Old Wife of Coverdale

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OLD WIFE OF COVERDALE. AKA – "T'Auld Wife of Coverdill," "T'owd Wife of Coverdale." English, Jig (9/8 time). A Mixolydian. Standard tuning (fiddle). AA'BB'. Researcher and collector Maud Karpeles (1885–1976) recorded (in notes to Cecil Sharp, 1926) that the tune was played by an Arkengarthdale, North Yorkshire, fiddler named Christopher Reine (pronounced 'Wren') and that it had been transcribed from his playing by the Rev. John Tinker in the 1870's. The song "Auld Wife of Coverdill" was set to a duple-time air and is one of several that appear in Anne Gilchrist's article "'Th' Owd Lass of Coverdill' and other Sword-Dance Fragments" published in the English Folk Dance Journal in 1928, collected from her landlord, Mr. Dent, who lived "in the old village of Orton, near Tebay, Westmorland." It accompanies mummers activities and describes the characters in the mummers play. The first and last verses are:

The first that doth come in
Is ferly to be seen.
He conquered Giant Strong
Before he was sixteen.

Now we're here altogether
Think of us what ye will.
Fiddler, strike up and play
"Th' Auld Wife of Coverdill".

An account of Reine's playing and the play was sent to collector Cecil Sharp in March, 1926, by The Rev. John Tinker, vicar of Caunton, Nottinhghamshire:

When I was vicar of Arkengarth-Dale near Richmond in NW. Yorkshire I was with my wife and children quietly passing the New Year's Eve of 1869. The quiet was broken by the maid coming to tell me that some young men at the back door wished me to see them. I had hardly entered the kitchen when a clown, dressed in a robe or cloak of dark crimson tatters, with a hood on his head of the same colour and having an appendage like a fox's tail, came in with a large broom, moving round as he swept, and singing in a monotone 'Room, room, brave gallants, room. Here we resort to show some sport and pastime, gentlemen and ladies, in the Christmas time.' As soon as this introductory recitation was ended and the clown went on one side, there came in one by one five dancers, in morris costume, each with a long sword, and each in order singing a verse and dancing the while until a circle was formed, the dancing going on without intermission. Then ensued a remarkable performance of skilful and graceful dancing, in and out of their interlaced swords, forming figures of pentagon, &c. This was at length broken by the clown, who had been mocking their movements, rushing into the ring, when the dancers encircled his neck with interlaced swords, and he fell down as one dead. To recover him a doctor was called for, and one, from his own description renowned in his profession, made his appearance. The remainder of the performance was that of the Christmas mummer's play ending with the usual box being taken round for pecuniary offerings. I learned afterwards that these young men had been taught and trained by Christopher Reine, an old lead miner and the only surviving member of the old sword-dancers, during many previous months, and well their secret was kept until their visit came as a great surprise. One Henry Cholder acted as clown and was indeed the leading spirit of the revival. I asked Christopher Reine to come and spend an evening with me, and so was able to take down from his violin playing the melody of the verses sung and of the traditional dance tune as played on this occasion. I knew it as the familiar melody of "Nancy Dawson". so popular in the reign of Geo. II, and still sung in children's games as "The Mulberry Bush". On asking Christopher why the dancers did not move to "Th' Auld Wife of Coverdill" the reply was that they did not care for it, preferring the more lively "Nancy Dawson". Wishing to have the traditional tune I further asked him whether he could remember it and play it. He said "Yes. I can, and at once began to play it. So I rescued the tune from being lost at his death. (This took place some years since.)

Barry Callaghan (2007) notes that the slip jig appears in Sharp's published collection of sword dances as an alternate tune for the Ampleforth sword dance. It is now the tune most associated with the dance.

"The Old Wife of Coverdale" is the also the name of a rather grim Child Ballad [1] (No. 79) that begins:

There lived an old wife in Coverdale,
Merrily turns the wheel;
There lived and old wife in Coverdale,
Children she had three;
She sent them away to the Northern lands,
She sent them away to learn their grammerie.

A caution against boarding school.

Additional notes

Printed sources : - Callaghan (Hardcore English), 2007; p. 82. Sharp (Sword Dances of Northern England: Songs and Dance Airs, Book 3), 1913; p. 24.

Recorded sources : - CD Baby, Horseplay – "Roughshod." (2006). Osmosys Records, OSMO CE 001, Blowzabella – "Blowzabella Compilation" (1995). Osmosys Records, OSMO CD 005, Blowzabella – "Wall of Sound" (1996. A re-release of the 1986 album).

See also listing at :
See/hear versions on youtube.com [2] [3]
See/hear the tune at Lester Bailey's site [4]

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