Down by Blackwaterside

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"Down by Blackwaterside" (also known as "Blackwaterside", "Blackwater Side" and "Black Waterside"; see Roud 312, Laws O1 and Roud 564, Laws P18, Henry H811)[1][2] is a traditional folk song, provenance and author unknown, although it is likely to have originated near the River Blackwater, Northern Ireland.[citation needed]


The song tells the story of a woman who has her heart broken "down by Blackwaterside" when a suitor breaks his promise of marriage, which he made to trick her into having sex with him. Her suitor mocks her for believing that he would marry her and tells her to go back to her father. He tells her she has only herself to blame for having sex before marriage. She realises he will never return and berates herself for believing his lies.

Roud 564 Variant[edit]

The Roud 564 variant of the song was popularised by a BBC Archive recording of an Irish Traveller, Mary Doran[3] recorded by Peter Kennedy and Sean O'Boyle on either the 24th of July or the 1st of August 1952.[4] During the same recording sessions her husband Paddy Doran and Winnie Ryan also performed versions of the song.[5][6]

Mary Doran's version (or possibly Winnie Ryan's—see below) was popularised, either directly (from the Kennedy recording) or via the intermediary services of the singer A. L. Lloyd, by the singer Isla Cameron, who recorded a version in 1962. The younger singer Anne Briggs has also been stated to have obtained the song via Lloyd,[7] although in the case of Briggs' own, 1971 recorded version (with notes by Lloyd) her version is merely stated to be "the one popularised from a BBC Archive recording of an Irish traveller, Mary Doran" and from opinions expressed elsewhere it seems most likely that she learned it from Cameron's recording or public performances[8] (in the same discussion it is suggested that the version from Winnie Ryan of Belfast, not Mary Doran, was the likely source of the variant as subsequently popularised in the revival, and that Lloyd made an error in his liner note). Briggs in turn taught it to singer/guitarist Bert Jansch. Early in 1965, Briggs and Jansch were performing regularly together in folk clubs[9] and spent most of the daytime at a friend's flat, collaborating on new songs and the development of complex guitar accompaniments for traditional songs.[10] Briggs has noted that "Everybody up to that point was accompanying traditional songs in a very... three-chord way.... It was why I always sang unaccompanied... but seeing Bert's freedom from chords, I suddenly realised—this chord stuff, you don't need it".[11] "Blackwaterside" was one of the first songs that they worked on.[10] Briggs belatedly recorded the song on her eponymous 1971 album (by which time she was playing a guitar accompaniment), though Jansch had recorded it (as "Blackwaterside") in 1966 on his album Jack Orion.[12] It is not known when Jansch started singing the song in the folk clubs, but certainly before the recording of Jack Orion.[9] The story of Jansch learning the tune from Briggs is retold in Ralph McTell's "A Kiss in the Rain."[13]


The Irish traditional singer Paddy Tunney recorded versions of both songs. A well as the traditional singers, the two songs have been covered by numerous artists including Isla Cameron, Anne Briggs, Bert Jansch, Sandy Denny, Show of Hands, Oysterband, the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, particularly during the folk music boom in Britain in the 1960s.[14]

A number of the artists in the recordings listed below have issued the same version on multiple albums. Only the first one of each version appears below.

Year Album Artist Variant Notes
1962 The Jupiter Book of Ballads: Spoken and Sung by Isla Cameron, Jill Balcon, Pauline Letts, John Laurie, etc. Isla Cameron Roud 564
1966 The Irish Edge Paddy Tunney Roud 564 named "Blackwater Side"
1966 Jack Orion Bert Jansch Roud 564
1969 Led Zeppelin Led Zeppelin Roud 564 Instrumental, named "Black Mountain Side"
1971 Anne Briggs Anne Briggs Roud 564
1971 The North Star Grassman and the Ravens Sandy Denny
1977 A Maid in Bedlam John Renbourn Group Named "Black Waterside"
1991 Home Fire Ron Kavana
1996 Blackwater Altan
1998 Folk Music Show of Hands Combined with "The Train"
1998 The Voice of the People Vol. 10 Paddy Tunney Roud 312 Recorded in 1965 as "Blackwaterside"
1998 A Folk Song A Day 1: July 2010 Jon Boden
2002 Rise Above Oysterband
2014 The Flax in Bloom (The Voice of the People) Paddy Doran Roud 564 Recorded in 1952
2017 Wanderer Cara Dillon Henry H811 Recorded in 2017
2018 Hand Rolled Halo The Eastern Swell Roud 564 Recorded in 2018
2019 Bonny Light Horseman Bonny Light Horseman Recorded as "Blackwaterside"

Comparisons with "Black Mountain Side"[edit]

Led Zeppelin's song "Black Mountain Side" is similar sounding to "Blackwaterside". Singer-songwriter Al Stewart claims to have taught the folk song to Zeppelin's guitarist Jimmy Page. Stewart, who had arrived in London in early 1965, followed Jansch's gigs closely[15] and learnt what he thought was Jansch's version of "Blackwaterside". However, he mistakenly believed that Jansch was using the DADGAD tuning on his guitar, whereas he was in fact using 'drop-D' tuning. At the time, Stewart was recording his own debut album and had engaged Page as a session musician. According to Stewart's account, it was he who taught Page "Blackwaterside" in DADGAD during a tea-break.[16] This may even have been Page's first acquaintance with DADGAD.[16]

In spite of this difference, Jansch's record company sought legal advice in consultation with two eminent musicologists and John Mummery QC, a copyright barrister in the United Kingdom, following the release of the Led Zeppelin album, on which "Black Mountain Side" appears.[12] Ultimately, however, no legal action was ever taken against Led Zeppelin, although it was likely that Page had borrowed from Jansch's piece, because it could not be proved that the recording in itself constituted Jansch's own copyright, as the basic melody was traditional. Nevertheless, Jansch said that Page "ripped me off, didn't he? Or let's just say he learned from me."[12]


  1. ^ Peter Kennedy's Folksongs of Britain and Ireland, no. 151, p. 351
  2. ^ Huntington, Gale; Herrmann, Lani; Moulden, John, eds. (1990). Sam Henry's Songs of the People. Athens, GA and London: The University of Georgia Press. p. 461. ISBN 0-8203-1258-4.
  3. ^ Sleeve notes (by A. L. Lloyd) to Anne Briggs' 1971 album Anne Briggs
  4. ^ "Roud Index search on Mary Doran". Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Retrieved 24 April 2015.
  5. ^ Details of recordings in accompanying booklet to 'The Flax in Bloom - The Voice of the People'
  6. ^ Kennedy p. 351
  7. ^ Harper, Colin (2006). Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British Folk and Blues Revival (2006 ed.). Bloomsbury. ISBN 0-7475-8725-6. p. 4
  8. ^ The Mudcat Cafe: Origins: Blackwaterside
  9. ^ a b Harper p. 162
  10. ^ a b Harper p.161
  11. ^ Harper p. 161. Part of an interview with Anne Briggs.
  12. ^ a b c Mick Wall (2008), When Giants Walked the Earth: A Biography Of Led Zeppelin',' London: Orion, p. 56
  13. ^ "Ralph McTell's "Somewhere Down the Road" review". Retrieved 2011-01-24.
  14. ^ Harper, Colin (2006). Dazzling Stranger: Bert Jansch and the British Folk and Blues Revival (2006 ed.). Bloomsbury. p. 138. ISBN 0-7475-8725-6. p.3
  15. ^ Harper p. 199
  16. ^ a b Harper p. 200