Animal Voices

Sep 03, 2020

I have talked about animal transformations in two previous posts, but what about animals in their own right? Animals have lived alongside humans as helpmates, sustenance, enemy, or companion, and they dwell in people's unconscious in dreams, as symbols, or as a reflection of self. The ways we interact with them raises a question of how we negotiate that space between their understanding of their lives and our own. Folklore that features animals can show us much about humanity and its place alongside our animal kin.

Image by @St.Borg


Animals feature regularly in songs, more commonly as the subject rather than the storyteller and can show the standing of the animals in human perception. ‘Gentlemen of High Renown’ sung here by the Copper Family, recounts a fox’s demise at the hands of the huntsman’s hounds in a celebratory fashion and whaling shanties are as likely to bemoan the whalers’ working conditions as the fate of the whale - illustrated by Ian Giles’ rendition of ‘The Weary Whaling Ground’.

Where animals are given a voice, it is often to embody a human characteristic or satirise human behaviour. George Orwell’s Animal Farm is a classic literary example and 'The Hornet and The Beetle' on my Old Adam album uses the technique to highlight the vagaries of the legal system. Animals in traditional songs can be given voice as a device for storytelling. In Child Ballad 82 ‘The Bonny Birdy’ performed here by Steeleye Span, a bird tells a knight of his wife’s infidelity because she had failed to feed him and in 'Twa Corbies', sung here by Rebecca Pidgeon, the birds discuss the prospect of feasting on a knight who lies dead nearby. As we saw in the deathly visitor post and with the problematic pregnancies, birds are symbols of death, associated as spirit holders, and in song, they are often the bearer of news regarding death, exposing the murderer, or the site of the corpse such as in the ballad ‘Young Hunting, or ‘Henry Lee’ as it is called sung here by Lucy Farrell and The Furrow Collective.

Traditional song has few examples of animals expressing (what are assumed to be) their feelings. ‘Reynard the Fox’, sung here by June Tabor, presents the fox’s side of the story told in ‘Ye Gentlemen of High Renown’, though it appears in a very matter of fact way. Transformation songs, including those referred to in the earlier blogs on Hares and Selkies, for example the ‘Twa Magicians’, sung here by the Young Tradition, and ‘The Earl of Mars Daughter’, sung by Lisa Theriot, almost invariably focus on the human side of the transformation. More recently, the mournful ‘The Last of the Great Whales’ written in the 1980s by Andy Barnes, and sung here by Roy Bailey, and Julian Cope’s strident ‘Reynard the Fox’ were both written from the perspective of the affected animal - highlighting the barbarity of hunting, whether for food or pleasure.

This journey in animal representation in song roughly follows humans’ understanding of animals and their place in relation to humankind.There has always been love, respect and value placed on various species, but we can only truly represent their experience and understanding through the lens of our own.

Ink drawing by Jackie Morris


When I first got my banjo I spent a lot of time sitting and fiddling around with it, finding interesting tunings and chords, and, well, just playing. This is one of the melodies that came out and I would sit in bed (admittedly, not the best position to play the banjo, but certainly possible) and play this little tune round and round. This was around the time of the centenary of Cecil Sharp and Maud Karples’ trip to the USA so I delved into one of their books looking for some words to put to it. It was a mournful sounding tune so I looked to the ballads, none seemed quite right, then I happened across this towards the end of the book. It’s a children’s playground song, and the words just fell into place. Though I had never heard of it before, the better-known version - ‘Go Tell Aunt Rhody’ is usually sung to a jaunty tune as Woody Guthrie does here, and it is familiar to a lot of Americans. Resetting the words has really rather changed the tone of the thing. When I first started singing it out it was strange to sing it to audiences who already knew the song. When I say they knew the song, it is surprising how many of them heard it differently to the new tune.

To me, this isn’t a silly song about a goose. It is a nuanced examination of the relationship between the human and animal kingdom, and the ways animals might feel emotion. Well, it is both that and a silly song about a goose. On the surface, the goose has died, and so Aunt Nancy can go ahead and make the bedding she needed the animal’s feathers for. A rather mundane and everyday event (unless you are a patchwork maker and then this would be a very exciting day, but that doesn’t really support my argument so we’ll ignore that for now!). For the Goose’s family, the event is devastating. The song calls into question the way that animals relate to one another, and the depth of emotion they might feel when one of their kin dies. We humans might not acknowledge this and it goes deeper to question our capacity for empathy towards their situation. As I describe this with animals, the same idea could be applied to people of different cultures. We can be blind to what we don’t understand. Highlighting the space between one experience and our own - in that space between, we have a duty to acknowledge, investigate, interact and above all show kindness.

I put the 'Grey Goose is Dead' together after hearing about the passing of my old school bus driver and folk friend, John Lewis. Perhaps I read more into the story due to my heightened emotion at the time, but I’m glad I did because I like having had those thoughts. It might be that I over-complicate things, but I like layers, and this song certainly has layers. When I sing this, I enjoy all the levels, the simplicity of a playground ditty, the social elements unravelled above, and I always think of John - he would have liked that song.

The second animal song - 'The Pig Song' followed a similar pattern in terms of making an oddly shaped melody then going in search of some words to give it form. These ones came through an email correspondence with Rob Jones. Rob started a laborious, but fascinating project copying songs from archival newspapers.on the ‘British Newspaper Archive’. There are about 18 million pages of scanned newsprint from mainly provincial newspapers going back to 1760. Rob searches for likely sounding terms and copies out anything that looks interesting. He has compiled a set of documents which he is sharing with English Folk Dance and Song Society, and kindly sent me a copy. As I flicked through there were a lot of versions of songs I was familiar with, a lot of broadside material, and some music hall-type lyrics. This snippet jumped out at me, from The Era, published on Wednesday 06 February 1935:

Clever Song which the B.B.C. Didn’t Like
HERE are the words of the original poem about the discriminating pig banned by the B.B.C. If the songs which the B.B.C. tolerates were only half as clever, what a lot of people would sit up to listen to them:
One evening in October
When I was far from sober
And dragging home a load with manly pride,
My feet began to stutter.
So I laid down in the gutter
And a pig came up and parked right by my side.
Then I warbled: “It’s fair weather
When good fellows get together,”
Till a lady passing by was heard to say;
“You can tell a man who boozes
By the playmates that he chooses’;
Then the pig got up and slowly walked away.

I have tweaked some words to fit my aesthetic for a rhyming pattern, but on the whole, the story and song have retained their integrity. What I love about this is the last line. So few words express the emotions of the three characters so succinctly. The drunkard, happy in themselves and celebrating a new friend. I can relate to that, I can place myself in that position. The snooty woman, judging the scene and disparagingly viewing the pig’s presence as lowering the man. However, the tables rather turn and the pig is moved to walk away rather than demean itself by sitting with the drunkard. I just love it. It doesn’t really get any deeper than that for me. I just love it.

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With thanks to John Nicholson for helping to piece together this research.
Header image by @St.Borg