12 June 2023
Recording of the week: False Lamkin
An illustration of a person hanging from the gallows; a witch burning a sleeping couple while a demon carries off a child. Woodcut, 1790.
Death and murder are hardly rare events in British folksong, but there’s something uniquely disturbing about the implacable way in which the bogeyman Lamkin goes about his deadly business in this old ballad; sung here by Arthur ‘Hockey’ Feltwell of Southery, Norfolk to Russell Wortley on 22 April 1960 in the Nag’s Head, Southery.
The song tells how the eponymous villain sneaks into a castle and murders the Lady inside, before being hanged by the returning Lord.
In some versions, Lamkin is a mason exacting revenge for unpaid work, helped by the false nurse inside the castle. There is also a theory that the name ‘Lamkin’ refers to a leper’s pallor (lambkin) and that the character seeks a cure by bathing in the blood of an innocent.
Whatever the origins of the song, my first encounter with the tale was in the form of Steeleye Span’s version - ‘Long Lankin’ - which appears on their 1975 album ‘Commoner’s Crown’. A sort of prog-folk mini-epic with tempo changes galore, it begins with an eerie scene-setting vocal by Maddy Prior, building up to a rockingly melodramatic denouement.
Despite the anthemic climax of the Steeleye Span version, I’ve always been haunted by the song’s underlying bleakness: there’s not much in the way of redemption in this story and the hanging of the antagonist offers little in the way of catharsis.
When I came to catalogue Arthur ‘Hockey’ Feldwell’s version of the ballad (part of the Russell Wortley Collection (C777)), I was therefore struck by the compressed drama which Feldwell’s unaccompanied singing delivers and how his unadorned version shows that no embellishment is needed to convey the central horror of the story.
In Feldwell’s version, the details about Lamkin being a mason are omitted, heightening the sense of motiveless malignity behind the killing, while also removing any obvious moral lesson (always pay your builders). The nursemaid is mentioned, but her role as an accomplice is left ambiguous: she might just be too tired or frightened to go downstairs.
I did notice a possible silver lining: in this version it’s not clear whether Lamkin kills the baby with his ‘silver pin’, or just uses it to make the infant cry so that the lady comes to see what the matter is (or maybe that’s just my wishful thinking.)
More recent recordings prove that the song continues to exert its fascination. Alasdair Roberts’ dramatic rendition of ‘Long Lankin’ on his 2010 album ‘Too long in this condition’, emphasises the macabre elements of the ballad, while Shirley Collins’ version, ‘Cruel Lincoln’, which appears on her 2016 album ‘Lodestar’, seems to get to the tragedy at the song’s core.
In the album’s notes, Collins describes how during the song’s recording, the sound of birds singing from the bank at the back of her garden outside was also captured on tape. It was decided to leave the birdsong on the finished record, to act as a kind of hopeful counterweight to the grim events inside the castle walls.
In a similar way with Feldwell’s version, you feel that you need to hear the laughter and applause at the end. The listeners’ cheers and shouts of ‘Hockey!’ express not just an appreciation of the power and clarity of his singing but relief that the tale is over.
This week’s selection comes from Andrew Ormsby, Metadata Support Officer at the British Library.