Remembering The Old Dances:


by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, February, 2010)

This month posed an interesting challenge. Since this is our dance issue, I wanted to do a dance tune. But, since this is an old songs column, I wanted to do an old dance. And, because I like to yack, I wanted one I could talk about. Plus, just because it's easier for old-time dancers, I wanted something in double rather than triple time. So I sat down with Chappell's Popular Music of the Olden Time and started digging. And found very little. Much of Chappell is devoted to dance music, but a high fraction of old dances are in three-four time, and most of the others are pretty well forgotten.

Then I thought of this. The Broom of Cowdenknows is a well-known ballad (Child #217) that has become popular in recent years because it has an absolutely smashing tune.

There's just one problem: It's the wrong tune!

If you go through Bertrand Bronson's Traditional Tunes, there are several known melodies for Broom of Cowdenknows (which is your standard fairy tale: Nobleman seduces/rapes a girl herding cattle, causing her to become pregnant, then disappears -- but shows up later to marry her). But none of these melodies match the tune everyone now sings. That tune is from Playford's The Dancing Master of 1651 -- and, while it's known by the Broom title, it has no words. Nor do any of the other melodies in Bronson's Aa group, which are the melodies closest to Playford, have the lyrics of the Child Ballad. It appears some modern grafted Playford's tune onto the ballad, which had a melody only vaguely similar.

So I'm hereby rededicating this melody as a dance tune. Not exactly a standard folk dance (although you can use it for slow dances). But a dance tune.

Because I don't have to print any lyrics, I have room to provide both mandolin and guitar tablature. I've also given (on the second staff) an arpeggiated line that could, theoretically, provide the dance beat. It's not quite what I play on classical guitar (since I do use chords), but it's related -- and metronome-regular. The top notes on the staff (which is treble tenor, not treble clef) are the melody, the bottom the arpeggios of eighth notes.

If you really want to sing this, the chorus runs:

Oh, the broom, the bonny, bonny broom.
Broom o' the Cowdenknowes.
Fain would I be in my ain country,
Tendin' my faither's yowes.

Broom is a plant from which brooms were made, the Planta Genesta, from which the Plantagenet kings of England were called. (Geoffrey of Anjou, the father of the first Plantagenet, Henry II, used the broom plant as an emblem.) Cowdenknowes (the usual spelling today) was an estate in Scotland.


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