The Calling-On Song
The rapper sword dance is traditionally introduced by a calling-on song, sung by one of the rapper characters – most commonly the Tommy, although some traditional sides were introduced by the Betty instead. This is still preserved my the majority of rapper sides today, while some introduce the dance with a speech or spiel. The most common calling-on song used by teams today is a variant of the first stanza of the song formerly used by the Winlaton sword dancers:
Good people give ear to my story;
I’ve called here to see you by chance,
And I’ve brought five lads blithe and bonny,
Intending to give you a dance.
Winlaton is our habitation,
The place we were all born and bred,
There’s no finer boys in the nation,
And none so gallantly led
The Royal Earsdon sword dancers used a song with the same tune and very similar first and last stanza. The Winlaton and Earsdon songs being very similar, it is clear that one is based on the other. Less clear is which team originally wrote it, although it can be noted that when Cecil Sharp notated the Earsdon sword dance, he was also told about a different, older calling-on song used in Earsdon until a few years earlier.
The near universality of this song among modern rapper sides, while it provides a sense of common grounding in the tradition, does become quite monotonous when heard for the umpteenth time at DERT, and has generated some criticism.
In fact, rather than there being a single traditional calling-on song, there was considerable variation in the songs used by the traditional sides, although there are certain common words or stanzas found in different songs. For example, the High Spen dancers still use the first and last verses of their traditional calling-on song:
Kind friends now I pray give attention,
And just listen to what I’ve to say
In the first place I merely will mention,
By chance we have travelled this way.
We’re travelling this country for pleasure
Likewise to take of your cheer
And the lasses we mean to be courting
And taste all the publican’s beer.
Kind friends now you’ve seen my five actors
They mean to act up to their part.
They have travelled this world full of danger
With strong hand and stout willing heart.
Be calm lads, be mindful and steady
You’re fit to jump over the moon
Now player I hope you are ready
And play us a canny bit tune.
The North Walbottle and Westerhope dancers had their own calling-on song as well. The words of their original calling-on song have not been documented, but the second generation of the inter-war team used this song:
We are the boys from Whorlton, we can dance and sing,
And in the sword-dancing line we know everything.
We do the curly, the cramper and the old gymnac,
And we're doing our best to bring the old dance back.
Traditional role of the calling-on song
The original versions of the known calling-on songs had several stanzas, typically with one as a general introduction, then one to introduce each dancer in turn, then a concluding stanza. The stanzas might be separated by a chorus, or by stepping. There might also be an interruption in the song with a short play as in the original Earsdon introduction, where a sword fight breaks out, one dancer is “killed” and then revived by a doctor.
Full versions of the calling-on songs
- Eardson (traditional)
- Earsdon (earlier version)
- High Spen
- Wearside calling-on song recorded in 1834