David Abbott


How Could She Vanish

How Could She Vanish, February 2022, 40 x 23.5cm

Lemany is a delightful, plaintive folksong from the Copper Family of Rottingdean’s songbook (also titled Sweet Lemeney), at least as old as the 19th century broadsides on which it has been found. It's a straightforward enough declaration of romantic love augmented by the beauties of the natural world, ending with the narrator bemoaning the loss of his lover due to her parent's disapproval of him. The Coppers sing it in five verses and the first three are all simple observations of the natural world, serving to augment the wonders of the leman (old word for lover) with those of nature.

Lemany is unusual as a folksong in that it pays this much attention to nature. Mostly nature is used sparsely; the mention of a bird, flower or the scene-setting of a fine May morning. Lemany includes all these things. Whoever originally composed Lemany revels in describing the finer details of this particular summer morning, extolling the beauty of nature in service of the virtues of the beloved.

The brightness and jollity of the first three verses is, however, short-lived. By the end of the fifth all the narrator's hopes are dashed due to the "white robe that [he] once used to wear," an enigmatic final line that continues to perplex the folk world. My reading of it – given the Copper Family connection to shepherding and that the robe isn't always described as white – is that in this case the robe may in fact be a shepherd's smock. Nature, love, overbearing parents, enigmatic robe: sparse but compelling ingredients.

For me Lemany reveals a number of treasures. It's attention to nature is bequiling. It is almost entirely without narrative but ends strangely and not without some hidden sense of drama. The melody is wonderful. I love hearing it from the mouth of Jim Copper too. It feels completely natural being sung by a man who spent his working life on the South Downs, in the company of the natural world.

The painting above – How Could She Vanish – takes a line from Lemany in order to broadly reference a few of my favourite themes, recurrent in my work: The passage of time, the slippery transience of landscape and the natural world, the natural round of the seasons, the less-natural effects of human activity and the social history of the land we live out our lives in. The song reveals concrete losses too simply through the contrast between when it was written and the modern world: the decimation of Britain's nightingale population, the loss of over 90% of its meadows since the 1950s and the huge decline in biodiversity and natural abundance so exuberantly present in Lemany.

Folksongs are portals to the past, but at their best are also full of meaning and relevance for the present. And perhaps the future. Especially the simple ones, I find. Songs like Lemany are not offered as lessons, nor do they represent a particular standpoint or tell a moral tale, but their simplicity and long, organic lives allow their meanings to be continually renewed. There is something in this that I want to bring to my paintings. Simple, straightforward delivery with some ambiguity and strangeness. Accessible but also rewarding of a good dig around.

as sung by Jim Copper

As I was a-walking one fine summer's morning,
The fields and the meadows they looked so green and gay;
And the birds they were singing so pleasantly adorning,
So early in the morning at the break of the day.

Oh hark, oh hark, how the nightingale is singing,
The lark she is taking her flight all in the air.
On yonder green bower the turtle doves are building,
The sun is just a-glimmering. Arise my dear.

Arise, oh, arise and get your humble posies,
For they are the finest flowers that grow in yonder grove.
And I will pluck them all sweet lily, pink and roses,
All for Sweet Lemany, the girl that I love.

Oh, Lemany, oh, Lemany, you are the fairest creature,
You are the fairest creature that ever my eyes did see.
And then she played it over all on the pipes of ivory,
So early in the morning at the break of the day.

Oh, how could my true-love, how could she vanish from me,
Oh, how could she go and I never shall see her more.
But it was her cruel parents that looked so slightly on me,
All for the white robe that I once used to wear.

You can listen to Jim Copper singing Lemany here. Burd Ellen and Nick Hart also do wonderful versions.

March 2, 2022

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