Keel Row (The)

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KEEL ROW, THE. AKA - "Merry may the Keel Row." AKA and see "Bagpipe (2) (The)," "Boatie Rows (The)," "Drops of Brandy," "Johnny When You Die (2)," "Lake St. Jean Gallope," "Michael's Reel," "Smiling Polly," "Twin Sisters (4)." English, Irish, Scottish, American; Air, Reel, Highland or (Highland) Schottische, Highland Fling. England, Northumberland. Ireland, Donegal. G Major (Bell, Buttery, Cole, Hall & Stafford, Kennedy, Kidson, Raven, Stokoe, Sweet, Trim, Tubridy, White): A Major (Athole, Cocks, Kerr, Mulvihill, Roche, Surenne): D Major (Balmoral). Standard tuning (fiddle). AB (Raven, Roche, Surenne, Tubridy): AABB (Balmoral, Bell, Cocks, Cole, Kerr, Kidson, Mulvihill, Sweet, Trim, White): AABB' (Athole): ABC (Stokoe).

Stokoe and Bruce (1882) devote a note to the tune claiming Northumbrian authorship for "The Keel Row," an extremely popular tune in its time (in both Scotland and Northumberland) and "the best known and most popular of all Northumbrian lyrics." He refutes assertions that the tune is Scotch (a provenance often credited), citing the following:

1) the 'keel' is a vessel which is only known on the rivers Tyne and Wear {Kidson points out however that 'keel' is an old Saxon word and has been used in Scotland as well as Newcastle};

2) In the collection of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle is a MS Book of Tunes, dated 1774, in which the tune appeared exactly as it did in Stoke's time;

3) Joseph Ritson, once a celebrated antiquary, included it in his collection of old songs, 'The Northumberland Garland,' published 1793 (a garland is a of eight to sixteen tunes).

Stokoe and Bruce point out that these dates are anterior to the appearance of the song in any Scottish collection, having found that Cromek inserted it in his Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song, 1810, where it is labelled a "popular bridal tune in Scotland" and set to a Jacobite song called "As I came down the Cannongate." (Stokoe also says that Allan Cunningham, in his Songs of Scotland, 1825, asserts that Cromek's version is imperfect, "and gives another, which is simply a protracted paraphrase of the original song, with the word 'keel' entirely omitted {except in the title}, the word 'shallop' being substituted"—Kidson sees this same song as a copy of the older Jacobite lyric.) Although taking no sides in the debate, Kidson (1890) does find the melody under the "Keel Row" title in an early Scottish edition which predates the Northumbrian printings, in Neil Stewart's c. 1770 A Collection of favourite Scots' Tunes, with Variations for the Violoncello or Harpsichord, by the late Charles McLean, and other eminent masters (Edinburgh).

Keelboats, England, c. 1790.

As I cam thro' Sandgate, thro' Sandgate, thro' Sandgate;
As I cam thro' Sandgate I heard a lassie sing:
Weel may the keel row, the keel row, the keel row;
Weel may the keel row that my laddie's (truelove's) in.
Weel may the keel row, &c. .... (Stokoe & Bruce)

The tune was contained in the Northumbrian music manuscript collection of John Smith, dated 1752, unfortunately now lost. The contents were copied by 19th century folk-music collector John Stokoe in 1887, when the manuscript was in the possession of Lewis Proudlock. Stokoe's volume Northumbrian Minstrelsy had been printed five year prior, and his interest in Smith’s ms. demonstrates Stokoe's continuing commitment to older Northumbrian music. Researcher and Northumbrian piper Matt Seattle notes that this is the earliest known version of "Keel Row." Northumbrian musician John Bell (1783-1864) entered the tune and words into his c. 1812 music manuscript collection. In his annotations to the tune on the FARNE site [1] researcher Matt Seattle explains that the Sandgate area was a riverside of Newcastle and took its name from an old city gate on the route between Newcastle and Shields. It was a densely populated area, primarily by those laboring classes whose livelihood was with the river traffic. The 'row' in Keel Row refers to the giant oar used by keelmen when faced with poor wind or an adverse tide, says Matt.

Emmerson (1971) believes the tune to have been composed on and for the Northumbrian smallpipes, and Shield's famous variations on "Keel Row," composed for the instrument, are given by Hall & Stafford.

Bayard (1981) dates the tune from the 18th century, while Chappell (1859) finds the earliest form of it in Thompson's 200 Country Dances of 1765 where it appears as "Smiling Polly," though Kidson (1890) believes the earliest form of the tune to be "Yorkshire Lad," found in Johnson's Country Dances of 1748. Bayard concludes the identifying musical characteristic centers around one (first) strain which typically occurs in most variants, but the second strain not infrequently differs. Frank Kidson earlier appears to have come to the same conclusion for he gives four settings of the tune from the mid-18th century, all different in the second strain (i.e. "Yorkshire Lad," "Smiling Polly," "Dumb Glutton," "Weel may the Keel Row"—he also notes other tunes could well have been included in this comparison such as "Shamboy Breeches" and "Charlie is at Edinburgh"). This perhaps goes to explaining Cunningham's insistence that an "imperfect" version had been collected by Cromek—it was probably no less worthy, only a different strain. Bayard collected a version from Pennsylvania fifers, among whom it was well known in the mid‑twentieth century. The tune, set as a Fling, is often paired with a Fling setting of "Money Musk (1)" for ceili/ceilidh dancing.

Chris Bartram (Devon, England) maintains that while the words to “The Keel Row” are from the North‑East of England the tune is actually widespread throughout the whole island of Great Britain, and he suggests the ‘modern’ prevalence of the 'Keel Row' words is largely due to mid-20th century commercial recordings and early media broadcasts. Outside of Northumberland alternate ditties were sung, such as (from southern England, courtesy of Mr. Bartram):

The cat caught the measles, the measles, the measles,
The cat caught the measles, the measles caught the cat.

The melody is contained in the music copybook [2] of John Buttery (1784-1854), a fifer with British army's 37th (North Hampshire) Regiment of Foot (so designated in the army reorganization of 1782), who served from 1797-1814. Later in life Buttery emigrated to Canada, where he died. Buttery's manuscript collection has also been identified as belonging to John Fife [1], with a suggested date of 1780. Fife was a family name, like Buttery, identified with the manuscript. Buttery included a number of popular and traditional melodies to be played over drum rolls signalling retreat, assembly, troop, and other military functions, and it may be that "Keel Row" was also employed as a march. In the Norfolk area of southern England, the “Keel Row” was paired with two other schottisches, Washing Day and Old Mrs. Huddledee; concertina player Scan Tester (1887-1972) and fiddler Walter Bulwer (1888-c. 1972) both independently knew the medley. In addition to morris and English country dancing the tune is often associated with the broomstick dance in southern England, a dance which is still occasionally performed in pubs at Yuletide. The Scots usually play the tune as a schottische, while in Ireland it is found as a barn dance or a fling, and sometimes as a reel (see "Rising Sun," "Mullin's Fancy," "Strawberry Blossom". The melody appears as "Bagpipe (2) (The)"/"A Bhalgun, a Bhalgun" in Glasgow Highland piper, pipe teacher and pipe-maker William Gunn's (1795-1867) Caledonian Repository of Music Adapted for the Bagpipes (1848).

Anne Lederman, in her article on “Fiddling” in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada (1992), remarks that the “Keel Row” was the vehicle for the Broom Dance, popular in the 18th and 19th century Canadian fur-trade.

“The Keel Row” has been arranged by classical composers Claude Debussy and Eric Satie.

Additional notes

Source for notated version: - Sources for notated versions: Hirman Horner (fifer from Westmoreland and Fayette Counties, Pa., 1960) and Frank King (fifer from Westmoreland County, Pa., 1960) [Bayard]; “old highland fling, learned from my mother” [Mulvihill].

Printed sources : - Bayard (Dance to the Fiddle), 1981; No. 321A‑B, pp. 280‑1. Chappell (Popular Music of the Olden Time, vol. 2), 1859; p. 185. Cocks (Tutor for the Northumbrian Half-Long Bagpipes), 1925; No. 35, p. 16. Cole (1000 Fiddle Tunes), 1940; p. 23. Ford (Traditional Music in America), 1940; p. 67 (appears as "Twin Sisters"). Gow (Vocal Melodies of Scotland), 2nd ed., 1822; p. 20. William Gunn (The Caledonian Repository of Music Adapted for the Bagpipes), Glasgow, 1848; p. 25 (appears as "A Bhalgun, a Bhalgun/The Bagpipe"). Hall & Stafford (Charlton Memorial Tune Book), 1974; pp. 24‑25. Jarman (Old Time Fiddlin’ Tunes) 1951; No. or p. 33. Kennedy (Fiddlers Tune Book, vol. 1), 1951; No. 42, p. 21. Kerr (Merry Melodies, vol. 1), c. 1880; No. 3, p. 19 and vol. 3, No. 94, p. 12. Kidson (Old English Country Dances), 1890; p. 19. Köhlers’ Violin Repository, part 3, 1885; p. 281. J. Kenyon Lees (Balmoral Reel Book), c. 1910; p. 16. Mulvihill (1st Collection), 1986; No. 13, p. 121. Raven (English Country Dance Tunes), 1984; p. 174. Roche (Collection of Traditional Irish Music, vol. 1), 1912; No. 198, p. 75. Ryan’s Mammoth Collection, 1883; p. 47. Saar (Fifty Country Dances), 1932; No. 19. Smith (Scottish Minstrel, vol. 5), 1820‑24; p. 74. Stewart-Robertson (The Athole Collection), 1884; p. 11. Stokoe & Bruce (Nortumbrian Minstrelsy), 1882; pp. 138‑139. Surenne (Dance Music of Scotland), 1852; p. 144. Sweet (Fifer’s Delight), 1964/1981; p. 58. Trim (Thomas Hardy), 1990; No. 60 (Schottishe). Tubridy (Irish Traditional Music, vol. 1), 1999; p. 12. White's Excelsior Collection, 1907; p. 27. White’s Unique Collection, 1896; No. 53, p. 10.

Recorded sources: - Columbia A2837 77257 (78 RPM), Patrick J. Scanlon. Topic TSCD607, Billy Cooper, Walter & Daisy Bulwer – “English Country Music” (2000. Originally recorded 1962).

See also listing at:
Alan Snyder’s Cape Breton Fiddle Recording Index [3]
Jane Keefer’s Folk Music Index: An Index to Recorded Sources [4]
Alan Ng’s Irishtune.info [5]
Hear Patrick J. Scanlon's 78 RPM recording at the Internet Archive [6] [7] (as a Highland Fling, followed by "Money Musk (1)").



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  1. Early American Secular Music and Its European Sources, https://www.cdss.org/elibrary/Easmes/Index.htm