In December 2009, Sting was the subject of an hour long BBC TV documentary which was dedicated to his Winter Song project. In this he explained the background to this song. It was, he said, a begging song, a very old English song which originated in the ritual of baking soul cakes. These were made to feed the dead on Halloween, in the hope that it would sate their hunger until the following year. As, obviously, the dead did not generally have much of an appetite, the poor and hungry got the idea that they could beg for them.
"Soul Cake" appears to emanate from Cheshire, and was published in the 1893 study English County Songs by Lucy Etheldred Broadwood and J. A. Fuller Maitland wherein it is alluded to as "Souling Song (Cheshire)"; it is also known simply as "Souling Song" or the "Cheshire Souling Song" and is written in 6/8 time. According to Miss Broadwood's notes, the words and music were taken down by the Reverend M.P. Holme at Tattenhall, Cheshire. Part of it was restored from the book Shropshire Folk-Lore by Charlotte Burne, and the rest of the song was sung by a young girl at Tattenhall School in October 1891.
A radio edit of the Sting version was produced "Not For Sale - For Promotion Only," and this will undoubtedly become a collectors' piece in the decades to come.
Suggestion credit: Alexander Baron - London, England, for all above
The folk group Peter, Paul and Mary visited this theme in the 1963 song "A' Soalin."