Tune histories

On this page are published a few contributions to the growing data and interest in the history behind our ‘traditional’ dance tunes. I began looking into these in the early 2000s, when preparing the book ‘Before the Night Was Out’ about tunes played in Suffolk and Norfolk. Any illusions I might have had (actually they were long gone even before then!) about any ancient regional roots of this music were well and truly shattered by the research I carried out then. But these stories are fascinating, showing the tenacity of a good melody and its ability to transcend social contexts and class across decades and even centuries.

The Perfect Cure

Starry Night for a Ramble

Coming next … a new piece of research on Paddy Carey

The Perfect Cure

The Perfect Cure is often thought of as a quintessential Norfolk tune, one of  several jigs collected in the county that were played for the Long Dance. As so often, a little bit of musical archaeology reveals not only other regions that see the tune as being distinctively theirs, but also a glimpse of the way melodies moved between different performing contexts in an era before tunes tended to be pigeon-holed into different genres. The strength of the Norfolk connection comes from the fact that it was published by the English Folk Dance and Song Society: firstly in ‘The Coronation Country Dance Book’ in 1937, a year or so after it had been noted down from melodeon player Herbert Mallett of Aldborough by Joan Roe, and subsequently, probably with a longer lasting influence, in ‘The Fiddler’s Tune Book’ Vol 2 in 1954.

In July 1950, Herbert Mallett (left) visited the BBC studios in Norwich and recorded several items including The Perfect Cure. The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library holds the acetate recordings and this tune and others can be heard on the Musical Traditions website, in Chris Holderness’s article about Herbert Mallett.

Dulcimer player Billy Cooper from Hingham also played it, with a slightly different B music, which is given below, however it is Mallett’s version which has become the standard English version of the tune in modern times.


The Perfect Cure from the playing of Billy Cooper, Norfolk dulcimer player


It’s also known – usually as She Hadn’t The Thing She Thought She Had – in Sliabh Luachra in south west Ireland).  Some years ago, Con O’Drisceoil from County Cork was performing at a concert in Suffolk and introduced what he considered to be one of the more unusual items in his local repertoire, a 12/8 jig (known as a slide), which turned out to be – The Perfect Cure. I don’t know who was the more surprised, the audience or Con!

A set of words was noted down from the Oxfordshire fiddler Sam Bennett in 1950:

‘The cure, the cure, the perfect cure, you are a perfect cure,
And all at once the maid she cried, You are a perfect cure!
Some got trampled underfoot, some crushed beneath the wheel,
Lord how the parson he did curse and how the pigs did squeal!’

The phrase ‘perfect cure’ was a slang phrase, current from the mid nineteenth century, for an eccentric and amusing person. The original song dates from that period, and consisted of ten verses written in 1861 by F. C. Perry. The song was a roaring success in the Music Halls, made popular by James Hurst Stead, who, after the final verse, went straight into an early version of the punk pogo dance, where he is said to have jumped up and down 400 times during the song, and sometimes performed it in four different venues in the course of one night!

The actual melody, composed by John Blewett, predates this set of words, as it was originally written for a song called The Monkey and the Nuts. The original tune was written as a schottische although it is now commonly played as a jig. Prior to the folk revival, there were a number of such tunes (e.g. Woodland Flowers), usually referred to as barn dances, which were half-way between a jig and a schottische. They were popular for the Long Dance in Norfolk and Herbert Mallett played at least one other tune in this timing, the title and history of which remains to be identified.

There’s a lot more about James Stead on this blog about people buried in St Pancras and Islington cemetery by Bob Davenport, and more about the tune itself on the wonderful Traditional Tune Archive.


This work was first published in the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust newsletter in May 2011 and then on their website. I founded and ran EATMT from 2000-2017. The article has been slightly modified in 2019 in the light of further information.

If you’re really interested in this aspect of traditional dance music, you should seek out Celia Pendlebury’s M Phil dissertation ‘Jigs, Reels and Hornpipes: A History of “Traditional’ Dance Tunes of Britain and Ireland’. You’ll find it online.

If you’d like to know more about Billy Cooper and East Anglian dulcimers, visit my other website East Anglian Dulcimers

Starry Night for a Ramble

The tune Starry Night for a Ramble has been an old stalwart of the southern English repertoire since the revival spearheaded by Rod Stradling and the Old Swan Band in the late 1970s, although at least two distinct versions have now developed even in that short space of time and context.

It has been collected from two traditional musicians in England – both from Norfolk: it was noted down from Mr Newstead in Wickmere in 1932, and subsequently published in ‘The Fiddler’s Tunebook Vol 2’ and was also recorded from Herbert Smith from Blakeney, titled Starry Night for a Randy. This version was included in my 2007 book ‘Before the Night Was Out’ published by the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust.

Another Norfolk connection is given in the book ‘I Walked by Night’ – the autobiography of Frederick Rolfe, an inveterate poacher, even during his occasional spells of employment as a gamekeeper. Rolfe lived most of his life in the King’s Lynn area of west Norfolk. Rolfe’s book (published in 1935) gives the following words under the title The Ploughboy’s Song:

A starry night for a ramble, in the flowery dell,
Through the bush and bramble, kiss and never tell.

I like to take my sweetheart out (‘Of course you do’, says she)
And softly whisper in her ear, ‘How dearly I love thee’.

When you picture to yourself a scene of such delight,
Who would not take a ramble on a starry night.








The tune and lyrics were printed many times in the 1870s and it was a rapid success with many piano arrangements being published for amateur use. It’s hard to fathom who actually wrote it, possibly Samuel Bagnal in 1873, although a broadside print in the National Library of Scotland (above left) suggests an earlier imprint. The last verse of that version uses the word ‘velocipede’ which was fashionable in the 1860s and being replaced by the term ‘bicycle’ in the 1870s.

In 1907 the Edison Military Band recorded it in an instrumental selection on a phonograph and later on the song was recorded by Canadian tenor Harry McDonough, although this version is quite different to the Norfolk version.

Interestingly, the tune Starry Night for a Ramble has been far more popular than the song, and it has been interpreted in different rhythms: the original publication was in 6/8 timing, which is how it is still known in the East Anglian and broader English traditions. There’s also a tune by the same title, again a jig, which is used in the US as a contradance tune. The same melody was popularised in 3/4 timing by Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham, as Starry Night in Shetland and, under its original title, Australian collector John Meredith found that ‘nearly every bush musician plays this beautiful waltz’ although he only collected lyrics to it on one occasion (‘Folk Songs of Australia’). There’s also a lovely recording of Tasmanian fiddler Eileen McCoy playing it on the CD ‘Apple Isle Fiddler’.

A pretty tune which it would be nice to heard played more often in its Norfolk version!

Starry Night for a Ramble from the playing of Herbert Smith, Norfolk fiddle player





This work was first published in the East Anglian Traditional Music Trust newsletter in February 2012 and then on their website. I founded and ran EATMT from 2000-2017. The original article has been revised in 2019 in the light of further information.

For more about Frederick Rolfe, read Charlotte Paton’s book ‘The King of the Norfolk Poachers’ – or this shorter article.

Coming soon … Paddy Carey