Song of the Week: Linden Lea

A little known fact about your humble blogger: many years ago, I was a member of my high school’s varsity choir. For a town of roughly 2,500 people, our choir was fairly impressive. Led by our intrepid director, Mrs. Charla Dedmon, our small troupe would go on to win several superior medals at the Oklahoma State Solo and Ensemble Competition (This was the rough equivalent of taking a gold medal at a state championship track meet). As with so many activities of youth, I failed then to realize that my hours spent singing were actually quite influential in developing my later appreciation of art and music.

Lest this post seem more self-congratulatory than need be, I cannot lay personal claim to having made Oklahoma’s illustrious All-State Choir despite my superior solos and ensembles at State Contest. Sadly, My baritone voice was of limited range, and this did me no favors as I competed against Oklahoma’s best. I was easily bounced from the final round of auditions having returned late from a College visit to Dartmouth. I suppose we all have our priorities.

Looking back on it, I wonder if I might have met country music star Carrie Underwood somewhere during our formative years at competition. Ms. Underwood hails from sleepy Checotah, OK, a town roughly the same size as Walters, and she graduated from High School the same year I did in 2001. For anyone interested in music or singing, varsity choir was an obvious way to go. Then again, Ms. Underwood was probably too cool for choir, and, regardless, is surely way too cool for yours truly.

All of the above, is merely a long prelude to today’s Song of the Week. One of the few numbers we performed in my choir days that has stuck with me was English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams’ 1901 selection titled Linden Lea. It was a drop high for me as a baritone, but the song was lovely.

At risk of insult, Vaughn Williams’ style was to borrow from the Anglican hymnal and recast folk songs to the rough typeset of a hymn. This metric is pronounced throughout song. As a result, one could fairly call Linden Lea a secular hymn. In my view, this is a perfectly reasonable application of new styles to older songs. Artists have been doing this since ye olden days of minstrels and bards. In music and fashion alone is theft a form of flattery.

Linden Lea is striking for two reasons. First, its music is absolutely superb. Written in the key of G major, the tune is at times both soaring and brooding, not unlike the natural environs it sets to score. Specifically, the high key challenges even the best of singers because the highest points in the song are also those notes that are held the longest. A quick read of the sheet music shows the highest notes in the second half of the melody marked with a dotted quarter note set amid a 3/4 time signature.

Given the pace, it could be said that the greatest musical difficulty of the song is its simplicity. To wit, anyone can sing Amazing Grace, but not everyone can sing Amazing Grace well. The same holds true for Linden Lea.

The second reason the song is striking is its words. While Ralph Vaugh Williams dubbed the song a ‘Dorset Song,’ true credit for the lyrics go to the Dorset poet William Barnes. Barnes was born in the early 19th Century and spent the majority of his life among the west country peoples in Dorset along the southern coast of England. This area is home to a number of jutting crags, meadows and grasslands aplenty (viz., leas). Although the area was once quite thick with timber, the land has been cleared for centuries of its native forests. Its climate falls on average between 50 and 54 degrees. As one keeps in mind the area described in the song, it is difficult not to develop an affinity for such a seemingly far away place. Growing up in small-town Oklahoma, even a young boy could appreciate the romance of green leas, and the bubbling streams of Doreset.

The song was originally written in the Dorset dialect, a slight variation of English that adds a soft inflection in place of the letter “F.” It makes for an interesting read of the poem as Barnes wrote it. The themes of the poem’s language carry over nicely into the song by Ralph Vaughn Williams. It is not difficult to embrace the locale described in its colloquial warmth. The song evokes feelings brought on by the turning seasons, and by wide expanses of meadows. This aspect of appreciation is not limited to Dorset. One of my favorite college memories is of lying down in a field of green near Quechee, VT, and soaking in the cloudless sky overhead.

As a burgeoning lawyer, the part of the song that I enjoy most is the lyricists musings on life and work. The final stanza of the song describes a choice made long ago between making easy money working in ‘dark-roomed’ towns or living life in the freedom of simplicity. I suppose we will all cross a similar point of decision in our lives. But for now, the introspection is a welcomed consideration nearly a decade after first hearing the song.

Below is a performance of Linden Lea as sung by the Choir of St. Mary’s Church at Hendon. The congregation at Hendon has has existed in some form since the 9th century. Its choir has performed at such sundry places as St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and in venues across New York City. A legal and free mp3 of the song can be found here. Lyrics follow after the videos. Enjoy!

Below is a video of Linden Lea as sung by a terrific, amateur countertenor.

Below are videos underscoring the, ah, difficulty of singing Linden Lea well.

Linden Lea
Music by Ralph Vaughn Williams
Poem by William Barnes

Within the woodlands, flow’ry gladed,
By the oak trees’ mossy moot;
The shining grass blades, timber shaded,
Now do quiver under foot;
And birds do whistle overhead,
And water’s bubbling in its bed;
And there for me,
The apple tree
Do lean down low in Linden Lea.

When leaves, that lately were a-springing,
Now do fade within the copse,
And painted birds do hush their singing
Up upon the timber tops;
And brown leaved fruit’s a-turning red,
In cloudless sunshine overhead,
With fruit for me,
The apple tree
Do lean down low in Linden Lea.

Let other folk make money faster;
In the air of darkened towns;
I don’t dread a peevish master.
Though no man may heed my frowns
I be free to go abroad,
Or take again my home-ward road,
To where, for me,
The apple tree
Do lean down low in Linden Lea.

Lyrics courtesy of

4 responses to “Song of the Week: Linden Lea”

  1. I appreciate your posting the lyrics to Linden Lea, and your thoughtful comments on it. Have you heard the version sung by Janet Baker, accompanied by Gerald Moore? It's on an EMI CD on which she sings other English songs, and Schubert, Struass, and Faure, all with Gerald Moore.

  2. You'll be happy to know that Johnny Flynn has just released his version of this song on the soundtrack to a movie called A Bag of Hammers (Brian Crano) due out in May. The song is only available on 12\” Vinyl but were hoping it will be released as a CD or iTunes!

  3. Thanks for your blog. It is interesting how some music reaches out and grabs us by the scruff of the neck and won't let us go. I have been performing folk music for about 45 years My favorite version of Linden Lea is by English folk singer Maggie Boyle accompanied on guitar by Steve Tilston. I heard it on CD about 15 years ago. Just remarkable in its smplicity and purity. I learned yesterday that Maggie Boyle had passed away in Nov 5 2014. I worked up my own rendition in D just today and plan on singing it at an upcoming Irish session later this month in Salem MA

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