A Bunch of Thyme

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

The Sprig of Thyme, The Seeds of Love, Maiden’s Lament, Garners Gay, Let No Man Steal Your Thyme or Rue (Roud #3) is a traditional British and Irish folk ballad that uses botanical and other symbolism to warn young people of the dangers in taking false lovers. The song was first documented in 1689 and the many variants go by a large number of titles.(from Wikipedia)

The metaphor of the garden within which are found, the herb- thyme, and the flower- the rose, are potent symbols in song and literature. One can find such metaphors in the Bible and other texts stretching back millennia. If you want to know more about the meaning of flowers, google Floriography; or just check it out on Wikipedia. You will sink into a thicket of references bewildering in number, scope and meaning. The scents will send your head spinning.

That such a sweet-sounding melody is undercut by the symbolism inherent in the plants mentioned gives the song its peculiar force. Thyme and time are obvious homophones and  the warning in the first verse is telling. Tending your garden- chastity, and keeping it fair- preserving your virginity, leads to the admonition to “Let no man steal away your thyme”.

Verse two is a wistful remembrance of how precious and unrecoverable is that which brings all things to her mind- thyme.

Enters a lusty sailor in verse three and what follows, hot on the heels of the warned-against deed, is the consequence in verse four. Some say that consequence is the canker or sore on the skin- the rose which never would decay which is a manifestation of the dire underlying condition: syphilis- an untreatable and sometimes fatal venereal disease typically carried by those sailors who were frequenters of low establishments in far-flung exotic ports.

I have an idea that Christy collected the version he sings from a woman in England. And, according to an internet source (so it must be true…) he gave it to Foster and Allen which kick-started their career. Be nice if it were true.

I first heard this on Christy Moore’s LP Whatever Tickles Your Fancy which sported a cover photo of a young Christy leaning against a dart-board. No fancy or fanciful artwork at play here at all! This would have been in 1976. I brought it back from a holiday in Northern Ireland to Australia along with a bunch of other great folk albums, and the band I was in then, Seannachie, started to feature it.

In the 1990s, our mandolin player, Jim, featured this song as part of Banter’s repertoire. We haven’t performed it in the latest iteration of the group in the past few years, but I think it’s worth a re-visit and I’ll sing it if Jim doesn’t feel the urge. And if the virus gives us peace (and I’m not referring to the REST IN sort!) You can find Banter’s recording of it, featuring Jim’s singing, on Banter I- song 2 which was done around the table and not in public performance.

This arrangement features a couple of guitars, bass, Nashville drums, organ, mandolin and fiddle in a soft folk-rock mode.

A Bunch of Thyme

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