Monday, April 17, 2023

Folk Song for October 2023: The Ash Grove

The autumn is, in much of the northern hemisphere, a good time to focus on changing seasons, especially that which is seen in the trees. The folk song for this month, ”The Ash Grove,”  is about a “broad leafy dome”  where the singer used to wander; but it is also about change and loss. The Welsh song was known as early as 1802, but the melody is likely much older than that.  If you have ever taken recorder lessons, you may have played it.

The tune of “The Ash Grove” has been used for other purposes, including several Christian hymns. One of better known of these is “Let All Things Now Living,” by Katherine K. Davis; another is “Sent Forth By God’s Blessing.” 

Because “The Ash Grove” was originally written in Welsh (its Welsh title is “Llwyn Onn”), there are various translations into English. There have also been translations into other languages, such as German. We are including four sets of lyrics: those written by Thomas Oliphant (included in an 1862 book called Welsh Melodies, with Welsh and English Poetry); a later adaptation by John Oxenford; one by Harald Boulton; and one from the twentieth century (see below for details). Feel free to choose the one you like best.

Lyrics #1 (Oliphant Translation)

1. Down yonder green valley, where streamlets meander,
When twilight is fading I pensively rove,
Or at the bright noontide in solitude wander
Amid the dark shades of the lonely ash grove.
'Twas there, while the blackbird was cheerfully singing,
I first met my dear one, the joy of my heart!
Around us for gladness the bluebells were ringing,
Ah! then little thought I how soon we should part.

2. Still glows the bright sunshine o'er valley and mountain,
Still warbles the blackbird its note from the tree;
Still trembles the moonbeam on streamlet and fountain,
But what are the beauties of nature to me?
With sorrow, deep sorrow, my bosom is laden,
All day I go mourning in search of my love;
Ye echoes, oh, tell me, where is the sweet maiden?
"She sleeps, 'neath the green turf down by the ash grove."

Lyrics #2 (Oxenford Version)

1.       The ash grove, how graceful, how plainly 'tis speaking;
The harp (or wind) through it playing has language for me,
When over its branches the sunlight is breaking, (or: Whenever the light through its branches is breaking,)
A host of kind faces is gazing on me.
The friends of my childhood again are before me;
Each step wakes a memory as freely I roam.
With (soft) whispers laden the leaves rustle o'er me;
The ash grove, the ash grove alone (again) is my home.
2. Down yonder green valley where streamlets meander,
When twilight is fading I pensively rove,
Or at the bright noontide in solitude wander
Amid the dark shades of the lonely ash grove.
'Twas there while the blackbird was cheerfully singing
I first met that dear one, the joy of my heart.
Around us for gladness the bluebells were ringing,
But then little thought I how soon we should part.
3. My lips smile no more, my heart loses its lightness;
No dream of the future my spirit can cheer.
I only can brood on the past and its brightness;
The dear ones I long for again gather here.
From ev'ry dark nook they press forward to meet me;
I lift up my eyes to the broad leafy dome,
And others are there, looking downward to greet me;
The ash grove, the ash grove again is my home.

Lyrics #3 (Harald Boulton Translation, in Songs of the Four Nations, 1900)

(A note from Advisory member Anne White: In one of the first years of this curriculum, I taught the The Ash Grove to my daughter, and this is the version we learned, so it's included here with a nostalgic sigh for the "memories most tender.")

The fair woodland bowers are peopled with flowers,
The trees, long forsaken, with green buds abound;
But trust not the weather though all bloom together;
When the ash trees awaken. then summer's come round.
Ah! sweet was the pleasure, in long days of leisure.
When life lay before us, in greenwood to rove;
Mild breezes were blowing, glad streamlets were flowing,
The birds sang in chorus throughout the Ash Grove.

'Tis years since together we hailed the warm weather,
When ash trees in maytime awaken to life.
Old comrades, light-hearted, long since have departed.
Instead of youth's playtime, there's sorrow and strife.
Yet when woodland bowers are filled with fresh flowers,
'Neath trees of green splendour 'tis comfort to rove;
Though glimpses of gladness are mingled with sadness,
With memories most tender I seek the Ash Grove.

Lyrics #4 (Rodney Bennett Translation)

The Arnold Book of Old Songs was published in 1950, and its story can be told only briefly here. British composer Roger Quilter wrote piano accompaniments for sixteen folk songs, and four of those were given newly-translated English lyrics by Rodney Bennett. The new set of lyrics for “The Ash Grove” were written in honour of Quilter’s nephew Arnold Guy Vivian, who had died during the war, and for whom the book was named.

1.Away in the shadows a lone bird is singing,

The wind whispers low in a sighing refrain;

Their music makes memory’s voices go winging:

The Ash Grove in beauty I see once again;

The voices of friends that the long years have taken,

Oh faintly I hear them, the song and the word.

How much in the heart can so little awaken:

The wind in the leaves and the song of a bird.


2. How little we knew, as we laughed there so lightly,

And time seemed to us to stretch endless away,

The hopes that then shone like a vision so brightly

Could fade as a dream at the coming of day!

And still, spite of sorrow, whene’er I remember,

My thoughts will return like a bird to the nest,

No matter though summer may wane to December,

And there in the ash grove my heart be at rest.

Video Links

The King’s Singers, recorded in 1991

Laura Wright, from her album The Last Rose

Raymond Crooke, playing the guitar and singing John Oxenford’s lyrics

Blackmore's Night, with Candice Night singing the Oxenford version

Our helpful intro post is sure to liven up your folk song adventures.

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