All Around My Hat – a song with more than just one story

This is one of the songs in the Save our Songs Projects. The theme of All around my hat depicts the archetypal idea of the separated lovers. Like so many traditional songs, it appears in many forms. Sometimes the protagonist is a man, sometimes it is a woman, and lyrics have been added or changed throughout the years or centuries.

The ‘green willow’ in the song signifies wearing willow sprigs in your hair or on your hat as a sign of mourning, like sometimes the yellow ribbon, or, as it is the custom in Ireland, the black velvet band (there’s a song too!). The willow is traditionally a symbol of mourning. It is found all over literature throught all times. Even in the jazz standard Lullaby of Birdland, the ‘weepy old willow’ is mentioned.
The magic potion recipe in the third verse of All around my hat seems like a playful reference to witchcraft. The lyrics that we will be using are probably the result of a mixture with another 19th century song called Farewell he.

The first version of All around my hat appears in the early 19th century. It tells the story of a lover (male) who must say goodbye to his true love who is sent to Australia to serve seven years of sentence for theft. The journey in captivity to Australia is a theme in many traditional songs. One of them, Botany Bay, I came across when I did a workshop with a shanty choir in the Netherlands years ago. The song stole my heart from the first moment. The sad theme stands in stark contrast to the extremely merry melody & bouncy waltz rhythm. Years later, I wrote a three part arrangement of this song for my choir in France, with the men singing the lead, and the women doo-bee-dooing and toora-lay-ing along in a happy chorus.

Back to All around my hat. The song is found all over the anglophone countries. The lyrics differ: sometimes the protagonist is a man, like in the ‘Australia’ version above, sometimes it is a woman, like in the version we know (‘He’s a false, deluding young man, let him go, farewell he’).

Many versions from the 19th century have survived as they were printed as ‘broadsides’ : A broadside (also known as a broadsheet) is a single sheet of inexpensive paper printed on one side, often with a ballad, a rhyme, the news and sometimes with woodcut illustrations. They were one of the most common forms of printed material between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly in Britain, Ireland and North America and are often associated with one of the most important forms of traditional music from these countries, the ballad.

Wikipedia tells us that All around my hat seems to have been particularly popular in Nova Scotia (Canada), and that several versions have been recorded by Helen Creighton. She was a folklorist – someone with a passion for folklore and traditional songs. What a poetic profession! She collected literally thousands of stories and songs to preserve her heritage. In order to collect the tales & music, she often traveled on foot, pushing her little (but quite heavy!) organ in a wheelbarrow. She was also interested in the supernatural, and published two collections of ghost stories during her long life.