Thursday, April 5, 2012

"Over The Hills And Far Away"

I had initially thought to title this post something like "The Second Life Of A Song," but I quickly realized that that would be disingenuous at best - because "Over The Hills And Far Away" has never been out of print or performance since published versions began appearing in 1706 in Thomas D'Urfey's Pills to Purge Melancholy. The air for "Hills" has been used as a lullaby, a satire, songs in musicals and operas, regimental marches in the British army, and recruitment music - not bad for a humble folk tune whose obscure origin in the 17th century was most likely as a love ballad, probably from Scotland.

But inasmuch as "Over The Hills" has, like the poor, been always with us, its inspired selection nearly 20 years ago as the theme song for the popular BBC series Sharpe has nonetheless raised its public profile to a visibility it has likely not enjoyed since the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s depicted in the dramas, which were based on the character of Richard Sharpe created by English author Bernard Cornwell in a series of 24 novels and stories. In casting the films, with Sean Bean (above, center) in the title role as the able but volatile commoner Sharpe who rises into the officer corps of Wellington's army, the producers made the fateful decision of naming John Tams (above, right) in the pivotal role of the roguish sharpshooter Hagman. They knew Tams to be an accomplished stage actor; what they were not initially aware of was that his main occupation was as a folk artist - and he happened to have a unique arrangement of "Hills" in his repertoire, an arrangement that he tweaked in both lyrics and instrumentation with his co-composer of the series' music, Dominic Muldowney, to fit the demands of the show. Though not wholly traditional in lyrics, Tams' verses are derived from actual 19th century broadsides of the song and his chorus is a variant of what was actually sung by the soldiers of the time. It's a wonderful "modernized folk" arrangement performed by Tams himself:



What the British soldiers of the day would have heard in the field, though, likely would have sounded more like this version by the Imperial Corps of Drums - fifes and percussion only. This video really hits its stride at 1:17, so a bit of patience is in order:



But the aforementioned earliest printed version was a lost love song that quickly morphed into a quiet lullaby or children's song, here performed in a lovely duet of mandolin and flute played and sung by Hilary James and Simon Mayer:



Within two years, though, D'Urfey had republished the song as "an excellent new copy of verses upon raising recruits. To the foregoing tune" right in the middle of Queen Anne's War of 1702-1713 - and we have the first use of the air in a military context. Here in this video (performers unidentified) you can hear the chorus singing "Queen Anne commands and we obey" instead of the 100-years-later "King George" of Tams' rendition:



One of D'Urfey's friends and collaborators was a younger man, John Gay, author of a classic of British and world literature, The Beggar's Opera (1728), the still-funny satire on class pretensions and opera whose main character, MacHeath, is an icon of dramatic literature, so much so that Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill took Gay's 18th century classic and turned it into a 20th century one, The Threepenny Opera. Brecht and Weill rewrote the music, turning highwaymen/cutthroat MacHeath into "Mack the Knife"(and yes, that's the song that Bobby Darin sang). For his original, though, Gay took ten songs from D'Urfey, including "Hills" converted into a lovers' duet - "Were I laid on Greenland's coast..." with Sir Laurence Olivier doing an unexpectedly fine job singing:



Regular readers of these pages know that I have a soft spot for amateur performers, especially young ones who are keeping folk songs alive. The two unnamed very young ladies here do a commendable and creditable job with Gay's Greenland lyric:



To close, we return to professional Tams, who has made "Over The Hills" his closing number for many years now. Here he performs only with his longtime collaborator Barry Coope on keyboard - and the audience singing along quietly in this slower, quieter, almost mournful arrangement:



The many variations here of "Over The Hills And Far Away" point to what I think are many of the strengths of folk music. The melody in all its forms is beautiful, by turns stirring and martial, and romantic, and melancholy. Except for Gay and his conversion of the folk song into a theater piece, the lyricists of the very different versions above are unknown - but genuine poets, each one. And to whatever uses our composers put the common line of the chorus - the song's title - have we not all dreamed and wondered, and do we still not dream and wonder, if we will some day ourselves go over the hills and far away?

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