FRIDAY SONG: Laylam, CHICKENS IN THE GARDEN (James Allan Bland, 1878)

For me, this is a perfect little folk song. It has a happy little tune, an irresistibly singalong chorus, and tells a sweet story of love and generations. Best of all it conjures up that joyful sight – chickens in the garden.

This will be a short blog, because the fascinating story of this song  – also known as ‘The Farmer’s Daughter’, ‘ All the The Little Chickens in the Garden’ and ‘Treat Me Daughter Kindly – is told on this Mainly Norfolk website. For the seriously nerdish, there are different versions of, and more information about, in a chatroom on the great Mudcat website.

What I love about the chequered history of this song is that it blows a mighty hole in arguments about what is or isn’t authentic in folk music.

It has been ‘collected’ here and there throughout the 20th century: when the Watersons made it popular in the 1970s, it was hailed as a wonderful  Yorkshire song. When the Wolfe Tones recorded it as ‘Treat Me Daughter Kindly’, it was from the Irish tradition.

The truth is that it was written in 1878  by a black American,  James A Bland, known as ‘The World’s Greatest Minstrel Singer’ and ‘The Prince of Negro Songwriters’.

Composer of an untold number of minstrel tunes, including ‘Carry Me Back to Old Virginny’ and ‘Hand Me Down My Walking Cane’, Bland  was a highly significant figure in songwriting history. Since he spent 20 years in Europe, and even played for Queen Victoria, it’s not difficult to see how his song entered the English, Irish – and, for all I know, Scottish  –  traditions.

Sadly, and predictably, Bland died penniless and obscure in 1911 and was buried without a funeral in an unmarked grave. He was inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame in 1970.

Hardcore folkies believe, as Ewan McColl argued back in the 1970s, that folk  singers should only perform songs from their own tradition. This song, like many others in the folk canon, shows such rules are futile and indeed cut against the grain of what folk music great.  It wanders.

Of the many recorded versions, I like this one by Eliza Carthy, Bella Hardy, Lucy Farrell and  Kate Young, collectively known as Laylam. There’s a good live version on YouTube, but the sound and balance is better on the recorded version.