Remembering The Old Songs:


by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, June 2002)

And now, for something completely different.

This column normally looks at the songs which stand at the roots of bluegrass and old-time music. But bluegrass, in particular, is more than a set of songs. It involves a certain class of instruments -- and it involves a particular style of harmony.

Now I've no doubt that people have been singing harmony for almost as long as they've been singing at all. But harmony as a system is relatively recent.

And few played a greater part in that system than Thomas Ravenscroft (c. 1590-c. 1633). There isn't space in this column to detail all that Ravenscroft did, but he was both an arranger (e.g. he is our earliest source for the important ballad The Three Ravens) and a composer of church and secular music — by which he did much to bring harmony to the people.

So this month, we're going to do Ravenscroft, as interpreted by Curtis & Loretta. We Be Soldiers Three is from Deuteromelia (1609), and is a curiosity; at that point the British weren't involved in the Low Countries. Presumably, Ravenscroft was talking about something else — but I've no clue what.

We learn much about harmonic theory just by comparing Curtis & Loretta's version with Ravenscroft's. They learned it from a Renaissance band I've never heard of, and they don't use Ravenscroft's precise tune. This, I think, is partly the fault of William Chappell, who published the piece in Popular Music of the Olden Time, but interpreted it according to his notions of harmony. I've shown the piece as Curtis and Loretta sing it -- but also show a bit of the Ravenscroft/D'Urfey/Chappell corrected harmonization, transposed to E minor (the original was in G minor).

It's a fine melody either way. I heartily recommend you listen to the Curtis & Loretta rendition on Sit Down Beside Me.


Complete Lyrics:
1. We be soldiers three
Pardona moy je vous an pree1
Lately come forth of the low contry
With never a penny of mony.2

2. Here, good fellow, I'll drink to thee
Pardona moy je vous an pree
To all good fellows wherever they be
With never a penny of mony.

3. Here, good fellow, I'll sing you a song,
Sing for the brave and sing for the strong,
To all those living and those who are gone,
With never a penny of mony3

4. And he who will not pledge me this
Pardona moy je vous an pree
Payes for the shot what ever it is
With never a penny of mony.

Footnotes (see addendum for footnotes to the footnotes):
1. Read "pardon me, please" (idiomatic)

2. "many": so Chappell. Curtis and Loretta sing "money." This may be dialect for "many" — i.e. read "with never a penny from many."

3. This verse isn't in Chappell, who instead has a final verse:
Charge it againe boy, charge it againe,
Pardona moy je vous an pree
As long as there is any inck in thy pen,
With never a penny of mony.

In July, 2010, we received a message from Simon Freedman, who "spent many years in the Sealed Knot Society, English Civil War Re-enactment, singing this round a roaring log fire, first representing a band of Highland Mercenaries and then an English Cannon Regiment, who typically used the skills of Dutch Gunners who had fought in the 30 years war."
Here are his clarifications and comments on the original article]:

Although the English weren’t involved directly in the 30 Years War in the Low Countries, there were many Highland (Scottish) Mercenaries that were. They brought this back with them at the start of the English Civil War, where they were pressed to support Charles 1st.

Footnote 1: The Line Pardonnez Moi, Je Vous en Pris? Is actually a question, in French. “Pardon me, can I help you?” and was said as a mercenary typically intentionally caught someone with their shoulder in a pub or bar, spilling their drink. Basically it was an offer to start a fight!

Verse 1: Lately come forth from the low country instead of Lately come forth of the low country.

Footnote 2: a penny of money: It does relate to money, namely the Mercenary pay that they didn’t receive, most of the time. Either that or they’d spent it!

Verse 2: I know Here, good fellow ... as Hail, good fellow ...

Verse 4: Payes for the shot what ever it hits ... rather than ...what ever it is ...: The Mercenaries had to pay for the powder and shot they used, out of their wages, “whatever it hits” , whether that was the enemy or not.

Footnote 3: Charge it againe boy, charge it againe, ...: “Charge” relates to the loading of a musket or cannon.
As long as there is any inck in thy pen, ...: “Ink in my pen” to sign for the powder & shot, so they could be duly billed for it.

Bob Waltz's comment: Simon is absolutely right about mercenaries in the Low Countries, and Elizabeth was quietly aiding the governments there to try to distract the Spanish. I was oversimplifying.

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