The Potter In Folk Music

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The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles

While procrastinating I went to the thrift shop, and for $5.00 I found the book ” The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles” from 1961, which is composed of old-time folk ballads from the Appalachian mountains. Haunting and yet amazing. The stories and poetry in the music is amazing, and I was able to find some on YouTube. Below is one such song for you all called “The Potter and Robin Hood.”

The Potter clubs Robin with a thick wagon tongue! That had to hurt!

The Story

Here is an synopsis of the story in the song from the Library of the University of Cambridge, Manuscript E e. 4. 35, fol. 14 b, of about 1500.Printed from the manuscript in Ritson’s Robin Hood, 1795, I, 81; here from a transcript of the original, carefully revised by Rev. Professor Skeat.

“Robin Hood sees a potter driving over the lea; the potter has been in the habit of passing that way, and never has paid toll. Little John has had a brush with the potter, and offers to lay forty shillings that no man can make him leave a pledge. Robin accepts the wager, stops the potter, and demands a “pledge”; the potter refuses to leave pledge or pay toll, takes a staff from his cart, knocks Robin’s buckler out of his hand, and, ere Robin can recover it, fells him with a blow in the neck. Robin owns that he has lost. The potter says it is no courtesy to stop a poor yeoman thus; Robin agrees heartily, and proposes fellowship, also to change clothes with the potter and sell his ware at Nottingham. The potter is willing; John warns his master to beware of the sheriff. Robin takes his stand near the sheriff’s gate, and offers his pots so cheap that soon there are but five left; these he sends as a gift to the sheriff’s wife, who in return asks him to dinner. While they are at their meal, two of the sheriff’s men talk of a shooting match for forty shillings: this the potter says he will see, and after a good dinner goes with the rest to the butts. All the archers come half a bow’s length short of the mark; Robin, at his wish, gets a bow from the sheriff, and his first shot misses the mark by less than a foot, his second cleaves the central pin in three. The sheriff applauds; Robin says there is a bow in his cart which he had of Robin Hood. The sheriff wishes he could see Robin Hood, and the potter offers to gratify this wish on the morrow. They go back to the sheriff’s for the night, and early the next day set forth; the sheriff riding, the potter in his cart. When they come to the wood, the potter blows his horn, for so they shall know if Robin be near; the horn brings all Robin’s men. The sheriff would now give a hundred pound not to have had his wish; had he known his man at Nottingham, it would have been a thousand year ere the potter had come to the forest. I know that well, says Robin, and therefore shall you leave your horse with us, and your other gear. Were it not for your wife you would not come off so lightly. The sheriff goes home afoot, but with a white palfrey, which Robin presents to his wife. Have you brought Robin home? asks the dame. Devil speed him, answers her spouse, he has taken everything from me; all but this fair palfrey, which he has sent to thee. The merry dame laughs, and swears that the pots have been well paid for. Robin asks the potter how much his pots were worth, gives him ten pounds instead of the two nobles for which they could have been sold, and a welcome to the wood whenever he shall come that way.”

John Jacob Niles

John Jacob Niles fought in WWI and then studied music in France. He returned to the United States in 1920, where he made extensive trips to the Appalachian region, transcribing and writing down traditional folk songs. He played his music on his own handmade dulcimer. In the book, it mentions in the commentary the people he met and conversations he had about the music he was fascinated with and wished to preserve. More information on Niles and his work can be found here.

I spent the day reading on the topic and very much enjoyed the stories in the ballads.  John Jacob Niles sang in a very haunting and dramatic way by today’s standards. Below is an example of him singing “Go away from my Window.”

The full album of his music, “American Folk and Gambling Songs” from 1956 was also amazing to hear.

Another folk song that was much longer of “Robin Hood and The Potter” which gave more background to the story of the shorter one above.  Below, the much longer version is sung by folk singer Raymond Cooke:

The background and extensive notes to this rendition of the song can be found here.

The importance of the Potter

It was amazing to see the potter show up in the songs as in the past, pottery was a trade that was needed for making wear for everyday home life, commerce, and building.  In James town, for example, kilns were made to fire out pottery and brick making. Pottery was imported at the time from Europe, but it was not enough to meet the demand. Four different kilns were found at James Town Island. It was very enjoyable for me to realize the potter in these few folk songs that are quite long in storytelling, violent, and dramatic. Creating is not only about making a thing but also about reading and absorbing culture. There are many ways to tell a story and the mix of folk music and pottery was a fun study for me to do for a day.  I hope you all enjoyed this!  Have you ever heard any folk songs you enjoyed? If so let me know by commenting below!


Pottery at Jamestown:

Robin Hood and the Potter:

Robin Hood and the Potter:

The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles : Bramhall House c1960, 1961; (B) ptg edition (January 1, 1960)


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