I usually prefer writing about bands and their history, or at least about specific albums, but I don’t really know which band I want to talk about (false, I want to talk about Jethro Tull, but I want this to be a music blog and not a Jethro Tull blog). I guess I’ll just write about one of those songs which has been versioned on countless occasions; a few months ago I did that with Greensleves, now it’s the turn for She Moved Through the Fair (or “moves” instead or “moved”).
My first memory of this song goes back about five or six years. I had been going to Ireland for four or five consecutive summers and I was (still am) in love with that country and its green landscapes, so green you can almost smell the grass when you see a photo. Still, my favourite activity was going to The Temple Bar, in Dublin, and listening to the live bands play music for hours and hours.
Ok, I’m losing my thread, my apologies. What I wanted to say is that I was becoming a big fan or Irish music at that time, so before my last trip there (to this day, at least), in France, I bought four CDs, one of them being some shitty compilation of pre-made Irish music (another one was The Road to Escondido, by the way). I didn’t really think like that back then, but I’ve learned to mistrust all those compilations with names such as “Celtic Spirit”, “The Best Irish Music” and the like. At least, the one I bought sounded kind of soulless and robotic, and that’s certainly not what Irish music is about. I don’t remember the specific name of this compilation, and I don’t remember who sang She Moved Through the Fair (and I don’t really know where I put it anyway), but the song was there. I didn’t care much about it back then though, but before saying why this changed, it’s time to talk about the song itself and not about my rather irrelevant memories. I’m starting to sound like a grandfather who loves telling stories about his childhood to his grandchildren, no offence to grandpas.
She Moved Through the Fair was first collected in Donegal by poet Padraic Colum (1881-1972) and musicologist Herbert Hughes (1882-1937), and published by Boosey & Hawkes in London in Irish Country Songs in 1909. The lyrics were also published in Colum's book Wild Earth and Other Poems, although the book doesn't mention their traditional origin. Here are the lyrics from Padraic Collum’s version; subsequent versions may alter them a little bit, but not really that much.
My young love said to me, “My brothers won't mind,
And my parents won't slight you for your lack of kind.”
Then she stepped away from me and this she did say:
“It will not be long, love, till our wedding day.”
She stepped away from me and she moved through the fair,
And fondly I watched her go here and go there,
Then she went her way homeward with one star awake,
As the swan in the evening moves over the lake.
The people were saying no two were e'er wed
But one had a sorrow that never was said,
And I smiled as she passed with her goods and her gear,
And that was the last that I saw of my dear.
I dreamt it last night that my young love came in,
So softly she entered, her feet made no din;
She came close beside me, and this she did say,
“It will not be long, love, till our wedding day.”
As a curiosity, several versions omit the third stanza (by the way, is the word stanza really used? I didn’t know it existed until literally now). Also, you may have seen that the narrative seems incomplete. This may be because, although Padraic Collum collected it about a hundred years ago, the song is much older, probably medieval, so it’s perfectly possible that some verses were modified or discarded over time. For example, in some versions of the song, including one of the earliest recordings by John McCormack, we are told that the woman is dead and so it is her ghost that visits the young man rather that it just being a dream.
On the other hand, Padraic Colum, claims he was the author of all but the final verse of the poem, and he described how Hughes collected the tune and he, Colum kept the last verse of a traditional song they heard and then composed a couple of verses to fit the music. One verse was not included in the first publication of the collection published by Boosey & Hawkes in Irish Country Songs in 1909. Colum soon realised that he had not put in the poem the fact that the woman had died before the marriage, and so he wrote the verse which begins: "The people were saying, that no two were e'er wed, but one had a sorrow that never was said ..." and sent it on to Hughes. It was too late for publication in that particular collection, however, and was subsequently published in other collections, along with the other three verses. No earlier version of those three verses written by Colum have ever been found, and so there is no doubt that he is the author of the first three verses of the poem. This may explain why many versions lack the third verse, or stanza. Personally, I don’t really care much if both the melody and the song are medieval or if Colum wrote most of the song.
Back to my personal memories, I was totally jawdropped and breathtaken when I listened to Loreena McKennitt’s version on the Elemental album. It’s sung a cappella, which is the best thing she could have possibly done, because her voice is mesmerizing. That’s how you do it, crappy pre-made compilations. Then I heard Alan Stivell’s version on Chemins de Terre, one of the best folk albums I’ve ever listened to, if not the best. The guy can definitely play the harp; again, a beautiful version. Some time later, I heard Fairport Convention’s cover on What We Did on our Holidays; that one, as I wrote on another post, was dull and disappointing.
Here are a few more good versions I just found online. This is it for today, but do not despair, I’ll torture the internet with my rambling soon enough.