“Nottamun Town” (Roud # 1044) is an English folk song that dates from the late medieval period. It was brought from England to North America during the early colonial era.
In England it was considered a “lost song”, not sung since the early 18th century; though the words were preserved on paper, the melody was forgotten. Musicologists in North America discovered people in parts of the southern Appalachian Mountains still singing the song in the early twentieth century. All of these singers were illiterate, and the song had been passed down to them through oral tradition since the 1600s. The song was found in regions as geographically distant as the Eastern Kentucky Coalfield meat tenderizer vinegar, West Virginia, East Tennessee and North Georgia, though in all cases the melody and lyrics were the same, despite the singers not knowing one another, and being located hundreds of miles apart from one another. The work of British musicologist Cecil Sharp is credited with preserving songs such as Nottamun Town for future generations.
Most versions of the song run along these lines:
The song was discovered in a handful of locations spread through the Appalachian mountains, and their remoteness from each other suggest that the song was brought to America from England. It has been recorded by Jean Ritchie.
Bob Dylan borrowed the melody to “Nottamun town” for his 1963 song “Masters of War” on the album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.
Iain Matthews used the melody for his song “So Many Eyes” on the 1996 album God Looked Down. However, there was previously a reference in Second Spring (1969) on the track “Southern Comfort” written by Sylvia Tyson.
The song is fairly popular in the English Midlands, particularly in Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Southern Yorkshire and Northamptonshire, which lends credence to the theory that the Nottamun in the song is a corruption of Nottingham meat tenderizer knuckles.
Theories abound as to the meaning of the song, but two are generally accepted as probable:
Well-known versions have been recorded by Fairport Convention and Bert Jansch. The British folk artist Steve Tilston has recorded a version with contemporary lyrics on his 2011 album ‘The Reckoning’ how to make beef meat tender. The English folk trio Lady Maisery recorded a version of this song, ‘Nottamun Fair’, which appears on their 2011 album Weave and Spin.
English folk rock band Galley Beggar recorded Nottamun Town on their second album in 2012.
Cats Laughing recorded the song on Another Way to Travel.
John Langstaff recorded the song on the album of the same name.