Hiking up the mountainHere are five variations on an engaging melody I found in Joyce (1873, p. 21). To be extra clear about these things – as one must these days – Joyce recorded the melody, and I wrote the melodic variations on his theme. Also as usual, the melody went through several rewrites, in interaction with my composition teacher, Ivo Antognini.

Joyce's comment on this melody is short: “I learned this beautiful air from my father; and I remember a part of the song, of which I give the first verse. As far as I recollect, each stanza except the first ended with the line 'All on the mountains high.' Pomeroy is in the county Tyrone; but I have heard the song sung by others, whose version was 'two miles below Fertnoy.' (Co. Cork). The word 'below' refers, I believe, not to elevation, but to direction (north or south), in accordance with a custom very general in Ireland.

As I roved out one evening two miles below Pomeroy,
I met a farmer’s daughter all on the mountains high;
I said, 'my pretty fair maid your beauty shines so clear,
Upon these lonely mountains, I’m glad to meet you here.'”

However there is a bit more to the story, and for this we visit two cultural epochs. First, there is more to the text. Portions of the text above can be found in a 19th century ballad called “The Mountains High”. Under the heading “Reynardine”, Wikipedia gives the following 1814 text, found in a facsimile of the Bodleian Library. We find elements from Joyce's version in the first and second stanza.

A new Song, called the MOUTAINS [sic] HIGH.
ONE evening in my rambles two miles below Pimroy,
I met a farmer's daughter all on the mountains high,
Her beauty so enticed me, I could not pass her by,
So with my gun I'll guard her, all on the mountains high.
I said my pretty creature I'm glad to meet you here,
On these lonesome mountains, your beauty shines so clear,
She said kind sir, be civil, my company forsake1,
For it is my opinion I fear you are some rake.
Said he I am no rake, I'm brought up in Venus' train,
I'm seeking for concealment, all in the judge's name,
Oh! if my parents they did know your life they would destroy,
For keeping of my company, all on the mountains high.
I said my pretty creature don't let your parents know,
For if you do they'll ruin me and prove my overthrow,
This pretty little young thing she stood all in amaze,
With eyes as bright as Amber upon me she did gaze.
Her ruby lips and cherry cheeks, the lass of Firmadie,
She fainted in my arms there, all on the mountains high,
When I had kissed her once or twice, she came to herself again,
And said kind Sir be civil and tell to me your name.
Go down in yonder forest, my castle there you'll find,
Well wrote in ancient history, my name is Rynadine:
Come all you pretty fair maids, a warning take by me,
Be sure you quit night walking, and shun bad company,
For if you don't you are sure to rue until the day you die
Beware of meeting Rynadine all on the mountains high.
Wood, Printer, Liverpool.
1 In modern English, “please leave me alone”.

ReynardineThe subject is a familiar theme: A Rynadine (or Reynardine) is a “werefox” who attracts beautiful women, so that he can take them away to his castle. So any fair maidens out there, please watch out.

Reynardines are foxes (French “renard” = fox), a concept rooted in the familiar medieval tradition of stories about humans behaving like cunning foxes that must be watched out for (see illustration 2). In the melody, this moral lesson is reinforced by a demanding and questioning tone found in a multitude of lines (“don't do that”), as well as in the melody's light skipping style that evokes the cunning tricks ascribed to foxes.

As I thought about this story, it seemed to me that we had evolved quite some distance beyond this 19th century moral lesson. I thus transformed the themes into a simple modern story which goes like this (see music sheet):

Theme 1: (F major) A woman and two men hike up a mountain ... and all seems fine.
Theme 2: (D minor) However, the men get into an argument.
Theme 3: (always in D minor) The argument is about the woman.
Theme 4: (still in D minor) Both men think that they should be the woman's best friend.
Theme 5: (back in F major) The woman says... “relax, you two... I already have a best friend!” And that settles the argument.

I know, this is very tame and far removed from the anguished fears that ought to be provoked by “a wily fox”. But why not. Moral lessons evolve over time, but the melody remains attractive.

Harpsichord, 432 Hz tuning

Music score
MIDI file

Image credits

1. livingnorth.com
2. Wikipedia: Jacquemart Gielée: Renart le nouvel, Handschrift, um 1290/1300, BNF, Paris, Ms fr. 1581f. 6v