She Moves Through The Fair: A History (Part 1)

This is the history of the song as I understand it. Source Web sites are noted at the foot of the post.

“She Moves Through The Fair” is variously credited as “traditional” or as by Padraic Colum (words) and Herbert Hughes (music). In truth, its origins are a little obscure. The most likely story, which seems to be generally acknowledged, is that Padraic Colum (1881-1976), who was a poet and a folklorist, collected the song – in collaboration with Hughes (1882-1937) in Donegal and rewrote the lyrics. He is believed to have based his lyrics on an amalgamation of more than one traditional song (elements of Colum’s final version can be found in “Our Wedding Day” and “Out of the Window”). The song was published in 1909; Colum also published the lyrics as a poem in 1922 without acknowledging its traditional origins.

The most commonly sung version of the song is Colum’s. It was popularised by the English folk-rock band Fairport Convention, whose then vocalist, Sandy Denny, learnt it from the Northumbrian singer, Anne Briggs. Briggs in turn learnt it from the Irish traveller and street singer, Margaret Barry. Barry is on record (literally; hear the recording of the interview on I Sang Through the Fairs) saying that she learnt the song from recordings of the Irish tenor (Count) and music hall performer, John McCormack, and the Scottish tenor, Sydney MacEwan (who combined his singing career with a position as a catholic priest). The versions sung by these two tenors appear to be the earliest recordings currently available.

The main variations from Colum’s poem are:

  • the introduction of a “dead love” into the final verse, a simple amendment that changes the whole meaning of the song – from a wistful love song to a ghost story
  • the omission of one of the verses. Most commonly, verse 3, which concerns “a sorrow that never was said” is left out, but some variants omit verse 2, which has “one star awake” and the swan. Verse 3 is rather obscure in meaning, and this may be why it is so often ignored.

Other variants of the song exist. While I have not been able to get confirmation of this, it seems that the alternate version also known as “Our Wedding Day” may be one of Colum’s source songs. The lyrics are rather less concise and, I would say, not as elegant, but the meaning appears to be essentially the same. There is also a song called “Out of the Window” which may also have been one of Colum’s sources.

Information Sources

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