May Bradley was born in Chepstow, Monmouthshire in a family of travellers about 1900. Her mother’s name was Eliza Smith from whom Ella Leather collected, and even recorded, several songs in Weobley, Herefordshire in 1908. The Roud index lists only There is a fountain of Christ's blood, and unfortunately the original cylinders have been lost. Vaughan Williams also collected songs from her grandmother, Mrs Whatton, including Christ made a trance, Under the Leaves.
May herself considered she had had a hard life, which most would acknowledge. She started work at the age of 10, hawking by bicycle, and seasonal work such as hop and pea picking (See George Dunn). She brought up 15 children.
Fred Hamer states that “she sang softly if a little harshly, but with the complete assurance of a practised performer”. She can be heard on the The Voice of the People twice, singing Under the Leaves (No. 11, Topic TSCD 661) and the Willow Tree (Topic TSCD 662), singing in very much in the manner Hamer records.
Hamer records that she spoke Welsh until she was eighteen, which sounds strange, given that her collected songs, and those of her sister, mother and grandmother were all in English. Singing was a family affair, she sang “with her brothers and sisters round the fire at night”, they learned songs from each other and shared some songs. Sweet Swansea she learned from her grandfather, and claimed that is was written by her “double great grandfather” to commemorate the results of “a minor trespassing offence with his caravan.” She had, Hamer states, “an extensive repertoire”, of which the following, very varied, collection appears in the Roud index:
- The Blackbird
- Cold Blows the Wind
- Down the Green Groves
- Lily White Hand
- On Christmas Day
- The Outlandish Knight (The Dappledy Grey)
- Sweet Swansea
- Turpin’s Farewell to Black Bess
- Under the Leaves
- The Willow Tree
There is a picture of her, sat outside her house, in Garners Gay, p 49.
There is an account of her first meeting with Fred Hamer at The Folk Mag