"Ponderynge together yestardayes promise, and two-dayes doyng"
(Hall's Chronicle - 1548)


"Goronigl gwyr yr Ynys" (Lewis Glyn Cothi - 1450)

Monday, 28 April 2014

Nottamun Town


I’ve been fascinated by this ballad since I first heard Bert Jansch’s 1966 recording of it. Hearing it again in this recent recording that ‘fascination’ (‘being charmed, spellbound, influenced by a mysterious power’) has been re-kindled:



The lyrics, on the face of it it, make no sense. Take, for instance the second and third verses:

I rode on a horse that was called a gray mare,

Gray mane and gray tail, green stripe down his back

Gray mane and gray tail, green stripe down his back

There warn't a hair on him be what was coal-black.

She stood so still she threw me to the dirt,

She tore my heart, and she bruised my shirt,

From saddle to stirrup I mounted and then

Upon my ten toes I rode over the plain.

Clearly there is no chance of making literal sense of this. Other verses contain similarly paradoxical lines, and images such as that of the ‘stark naked drummer’ reinforce the supra—real quality. The Appalachian singer Jean Richie who first recorded the track discussed it in her edition of Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians as one that “was never sung lightly about the house” . She travelled to Britain to research many of the songs she had inherited as traditional within her family and concluded that “Nottamun Town is probably an old magic song, a remnant of the old mummers’ plays” where the players deliberately distorted everyday reality by turning their clothes inside out and wearing masks. Others have discussed the song, variously, as an expression of the confusion of the Civil War in the seventeenth century, of the result of hallucinations from ergot poisoning, or in terms of alchemical symbolism. But the song seems to trigger responses at deeper levels than those accessible to literal explanation or precise symbolic interpretation. Such approaches soon lose sight of the song itself and the initial response of recognition in the experience it evokes.

To ride the Grey Mare is not to go from A to B, but to bisect that trajectory at some angle or other so that “ten thousand got drownded that never was born” as the final line has it, is neither sense nor nonsense, but simply a condition of the journey. Or. as Jean Richie put it, quoting an 'old timer' : "if it was understood, the good luck and the magic be lost".



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