Sunday, 4 March 2012

Isaiah Sully and Ruth Tongue (part 2)

As green a picture as I could manage - another from this same series taken looking westwards across the Severn from Frocester Hill near Stroud in Gloucestershire.

....."This is to be sung only when in real danger; it must never be used lightly. many years later, in the middle of singing 'Sweet Primeroses', I grew aware that the ninety-five year old helpless huddle of wraps that Isaiah had become was eyeing me with a piercing and deliberately wicked gaze. 'Chime-child, baint 'ee? Oh ah! Cassn't be ill-wished, eh?" Something overwhelming and terrifying was being projected from the depths of that dark old mind; but the memory of the 'Prayer' rose as a wall between us and I sang it, hoping it sounded as casual as I should have liked to feel. It daunted him, and by the time I ended he sat silent, the magpie-like glint fading from his eyes. On my way home I met Isaiah II (his son), now over seventy, clumping wearily back to his lonely cottage. For once he stopped, looked at me with his faded blue eyes so unlike his father's and said slowly, "Ah. I did a-wonder if the day 'ood come when he couldn't a-bear not to try out his powers. A chime-child be a challenge, Miss Ruth, so you take an' carry salt in your pocket."

Some years later Mrs Isaiah died, and I traced the old man to another cottage where he sat mute before a grand-daughter-in-law as large, solid and fanatical as the rest of the family. When she left us for ten minutes he announced gleefully, "I telled the old missus I'd see her off to her Heavenly Ways afore she drove I Downstairs. Oh ah, an' I done it. 'Tis a true time for singing' ", and he broke into a song for which I had long waited, with a beautiful strange old air. Alas, a married daughter walked in on us, and he stopped in mid phrase. "Tryin' to poach what she'd never no right to", said Isaiah when she had gone down the garden. "My songs bain't for the likes o'' she. Gifted folk be a different matter.!"

"Why don't you let young Isaiah learn a few for you?" I urged.

"No! The bye idn' old enough." (He must have been seventy-five). "Let he go down pub an' sing his songs there. Puppies do like muck."

I never saw Isaiah again; he outlived his second wife by less than eight weeks. But I have pieced together some of his uncanny ballads. Two of the best concern the magic and danger of green, the fairy colour. 'The Gay Green Gown', collected over fifteen years, begins:

The Proud ladye she rode through the wood,
Ad there in her way the Wicked One stood.
'Bow wecome, Proud Ladye! Light down, light down,
For I must give thee a gay green gown.
'Twill punish thy pride, for no honest bride
Wears such a gown,
A gay green gown.'

'The Green Lady' is a chilling but fairly complete picture of a dangerous nature-spirit of the vampire type:

Now all you young fellows take heed what I tell
A-down in the wood a Green Ladye do dwell.Her hair it is green and all green is her gown,
And she calleth to all, "Come here! Draw near!"
But she means them no good,
For she drinks their heart's blood;
They never do wed,
For they takes to their bed,
And they dies, yes they dies at the end of the year.

But I hardly gained a footing in his vast storehouse of lore in twenty years, and many of his strange and beautiful songs must be hopelessly lost."

Just in case you have an interest in the folk music, I've found a couple of links for you. June Tabor is one of my favourite folk singers, and here is a link to the words of a spring carol sung by June Tabor, and collected by Ruth Tongue . . .

Here's the link to the Gay Green Gown which is quite possibly written by Ruth Tongue herself. There are onward links here to other of the songs which she claimed to have collected.

As for the story - well, it's a good one, true or no. Perhaps Isaiah Sully was based on someone she knew, but perhaps - enhanced a little bit?


  1. 'a little bit'? BB - can't help feeling it waa enhanced a lot. But I did enjoy it.

  2. I was being tactful, Weaver, which is unusual for me, but fear of litigation and all that . . .