Matty Groves

A holiday, a holiday
And the first one of the year
Lord Donald’s wife came into the church
The gospel for to hear

And when the meeting it was done
She cast her eyes about
And there she saw little Matty Groves
Walking in the crowd

“Come home with me, little Matty Groves
Come home with me tonight
Come home with me, little Matty Groves
And sleep with me ’til light”

“Oh, I can’t come home, I won’t come home
And sleep with you tonight
By the rings on your fingers I can tell
You are Lord Donald’s wife”

“What if I am Lord Donald’s wife?
Lord Donald’s not at home
He is out in the far cornfields
Bringing the yearlings home”

And a servant who was standing by
And hearing what was said
He swore Lord Donald he would know
Before the sun would set

And in his hurry to carry the news
He bent his breast and ran
And when he came to the broad millstream
He took off his shoes and swam

Little Matty Groves, he lay down
And took a little sleep
When he awoke, Lord Donald
Was standing at his feet

Saying”how do you like my feather bed
And how do you like my sheets?
How do you like my lady
Who lies in your arms asleep?”

“Oh, well I like your feather bed
And well I like your sheets
But better I like your lady gay
Who lies in my arms asleep”

“Well, get up, get up,” Lord Donald cried
“Get up as quick as you can
It’ll never be said in fair England
I slew a naked man”

“Oh, I can’t get up, I won’t get up
I can’t get up for my life
For you have two long beaten swords
And I not a pocket knife”

“Well it’s true I have two beaten swords
And they cost me deep in the purse
But you will have the better of them
And I will have the worse

And you will strike the very first blow
And strike it like a man
I will strike the very next blow
And I’ll kill you if I can”

So Matty struck the very first blow
And he hurt Lord Donald sore
Lord Donald struck the very next blow
And Matty struck no more

And then Lord Donald he took his wife
And he sat her on his knee
Saying “Who do you like the best of us
Matty Groves or me?”

And then up spoke his own dear wife
Never heard to speak so free
“I’d rather a kiss from dead Matty’s lips
Than you or your finery”.

Lord Donald he jumped up
And loudly he did bawl
He struck his wife right through the heart
And pinned her against the wall

A grave, a grave,” Lord Donald cried
“To put these lovers in
But bury my lady at the top
For she was of noble kin”

Fairport Convention’s Leige and Leif was released towards the end of 1969. The band played a showcase concert with a nervous Nick Drake and a pissed (probably) John Martyn as support.

And that was it… Bass player and founder Ashley Hutchings left shortly afterwards, traumatised by the accident that had killed his band mate Martin Lamble. Hutchings was to form Steeleye Span before leaving again. Next to go was Sandy Denny who being a song writer was slightly worried about her bandmates enthusiasm for re working the same traditional songs she thought she had left behind in the folk clubs before joining Britain’s answer to Jefferson Airplane.

It was a few years before I caught up, I had only just turned 12 after all but about 4 years later I asked my mum for Leige and Leif as a Christmas present. I do wonder just where she had to go to get a copy in Norwich but sure enough mum came up with the goods and the record was delivered for me on Christmas day. ‘It’s a bit folky’ said my mum dubiously after I had played the record on the family record player.

And folky it was although it’s often forgotten there was still quite a lot of original input in terms of writing and arranging from the band members.Its easy to think that the world had turned on it’s axis but this was the end of the 60’s and fans and critics were sometimes luke warm about hearing traditional songs from the darlings of the UFO and Middle Earth clubs, it was as if Hendrix had recorded an album of jug band songs.

At the heart of the record, for me at least, is ‘Matty Groves’. It’s an old song probably dating from borders of England and Scotland in the C17th. There are loads of variations cropping up as far as the Appalachians, more frequently as ‘Little Musgrave’.

And at the heart of the song is everything you need to know about the class system in Britain. A world where its reasonable to the aristocracy to kill the proles, and indeed their own wives as long as a certain etiquette is followed.

The song starts with religion amd is followed immediately by lust. Lust win over little Matty Groves’ fear and he follows Lord Darnell’s wife home ( the above lyrics mention Lord Donald, I thought that was the name until recently but listening carefully I now beg to differ) . There’s the role of the servant who decides to grass up Matty Groves even though it involves a long long run and a swim across the freezing stream. In some versions of the song Lord Darnell threatens to hang the page if his information is false but to reward him handsomely if it is true.

And when Lord Darnell finds Matty Groves in bed with his wife he orders him to dress, it’s bad form to slay a naked man, when Groves refuses, presuming, not unreasonably the the Lord will be quite happy to run him though when he’s got his trousers on the Lord sportingly offers him the best of his swords to duel with. It’s probably only going to go one way, Lord Darnell is undoubtedly bigger, stronger and better fed, sure enough Matty Groves is killed.

The sting in the tail is that his wife tells him she prefers Matty Groves to the Lord and his finery. She is killed for this of course but it’s a nice last gasp of defiance. Finally, of course, appearances are everything and although the lovers will be buried in a single grave Lord Darnell’s wife will be buried at the top ‘for she was of noble kin’.

Fairport manage to imbue the song with a certain drama, Dave Swarbick and Richard Thompson in particular embellish the tune with a certain modal drama and at the end there’s a rifftastic wig out which almost makes you forget the original song such is the intensity of the playing.

In 1974 it was the music I loved but over the years the words wave resonated more and more.

I recently read a book written by two poachers. In the 70’s and 80’s poaching was a genuine profession, there was plenty of wildlife and it was very dark in the countryside at night. The two men in question usually poached the land of the local Lord. It was war out there in the countryside in the dark, the Lord would employ gamekeepers who would dispense their own justice to trespassers, the local police deferred to the Lord, the dice was loaded but the poachers delighted in their sport.

That was in the 70’s, now the land is built over and the countryside is inhabited by commuters, wildlife is sparse and the development of computer technology means it’s a lot harder to get by on wits and country knowledge when the Police have thermal imaging.

That was only 40 years ago, the countryside of my childhood was nearer to Matty Groves than is it to now but the real authority has since moved behind closed doors and computer firewalls. And the Lord Darnell’s and Donalds of this world still have the power as long as they are not seen to ‘slew a naked man’.

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