“She’s like the swallow”

“She’s Like the Swallow” is a powerful song with a gorgeous melody that has traveled all the way from the outports of Newfoundland to Foxbase Alpha. I was reminded of it this week because it appears on a compilation called Birdsongs 9: Bring Down the Birds, which was put together by Stephen Cracknell of The Memory Band and available to subscribers to the Caught by the River newsletter. Cracknell includes Barry Dransfield’s 1972 version on this collection of avian-themed songs, putting it alongside such other gems as John Renbourn’s “The Cuckoo,” Bert Jansch’s “Kingfisher,” and, of course, Vashti Bunyan’s “Swallow Song.”

Dransfield’s “She’s Like a Swallow” is in two parts. He sings the three verses a cappella before returning to and repeating the opening one accompanied by guitar, mandolin, and fiddle. The song originally appeared on Dransfield’s self-titled solo debut, which disappeared from sight upon its release due to Polydor’s decision to abandon, almost before it even began, a subsidiary label, Folk Mill, that specialized in English folk music. As a consequence, the LP was, for around 30 years, a very rare bird indeed, with original vinyl copies exchanging hands at a high price. Like that other great lost English folk LP, Vashti Bunyan’s “Just Another Diamond Day” (1970), Dransfield’s LP is captivating in its stripped down simplicity, with the most haunting moments, such as that first section of “She’s Like the Swallow,” consisting of nothing more than a voice and the sound of a room.

The song has a curious history. It is part of the Newfoundland folk tradition, but, as Neil Rosenberg points out, stands apart from the majority of Newfoundland songs in that “it does not represent the outport myth. Instead, it stands for old world connections.” Rosenberg’s article on the song as a cultural icon is fascinating in the way that it traces the song’s history and compares its variations. Key to the story of the song is Maud Karpeles, who worked with legendary English folk revivalist Cecil Sharp. She and Sharp traveled to the Appalachians during WWI to collect songs there and a trip they had planned to Newfoundland in 1924 was cancelled due to Sharp’s death. But, as Rosenberg explains, Karpeles finally made it to Newfoundland in 1929 and 1930, and she pinpoints the precise date she collected the song in her notes:

On 8 July 1930, Maud Karpeles collected “She’s Like the Swallow” by dictation from John Hunt, whom she described in her field notes as “old and childish,” living in “a filthy house” at Dunville in Placentia Bay, Newfoundland.

The song appeared, with an arrangement by R. Vaughan Williams, in Karpeles’s two-volume Folk Songs of Newfoundland, published in 1934 by Oxford University Press. It later appears in Edith Fowke and Richard Johnston’s Folksongs of Canada (1954) and, as Rosenberg points out, even the esteemed Canadian literary critic Northrup Frye was beguiled by the song, arguing in his review of Fowke and Johnston’s book that “She’s Like the Swallow” is an example of how “the unpredictable genius of oral tradition occasionally turns into a breath-taking beauty.” Canadians might especially enjoy the version recorded in 1968 by actor and legendary Newfoundlander Gordon Pinsent for his LP Roots.

The version of “She’s Like the Swallow” I know best departs from, but remains deeply connected to, this folk tradition. It’s by the British pop group Saint Etienne and appears on their 1991 debut album Foxbase Alpha. Saint Etienne’s first single, a radical reworking of Neil Young’s “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” anticipates the way in which they would transform “She’s Like the Swallow.” Young’s brokenhearted acoustic track is made over into a dancefloor symphony, with a melancholic yet enthusiastic female vocal (by Moira Lambert of The Family Cat) replacing Young’s plaintive whine. It forms a kind of template for, or lesson in, how a traditional track need not lose any of its power or emotional force even as it is reconfigured for electronics and with sampled beats.

Saint Etienne’s “Like the Swallow” does not begin, as does their version of Young’s song, with piano stabs and a 4/4 beat, but with wind chimes and great squalls of sound, a murmuration of noise that approaches and recedes several times while a motif, perhaps tapped out on a mallet instrument, emerges hesitantly from the storm. The beat begins and binds all the elements together, slowly increasing the song’s tempo until a sample of a bell being struck introduces the lyrics themselves, as sung by Sarah Cracknell, who had been drafted into the band at this point as a permanent member and lead vocalist. The lyrics here are radically abridged. The opening verse is sung as usual, but then the song skips ahead to the first two lines of the traditional third verse and finishes with a repetition of the finale of the first verse:

She’s like the swallow that flies so high,
She’s like the river that never runs dry,
She’s like the sunshine on the lee shore,
I love my love and love is no more.

It’s out of those roses she made a bed,
A stony pillow for her head,
She’s like the sunshine on the lee shore,
I love my love and love is no more.

Despite this radical abridgment, the song retains an incredible force that is augmented and enhanced by the dancefloor tempo as well as the way Cracknell’s voice soars above the beats. But just as soon as the track settles into a pounding rhythm and the abbreviated sketch of the tale is complete, it begins to drift off and disintegrate, with squalls of noise replacing the softness of the melody. By the time the seven-minute track draws to a quiet close, it feels as if a storm has receded and the sun has emerged once again. In 2009, Saint Etienne released a remixed version of Foxbase Alpha. On the wittily retitled Foxbase Beta, the remixer Richard X adds a children’s chorus to “Like the Swallow.” This is brilliant addition as it amplifies the song’s dual origins. The sampled children’s chorus is a frequent feature of late 80s/early 90s house music, which Saint Etienne draw on for the beats and bells that drive the rhythm of “Like a Swallow.” But also, as Rosenberg notes, “She’s Like the Swallow” has long attracted choral arrangements and for many the song is best known not as a solo piece but as one for many voices.

“Like the Swallow” exemplifies how Saint Etienne draw on folk melodies in the production of modern pop and their experiments with traditional song would continue on Tiger Bay (1994). There, they adapt “Silver Dagger” to a motorik beat and rework it as “Like A Motorway” as well as recording a version, a quite traditional one, of “Western Wind.” Their version of “She’s Like the Swallow” anticipates these later forays into folk but also stands as a fitting closing track, paired with the short “Dilworth’s Song,” to a debut album that blends past and present.


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2 Responses to “She’s like the swallow”

  1. Demmi says:

    This is not a Canadian song at all.It is Celtic.I first heard it when I was young sung by a lady who was 80 at the time from a village called Constantine in Cornwall in England & it was sung to her by her grandmother before her as she was taught it when she was a child & that is over 150 years ago according 2 their ages.Many songs claimed by other English speaking diaspora’s around the World will find that their musical origins r Celtic from the Celtic peoples of Ireland,Wales,Cornwall,Scotlan­d etc.This is a beautiful song as many indeed are from these people who settled in Canada.

  2. aab says:

    Many thanks for this comment. I’m following the lead of folklorists who have traced the song to Newfoundland – see the link to the article by Neil Rosenberg that is in the original post. Certainly the first publication of the song is in Maud Karpeles’ 1934 songbook and the many arrangements and versions since then seem to derive from this version. I take your point, though, that the song, or variations on it, could very well be older and may have originally derived from Cornwall. Always interesting to think of the history of a song beyond the known history of it.

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