A few years ago, a friend declared a new interest in folk music and asked for some recommendations to serve as an introduction to the genre. As an example of an Irish song that has permeated the folk music of the British Isles (and beyond) with many recordings by various artistes spanning at least 6 decades, “She Moved Through the Fair” would be a necessary inclusion in my list.
“She Moved Through the Fair” is a traditional Irish folk song. The melody is typically modal (Mixolydian1) providing an Eastern sound. The age of the melody is not known but it was first collected by musicologist Herbert Hughes working in collaboration with poet Padraic Colum in the early 20th century. The lyrics were first published in Volume 1 of Hughes’ “Irish Country Songs” in 1909. Colum claimed to have written the first 3 verses to fit the last verse of a traditional song and the melody. The fact that no earlier version (of the lyrics in this form) is known, supports Colum’s claim.
However, it is evident that prior to publication the melody and at least some element of the lyrics had been passed down through the generations by means of the oral tradition. This process usually results in several variants of a song (a ‘chinese whispers’ effect applied to music) and regional versions. One variant of the song is called “Our Wedding Day” and related songs (those that have a common origin) include “Out of the Window” and “I Once Had a True Love”.
The earliest known recordings of the song date from 1936 and 1941 but recordings became more prevalent in the 1950s and 1960s after which they have continued until the present day. Amongst the many recordings are versions by Boyzone (1996), Mike Oldfield (1996) and Charlotte Church (2000). A version (based on Davey Graham’s 1962 recording) was recorded by Jimmy Page with both the Yardbirds and Led Zeppelin under the title “White Summer”. The song is also widely known as “She Moves Through the Fair” (the Fairport Convention recording for example) and after Sinead O’Connor sang the lyric as “He Moved Through the Fair” (for the ‘Michael Collins’ film soundtrack) some others followed suit and Nana Mouskouri recorded it under that title.
One of those who recorded the song in the 1960s was Anne Briggs, an English folk singer who was influential as a source of many traditional songs in the Folk Revival of that period. Anne Briggs’ recordings provide the best indication of how the song would have been traditionally sung –
Another influential folk musician of the 1960s British folk revival was acoustic guitarist Davey (aka Davy) Graham who recorded an instrumental arrangement of “She Moved Through the Fair” in 1962. When I first moved to London as a student in 1969, my good friend Robbie encouraged me to renew my efforts at learning guitar and taught me many folk songs from his own repertoire. Our evenings were often spent in the parlour at my digs playing and singing together although initially I did more singing along than playing. I knew little of Graham at the time and it was decades later when I discovered that some of the favourite songs from my sessions with Robbie were based on Davey Graham recordings.
I had first heard this song earlier in 1969 though. Upon leaving school I had taken a summer job as a bus conductor in order to put some money by and supplement my student grant when at University. But the income also allowed me to purchase my first (2nd hand) guitar and to significantly add to my collection of albums.
One of the additions was Fairport Convention’s 2nd album and their first with Sandy Denny, “What We Did on Our Holidays” (released January 1969). The album included the band’s arrangement of the song under the title, “She Moves Through the Fair”. This track along with Sandy Denny’s “Fotheringay” became part of the soundtrack to a very important and happy period of my life.
If anything, I appreciate those tracks even more today than I did back then, especially Sandy Denny’s haunting vocals and Richard Thompson’s delicate guitar work. Listening to them in modern times instantly takes me back to 1969 to the extent that I can smell the incence and taste the atmosphere. The result can be an intensely emotional experience, joyous yet tinged with nostalgic melancholy.
I imagine that for many of my generation, the Fairport Convention album is also where they first heard this song. It remains my favourite version –
I very much regret the fact that I did not see Fairport Convention play live in this line-up. Although I saw them play on more than one occasion in the early 1970s, Sandy Denny had left the band by that time.
Finally in the playlist and despite a couple of brief glitches in the video, a live performance of the song by Sinead O’Connor in 1997, when the song became an audience favourite following the release of the film, “Michael Collins” –
“She Moved Through the Fair” is a beautiful song that has produced many great yet varied versions and has brought out the best of those who have performed and recorded it.
Use the link below to enjoy the four versions as a single playlist –
1. The mixolydian scale comprises the key’s diatonic notes from the 5th (Dominant) to the 5th an octave above.
References and Further Reading:
1. ‘She Moved Through the Fair’ at Wikipedia
2. Anne Briggs at Wikipedia
3. Davey Graham at Wikipedia
4. Fairport Convention at Wikipedia
5. ‘What We Did on Our Holidays’ album at Wikipedia
6. Sinead O’Connor at Wikipedia