The Lyke-Wake Dirge: the revival of an Elizabethan song of the afterlife

effigyThe Lyke-Wake Dirge, with its dark, mysterious imagery and its brooding melody, is known to singers of traditional songs through its resurrection in the repertoire of folk trio The Young Tradition in the 1960s, and its subsequent recording by The Pentangle and others. What many of its performers may not realise is that its history can be reliably traced to Elizabethan Yorkshire, with a hint from Geoffrey Chaucer that its origins may be earlier. This article uses direct testimony from the 16th and 17th century to explore its meaning, its perilous and punishing “Whinny-moor”, “Brig o’ Dread”, and “Purgatory fire”; and discovers the surprising origin of its doleful dorian melody.


Folk song collectors

In the late 19th and early 20th century there was renewed interest in the traditional songs of England. In a way, the new folk song enthusiasts continued the work of previous antiquarians who had collected music manuscripts from earlier times, and often they drew upon that work. The new antiquarians, however, had a significant difference: their material was in the memories and on the lips of living people and they were convinced that the traditional songs of England were disappearing, that their singers were aging and dying with a younger generation unaware and uncaring of the cultural treasures being lost. For this reason they did not collect manuscripts but created their own, visiting homes, pubs, travellers’ sites and workhouses in search of singers of generations-old traditional songs, writing them down as they were sung or, in a few cases, recording them on wax cylinders.

To further these endeavours, the Folk Song Society was formed in 1898, bringing together the efforts of song collectors Sabine Baring-Gould, Lucy Broadwood and Frank Kidson. In 1903 they were joined by Cecil Sharp and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Great figures all, and all names well-known by enthusiasts of traditional music.

SabineLucyCecil
Collectors of traditional folk songs, Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, Lucy Broadwood and Cecil Sharp.

Frank Sidgwick (1879-1939), who was active in the Folk Song Society from 1906, is not so much remembered now as his contemporaries, since he did not travel the highways and byways in search of songs. A publisher, writer, scholar and literary editor, he was an antiquarian in the old, pre-collecting-songs-in-the-field style, a collator and analyser of texts. With a researching interest in both early music and traditional or folk music, he is key to our story. (I will argue in another article for the significant overlap in style and material between early and traditional music). In 1907 he edited the collection, Early English Lyrics: Amorous, Divine, Moral And Trivial with Sir Edmund Kerchever Chambers, an anthology of English song words before the advent of the sonnet during the 16th century; and between 1903 and 1912 he published Popular Ballads of the Olden Time in 4 series or volumes. It is in the Second Series: Ballads of Mystery and Miracle and Fyttes of Mirth, 1904, that we find the most significant available information about a traditional song that goes back to at least the late 16th century, and quite possibly earlier: The Lyke-Wake Dirge.

Decoding the title

The Lyke-Wake Dirge is a dark and mysterious song, with its references to “Fire and Fleet and Candle-light”, “Christ recieve thy Sawl”, “Whinny-moor”, “Brig o’ Dread”, and “Purgatory fire”. What does it all mean? And from where does that brooding melody come?

Before turning to Frank Sidgwick and earlier witnesses for answers, let’s first decode the three words of the title.

lyke: A late Middle English word (i.e. the English of the 12th to 15th centuries), from the Old English (i.e. English up to c. 1150) līc, meaning (dead) body, from which the ecclesiastical word lychgate is derived.

wake: A vigil through the night over a dead body. The word is derived from two Old English words, wacan, to become awake, to arise, to be born, to originate, and wacian, to be or to remain awake.

dirge: The word is derived originally from the Latin, dirige, meaning direct, an imperative of dirigere, to direct, from the antiphon which began the Catholic Matins service in the Office of the Dead, “Dirige, Domine, Deus meus, in conspectu tuo viam meam”, meaning “Direct, O Lord, my God, my way in thy sight”, from Psalm 5: 8. Dirige, in the context of the Office of the Dead, is attested from the early 13th century, reaching its contracted form of dirge from c. 1400, and the sense of any funeral song from c. 1500.

(Click picture to play – opens in new window.) The Lyke-Wake Dirge, arranged and performed on medieval harp by Ian Pittaway, using all the verses from John Aubrey’s ms. of 1686-7, with two verses from Cleveland Lyke-Wake Dirge added. The tune is that adapted in the oral tradition from Harold Boulton’s melody.
Click picture to play video – opens in new window. The Lyke-Wake Dirge, arranged and performed on medieval harp by Ian Pittaway, using all the verses from John Aubrey’s ms. of 1686-7, with two verses from Cleveland Lyke-Wake Dirge added. The tune is that adapted in the oral tradition from Harold Boulton’s melody.

Decoding the song words

The words and spelling below are as cited by Frank Sidgwick in his Popular Ballads of the Olden Time, Second Series: Ballads of Mystery and Miracle and Fyttes of Mirth, 1904. He explained, “The text is given verbatim et literatim from John Aubrey’s MS. of his Remains of Gentilisme & Judaisme (1686-7) in the Lansdowne MSS., No. 231, folio 114 recto and verso [i.e. front and back of the manuscript page]. This text has often been printed before, but always with errors. The spelling is Aubrey’s spelling. The present version was obtained by Aubrey in 1686 from an informant whose father had heard it sung sixty years previously”, dating the song to at least the 1620s. Clarifications are in square brackets. The second and fourth lines are repeated every verse.

This ean [one] night, this ean night,
eve[r]y night and awle:   
Fire and Fleet and Candle-light
and Christ recieve thy Sawle.

When thou from hence doest pass away
To Whinny-moor [gorse-moor] thou comest at last

If ever thou gave either hosen [stockings] or shun [shoes]
Sitt thee downe and putt them on

But if hosen nor shoon thou never gave nean [none]
The Whinnes [gorse] shall prick thee to the bare beane [bone]

From Whinny-moor that thou mayst pass
To Brig o’ Dread thou comest at last

From Brig of Dread that thou mayst pass
To Purgatory fire thou com’st at last

If ever thou gave either Milke or drinke
The fire shall never make thee shrink

But if milk nor drink thou never gave nean
The Fire shall burn thee to the bare bane [bone]

John Aubrey
Disorganised polymath, John Aubrey, 1626–1697.

These words are from a manuscript by John Aubrey (1626–1697), English writer, antiquarian, natural philosopher and folklorist. It is worth stopping for a minute to consider what kind of man he was, since this may well have an effect upon his testimony about The Lyke-Wake Dirge. His love of learning was so great that it could not be contained within his life. He was a polymath because he found everything interesting, and this had three effects:

(1) He was incapable of finishing anything he started. For example, today he is best remembered for his manuscript, Brief Lives, an idiosyncratic collection of short biographical sketches of the famed people of his day, never completed, its manuscripts now distributed among 5 institutions in 66 volumes!

(2) He wasn’t always able to discern between the interesting and the verifiable, and tended towards credulousness. His Brief Lives account of William Shakespeare, for example, states that his “father was a Butcher, and I have been told heretofore by some of the neighbours, that when he was a boy he exercised his father’s Trade, but when he kill’d a Calfe he would doe it in a high style, and make a Speech.” William’s father, John, was not a butcher, but a glover and leather worker who also dealt in hides and wool, so not only is this boyhood story clearly false, but it has all the hallmarks of a fanciful tale fabricated retrospectively from knowing the man.

(3) Aubrey’s insatiable appetite for learning led him not only to uncontained and disorganised industriousness but also to important discoveries. He was an archaeological pioneer, often the first to record monuments in the field in southern England, many of them megalithic, including the stone monuments of Avebury henge.

John Aubrey’s Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme, a miscellany of customs, traditions, ceremonies, beliefs and traditional rhymes, was collected over a long period and written up between 1687 and 1689 but, like Brief Lives, never completed, and so remained a manuscript. It is now in the British Library as Lansdowne MS 231. While we must bear in mind the above caveats, this does not mean, of course, that the whole of Aubrey’s work is suspect. His work is the chief source for the song under discussion.

WomanWithACandle.GodfriedSchalcken1643-1706
Woman with a candle by Godfried Schalcken, 1643-1706.

Frank Sidgwick, commenting on John Aubrey’s manuscript [square brackets are my own clarifications], wrote that “the Dirge … is prefixed [with] the remark, ‘This not ye first verse’” before the only first verse recorded. Sidgwick stated that in the first verse “Aubrey glosses “fleet” as ‘water’; but [James] Murray has shown (New English Dictionary [on Historical Principles, published in volumes from 1888]), by 93 quotations from wills dated between 1533 and 1570, that ‘fire and flet’ is an expression meaning simply ‘fire and house-room.’ ‘Flet,’ in short, is our modern ‘flat’ in an unspecialised and uncorrupted form.” In other words, the line indicates the setting of keeping the body at home before the funeral.

The repeated refrain in the second and fourth lines, “eve[r]y night and awle”, “and Christ recieve thy Sawle”, seem to indicate that the events described in all verses happen every night since they happen to everyone on their death, and express the hope that the deceased has followed the right path in life in order to avoid punishment in the afterlife, as we will see.

Sidgwick illuminates the next verses by reference to English writer and antiquarian, Joseph Ritson (1752–1803), and the collection known as the Cotton manuscripts, named after an earlier antiquarian, Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1570/1–1631). One of these manuscripts includes a reference to The Lyke-Wake Dirge, dating it mid to late 16th century. Sidgwick explains that “Ritson found an illustration of this dirge in a manuscript letter, written by one signing himself “H. Tr.” to Sir Thomas Chaloner, in the Cotton MSS. (Julius, F. vi., 89 fols. 453-462). The date approximately is the end of the sixteenth century (Sir Thomas Chaloner the elder, 1521-1565; the younger, 1561-1615). The letter is concerned with antiquities in Durham and Yorkshire, especially near Guisborough, an estate of the Chaloner family. The sentence referring to the Lyke-Wake Dirge was … communicated by Ritson’s executor after his death.”

Judgement in the afterlife

Here is that 16th century letter found by Joseph Ritson among the Cotton manuscripts. For ease of reading, I have updated the spelling and added commentary in square brackets.

‘When anyone dies, certain women sing a song to the dead body, reciting the journey that the deceased must go, and they are of the belief, such is their fondness [= credulity or foolishness in 16th century parlance, from the Middle English fonned = foolish], that once in their lives it is good to give a pair of new shoes to a poor man; forasmuch as after this life they are to pass barefoot through a great land full of thorns & furze [gorse], except by the merit of the alms aforesaid they have redeemed their forfeit; for at the edge of the land an old man shall meet them with the same shoes that were given by the party when he was living, and after he hath shod them he dismisses them to go through thick and thin without scratch or scale.’

gorse=whinny
Whinnies, also known as furze or gorse, on a whinny-moor.

So a whinny is a prickly furze or gorse, growing on a whinny moor, and passing through it, with or without one’s feet being ‘pricked to the bone’, is a symbol for judgement in the afterlife, predicated upon how much the departed has shared worldly goods with those in need and earned their protective shoes:

If ever thou gave either hosen or shun
Sitt thee downe and putt them on

But if hosen nor shoon thou never gave nean
The Whinnes shall prick thee to the bare beane.

The image therefore presupposes that “Whinny-moor” has gorse spread all over the ground such that shoeless feet cannot in any way avoid pain.

Rio de JaneiroThe idea is clearly based on biblical passages of Jesus’ judgement, that you will receive in the afterlife such as you gave in this life, particularly in Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats, Matthew 25: 31–46, which specifically mentions the giving of clothes: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me … Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

Frank Sidgwick points out that the imagery of traversing a treacherous place in the afterlife in order to reach heaven is older than the 16th century and wider than Christianity, but he’s not specific about dates: “Whinny-moor is also found in Norse and German mythology. It has to be traversed by all departed souls on their way to the realms of Hel or Hela, the Goddess of Death. These realms were not only a place of punishment: all who died went there, even the gods themselves taking nine days and nights on the journey. The souls of Eskimo travel to Torngarsuk, where perpetual summer reigns; but the way thither is five days’ slide down a precipice covered with the blood of those who have gone before.”

Sidgwick says the idea of shoes or footwear to help the soul travel safely through the terrain of the afterlife also has a longer history. “The passage of Whinny-moor or its equivalent is facilitated by Hell-shoon [Hell-shoes]. These are obtained by the soul in various ways: the charitable gift of a pair of shoes during life assures the right to use them in crossing Whinny-moor; or a pair must be burned with the corpse, or during the wake.”

The burning of the shoes of the dead in order that they may wear them in the afterlife is a very old idea. Gods and performers of holy rituals in classical Greece would symbolically wear one sandal as a sign that they had one foot in the temporal world and one in eternity. This idea is present in a story by Greek philosopher, Lucian of Samosata (c. AD 125 – after AD 180). In his Philopseudes sive Incredulus, i.e. The Lover of Lies, is a tale in which Demainete, wife of Eucrates, returned from the afterlife for the golden sandal which mourners had lost and thus not burned, in order that, once found and burned, she could safely traverse the afterlife with both feet sandalled.

This classical Greek story illustrates the longevity of the idea of necessary footwear in the afterlife. In The Lyke-Wake Dirge, spiritual footwear is a sign of morality, a life lived well in the service of others, rewarded by God in the hereafter.

The “Brig o’ Dread” and “Purgatory fire”

From the after-life’s “Whinny-moor” of prickly gorse to the “Brig o’ Dread” and “Purgatory fire”.

Thomas Pennant in 1776, painted by Thomas Gainsborough.
Thomas Pennant in 1776, painted by Thomas Gainsborough.

Thomas Pennant explains, in his Tour in Scotland, MDCCLXIX [=1769]: “The ‘Brig o’ Dread’ (which is perhaps a corruption of ‘the Bridge of the Dead’), ‘Whinny-moor,’ and the Hell-shoon, have parallels in many folklores. Thus, for the Brig, the Mohammedans [Muslims] have their Al-Sirat, finer than a hair, sharper than a razor, stretched over the midst of hell. The early Scandinavian mythology told of a bridge over the river Giöll on the road to hell.”

In Islamic theology, part of Muslim tradition but not in the Qur’an, Al-Sirat is a long and narrow bridge over hell that everyone has to cross to enter heaven. The kinder a person has been in life, the easier it is to cross. This seems to be an exact parallel to the “Brig o’ Dread” idea in Lyke-Wake Dirge:

From Brig of Dread that thou mayst pass …

If ever thou gave either Milke or drinke
The fire shall never make thee shrink.

It is also not too far removed from Jesus’ words in Matthew 7: 13-14: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Just as Al-Sirat is a Muslim tradition not in the Qur’an, purgatory is a Christian idea, specifically Roman Catholic, that is not in the Bible. It is a place the soul goes upon death if the person has not been good enough for heaven nor bad enough for hell, a place to purgare (Latin), to purge, to make clean, to purify, by being punished until the soul has paid for its transgressions. In Lyke-Wake Dirge, if the soul has not led a good life then it is not supplied with shoes for the journey, is therefore ‘pricked to the bare beane’ on “Whinny-moor”, then shoeless is unable to cross “The ‘Brig o’ Dread” and therefore falls into “Purgatory fire”:

But if milk nor drink thou never gave nean
The Fire shall burn thee to the bare bane.

The fate of the soul on “The ‘Brig o’ Dread”, crossing to heaven or falling into punishment, returns us to Jesus’ parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25: 31–46: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world … Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me … Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels … Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me. Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

sheepgoats_sourceunknown
A rather literal depiction of the parable of the sheep and goats, from a 6th century mosaic in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy.

This idea is extended further in a different text of the song, again clearly focussed on Matthew 25. Richard Blakeborough’s Wit, Character, Folklore, and Customs of the North Riding, published in 1898, has a text which is, remarkably, virtually identical to John Aubrey’s in 1686, but with different spelling, and these additional verses:

If ivver thoo gav o’ thy siller an’ gowd,
Ivvery neet an’ all;
At t’ Brig o’ Dreead thoo’ll finnd foothod,
An’ Christ tak up thy saul.

Bud if siller an’ gowd thoo nivver gav nean,
Thoo’ll doan, doon tum’le towards Hell fleames,

If ivver thoo gav owther bite or sup,
T’ fleames ‘ll nivver catch thee up,

Bud if bite or sup thoo nivver gav nean,
T’ fleames ‘ll bon thee sair to t’ bean,

So the ideas of “Whinny-moor”, “Brig o’ Dread” and “Purgatory fire” – or “Hell fleames” in the Cleveland version – are related and progressive. Just as the after-life’s “Whinny-moor” of prickly gorse will ‘prick your feet to the bone’ as a method of passing judgement on an unkind life by the painful shoeless journey through the field, with the good aided by their protective shoes because they gave to those in need; so the “Brig o’ Dread” is traversable only by those who have shown love in tending to those in need; with the neglectful in life falling into the “Purgatory fire” or “Hell fleames”.

The customs around The Lyke-Wake Dirge

We learn more of the proceedings surrounding “certain women [who] sing a song to the dead body”, as decribed in the mid to late 16th century letter signed “H. Tr.”, if we consult John Aubrey’s comments and sidenotes in his 1686 manuscript. For ease of reading, I have modernised Aubrey’s spelling and again added my own clarifications in square brackets. Aubrey’s own later additions to his work are in standard brackets.

“From Mr. Mawtese, in whose father’s youth, circa about 60 years since now [now being 1686], at country vulgar funerals, was sung this song. At the funerals in Yorkshire, to this day, they continue the custom of watching & sitting up all night till the body is inhersed [taken away in a hearse]. In the interim some kneel down and pray (by the corpse), some play at cards some drink & take tobacco: they have also mimical plays & sports, e.g. they choose a simple young fellow to be a judge, then the suppliants, having first blacked their hands by rubbing them under the bottom of the pot, beseech his Lordship and smut all his face. (They play likewise at hot-cockles.) This belief in Yorkshire was amongst the vulgar (& perhaps is in part still) that after the person’s death, the soul went over Whinny moore (Whin is a furze) and till about 1616 at the funeral a woman came (like a Præfica) [Latin for a hired mourner] and sung this following song.”

So, according to John Aubrey’s witness, Mr. Mawtese, the singer of The Lyke-Wake Dirge was a hired mourner paid to perform the singing ritual among the rest of the activities, or she was “like” a hired mourner, though in what sense is not clear.

Attitudes of the witnesses

The thought-world behind The Lyke-Wake Dirge gives us a rare insight into the ‘vernacular Christianity’ of England, and specifically Yorkshire, in the 16th century. It is impossible to say how long it was that this tradition of imagery, and the song that carried it, had been previously active. That the everyday and familiar image of a furze field should be used as a symbol for judgement and the afterlife should not surprise us. After all, angels and saints in paintings always played contemporaneous musical instruments, usually in then-modern clothes and settings; and, even in the New Testament itself, Jesus called hell Gehenna, derived from the Hebrew ge-hinnom, canyon of Hinnom, a valley south-west of Jerusalem where human children had been burnt as sacrifices to the Ammonite god Molech, and where, in Jesus’ day, people used sulphur to burn their rubbish and offal. It must have been a vivid and powerful image to those for whom it had personal resonance.

The holy presented as the vernacular: artists’ evolution of Saint Cecila, patron saint of music, always imagined in terms of the known and contemporary. Left to right: by the Master of the Saint Bartholomew altarpiece, 1505-10; Guido Reni, 1606; Simon Vouet, 1626; John Singleton Copley, 1803; unknown, Germany, 1912.

I have made reference above to John Aubrey’s credulousness. I suspect that both “H. Tr.” in the Cotton MS, describing the “fondness” = foolishness of lyke-wake rituals, and John Aubrey, writing disapprovingly of “country vulgar funerals” and “the vulgar” people, both took what they heard rather too literally. I don’t suppose anyone in 1st century Jerusalem mistook Gehenna for actual hell, and I suspect the Yorkshire residents partaking in lyke-wake rituals didn’t think there was a literal furze field in the afterlife. Certainty is impossible, as the writers were not the partakers nor, probably, did these commentators ever meet the participants face to face. As for the religious beliefs behind the imagery, I don’t suppose, given the times, there was any real difference between “H. Tr.”, John Aubrey, and those “vulgar” people.

The same patronising attitude is evident in the writing of Scottish ballad collector, poet and romantic historical novelist, Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), who wrote about the song 115 years after Aubrey without adding anything to our knowledge, and indeed showing errors in his understanding. In Vol. II of his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, first published in 3 volumes in 1802 and 1803, Scott wrote (my italics), “This is a sort of charm, sung by the lower ranks of Roman Catholics, in some parts of the north of England, while watching a dead body, previous to interment.” In referring to Scott’s better-known version of the song, Sidgwick commented, “I have ventured, in choosing Aubrey’s version in place of the better known one printed — and doubtless written over — by Sir Walter Scott, to give rather fuller information concerning the Dirge, its folklore, and its bibliography.”

Earliest and latest dates

Chaucer.ThomasHoccleve'RegimentOfPrinces.c1415-20
Geoffrey Chaucer as depicted in Thomas Hoccleve’s Regiment of Princes, c. 1415-20.

How far back in time do these lyke-wake activities go? Tantalisingly, Geoffrey Chaucer, in The Knight’s Tale of his Canterbury Tales, written at the end of the 14th century, mentions “how that lyke-wake was held all that night” (lines 2100–01). The scene is set in classical Greece, with “cups full of wine, and milk, and blood … with their spears clattering” and “funeral games”. Was Chaucer here writing only about the past, or was he conflating past and present, as Shakespeare so often did in his plays? Could Chaucer have been referring implicitly to the same kind of “country vulgar funerals” at which the mourners would “play at cards some drink & take tobacco”, with “mimical plays & sports”, as related by John Aubrey’s witness, Mr. Mawtese, referring back to the 1620s? It is certainly possible, more likely probable. According to Thomas Pennant, in his Tour in Scotland, MDCCLXIX [1769], published in Chester in 1771, such lyke-wake activities date back to at least 150 years before Chaucer, as the Synod of Wigorn/Wygorn (Latin for Worcester, in England), 1240, declared disapprovingly that secular wakes, with dancing and games in the presence of the dead, were ugly and foolish.

So it seems clear that the kind of lyke-wake that was the context for the song dates back to at least the 13th century, though we have no evidence to date the song itself to before the mid 16th century.

For how long did this song persist in the oral tradition? Our best testimony is in Richard Blakeborough’s Wit, Character, Folklore, and Customs of the North Riding, 1898: “I cannot say when or where the Lyke Walke dirge was sung for the last time in the North Riding [of Yorkshire], but I remember once talking to an old chap who remembered it being sung over the corpse of a distant relation of his, a native of Kildale. This would be about 1800, and he told me that Lyke-wakes were of rare occurrence then, and only heard of in out-of-the-way places.”

The Lyke-Wake Dirge melody  

How far back can we trace the melody? In his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, Vol. II, Walter Scott wrote, “The tune is doleful and monotonous, and, joined to the mysterious import of the words, has a solemn effect.”

Unfortunately, neither Walter Scott in 1802, who must have heard the tune, nor John Aubrey in 1686, nor Joseph Ritson’s letter writer, “H. Tr.”, in the 16th century, wrote the tune down; and Frank Sidgwick in 1904 didn’t mention it.

theyoungtradition_tra142
The cover of The Young Tradition’s first LP, The Young Tradition.

The song was revived for performance in 1966 on the self-titled debut LP of folk song trio, The Young Tradition (Peter Bellamy, Royston Wood and Heather Wood). Their melody is dorian (the tonic is the second note of a natural major scale) and hexatonic (having 6 rather than 7 notes in the scale, the 6th dorian note being absent). The same melody was also used for the song when recorded by The Pentangle on Basket of Light in 1969, then by Al Stewart in 1970 and then by several others in the years since, including Alasdair Roberts in 2005. The Young Tradition liner notes say that “there is no evidence of an air to the dirge in the tradition. The tune used here was given to us by Hans Fried, who heard it long ago from an old Scots lady, Peggy Richards.”

German poet, Erich Fried (1921–1988), moved to live in England in the 1930s, after which he had a son, Hans Fried (1944–), the giver of the tune to The Young Tradition. Hans worked in Collet’s Record Shop in London, which of course stocked folk LPs in the 1960s when the genre was riding a popular wave. The time when Scottish singer, Peggy Richards, sang The Lyke-Wake Dirge in Hans’ hearing is vague in the sleeve notes: “long ago”. Since Hans was only born in 1944 and The Young Tradition recorded it in 1966, it cannot really have been very long at all between Hans hearing it and The Young Tradition recording it. On the YouTube page with The Young Tradition’s recording, Hans has given his own account, adding an intermediate source: “I got this from my stepmother Nan (nee Spence) who heard it from an old Scots lady, Peggy Richards. The tune she sang was probably printed in Songs of the North by Robert [should be Harold – see below] Boulton in 1909 [should be 1895] and unconsciously changed by me into a more folk like tune. I taught it to The Young Tradition claiming no copyright. Subsequently sung by Pentangle etc.”

Other than her name, the identity of the Scottish singer remains a mystery, but the source of her tune doesn’t. There is no evidence of the song in Scotland, and the source of Peggy Richards’ tune was English rather than Scottish, despite appearances. A. C. MacLeod and Harold Boulton edited Songs of the North, gathered together from the Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland, published in 1895. The publishers were careful to distinguish between arranged traditional melodies and those that were newly composed: “Traditional Air arranged by”, “Old Highland Melody arranged by”, etc. covers most of the tunes as described in the book, which includes English composer Harold Boulton’s most well-known lyric, Skye Boat Song, set to an “Old Highland rowing measure”. The Lyke-Wake Dirge page states “Old North of England words. Music by Harold Boulton”, so we can be sure the song’s melody here is not traditional.

The tune entered the oral tradition and its author’s name was forgotten. Though still recognisably the melody by Harold Boulton, it was significantly changed either by Peggy Richards, or by Hans Fried’s stepmother, Nan, or by Hans Fried, or by The Young Tradition, or cumulatively by all of them. The original melody, as conceived by Harold Boulton, was mixolydian (the tonic is the fifth note of a natural major scale), becoming dorian in oral transmission by the time The Young Tradition recorded it. So I think we can say that, though the melody was not traditional in 1895, it was by 1966. The original traditional melody of the 16th century is lost, but the tune now used does fit Scott’s character description, “doleful”. I wonder if Harold Boulton had done his research and deliberately written it this way.

Lyke-WakeDirge_SongsoftheNorth
A Lyke-Wake Dirge, “Music by Harold Boulton”, as it appears in Songs of the North, 1895. As with all pictures, click for larger view.

The journey

It’s quite a journey for a song: starting as part of a vernacular traditional ritual for the dead in the 16th century or possibly well before; including imagery that has much in common with the Bible, as we’d expect, but also with imagery found in Islam and in classical Greek mythology; its words recorded for posterity by witnesses who showed curiosity about the song but a lack of respect for the community who carried it; its music lost forever; revived on a 1960s folk LP through the chance hearing of it being sung to a newly composed melody; and now with a new life and momentum of its own through singers of traditional music.

6 thoughts on “The Lyke-Wake Dirge: the revival of an Elizabethan song of the afterlife

  • 5th February 2016 at 3:20 am
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    Hans Fried says in a YouTube comment on the YT recording: “I got this from my stepmother Nan (nee Spence) who heard it from an old Scots lady, Peggy Richards. The tune she sang was probably printed in “Songs of the North” by Robert Boulton in 1909 and unconsciously changed by me into a more folk like tune. I taught it to The Young Tradition claiming no copyright. Subsequently sung by Pentangle etc.”

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  • 5th February 2016 at 11:36 pm
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    Tony, thank you. I had wondered if Hans Fried was still around, and it’s great to have his first-hand account. (He misremembers the printed tune as by Robert Boulton instead of Harold Boulton, as you see in the article.) Much appreciated. I’ll add his words into the body of the article.

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  • 2nd March 2016 at 8:56 am
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    I wonder where Benjamin Britten got his tune from- whether it was his own adaptation of the Boulton tune or from another source. ( I think it is to be found in his Serenade for tenor , horn and strings)

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  • 2nd March 2016 at 3:42 pm
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    That’s an interesting question, Mary. I assume that Benjamin Britten’s tune is his own. I certainly can’t hear any musical connection with the Boulton melody and the arc of the notes sounds distinctively Britten to me. I’m happy to be corrected if anyone knows more.

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  • 19th April 2016 at 2:53 pm
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    A fascinating and incredibly well researched article, thank you. Just one point that jumped out at me; where you state that the Lyke Wake Dirge melody is in the Dorian mode. It is most definitely in the Phrygian mode not Dorian. That is what makes it so unusual in the English folk song canon. Sit at a keyboard and check it out for yourself. I strongly feel you ought to correct that mistake in an otherwise excellent article. Many thanks again for your research. J Causley

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  • 21st April 2016 at 11:45 am
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    Hello, Jim, and thanks for your appreciation. I’m always happy to be corrected – we’re always learning – and your comment has turned my attention to something I hadn’t spotted, so thank you. I’ve done as you’ve suggested, and tryed playing it dorian on the harp (rather than keyboard), which sounds as I’m familar with it, and then phrygian, which sounds lovely (except for one odd little bit that needs an accidental) but different to how it’s usually sung and different to how Harold Boulton wrote it.

    So I’m still convinced that the melody as usually sung, starting with The Young Tradition, is dorian. The finalis is D, though it’s difficult to justify saying the reciting note is the dorian’s A. I can’t detect any of the typical intonation figures of either phrygian or dorian modes in this melody but, being a modern tune, I wouldn’t expect to, unless the author was trying really hard to recreate the medieval modal sound.

    But then I returned to Harold Boulton’s original melody, on which the traditional tune is based, and in that case you’re absolutely right: Boulton’s tune (which I hadn’t paid enough attention to) is not dorian. I don’t think it’s phrygian, either: that would have a finalis of putative E, presuming a natural scale, and a tenor or reciting note C. I can hear a little hint of one of the typical phrygian intonation figures, but overall, to my eyes and ears, Boulton’s melody is mixolydian, with a finalis of G, though it’s difficult to justify saying the reciting note is the mixolydian D.

    I don’t think we would necessarily expect the melody to fit a mode exactly: after all, even in the medieval modal heyday, non-ecclesiastical tunes were sometimes mixtures of modes or modally uncategorisable. I’m very grateful for your comment and have changed the article accordingly. If you’ve further thoughts, please do say.

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