I first found the tune ‘The Merry King’ a few weeks ago, when researching music for a musical response to the portrait of Lady Denham hanging in the Graves Art Gallery in Sheffield. It’s a stunning tune. Classically ‘British’ somehow, especially when heard arranged for orchestra or piano by Grainger himself. It evokes images of lush green hills, and innocent villagers bimbling around happily.
The version, which Mr Grainger collected and transcribed from a labourer called Alfred Hunt on one of his song-harvesting trips around Sussex, seemed to tell perfectly the tragic tale of Sir John Denham, 15th Century poet and courier whose beautiful young wife was fooling around with the then Prince of Wales. I love a bit of gossip, me, so I was immediately taken with the scurrilous story of young wife who was mercilessly and publicly pursued by the Prince of Wales. She was to die after a sudden illness ages 21, rumoured to have been poisoned by her cuckolded husband.
Anyhow, while recording a new ‘cover’ of this old song (I’ve not been able to find the origins of the song, but it ‘feels’ very old) I took a break to do some playing around with the melodic theme, and recorded a one-take improvisation on my guitar. It’s very rough around the edges, with plenty of missed notes and musical dead-ends, but, in my defence, it is totally improvised and unedited, warts-and-all.
I’m playing in an open tuning – my favourite actually – open G6 – with the 5th A string dropped to G and the 6th E dropped to D. BUT – for extra guts, and to make the key more ‘singable’ for my weedy baritone, I’ve detuned the whole guitar another whole step down. Giving me:
1 – D
2 – A
3 – F
4 – C
5 – F
6 – C
With medium gauge strings it makes for an occasionally ‘flappy’ sound, but with a little care when playing I mostly avoided the buzzes and wobbles you get with very low guitar tunings. Here’s a notated version of the basis for this tune on guitar, free to download:
After the first statement of the song’s tune, I chose to re-play in 5th position, so I could make use of over-ringing open strings. I love hearing the opening G-A-B (F-G-A in real-tuned terms) over ring, creating unsettling clashes as the G(3rd string) hangs over the A (4th string) which hangs over the B (2nd string). There’s the added benefit, me being a bit lazy, of being able to simply arpeggiate the notes with a simple m-i-a right-hand roll while the left hand sits happily in position.
The full song version will be ready soon, and will be part of a Graves Gallery-themed collection of music. I hope you enjoy.