Among the many folk song arrangements by Vaughan Williams, John Dory is without doubt one of his most colorful and most cleverly realized. An inveterate collector of folk songs -- amassing over 800 in his lifetime -- he arranged many for various vocal combinations, but generally not for solo voice. Here, he used a folk song from the 1879 collection, Ballad Literature and Popular Music of the Olden Time, assembled by William Chappell, and scored it for a small group of mixed voices.
The original John Dory folk song became enormously popular throughout England in the seventeenth century. Its text dates to 1609 (from Cornwall), and it is that text which Vaughan Williams manipulates so well here, forging music from it that yields springy rhythms, a shifting aural perspective (e.g., female voices moving to the background; male voices taking the foreground, then receding in kind), a delightful sense of surprise, and a subtle building of tension amid the color and jollity. The song begins with the male voices rhythmically repeating "a ride a," while the female voices sing, "As it fell on a holy day/And upon a holy tide, a." The male voices then take up the new rhythmic mantra, "a tide a." This pattern varies when the male voices come into the foreground, and thereafter many other clever devices are used. The text tells the tale of John Dory who meets with tragedy at sea. In sum, this is one of the finest folk song arrangements in Vaughan Williams' output.