From the recording Heavy Wood
Bonny Bunch o’ Roses/Jock Broon’s 70th
Trad Arr. Hellard/Gordon Duncan
Jez - Guitar/Vocals/Harmonicas
James Patrick Gavin - Fiddle
Dominic Henderson - Whistles/Pipes
Tommie Black-Roff - Accordion
Nye Parsons - Double Bass
This ballad, first recorded in William Christie’s “Traditional Ballad Airs” (1881) and popular throughout the British Isles in the 19th century, is a conversation between Napoleon’s second wife and their son concerning his father’s struggle with the British. Thought by some to be of Irish origin, if one sings all the verses it’s fairly clear that the song is sympathetic to the “bold Corsican” who was seen by many as a potential liberator, but the four I’ve chosen leave this slightly ambiguous. Singing it in Glasgow these past couple of years has been a fascinating exercise, and so far, no-one has thrown anything at me. It’s certainly a wise warning to anyone wishing to pick a fight with Russia. Some say the “bunch of roses” represents England, Ireland and Scotland, others that it’s a metaphor for the red-coated British troops.
I learned the song from Matthew Ord, guitar virtuoso and Newcastle-based academic who had heard Robin Williamson playing it on harp and made an arrangement for guitar which I heard him play a few times in about 2008. On listening to him play it now, it seems I misheard it slightly, and through the intervening years it’s taken it’s own distinctive tack. The narrative and the verse are beautifully crafted, and I’m particularly fond of the last verse, “Your father took a hundred thousand men, and kings likewise, for to bear his train…” with its evocative image of kings, like so many pageboys, carrying Bonaparte’s skirts. The song seemed to lead effortlessly into this march, composed by the late, great piper of Pitlochry, Gordon Duncan.