Features & Retrospectives

Bushes and Briars: A Brief Raving Folk History

Songs are some­times immor­tal trav­el­lers, and if you fol­low their tracks, you end up in all kinds of places. Reg­u­lar read­ers will know I have a weak spot for folk bal­lads, and their his­tory and vari­ous inter­pret­a­tions are fas­cin­at­ing to track. Bushes and Bri­ars came onto my path from dif­fer­ent dir­ec­tions, but I’ll get to that later.

The old­est men­tions of the bal­lad that I could find are from nine­teenth cen­tury broad­sides such as this one.

A mockup of the lyr­ics from one of the broad­sides.

It’s a clas­sic love bal­lad, in the sense that it explores some of the troubles and uncer­tain­ties of love and rela­tion­ships. The woman in the song does­n’t trust men, and the last line sug­gests she’s driven to sui­cide because of it. Within the con­text of Brit­ish bal­lads as a whole, that is under­stand­able, as many of them are about men prey­ing on (and mur­der­ing) women.

In 1904, the song was col­lec­ted and rearranged by Eng­lish com­poser Ralph Vaughan Wil­li­ams, and from there on it entered into the rep­er­toire of many choir and solo sing­ers.

The his­tory of the song goes dark here for a num­ber of dec­ades, but it most def­in­itely resur­faced in the folk revival of the 1960s, where it was recor­ded by Isla Cameron for her self-titled 1966 album. More import­antly, the song ended up in the 1967 film adapt­a­tion of Thomas Hardy’s novel Far from the Mad­ding Crowd, in which it is sung by act­ress Julie Christie, though dubbed by Cameron.

At least from that time, “Bushes and Bri­ars” has been a stand­ard not only in the clas­sical world, but also among folk sing­ers.

Sandy Denny’s “Bushes and Bri­ars”, by the way, is not a rendi­tion of this par­tic­u­lar bal­lad, though it’s worth a listen.

I actu­ally first came across “Bushes and Bri­ars” while read­ing Simon Reyn­olds’ (highly recom­men­ded) book Energy Flash about late 80s and early 90s house and rave cul­ture. He men­tioned a 1992 track called “Sub Dub” by DJ Seduc­tion which (sup­posedly) sampled the voice of Maddy Prior, best known from Stee­leye Span.

I went on a brief wild goose chase try­ing to find out when Prior (or Stee­leye) had recor­ded the song, but my search came up empty. As it turns out, “Sub Dub”, though the best known, was­n’t the first incor­por­a­tion of “Bushes and Bri­ars” into elec­tronic music. “Sub Dub”, in fact, samples the 1992 house track “West in Motion” by Bumble, where the bal­lad is sung by Breda Mayock. Another mis­un­der­stand­ing cleared up due to the dili­gent research of You­Tube com­menters.

Being some­thing of a club clas­sic, “Sub Dub” went on to inspire other pro­du­cers, and it ended up at the harder end of the musical spec­trum when it was suc­ces­fully picked up by DJ Weirdo and Dr. Phil Omanski for their gab­ber track “Young Birds”. In 2006, finally, hard­style pro­du­cer Patrick Bunton had another go at it, though I always feel that hard­style lacks most of the energy of rave and gab­ber of the nineties.

Of all the nineties (and later) house ver­sion of the song that I’ve heard, my favour­ite is prob­ably the Rollers Remix of “Sub Dub” made by DJ SS. It takes the drum ‘n’ bass of the ori­ginal, but strips it down into some­thing darker and emp­tier. The cold synth waves and delayed toko melody make this ver­sion into some­thing really ori­ginal.

My most recent (and unex­pec­ted) encounter with the song was its incor­por­a­tion into the long work “Fields Were the Essence of the Song” by Jes­sica Curry. It’s a lovely piece weav­ing together clas­sical piano com­pos­i­tion with nar­rat­ive spoken word, but dif­fer­ent verses from “Bushes and Bri­ars” fea­ture in between the nar­rat­ive parts.

Though not all of the ver­sions and genres will likely be to every­one’s taste, the jour­ney of “Bushes and Bri­ars” is test­a­ment to the flex­ib­il­ity of musical cul­ture and to the power of indi­vidual songs.

If you’ve got more ver­sions of the track you wish to share, please leave a com­ment or send me an email. If the track is avail­able on You­Tube, I will add it to the mas­ter playl­ist.

Some web pages with addi­tional info: