Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Little Sir Hugh.

In the late 70s a friend played Commoners Crown to me, an album by Steeleye Span. I was familiar with Bob Dylan and the like, but this was my first introduction to folk music in the traditional sense.

I was a teen and I can clearly remember being blown away when I heard Little Sir Hugh, the album's first track. I spent ages examining the record's cover, a carved crown consisting of thousands of people. On the back were the names of the band's members alongside small carved figures. No further information, no internet to rely on. My brain went into overdrive, imagining these medieval musicians misplaced in time.

I soon became a fan. Buying Steeleye Span albums was no easy task in the pre-computer world. Suburban record stores never stocked them. I had to hunt through catalogues and order them by title alone.

Little Sir Hugh is still my favourite track on that album. It tells the story of a young boy who is playing with his friends who kick their ball over a wall. A lady invites him into her garden to retrieve it, but instead tricks him and murders him in quite gruesome detail. The song is told from Hugh's point of view, as his ghost tells his mother of the murderous events. I knew it was a very old traditional song, but I had not realised where and why it had originated.

My wife is from Lincoln, in England, and so we visit there quite regularly. I've walked up Steep Hill and visited the iconic Lincoln Cathedral many times. I  never realised until my visit in August that these were the very places where the events in Little Sir Hugh took place.

The true story is tragic, an unsolved murder which resulted in false accusations against the local Jewish community. A few years later, this incident led to all Jews being expelled from England. There are still a couple of buildings on Steep Hill (Jew House and Norman House) that existed in that time, and were in the area where the murder occurred. I had seen them before, but this time I visited them with renewed eyes.

And then in Lincoln Cathedral I managed to find the shrine to Little Hugh, a shrine where his body is interred. It was last opened more than a century ago and the remains of a boy were indeed found inside. The lady at the information service in the cathedral was helpful, permitting me to read four pages of notes on the history of Hugh. She asked me why I was interested, and I mentioned the folk song - which she'd never heard of.

All these years I've been walking right past the site of one of my favourite songs. Now with the knowledge of its origins and a bit of research, both the song and my wife's hometown took on a new life.

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