Child collected two versions of Leesome Brand. Both can be found here. I’m not sure why he classified them as the same ballad, since they look to me like two very different stories. Version A is an odd, and kind of disturbing story with an improbable happy ending, while version B is a murder ballad with absolutely no context or motive.
In the beginning of version A, a ten-year-old boy is sent away to serve in a strange court.
My boy was scarcely ten years auld,
When he went to an unco land,
Where the wind never blew, nor cocks ever crew,
Ohno for my son, Leesome Brand!
He meets a girl:
He hadna been in that unco land,
But only twallmonths twa or three,
When by the glancing o his ee,
He gaind the love o a gay ladye.
This ladye was scarce eleven years auld,
When on her love she was right bauld;
So… that means she went around kissing boys… right?
She was scarce up to my right knee,
When oft in bed with men I’m tauld.
Ok, where’s Chris Hansen when you need him? I understand that people used to marry young, but the ballad seems to be saying that this girl started sleeping around when she was a toddler, and that this is somehow a reflection in her character and not that of the men around her.
She gets pregnant and convinces Leesome Brand to take her back home with him. She goes into labor as they are riding through the forest. He offers to help, but she refuses to let a man see her in labor and tells him to go off and hunt.
‘Ye’ll take your arrow and your bow,
And ye will hunt the deer and roe.
‘Be sure ye touch not the white hynde,
For she is o the woman kind.’
He gets distracted hunting until he sees the white hind, (I’m not sure whether he is supposed to have shot it or just seen it) and returns to find both her and the baby dead. He goes back to his mother who asks him why he is so sad. He responds to her with a confusing metaphor:
‘O I hae lost my gowden knife;
I rather had lost my ain sweet life!
‘And I hae lost a better thing,
The gilded sheath that it was in.’
His mother, not realizing that the “knife” is his son and the “sheath” is his lady offers to get him a new knife. After going on with the metaphor for several verses, he finally just tells her what he means:
‘I’ve lost my ladye I lovd sae dear,
Likewise the son she did me bear.
His mother then tells him that she has a horn with three drops of Saint Pauls’ blood, and that these have the power to revive the dead. He revives the girl and their son, and they live happily ever after.
For all that the age of the characters disturbs me, I find this ballad oddly touching. While I think I am seeing certain aspects of the story differently than the people who originally sang it, there does seem to be an intentional theme of children growing up too fast. The mother laments in the beginning that her young son has been sent away to a strange court, and in the end she not only gets her son back, but fixes what has probably been the biggest trauma of his life up to this point. From the girl’s point of view, I could see it as a story of a victim of sexual abuse escaping from the place where she has been victimized and entering into a new life. Maybe I am grasping at straws, but I want to see this as a happy ending.
Version B is a very different story, and I’m not sure why Child decided to categorize it as a version of Leesome Brand instead of listing it as a version of the next ballad, “Sheath and Knife,” since is looks exactly like a shortened version of that ballad right down to having the same chorus.
In this song, a man takes his “lady” and his child to the woods, and she gives him instructions to shoot her.
‘When ye hear me give a cry,
Ye’ll shoot your bow and let me lye.
He does so, the arrow kills both mother and child, and he is sad about it.
It was nae wonder his heart was sad
When he shot his auld son at her head.
It is not made clear how or why any of this happens. In the notes, Child comments:
The shooting of the child is unintelligible in the mutilated state of the ballad. It is apparently meant to be an accident.
He buries them, continues to be sad and goes home. His father later asks him why he is so sad, and he uses the same metaphor as Leesome Brand did in the previous ballad.
‘Oh,’ said he, ‘Father, I’ve lost my knife
I loved as dear as my own life.
‘But I have lost a far better thing,
I lost the sheath that the knife was in.’
This time he never explains (probably to avoid being convicted of murder) but tells his father that his sheath and knife can never be replaced.
Moving on to the notes, Child describes several ballads from across Europe that bear a resemblance to version A.
This is one of those cases in which a remarkably fine ballad has been worse preserved in Scotland than anywhere else. Without light from abroad we cannot fully understand even as much as we have saved, and with this light comes a keen regret for what we have lost.
With an opening paragraph like that I’m surprised that there are only five pages of notes!
Child starts with a ballad that may relate to the heroine’s instruction not to shoot the white hind:
Grundtvig has suggested that the hind came from a lost Scottish ballad resembling ‘The Maiden Transformed into a Hind’… In this ballad a girl begs her brother, who is going hunting, to spare the little hind that “plays before his foot.” The brother nevertheless shoots the hind, though not mortally, and sets to work to flay it, at which point he discovers his sister under the hind’s hide. His sister tells him that she has been successively changed into a pair of scissors, a sword, a hare, a hind, by her step-mother, and that she was not to be free of the spell until she had drunk of her brother’s blood. Her brother at once cuts his fingers, gives her some of his blood, and the girl is permanently restored to her natural shape, and afterwards is happily married.
That story is easily resolved, at least. The ones that follow do not end so happily.
Child then summarizes a ballad called ‘Redselille og Medelvold’ which is found in several Scandinavian countries. This ballad begins with a mother learning that her daughter is pregnant. The mother threatens to kill or severely punish both her daughter and the father of the child.
The girl finds her baby’s father and runs off with him, but sends him away when she starts to give birth in the forest. He returns to find that she has died in childbirth, sometimes after being told that she is dead by a bird. He buries the mother and child(ren) and lies in the grave with them.
At this point Child’s summary starts to get disturbing.
It is not said whether the children are dead or living, and the point would hardly be raised but for what follows. In Danish D, P and Swedish F, is expressly mentioned that the children are alive, and in Q, R, S, T, U, six copies of V and Y, and also in ‘Bolde Hr. Nilaus’ Løn,’ and in ‘Sønnens Sorg,’ Danish A, Norwegian A, C, D, E, the children are heard, or seen to be heard, shrieking from under the ground. Nearly all the versions make the knight run himself through with his sword, either immediately after the others are laid in the grave, or after he has ridden far and wide, because he cannot endure the cries of the children from under the earth. This would seem to be the original conclusion of the story; the horrible circumstance of the children being buried alive is much more likely to be slurred over or omitted at a later day than added.
Child describes different variations on this story throughout Europe.
In some versions the hero is telling the story to his mother, father or a friend and falls dead at the end of it. Another involves the hero building the heroine “a hut of thistles, thorns, and high stakes,” in which to give birth.
In some versions from Germany, the tragedy happens because the heroine’s mother has placed a curse on her. At least this time the children are not buried alive but left with the their paternal grandmother instead. They grow up and set out to find their father (who I guess never went to visit his mother or his sons.) They find both their father and their maternal grandmother (who put the curse on their mother in the first place.) She makes peace with her grandsons and builds a convent.
There is also a French ballad that is similar to the others except that in the end it turns out that the heroine is only pretending to be dead to test her lover. Child refers to this as a “perverted” conclusion, which I take to mean that the happy ending has been tacked awkwardly onto the end of a tragedy.
I can not find any English recordings of Leesome Brand, though this page does list recordings of a few ballads in other languages, some of which can be found on iTunes.