Night visiting songs: soggy tales of saucy silliness

On a visit to the Cecil Sharp House library earlier this month, I came across a rather wonderful book called The Sounds of History: Songs and Social Comment by Roy Palmer. I must have been in something of a naughty-minded disposition, as I quickly found my way to the chapter on ‘The Sexes’ – a discourse on intimacy as portrayed in traditional song – and was delighted to learn of a sadly forgotten pastime known as “night visiting”, a hobby so popular that it seems to have become a genre of its own. 

Night visiting, as far as I can ascertain from the lyrics to these tunes, appears to have taken place mostly on rainy nights. A decent night visit would involve a bored and soggy youth walking for miles to stand and moan beneath the window of a young woman. Once the moaning had become dull (or persuasive) the young woman would let him in for fun and games (sometimes a full night of passion, other times simply for some ‘bundling’ – more on which later). Almost without exception, the night would end with the woman assuming marriage was the the next step and the youth taking his leave rather abruptly. The woman would end the song in a pool of despair and regret, while the man hot-footed it, presumably to another window (well, if it’s that easy, why not push your luck?)

As a fan of Bert Jansch and Anne Briggs, I already knew at least one of these night visiting songs, although the legendary “Blackwater Side” relocated the scene, with the wooing done at a watery locale. Still, the story ends much the same, when “the young man arose and gathered his clothes, saying fare thee well today”. If anything, he’s a little more heavy handed than most of contemporary night visitors, bidding his one-night stand “go home to your father’s garden, go home and weep your fill”. A tad harsh, no?

On my trip to Cecil Sharp House, two night visiting songs particularly caught my eye. The first was “Cold Wet and Rainy Night”, which I’ve since found in varying versions under the titles “Cold Wet and Hailey Night”, “Cold Rainy and Hailey Night” and “Cold Haily Rainy Night”. Whichever version you choose, the story is quickly familiar. Boy staggers through the mud and rain (and hail, too, depending on who is singing), moans a lot about his sorry state, cons girl into giving up “her maidenhead” (which has since had me wondering quite why that town is named in such a forthright manner), then runs off. He’s not quite as brutal in this song, although his subtlety leaves a lot to be desired: when she asks him if they can now be wed, he replies, “oh no, oh no, I’ll not marry, so fare thee well forever“. At least she knows where she stands – and so does her mother, who, hilariously, “heard the din, oh!” Whoever said folk music was boring?

The other song that tickled me was “The Bundling Song”, a wonderful old set of lyrics that date from somewhere around the turn of the 20th century, although the tune is long forgotten. Roy Palmer explains that ‘bundling’ was much the same as night visiting, but required the couple to keep their night clothes on. ‘Fumbling’ might be the nearest we have to ‘bundling’, given its relative innocence, and you’ll see more of this cautiousness in the last line: the singer isn’t as louche as to suggest the theft of anyone’s maidenhead, instead warning against entertaining a pair of sisters in a threesome. How decent of him.

Bundling Song

Now lasses and lads hark to my song
‘Tis bundle together all the night long
The game is risky, allow me to say;
One can also get damaged rolling in hay

So when the moon is waxing bright
Across the fen you make for a light
That brightly shines to beckon you on
To the feather bed she lies upon.

You will find the ladder beside the wall,
Out there for a purpose in case you call.
Raise it quietly, not stopping to linger,
Until rung by rung you reach the window

A gentle tap and the window’s open,
And in you go with no word spoken.
Tread softly, bor, the boards may creak,
To awaken the father who’s fast asleep.

Nip into the bed and snuggle down
Beside the warm body in the nightgown.
If her sister is there then rise in a stew –
You can bundle with one but not with two.

You’ll also notice that the woman in this version of the tale seems as eager as the young chap is, leaving ladders out in the hope that someone might pop in for a spot of bundling. (Will anyone do?) You’ll be pleased to read that it’s not the only song that is entirely oriented towards his success. In a good number of traditional songs of this ilk, the chap has some considerable trouble in performing once he’s made an appearance, as this wonderful set of lyrics so handsomely demonstrates:

With her I agree to do the deed,
To thrash it every stoople O.
The second stroke my flail it broke,
My swoople and my couple O.

My swoople was oak altho’ it broke
I think it might be mended O.
Stiff and strong, stout and long,
It broke before it bended O.

She hiss’d she scoff’d she jeer’d she mock’d
The jade had no discretion O.
De’il take her tail, she stirred my flail,
I was forced to quit my thrashing O.

As comic as that is, however, it is quite common to find that night visiting songs have an element of the supernatural about them. Take, as an example, “Three Black Feathers” (performed below by Bella Hardy and Jim Moray). The visiting is far less wanton but just as pitiful, albeit for more sombre reasons. In fact, it’s more of a haunting, the essence of which can be summed up as “she sleeps, and dreams she sees him by her window lit by the moon, saying ‘I must be gone ere the rise of the sun love I fear you’ve loved and you’ve lost to soon'”.

To end, a note on my own video above. I’m unable to read music (learning to do so goes on my New Years Resolutions list every December), so having found these words, in order to perform them I have to go and find a version that someone else has done in order to learn the tune. But that’s the great thing about traditional songs – invariably there are so many alternatives that you can find a way to distill them all into something of your own. In this case, I listened to Martin Carthy doing “Cold Haily Windy Night” with Steeleye Span, but was drawn more towards the bumptiousness of the version performed by his daughter, Eliza, which can be found on her Wayward Daughter album.

In the interests of digital ease, I’ve put together an ever-growing playlist of night visiting songs on Spotify and embedded it below. I hope you enjoy it, but don’t let it summon up ideas about threesomes with bundling sisters, y’hear? Show some restraint.

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