Tom Potts for Sing Yonder

When Karl asked me if I'd consider undertaking some songwriting for Sing Yonder, my initial thought was “What, me?” Because although I write songs and tunes, and have made no secret about my love of finding old folk songs that are no longer sung and bringing them back to life and into the modern folk song repertoire, this was Sing Yonder. It's a publication that features so many of the musicians I admire, respect, am inspired by (and a few have been my mentors/coaches/tutors!) But I thought it too exciting a challenge to refuse, although once I realised the scale of work required for one of the songs, I wondered what on earth I was agreeing to! Karl gave me Roud 65 and 66 (Child Ballads 101 and 109 respectively) and left me to it. I decided to start with Tom Potts, the longest of the two songs and the one with the least to work with, figuring that if I took the one needing the most work first, the second would prove easier by comparison!


Re-writing Tom Potts was challenging as Child’s versions have either 66, 96 or 105 verses containing old spelling and dialect. With no known tune, everything needed to be written. Karl allowed me a maximum of 16 verses for the rewrite; much condensing to fit the Sing Yonder page! I read all the versions to grasp the story’s essence: The Earl of Arundel's daughter, Anne, falls in love with serving man Tom Potts, and wants to marry him rather than the rich Lord Fenix her father wants. After an argument with her father, another between Lord William Fenix and Tom Potts, as well as some fighting with spears, Anne gets her man, and Tom Potts becomes Earl of Arundel. Anne tells women to marry for love not money!

It took weeks to cut the ballad to the 16 verse limit. I was stuck around 18 verses for a couple of weeks, nowt knowing what else I could remove. The three versions in Child have different elements and deciding what to omit involved tough choices. There was no room for every event, no opportunity for a prolonged fight, and although I’d hoped to keep more with Tom Potts becoming the Earl of Arundel, there wasn’t space. But I decided early in the process to keep the end where Anne tells women to marry for love: that formed the basis for the entire interpretation. (Thanks to Jon Boden for the songwriting tip a couple of years ago, of taking the ending and working back. It really was the only way to reduce the ballad.) As Sing Yonder is about encouraging people to sing, I felt that taking elements where Anne was in control would have contemporary appeal. But I also wanted to keep some original language to link the new version firmly to the old.

Story sorted, I created a rhythm on which to pin the lyrics and melody. Almost every song I write starts ‘rhythm first’; everything develops around it. The tune was more complex originally but, in order to ensure the song was suitable for singers of all abilities, I simplified it and the finished song appeared! I recorded it for Karl on YouTube and sang it in my online Ballad Room as well as at my usual haunt at Royal Traditions Folk Club and it's still evolving - the odd word change or a tweak in the tune - but that's folk music, constantly evolving!

Historically, Tom Potts, poses questions about which Earls and Lords are involved. The Earls of Arundel have existed since 1138 and they’re still based in Sussex at Arundel Castle. There was a strong-willed Anne, Countess of Arundel, in the late 1500s/early 1600s, the stepdaughter of Thomas Howard, 4th Duke Of Norfolk. She married Thomas Howard’s son, Philip (who later became Earl Of Arundel by inheriting the title from his mother’s grandfather). In the early-to-mid-1600s there was a Henry Howard (15th Earl) with a Scottish wife. Their eldest daughter was Anne, although she died young. And a few more later Annes, although some are too late to appear in a Child Ballad! There was a Sir William Fenwick in the 1600s; the name is remarkably close to the Fenix/Phenix in the song.  He had a son called John Fenwick (the last of the Fenwicks) who married Mary, the great, great, great, granddaughter of Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk (the same Duke above) and the Norfolks still hold the seat at Arundel Castle. So there are definite links between the families.

There are two locations mentioned, Guilford Green and Strawberry Castle. Given the location of Arundel Castle, it could be that modern day Strawberry Hill (Twickenham) and Guildford are the locations in the South of England being referred to. The Fenwicks were from Northumberland, but three generations of Fenwicks were MPs (and Sir William Fenwick was based at Greys Inn, one of the four London Inns of Court) so it’s possible the author of the original ballad was drawing inspiration from real characters and places, even if in name only.  

You can read the complete Sing Yonder Substack entry, including some history of the song at

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