them and ‘proper’ folk song has been endless debated. For the sake of argument, we’ll lump them all in.

Folk tales will be another time.

There are two tunes with Leeds roots, “Leeds Polka” and the “Kirkgate Hornpipe” (which occurs in a pair of variations). Frank Kidson, Leeds’ own Victorian song collector, claims it was known here as early as 1820. Here they are.

He also notes “The Holbeck Moor Cock Fight,” which turns up in his book Traditional Tunes. Yet even with a number of local informers, he came up with little that was specifically Leeds.

Songs starts at 03:35

This light-hearted piece from Holroyd’s Collection of Yorkshire Ballads is about as specific as it’s possible to be – set around Temple Newsam.

A deep dig and a couple of conversations do reveal some more. Some Victorian songs mention Leeds in passing, like John White, which is largely the true tale of a soldier and his flogging – sadly a common occurrence then.

Similarly, Mr Simkins Lived At Leeds. The first line is the only mention of the place.

There are some more recent gens, though. In the 1960s, academic and folk musician Bob Pegg was able to collect songs around Leeds and came up with a wonderful pair. The first comes from a woman named Mrs Dawson. Interestingly, there’s no castigation of an pregnant, unmarried girl, which is not uncommon across the North.

The other is a very local version of the grand old ballad The Cruel Mother.

There was a lady lived in Leeds

Bloomin’ bloomin’ laddie-O

There was a lady lived in Leeds

Down by the greenwood side-o

She had a baby in her arms

She had a pen knife in her hand

She stuck it in his poor little heart

Then two big bobbies come a-knocking at the door

Are you the woman what killed the child?

Yes, I’m the woman what killed the child

So they took her to Armley Jail

They put a rope around her neck

And they hung her till she was dead!

“…she was dead” delivered in a strangulated voice

All verses follow the same pattern as the first, a single line repeated, with the lines of the refrain interleaved.

Bob also added to the canon with two very Leeds songs of his own, “The Chapeltown Hawk,” which even mentions the old, notorious Hayfield Hotel, which is now demolished. There’s still a generation of two that remember it.

That was the B-side of a 1978 single. The A-side, “The Werewolf Of Old Chapeltown” came out during the time of the Yorkshire Ripper and saw him pulled in for questioning. It was topical, which was also something to be found in many broadside ballads.

Ah yes, the broadside ballads. There are plenty more of those that mention Leeds, ranging from the frivolous to the political, to warnings or commemorations of events. Ballads had been printed and sold cheaply since Elizabethan times, although it was only with an increase in population that Leeds became a worthwhile subject. Ballads, especially ones with national appeal, were the pop songs of the times. Tragedies were always popular, as well as those where someone showed a good, trusting heart.

One common trope was the country bumpkin in the big town, and for Leeds, a ballad called “The Wensleydale Lad” is one of the best known. Is it ballad or song? I’m going to call it a ballad. Humorous, and in dialect, but the meaning is obvious.

One with a real Leeds association is “Mary, Maid Of The Inn,” even if most versions never mention the place. The ballad is derived from a poem of 1796 by Robert Southey, although its origins appear to be more distant, in a local folk tale that takes place in Kirkstall.

Mary supposedly works at an inn close to a ruined abbey. According to local historian Alan Jones, there were two contenders, one of which was the Hark to Rover, on Morris Lane, a stone’s throw from the abbey and supposedly built with sones from the abbey. If the name is familiar, the Victorian interior has been recreated in Abbey House museum. The other contender is the old, long-gone, Star and Garter, once a Kirkstall fixture.

There are a couple of versions of the tale, as there are with all good folk tales. Mike Harwood has done an excellent job of hunting down leads and assembling them into a paper well worth reading here.

Many of the darker ballads have a backstory, often from reality, like this tale of the Dark Arches.

Discovering the history it them far more resonance. Another time we’ll look at Leeds folk tales. Spoiler-there aren’t even as many as Leeds folk songs.

Many thanks to Bob Pegg for being so wonderfully helpful on this,