Ghostly Visitors

Aug 12, 2020

None of us are untouched by the mystery of what happens when we die. Religions provide explanations of where the departed go, but in death the living also have journeys to make. Songs provide a means to explore the stories of others, to act out emotions vicariously providing us with the tools to handle our own grief. We make meaning for our own lives out of pieces of folklore.


We hear tales of ghostly visitors seeking to explain, or avenge their death such as ‘Maria Marten’ appearing in a dream to give the whereabouts of her corpse, ‘Polly Vaughan’s’ attempt to acquit her innocent lover when he mistakenly shot her in the guise of a swan, or 'Young Benji' who's murdered girlfriend returns to tell her brothers to blind him. Many other ghosts return purely to say goodbye and appease mourning lovers who either don't know of their passing or are struggling to let go. A common theme is closure, both for those who have lost their lives, and for those left behind.

While I understood night visiting songs to have a ghostly element, it seems, the coming together of revenge seeking ghosts like Sandy Denny's Sandy Denny's ‘Pretty Polly’ with mortal night visiting songs like ‘Awake Awake’, as we sang with The Full English, into a theme of Ghostly Lovers did not appear until the 18th Century. Hugh Shields suggests in its earliest form perhaps the most quintessential ghostly night visiting song, The Grey Cock, was purely mortal in nature. The adaptation of some versions into ghostly subject matter, he says, came with the addition of verses from supernatural ballads. It has taken hold though, and The Grey Cock (or 'The Lovers Ghost' as I have sung it for many years) covers all the important elements: a lover reporting they are dead, a last night together, the call back to their resting place at dawn, or the sound of cock crow. There is a chance to say goodbye, but no choice on either side to prolong the visit, despite desperate pleas and bargaining. The version I sing comes from A L Lloyd who’s album notes state:

‘In folk song, when a cock crows, it's usually a sign that lovers are to be untimely parted or that ghosts are about. In this ballad it means both, for the lover is himself a revenant spirit. The cock in the song is a descendant of the legendary fowls of Oriental folklore, with feathers of gold, diamond beaks and ruby legs’

Alongside the narratives, symbolic reference comes through here and birds are often drawn on as closely linked to the dead, appearing either as the call to the other side, or returning as the spirits of the dead in bird form. Time is another common theme. Mourning for a year and a day, or waiting seven long years. Again we have the mortal / supernatural versions of songs in the broken token group. Songs like the Copper Family’s ‘Claudy Banks’ have a happy reuniting whereas the couple in the ‘Bay of Biscay’ sung here by Waterson Carthy, are less fortunate. In both cases there is a changed appearance of the returning lover, either due to the period of separation and trials at sea, or the grey pallor of the ghostly lover. For those waiting on the shore, it must have been genuinely difficult to know when to begin to mourn, or to keep holding out hope for reunion. ‘The Unquiet Grave’ and Bellowhead's 'Cold blows the Wind’ show that excessive mourning can disturb the peace of the departed. Tears may burn holes in the body or wet the winding-sheet, causing disturbance to the departed and forcing them to return and request their grieving stops.feathers.jpg#asset:26004

Illustration by @St.Borg

These time limitations provide a period of grace for waiting or grieving after which the societal norm, perhaps shared through the voice of these folkloric ghosts, suggest the living should move on - and continue living. Far from being consigned to the archives as old fashioned ghost stories, songwriters often return to the theme of ghostly lovers including Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’building from Emily Bronte's incredible creation of Cathy, and Bella Hardy’s ‘Three Black Feathers’.


These kinds of songs have personal significance for me, as they do for many people grappling with feelings of being left behind after the death of a loved one. I heard Sweet William’s Ghost sung by Maggie Boyle, who passed away in 2014. In her final months Maggie was passionate for people to remember the songs, to keep on singing. I remember her singing this, but couldn’t find a recording, so I went back to books. This is one of the fairly intact traditional songs on the album. I haven’t messed around with the words or tune too much. Some versions have devils, but I remember Maggie singing about the hounds of hell which I associate with her (imagining graceful wolfhound type beasts rather than drooling black fanged affairs) so I swapped them in. I wrote the riff as a stand-alone piece just twiddling about on the banjo, and it fitted naturally into the traditional tune, as if it was meant to be. I think of Maggie when I sing this and catch myself sounding a bit like her at times. It keeps her alive for me, an amazing singer and person. Here is a film of a gig at The Albert Hole, in Bristol, a venue she loved. She sings ‘Reaching Out’ another song of personal significance that shall become clear as you read on...


Maggie Boyle, photo by Nigel Hillier.

Wing Flash is the first song I ‘wrote’ rather than my more usual approach of editing traditional songs. I’ve never seen myself as a songwriter, but during my undergraduate degree we were encouraged to try new things. During those years I spent a lot of time driving up and down the M1 between Newcastle and Oxford. I remember the night driving home, rain on the windscreen, wipers going. I was listening to Late Junction - playing a mix of jazz, contemporary classical, ‘world music’ and other weirdly wonderful sounds. I turned the stereo off and this unconventional tune came out. For a sense of direction with the words, I took a traditional song and tried to imagine what it would be like to be one of the characters and to express their feelings. I had The Voice Squad’s ‘I am Stretched on your Grave’ in my head and worked with that woman, stretched on the grave of a loved one, grieving for a year, needing to let go, but unable to tear herself away from the memory and feelings still strong within her. While I was focused on exploring that character, I was aware that I was also resonating with my own experience of the loss of my mum, who died when I was a teenager. While I had a lot of friends around, nobody talked about it much and I haven’t spent much energy processing how I felt. As I was exploring this song I had tears streaming down my face, although different kind of relationship, it was a chance to let out how I was feeling. I suppose partially because I wasn’t a songwriter, and partly because of its personal nature I never wrote the song down and I never sang it out, apart from once, with Denny Bartley, at my end of degree show. I have always kept it in my mind though and often sing it when alone on long drives. Rob Harbron and Ben Nicholls have created a beautifully atmospheric and spacious treatment. Huge gratitude to them, and producer Andy Bell, for the time in the studio - it was a difficult one to record, both musically and emotionally.


Me and my mum. Photographer unknown.


Maggie sang ‘Reaching Out’ at my mum’s funeral and went on to be quite a surrogate mother figure for me as a young adult. While neither of these experiences are not the typical lovers’ ghost, the loss of these important women in my life has left its mark. Both songs are grounded in folklore, yet resonate in deeply personal ways. Engaging with the stories and even just by singing them, helps me to connect with my experiences. People often talk of the universality of traditional song, and I really feel it in these songs of death - though they are not my ‘story’ as a singer-songwriter might express it, by getting inside the characters and remembering the people through singing them, they act as catharsis for me. Songs can be incredibly powerful. You can hear snippets of both these songs, along with all the tracks on the album, in the sampler below.

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With thanks to John Nicholson for helping to piece together this research.

Header image by @St.Borg