Read the lyrics here.
As part of this project, I have tried to sing these ballads at open mics as I write about them. I have been a bit lax about that for the last few entries, but in last week I found myself at an open mic and decided to sing a version of Twa Sisters that I learned as a kid. As this was a spur of the moment decision, I hadn’t taken any time to practice it at home and completely underestimated how long it was. I don’t know exactly how long I took, bit I realized later that the original track I learned it from was about 7 minutes.
I don’t think it went over too well with most of the audience. There were a lot of people waiting to perform, the audience was more in the mood for rock and roll than long unaccompanied ballads, I hadn’t heard the song myself for over ten years, and I suspect that even people who usually like me found their eyes glazing over a bit. However, I was approached afterwards by a man who told me that his grandmother used to sing this song and that he was crying tears of joy from hearing it again, so at least someone liked it.
Child collected 21 versions of this ballad. He probably found so many because it was still very popular at the time, even as the oral tradition was dying out as the main popular form of entertainment.
This is one of very few old ballads which are not extinct as tradition in the British Isles. Early drawing-room versions are spoken of as current, generally traced to some old nurse, who sang them to the young ladies.
So something about this story certainly had some staying power.
Basic plot: Older sister kills younger sister by pushing her in the water, usually because she’s jealous of younger sister’s suitor. The younger sister’s body is found by a miller or a musician who, for some reason, decides to make a musical instrument out of her corpse. Once the instrument is made, it plays a song about what happened.
At least, that is the most popular version of the story. In some versions the harp just says goodbye to her family and her boyfriend. In some versions the girl’s ghost appears to the miller and tells him to make the harp. In other versions the ghost cuts out the middle-man and appears to her boyfriend.
Then there are others where the supernatural element is cut out, the girl is almost rescued by the miller who then decides to rob her, throws her back in, and is ultimately hanged.
Many versions start by describing the rivalry between the sisters and the preference of the suitor for the younger sister:
There was twa sisters in a bowr,
There came a knight to be their wooer.
He courted the eldest wi glove and ring,
But he loved the eldest above a’ thing.
He courted the eldest wi brotch an knife,
But he loved the youngest as his life.
To the eldest he gave a beaver hat,
And the youngest she thought much of that.
To the youngest he gave a gay gold chain,
And the eldest she thought much of the same.
I’m not sure what’s happening between the suitor and the older sister in version H, but here he’s apparently gone from lack of interest in marrying her to outright death threats!
He courted the eldest with a penknife,
And he vowed that he would take her life.
Anyway, the elder sister convinces the younger sister to go for a walk by either the sea or a river and pushes her in.
The younger sister pleads with the older sister to help her get back to land. She sometimes offers various bribes sometimes including her fiancé, but the older sister refuses:
‘O sister, o sister that may not be,
Till salt and oatmeal grow both of a tree.’
‘Your cherry cheeks an yallow hair
Gars me go maiden for evermair.’
‘I did not put you in with the design
Just for to pull you out again.’
In some versions she even forcibly prevents her sister from swimming back to land.
She had a switch into her hand,
And ay she drove her frae the land.
In many versions, the miller and his daughter find her body and bring her to shore:
‘O father, father draw your dam,
Here’s either a mermaid or a swan’
The miller he spared nae his hose nor his shoon
Till he broucht this lady to dry land.
The miller comes across better in some of these versions than others. In version R, she is still alive and tries to bribe him to take her back to her father. For reasons that are not explained, he takes the bribe and then throws her back in the water.
‘I’ll give to thee this gay gold chain,
If you’ll take me back to my father again.’
The miller he took her gay gold chain,
And he pushed her back into the water again
In this version, the miller is punished, but not the older sister:
The miller he was hanged on his high gate
For drowning our poor sister Kate.
Version S, which is a fragment, gets a little strange:
She offered the miller a gold ring stane
To throw her into the river again.
Either something got lost as the ballad was passed from person to person, or she wanted to die. Either way, the miller is again punished for murdering her.
In the versions where the miller and his daughter are simply retrieving her dead body, there are usually several verses going into detail about how richly she is dressed:
They couldna see her waist so sma
For the goud and silk about it a’.
They couldna see her yallow hair
For the pearls and jewels that were there.
Maybe it’s not too surprising that she wasn’t able to swim to shore wearing all that.
Some versions end here, while others, (“all complete and uncorrupted forms of the ballad,” according to Child) go on to what many people consider it’s defining characteristic: the instrument made out of the dead girl’s body. In some versions her ghost appears to the miller or a musician and tells him to make the instrument , while in other versions he gets the idea to do it himself.
In most of the versions the instrument made from the girl’s body parts is presented in romantic language. In these versions, only part of her body is used such as her hair, fingers, and/or breast bone.
He’s taen three links of her yellow hair,
And made it a string for his fiddle there.
He’s cut her fingers long and small,
To be fiddle pins that might neer fail.
In a few of the versions collected, the instrument made from body parts is turned into a joke. These versions go into greater detail about the musician using a larger number of body parts:
What did he doe with her nose-ridge?
Unto his violl he made him a bridge.
What did he doe with her veynes so blew?
He made them strings to his violl thereto.
What did he doe with her eyes so bright?
Upon his violl he played at first sight.
What did he doe with her tongue so rough?
Upon the violl it spake enough.
What did he doe with her two shinnes?
Upon the violl they danced Moll Syms.
And what did he do with her legs so strong?
He made them a stand for his violon.
And what did he do with her arms so long?
He made them bows for his violon.
And what did he do with her eyes so bright?
He made them spectacles to put to his sight.
And what did he do with her pretty toes?
He made them a nosegay to put to his nose.
Child disapproves of the humorous verses and believes they were added by one of the people who wrote the songs down (he specifically suspects “Dr. James Smith, a well known writer of humorous verses” of writing the ones in version A) and not while they were still being sung as part of the oral tradition.
If the ballad were ever in Smith’s hands, he might possibly have inserted the three Burlesque stanzas, 11-13; but similar verses are found in another copy (L a), and might easily be extemporized by any singer of sufficiently bad taste.
Later in the notes, Child goes on to refer to these verses as “buffoonery.” He believed that the original story simply had the musician or the girl’s lover stringing his instrument with some of her hair, but that over the years more body parts were added until it changed from sad, romantic imagery to dark humor.
Some of the versions collected end with the instrument being made, but in the versions that complete the story the instrument begins to play by itself and tells the story of the murder.
And then bespoke the strings all three,
‘O yonder is my sister that drowned me.’
‘Now pay the miller for his payne,
And let him bee gone in the divel’s name.’
The first spring that the bonnie fiddle played,
‘Hang my cruel sister, Alison,’ it said.
The very first spring that the fiddle did play,
‘Hang my auld sister,’ I wad it did say.
‘For she drowned me in yonder sea,
God neer let her rest till she shall die.’
The firstand spring the fiddle did play,
Said, ‘Ye’ll drown my sister, as she’s dune me.’
Child gets a bit more opinionated and snarky in the notes for this ballad than in any of the others I have gone over so far. He mocks Allan Cunningham’s notes on a version of the ballad that he published in “Songs of Scotland,” in 1825. Cunningham claimed he was publishing a traditional version of the song that he had heard someone else sing, but Child believed that Cunningham had re-written it himself:
Cunningham has re-written Scott’s version, Songs of Scotland, II, 109, ‘The Two Fair Sisters.’ He says, “I was once deeply touched with the singing of this romantic and mournful song… I have ventured to print it in the manner I heard it sung.” There is, to be sure, no reason why he should not have heard his own song sung, once, and still less why he should not have been deeply touched with his own pathos.
Child discusses a few interesting variations of the story from other countries, including:
- Norse ballads where the younger sister comes across as less sympathetic when she repeatedly taunts the older sister for being “black” and tells her that she will never have a lover.
- Versions of the story where the instrument is made from a tree that grows over her body rather than parts of the body itself.
- Versions where the older sister dies of guilt after hearing the harp play at her wedding, or is killed by the groom when he finds out the truth.
- Happy ending versions where the sister either survives or comes back to life. Child does not like these endings. He refers to the ending of a Swedish ballad where the girl is rescued and forgives her sister as “an entirely perverted and feeble conclusion.” In “nearly all the Norwegian ballads” the younger sister comes back to life once the instrument is broken. Child is of the opinion that this ending, “like all good endings foisted on tragedies, emasculates the story.”
- A story where the girl turns onto a tree that is made into a pipe which spurts blood onto the cheeks of her sister when she tries to play it.
So this ballad and the story it tells have multiple variations and the song is still very popular among folk musicians. The public loves murder ballads, and it seems they especially like ballads about instruments made from dead people.