I Can Hear A Siren
The earliest mention of this song is in an advertisement for a chapbook (an inexpensive book of song lyrics) called Jack's New Garland, published by John Marshall of Newcastle in 1856. The following recording was made on phonograph around 1914, by an unknown singer, and was featured on a test pressing of "Wor Nanny's A Mazer: Early Recordings Of Artists From The North East 1904-1933↗" (Phonograph, PHCD2K1). It is also unknown who made this recording.
I can hear a siren
A skrike o’er roaky Seaton
A bonny way te end me days
Nothin left but hyem to lay
An feel the kelpie’s fingers ways
Aroun me pow aroun me neck
An slip me slip me doon the beck
An scumfish all me thropple noo
An end me days alone wi you
float; down the stream
The "Siren" of the song is clearly a banshee, or some sort of harbinger of doom. This may well be a reference to the legend of Jacob Cox's Horse, covered elsewhere on the site. It is perhaps of note that this recording was made either at or just before the outbreak of the First World War.
The song also includes reference to mermaids - treacherous and deadly sea creatures - being the actual cause of the singer's downfall. As well Seaton Snook obviously being a sea-centric community, there is a further local indication of mermaids in local folklore: the earliest depiction of a mermaid in England can be found in the Norman Chapel of Durham Castle.
The chromatic ostinato of the melody is a feature of many tunes and recordings that came out of Seaton Snook, perhaps resembling the incessant and inescapable sound of the waves, or the sense of history repeating itself.
Folk song collectors and analysts have tended to be preoccupied with the idea of fitting notes of a tune into a corresponding scale, or Mode. You can read and listen to a brief guide to the relevant English Folk Song modes on this page.
If we are to take the D that starts and finishes the tune as the tonic (first note, or Doh), a problem arises as to which key the tune is in. It clearly has a minor sound, but of the minor modes usually found in English folk songs, only D Aeolian accounts for the Bb in bars 7-9; but that would leave the Eb in bars 1-5 as an aberration. The only mode that sensibly fits is G Aeolian, meaning the tune starts and ends on the dominant (fifth note, or Soh), and the tonic is not sung at all.
In the following recording (SS050a), we have put a tonic (G) drone under the melody. The result is quite unsettling:
Seaton Snook was a town used to isolation - both enforced and self-enforced. As the smallpipes tunes have demonstrated, it is not impossible that some of the songs of the people who lived there were created in isolation of the conventions that governed other tune-writing in the area. Many of the early folk music collectors - especially Sabine Baring-Gould and Henry Fleetwood Sheppard - deliberately refrained from publishing tunes with too unconventional tonalities, as they felt these strange sounds might not be 'acceptable to the musical public'†.
* A scream from the sea as a portent of doom, of course, reminds us of Jacob Cox's horse. This song, however, predates the horse incidents, which happened in 1868.
** Edit: roaky was originally mistranslated here as "rocky". Corrected 28.08.2019.
†Fleetwood Sheppard, H., 1891. On the Melodies of Songs of the West. In: S. Baring-Gould and H. Fleetwood Sheppard, ed., Songs and Ballads of the West. London: Methuen, p.xlviii.