Friday, June 17, 2011

Among The Leaves So Green-O: "The Keeper" / "The Hunter"

This week's song has been one of my favorite traditional tunes since I first heard Burl Ives' version of it rather more than fifty years ago. The most common name for it is "The Keeper Did A-Hunting Go," but it has also appeared in publications as "The Hunter," "Among The Leaves So Green-O," and "Derry Derry Down." It is clearly and unmistakably English in origin, and from what I can gather occupies the same place in U.K. music education that perhaps "Oh! Susanna!" does in the U.S., meaning that for a very long time just about everyone learned to sing it in primary school. Most versions sport an antiphonal chorus - one in which one singer or group alternates responses with another, like "Jackie Boy - Master" here - and is consequently a delight for little children to learn. Or it was, at least when most of us were children. I'm not sure how much basic education in the joys of singing is left in schools today in either Britain or here - and I am even more uncertain that Stephen Foster or "The Hunter" would be included today in any event.

Too bad, because the song is a delight on several levels. Most versions sung today are derived from the rather sanitized version published in 1909 by legendary British folk song collector Cecil Sharp in School Songs. Sharp's rendering makes the song a literal deer hunt, and the tune works just fine on that level:

The keeper did a-hunting go
And under his cloak he carried a bow
All for to shoot a merry little doe
Amongst the leaves so green-O.

The first doe that he shot at he missed,
And the second doe he trimmed he kissed,
And the third ran away in a young man's breast,
She's amongst the leaves of the green O.

The fourth doe then she crossed the plain,
The keeper fetched her back again.
O and he tickled her in a merry vein,
She's amongst the leaves of the green O.

Now, unless you're ten years old, you might well look at that lyric and suspect that something else is afoot here, since most hunters as far as I know neither kiss nor tickle their prey. If you further consider the soft and supple coat of a doe, its fetchingly luminescent brown eyes, its skittish temperament, its elusiveness - well, you don't have to be Freud to figure that the deer might well be a kind of folk code for a supple, luminescent, and elusive female of our own species. (One of my all-time favorite poems is from about 1530, "Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind" by Sir Thomas Wyatt where the connection is clear and intentional, a hind being a female red deer.)

In fact, Sharp was presenting a 19th century cleaned-up lyric of a much older song, one that was first printed in the 1500s and has long been thought to date back to the 13th century, the time of Robin Hood. The 1600s version was called "The Huntsman's Delight; or the Forester's Pleasure" and included stanzas like:

The third Doe she made great moan,
Because that she was big with Fawn,
Which made her to go weeping home,
From 'mongst the leaves so green a:
Hey down, &c.

The fourth Doe could no longer stay,
But she must be gone her way,
For fear that the Keepers should her lay
Amongst the leaves so green a:
Hey down, &c.

The fifth Doe leapt over the stile,
But the Keeper he got her by the heel,
And there he did both kiss and feel,
Amongst the leaves so green a.
Hey down, &c.

That's pretty clear, I'd say. Whatever the quarry is, however, the song is just plain tuneful fun, as our videos will show. First, an instrumental version done with overdubbed pennywhistles by Edinburgh's Gordon Hudson. Lest that sound too weird, give it a listen - it's a delight:

Warms the cockles of my Irish heart, it does.

Now you would think that the Weavers would deliver a creative but straight-up traditional version of the song, as I did when I got the Travelling On album in about 1960. You would be wrong:

The group ultimately cannot blame this travesty on their Decca Records producer Gordon Jenkins and his insistence on orchestrations for folk numbers in the quartet's 1950 recordings; this dates to 1959, though since Seeger had left the group by then over disagreements about the commercialization of material (you think?) and the fact that the other three compelled him to sing on a cigarette commercial that he really objected to, the recording cannot be later than April of 1958. Even if the cut is a refugee from the Decca vaults that somehow found its way onto this otherwise excellent Vanguard album, the group still had to sign off on its inclusion. Big mistake.

That version simply enables me to attempt to drive yet another stake through the heart of the casual misperception of pop folk groups, because the Kingston Trio does exactly what the Weavers should have done - which was to deliver a sophisticated arrangement that respects the song's musical roots:

A truly marvelous arrangement indeed, as Jeremy Raven notes below in my post about Nick Reynolds: " 'The Hunter' is one the Kingston Trio didn't write or significantly rewrite...But probably the harmonic spin was their own. Listen to the quiet verse and chorus, starting with "'Tis merry we are"...The modality of the harmony evokes madrigal-singing or even Gregorian chants , even more so than 'Riu Riu Chiu /Guardo El Lobo'. It's a perfect example of the kind of thing Dave Guard wanted them to start being able to accomplish by learning to read music!" It also exemplifies what I think was the genius of the original group - the ability to present legitimate folk material in a modern setting that does not ultimately distort the integrity of the number. My thanks to Jeremy R. for the comment (part of what made me want to do the song this week) and to Dave Long's marvelous upload. (Dave is saving me a lot of work these days!)

For more creative interpretations - first, a fine a capella version from The Futureheads, recorded appropriately over a few beers in a bar:

From the UK again, Chris with a kind of new-age arrangement done on a 12 string guitar in what sounds like an open tuning (but actually is not, since Chris forms a perfectly normal-looking B minor chord at the end of each verse), slightly reminiscent of John Denver's take on "The Bells of Rhymney":

Youngsters Colin on lead with Mary and Dickon in an adaptation as part of a dramatic version of The Secret Garden:

And finally - because the fantasy camp is coming up soon, because I have been thinking a lot recently about our late friend Bo Wennstam, whose video this is, and because I always like to include in these articles amateurs having fun with folk songs in informal settings, here are Triofan John Lee, Zurich's Tom O'Donnell, and I making up in volume and enthusiasm for what we lack in rehearsal time. It's a jam, after all:

And that is an example of what goes on at the KT Fantasy Camp, pretty much 24 hours a day somewhere or other. The late John Stewart used to remark at the camp that the only way that songs like this and folk music in general would ever survive the onslaught of music biz-American Idol pop culture would be if people just got together and sang their lungs out on these tunes. This last one's for you, John.


copse said...

Just saw this - loved the Futureheads version, plus your version - essentially any version with gusto is fine!

PML said...

I remember this song from my childhood as a Tom Glazer song. Finally found it on YouTube. When I was very, very little, I sang it with my parents, and I still have the reel-to-reel tape where we recorded our songfest.

Jim Moran said...

Thanks for the comment, PML. I too love Tom Glazer's version, and if I find it I'll add it to this article.