Reading My Way Around the World

Saturday, 18 February 2012

If I Were A Blackbird - the start of a journey

I was standing in the middle of the floor at a singaround  during the  Holmfirth Folk Festival  back in the mid 90s - Tom and I had just met a bunch of lovely Yorkshire singers and I was blown away by the concept of the singaround which was something that I'd never encountered before.  I sang "If I Were A Blackbird" and afterwards Maggie Boyle told me that it was a Delia Murphy song.  I'd only vaguely heard of Delia before that, but I'm fascinated by the story of songs so I started researching her and storing away the bits of useless information that I found.

Fast forward a few years to the Tron Folk Club in Edinburgh and I met Alex Burns - sadly Alex is no longer with us - but that chance encounter changed my life in ways that I couldn't see at the time.  I sang "The Connemara Shore" and asked the audience if any of them had ever come across it before.  Alex thought he had it in his collection of gramophone records and several months later a cassette recording of a selection of his gramophone collection landed on my doormat.  And there, was my proper introduction to Delia and her songs.   

All of a sudden my lonely "If I Were A Blackbird" - or is it If I Was A Blackbird"? had a home and I could remember all the dozens of songs that my mother sang that inevitably were way too uncool for a teenager so I'd filed them in the "not worth considering if you want to be Linda Ronstadt" category...!!

The song became the first one I recorded when I decided to do an album of songs from my childhood in 2004 - it was also the first one that Delia recorded in her very first recording session in 1936.  She was the wife of the Irish minister in London and in diplomatic circles she was mixing with the arts and cultural leaders as well as politicians and diplomats.  John McCormack was a friend of hers as was Margaret Burke Sheridan and when the denizens of the recording industry starting looking outwards from London to find suitable projects to record someone suggested Delia - she was the life and soul of the embassy parties, playing piano and leading singsongs with her vast repertoire of Mayo songs.  So she went in for her very first session in 1936 and recorded 6 songs and became the first Irish person, male or female, to be recorded singing in her own accent, a fact that makes her recordings the beginnings of Irish folk music as we know it from these islands and an early native addition to the work being recorded in America by the McNulty Family and Flanagan Brothers among others.  

In our house we sang If I Was A Blackbird - probably our colloquialisation of the correct grammar - nowadays I find it difficult to be proper and sing "were" .. but here are the words as I sing them.  I also sing the chorus after each verse.   I've read somewhere that the song dates back to the 1700s and there are various theories as to who the Blackbird is or was - some say it was Bonny Prince Charlie as he was sometimes referred to in this way.  However most often it is considered a Dublin street song and started appearing in books from the 1920s onward.  There are interesting discussions about it at Mudcat

If I Were A Blackbird (traditional)
recorded by me on the Songbirds CD  (Glenshee Music GSR001) - available from CD Baby or my shop at

If I was a blackbird, I’d whistle and sing
And I’d follow the ship that my true love sailed in
And on the top rigging I’d there build my nest
And I’d pillow my head on his lily white breast

I am a young maiden and my story is sad
For once I was courted by a brave sailor lad
He courted me truly by night and by day
But now he has left me and gone far away

He promised to take me to Donnybrook Fair
To buy me red ribbon to tie up my hair
And when he returns I will greet him with joy
And I’ll take to my bosom my dear sailor boy

His parents they chide and will not agree
That I and my sailor boy married should be
But when he returns from the ocean so wide
He’ll take me and make me his own loving bride

If I was a blackbird, I’d whistle and sing
And I’d follow the ship that my true love sailed in
And on the top rigging I’d there build my nest
And I’d pillow my head on his lily white breast

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