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Nelson in folk song

Horatio Nelson is widely regarded as the greatest English military hero since Alfred the Great. The battle of Trafalgar in 1805 established Britain’s maritime hegemony, which lasted for over a century, and elevated the country to an international status which it still enjoys long after it lost its naval dominance. He was revered by the public to an extraordinary degree, in a period of maximum creativity for our folk songs. We would therefore expect a lot of songs about him in the oral tradition. It seems not. Broadsides, yes. Forty-odd different songs have been identified, though it’s very hard to separate them, what with all the “borrowing” of titles, phrases and whole verses that went on between the printers. The Nelson legend continued to keep the likes of Pitts of London, Harkness of Preston, and Kendrew of York making money until at least 60 years after the event. But little seems to have got through via the oral transmission route.

The best known is undoubtedly Bold Nelson’s Praise, collected in 1909 by Cecil Sharp from 70-year old Tom Gardiner of Blackwell in Warwickshire. The song is full of the sort of jingoism we find in the broadsides rather than oral tradition, and set to the popular and glorious Princess Royal tune. It has been very popular in the current folk revival, so you’d expect it to have been as popular with old singers in the 1900s. But it seems not, as Sharp’s is the only time it has been found. Moreover, it is not to be found amongst the broadsides, and although Sharp rearranged the singer’s version prior to publication, the phraseology is quite different than most of the broadsides. One possibility is that the song was written after the heyday of the broadsides, perhaps as late as the 100th anniversary of Trafalgar in 1905, and maybe by somebody in the West Midlands. Tom Gardiner had it, but maybe it just hadn’t travelled very far. By then you see, there was no broadside trade, music hall was on the wane, and most people by now had lost interest in the subject. Remarkable then that the phrase has stuck. (In 2005, there were innumerable articles, radio programmes, websites, and shows dedicated to Trafalgar, almost all of them entitled Bold Nelson’s Praise!)

Nelson’s Monument is not about the Trafalgar Square job, but the Great Yarmouth construction of the 1840s. The song was the third most popular amongst the broadsides, and one of the few that got passed on orally. Vaughan Williams collected it from Daniel Wigg of Hampshire in 1909, noting down only one verse (though the full version collected from the same singer in 1907 is in the Gardiner manuscripts), and in the 1950s Peter Kennedy got it from Harry Cox, and the Hudlestons got it from Arthur Wood of Middlesbrough. Interesting that the song has hardly been heard in the current folk revival. Another song hardly ever heard is Admiral Nelson, published in ''The English Folksinger'' as having been collected from a streetsinger of Plymouth. A glorious, dignified tune, with a text that seems much more in keeping with a seaman’s viewpoint. Nelson’s Death & Victory is the title of many 19th century broadsides, but like Bold Nelson’s Praise, it has only been collected once from the tradition, this time as late as 1971, again in Warwickshire. Roy Palmer got it from chainmaker George Dunn, who only had part of the song. Roy was able to provide the missing verses from a print by Kendrew of York in his highly influential publication ''The Valiant Sailor''.

The final song worthy of mention is regarded by many as the very best song about Nelson, and yet is a recent creation. The Death of Nelson is sung by Louis Killen, and was first recorded by A. L. Lloyd in a "Trafalgar 150" BBC radio broadcast in 1955. As Bert disclosed in the notes to the Topic LP The Valiant Sailor, he “did a job on it”. The tune and first verse coming from the Daniel Wigg recording of Nelson’s Monument (see above), he assembled the rest from two broadsides entitled The Death of Nelson, one from Henry Such of London, and the other from William Forth of Pocklington, near York. Lloyd “filleted” these two prints in a manner that suited his chosen tune, and produced a song of unsurpassed elegance and seeming authenticity.

One thing that comes out of this limited survey is that traditional songs can be interfered with to very positive effect. Rather than create a new song about Nelson, most have taken the fragments we have inherited and tried to get a feel of whatever the original was. Thanks to them. However, always remember that quality is in the ear of the beholder!