The British folk song, “The Old Churchyard,” performed here by the Portland band The Decemberists and English singer Olivia Chaney at this year’s Newport Folk Fest, is part of a rich, oral tradition passed along by musicians and spanning decades.
In 2002, it was performed by a group called Waterson: Carthy, which included the influential English folk singer Martin Carthy, who inspired Offa Rex’s title track, “The Queen of Hearts.” That song became well known, thanks to a version sung by the American folk singer Joan Baez. Carthy was apparently enthralled with the song when he heard it in Washington, D.C. for the 1976 bicentennial celebrations by the Ozarks, Arkansas folk singer Almeda “Granny” Riddle, a regular at the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife as well as the Newport Folk Festival. Sarah Gunning from Eastern Kentucky also recorded a version of the song.
It’s unclear just how far back “The Old Churchyard” goes. It could be centuries. Chaney imagines, as inspiration, how “the first settlers traveled from the British Isles over to America.” Traditions shared across oceans and revived again and again keep folk songs like this alive.
Watch the video above of Olivia Chaney and the Decemberists performing “the Old Churchyard.”