Child 16: Sheath and Knife

It is talked about the warld  all over,

The brume blooms bonnie and says it is fair

The king’s dochter gaes wi child to her brither.

And we’ll never gang doun to the brume onie mair

Here is a happy little ballad about incest and… murder?  suicide?  death by childbirth?  (Whichever it is, for some reason I feel that I have a better understanding of this ballad since I started watching Game of Thrones.)  You can read the lyrics here.

Version A is the only complete version of this ballad that Child collected, versions C and D are just fragments and version B, which is from Sharpe’s Ballad Book, is missing half the story.  In a footnote for this version, Sir Walter Scott is quoted as saying:

I have heard the ‘Broom Blooms bonnie’ sung by our poor old nursery-maid as often as I have teeth on my head, but after cudgelling my memory I can make no more than the following stanzas.

In this ballad, a princess or high-ranking lady gets pregnant by her brother, he takes her to his father’s “deer park” or some remote area and she gives him this instruction:

‘Now when that ye hear me gie a loud cry,

Shoot frae thy bow an arrow and there let me lye.

‘And when that ye see I am lying dead,

Then ye’ll put me in a grave, wi a turf at my head’

The first time I read this I assumed that she was giving him instructions to shoot her, but then in the notes Child compares it to a passage in “Robin Hood’s Death and Burial” where Robin Hood shoots a bow as he is dying and asks to be buried wherever the arrow lands.

 ‘But give me my bent bow in my hand,

And a broad arrow I’ll let flee,

And where this arrow is taken up,

There shall my grave diggd be.

If the arrow is just to determine where she will be buried, that means she either knows she is about to die in childbirth or she is about to kill herself noisily.  I think it makes more sense that this is about him shooting her.

Her brother buries her, “wi her babe at her feet.”

He goes back to his father’s court where there is a party happening.   From there it end the same way as version B of Leesome Brand.

 ‘O Willie, O Willie, what makes thee in pain?’

‘I have lost a sheath and knife that I’ll never see again’

‘There is ships o your father’s sailing on the sea

That will bring as good a sheath and a knife unto thee’

‘There is ships o my father’s sailing on the sea,

But sic a sheath and knife they can never bring to me.’

Child only wrote two paragraphs of notes for this ballad.  I’m guessing that he thought that related ballads were covered well enough in the notes for Leesome Brand.  The other ballads covered in those notes have similar plot points, such as a couple going to the forest where the woman gives birth, and instructions for the man to do something when the woman. “give(s) a loud cry.”

I still wonder why version B of “Leesome Brand” was not listed as a version of “Sheath and Knife.”  Probably the lack of incest.

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Child 15: Leesome Brand

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.  A less happy version was recorded by Gordon Bok on his album Other Eyes.

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.

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Child 14: Babylon; or The Bonnie Banks O Fordie

Babylon, or The Bonnie Banks of Fordie is a tragic ballad about a ruthless killer who fails to recognize his own close family members.  It is also the English/Scottish variation of the ballad that would eventually inspire the films The Virgin Spring and The Last House on the Left.  The lyrics to all versions are here.

All of the variations that Child collected tell the story of three sisters who go out “to pull a flower,” and are confronted by a robber or outlaw in the woods.  The robber gives them this ultimatum:

‘It’s whether ye be a robber’s wife,

Or will ye die by my wee pen-knife.”

-Version A

The first two choose to die and he kills them one at a time.  The third proclaims that she has an outlaw brother who will retaliate if she is murdered.  The outlaw then realizes that he is the brother she is talking about and kills himself.

There is some variation between the versions.   Version B ends with the surviving sister lamenting that her brothers weren’t there to save her sisters and apparently there are some lost verses where the robber finds out that he has killed his brothers as well as sisters and then kills himself.

In version C he meets the sisters one at a time instead of all together, which I think makes more sense in explaining why the third sister didn’t mention her brother earlier.

In version D the youngest sister goes out first and the other two go out one at a time to look for her when she doesn’t come back.

Version E stands out the most from the others.  The wording is fancier than the other versions and the story is also suspiciously coherent.  The robber is first described as a “Loudon lord, wi Loudon hose, and Loudon sheen.”  Most of all it is different because the robber is not the long lost brother of his victims and their brother shows up at the end just in time to save the last sister.  It is listed as being from “Kinloch’s Ancient Scottish Ballads.”

The Scandinavian versions of this ballad are also ballads that inspired Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, which in turn inspired Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left.

(Watch this video for a short comparative analysis of both movies.  You can also watch The Virgin Spring for free here.)

Child first describes a Danish version called “Hr. Truels’s Døttre,”  in which three sisters riding through the forest on their way to church meet with three robbers who threaten to kill them if they do not become “robbers’ wives.”

Much rather death, say they.  The two elder sisters submitted to their fate without a word; the third made a hard resistance.  With her last breath she adjured the robbers to seek lodging at Herr Truels’ that night.

That seems like a strange thing to say with your last breath as you are being murdered, but who am I to judge?  The robbers take her advice, I guess because good lodgings are hard to find and recommendations from people you are murdering are as good as any.  They drink the girls’ father to bed and than ask their mother to sleep with them.

She agrees on the condition that they let her look in their packs first.  I’m curious about the reason given for this.  Is she suspicious that the men murdered her daughters, or is there another reason?  Anyway, she finds her daughters’ clothes, informs her husband, and he calls his men to arrest the robbers.  While he is questioning them, it comes out that the robbers are his long-lost sons.  He offers to help them escape, but they feel so remorseful for killing their sisters that they choose to be executed.

The Swedish versions are very similar except that the father kills the first two robbers himself before the third reveals his parentage.  The father builds a church as penance for killing his sons, and in one version also goes to the smith to have a band of iron fastened around his middle.

In a version from the Faroe islands there are only two sisters and only one of them rides out.  Like the girls in the other ballads, she meets a man who threatens to kill her if she doesn’t sleep with him.

He cut off her head, and wherever her blood ran a light kindled; where her head fell a spring welled forth: where her body lay a church was [afterwards] built.  The rover came to Torkild’s house, and the father asked if he had seen Katrine.  He said that she had been at Mary Kirk the day before, and asked for lodging, feigning to be sick.

After this, he stupidly offers the murdered girl’s clothes to the remaining sister as a bribe for sleeping with him.  She recognizes her sister’s clothes, tells her father, and the man is burned to death in the morning.  No revelation of him being a long-lost son this time.

Child describes some Icelandic versions with very similar stories to the Faroe ballad, though with some added details about a “miraculous light” burning over the place where they have been buried and the bells ringing by themselves when the bodies are taken to the church.

Child finishes by discussing some of the real places connected to this ballad:

 “The mains and burns of Fordie, the banks of which are very beautiful,” says Aytoun, lie about six miles to the east of Dunkeld.”  Tradition has connected the story with half a dozen localities in Sweden, and, as Professor Gruntvig informs me, with at least eight places in the different provinces of Denmark.  The Kerna church of the Swedish ballads, not far from Linköping (Afzelius), has been popularly supposed to derive its name from a Catherina, Karin, or Karna, killed by her own brother, a wood-robber, near it’s site.

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Child 13: Edward

Lyrics are here.

In this ballad, as with Lord Randal, the hero is again talking to his mother as she questions him about an incident that has just happened.  This time, she is asking him why there is blood in his coat.  He tries to convince her that he has killed various animals, but she refuses to believe him.  Finally he confesses that he has killed his brother or his father.  He then vows either to go into exile or to kill himself.  Like the main characters in previous ballads, he makes a will to his wife, children and mother.  This time, however, he leaves nothing his wife and kids and wishes for his mother to go to hell.  Child collected two full versions of this ballad and one fragment.

In version A, the hero, named Davie, tries to convince his mother that the blood on his coat is that of his hawk.  His mother replies:

‘Hawk’s bluid was neer sae red,

Son Davie, son Davie:

Hawk’s bluid was neer sae red,

And the truth come tell to me.’

He tries to tell her that the blood is that of his greyhound and gets a similar response before admitting that he has just killed his brother John.

‘What about did this plea begin,

Son Davie, son Davie?’

‘It began about the cutting of a willow wand

That never would be a tree.’

His mother asks him how he would like to die and he replies that he will “set my foot on a bottomless ship.”

She asks him to make his will.  He leaves his wife “grief and sorrow all her life,” his son, “the weary world to wander up and down” and his mother “a fire ‘o coals to burn her wi hearty cheer.”

I supposed these are just common ballad lines that people liked to use, but in this version of the song the hero seems to have far more hostility for all of his family than they deserve.  His ill will towards his mother makes a bit more sense in version B, but here the guy just seems angry at the world in general.

Version B has a similar format but tells a very different story.  This time the murder is that of his father, and this time when he curses his mother to hell, it is for telling him something that lead him to commit the murder.

‘And what wul ye leive to your ain mither deir,

Edward, Edward?

And what wul ye leive to your ain mither dier?

My deir son, now tell me O.’

‘The curse of hell frea me sall ye beir,

Sic counseils ye gave to me O’

There is a bigger story here than is told in the lyrics.  The implication is that his mother has tricked him into killing his father, but we are never told how she convinced him to do it or why he changed his opinion after doing the deed.

In the notes, Child talks a bit about some controversy over whether the hero’s name in version B was changed by one of the collectors, only to dismiss it due to lack of evidence.

A b, “given from the recitation of an old woman,” is evidently A a slightly regulated by Motherwell.  B, we are informed in the 4th edition of the Reliques, p. 61, was sent Percy by Sir David Dalrymple, Lord Hailes.  Motherwell thought there was reason to believe his lordship had made a few slight verbal improvements on the copy he transmitted, and altered the hero’s name to Edward, — a name which, by the bye, never occurs in a Scottish ballad, except where allusion is made to an English king.”  Darymple, at least, would not be likely to change a Scotch for an English name.  The Bishop might doubtless prefer Edward to Wat, or Jock, or even Davie.  But as there is no evidence that any change of name was made, the point need not be discussed.

Child also says this in the footnotes:

An eager “Englishman” might turn Motherwell’s objection to the name into an argument for “Edward” being an “English” ballad.

I find the way he talks about this a bit confusing.  Why are “Englishman” and “English” in quotation marks?  I get the impression that Child does not think much of this argument made by this theoretical “Englishman,” so why does he bring it up?  Are the quotation marks supposed to be commentary about English vs. Scottish identity politics?

There is also discussion of whether ‘Edward’ is a ballad in it’s own right or part of a longer ballad.  Child obviously thought it was a distinct enough ballad to deserve its own number.

Motherwell seems to incline to regard ‘Edward’ rather as a detached portion of a ballad than as complete in itself.  “The verses if which it consists,” he says, “generally conclude the ballad of ‘The Twa Brothers’ and also some versions of ‘Lizzie Wan:’”

The Finnish parallel which Motherwell refers to, might have convinced him that the ballad is complete as it is; and he knew as well as anybody that one ballad is often appended to another by reciters, to lengthen the story or improve the conclusion.

Child says that similar ballads to this one are found in Swedish, Danish and Finnish.  The first parts of most of these ballads are almost identical to the English story.  The main difference he found is that these ballads end with the mother asking when he will come back, which leads to a string of verses about various “impossible” circumstances:

Finally, in all, the mother asks when he will come back, and he replies (with some variations), When crows are white.  And that will be?  When swans are black.  And that?  When stones float.  And that?  When feathers sink, etc.

Child is of the opinion that some of these verses go on far too long and get very silly.

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Child 12: Lord Randal

 ‘O where have you been, Lord Randal, my son?

And where have you been, my handsome young man?’

‘I ha been at the greenwood; mother make my bed soon,

For I’m wearied wi hunting and fain wad lie down’

-Version A

The lyrics can be found here.

Continuing with the theme of people who are murdered by their family members or loved ones, Lord Randal is a simple ballad in which a young man or child tells his mother how his “true love,” stepmother or grandmother poisoned him.

In the more coherent versions the mother figures out that her son has been poisoned after either learning that his dogs died after eating the leftovers or hearing the description or the “fish” that he ate.  It is not said directly in the text of any of the versions that Child collected, but the implication is that the naive hero has been fed snakes and told that they were fish.  I did find a few recordings, such as the video below, where it is explicitly stated that the hero ate snakes which he found himself and mistook for fish.

Child says in the notes,

There is all but universal consent that the poisoning was done by serving up snakes for fish.

This still doesn’t explain the “four footed fish” the hero describes in version M.  Maybe that one is a newt.

Some versions don’t mention the fish/snakes and only have the hero tell his mother that he has been given poison.

Like the heroine of “The Cruel Brother,” the hero leaves nice things to various family members and asks that his murderer be executed and/or burn in hell.

In some versions he seems to have an unexplained grudge against several family members not involved in his murder.  When asked what he wants to leave his sister, “King Henry” in version C says, “the world’s wide, she may go beg.”  The unnamed hero of version H says the same about his children.

In the notes, Child mentions Alan Cunningham again.  This time he isn’t completely sure that Cunningham has changed the words in the version he published, but doesn’t trust him enough to include them officially.

Three stanzas which are found in A. Cunningham’s Scottish Songs, I, 286 f, may be given for what they are worth.  ‘The House of Marr,’ in the first, is not to be accepted on the simple ground of its appearance in his pages.  The second is inserted in his beautified edition of Scott’s ballad, and has it’s burden accordingly; but there is, besides this, no internal evidence against the second, and none against the third.

He mentions a few interesting variations of the tropes in this ballad that are used in the folklore of various countries:

A Bohemian and a Catalan ballad which have two of the three principal traits of the forgoing, the poisoning and the testament, do not exhibit, perhaps have lost, the third, the employment of snakes.

The story of the first is that a mother who dislikes the wife her son has chosen attempts to poison her at the wedding feast.  She sets a glass of honey before the son, a glass of poison before the bride.  They exchange cups.  The poison is swift.  The young man leaves four horses for his brother, eight cows to his sister, his fine horses to his wife.  “And what to me, my son?” asks the mother.  A mill-stone and the deep Moldau is bequest to her.

The Catalan ballad seems to have been softened at the end.  Here again the mother hates her daughter-in-law.  She comes to the sick woman… and asks What is the matter?  The daughter says, You have poisoned me.  The mother exhorts her to confess and recieve the sacrament, and then make her will.  She gives her castles in France to the poor and the pilgrims [and the friars], and to her brother Don Carlos [who, in one version is her husband].   Two of the versions remember the Virgin.  “And to me?” “My husband [my cloak, rosary], that when you may go to mass you may remember me.

Child also discusses the trope of poisoning someone by feeding them a snake or pat of a snake.  He cites ballads and stories from Italy, Eastern Europe and ancient Rome in which women poison their husbands, brothers, daughter-in-laws using snakes or snake heads.  He also cites an English story of a monk who uses a toad to poison a corrupt king.

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Child 11: The Cruel Brother

The lyrics to all versions may be found here.

Once more we have a lovely ballad about messed up family dynamics and murder.  In this ballad a man kills his sister on her wedding day because the groom failed to ask the brother’s permission to marry her.  As the bride is dying she makes her will, leaving nice things to her various relatives and finally asking that her brother be hanged for killing her and that his wife and kids spend the rest of their lives in poverty.

All versions of this ballad start with the courtship.  In some versions the heroine is playing ball with her sisters and is described as the youngest and the fairest, and thus the one chosen by the knight.  In other versions the knight asks them all to marry him and the heroine is the only one who says yes.  In version F there is only one lady and three knights.  It never actually says which one she chooses.

Version K is a sort of “happy ending” version in that most of the plot doesn’t happen.  Three ladies who are playing ball are courted by three knights.  They all say “no” and go back to their ball game.  I imagine that they have heard the other ballads and want to avoid the issue rather than trust an absent-minded suitor to remember all of their potentially homicidal family members.

In all of the other versions the heroine requires that the knight get permission from her family to marry her, and he proceeds to get permission from her mother, father and sister, but forgets about her brother.

In some versions she tells him to ask all of her family members and he simply forgets about her brother.  In other versions he tells her that he has gotten permission from everyone but her brother and she doesn’t seem concerned.

On the wedding day, her brother either helps her onto her horse or asks that she lean down to kiss him and takes the opportunity to stab her through the heart.  Oddly, no one else seems to notice and the bride is able to stay on her horse a while longer.  Even though it is shown later in the ballad that she can still speak, she makes no attempt to call attention to what has just happened.

She rides on a way with the wedding party before anyone notices that something is wrong.  When they do notice, they still fail to realize that she has been stabbed.  In one version they even ask if she looks so pale because she’s in love with someone else.

She then asks to be taken somewhere so she can rest and make her will.  She leaves nice things to her father, mother and sister, including her bloody wedding dress and in some versions her groom.  She then asks that her brother be hanged, that his wife spend her life in poverty and that his children be sent out to beg in the street.

I find it a bit petty of her to wish misfortune upon her sister-in-law, nieces and nephews, who have not even been mentioned up to this point.  It makes me wonder if there was an earlier version of the song where they were somehow also responsible for her murder.  On the other hand, it seems just as likely that their association with the murderer is enough to damn them.

I get a strong sense from this story of marriage as political alliance.  This is not a loving family, this is a political unit.  The brother might be the villain, but I also detect a moral about the importance of checking with the whole family before getting married in order to avoid conflict and violence.  Child does not say much about it in the notes except to reference Alexander Prior’s remarks on the subject.

 Dr. Prior remarks that the offence given by not asking a brother’s assent to his sister’s marriage was in ballad times regarded as unpardonable.

What are “ballad times?  Are they a particular point in history, or a mystical time when all ballads take place?

Child cites several of his sources as saying that this is one of the most popular ballads that they had collected.

 Aytoun remarks (1858): “This is, perhaps, the most popular of all of all the Scottish ballads, being commonly recited and sung even at the present day.”

As usual, he also discusses other versions of the story from around the world.

In Rizzardo bello, it is the groom and not the bride that the brother kills.

In the German ballad “Graf Freidrich” the bride is accidentally killed by the groom when his sword slips out of it’s sheath and gives her a fatal wound.  The groom is then killed by the bride’s father, after which a series of miracles literally spell out his innocence.

Three lilies sprang from the spot, with an inscription announcing that Graf Freidrich was in heaven…

Child also compares this to a Danish ballad in which a princess’ hand gets cut on the sword of a knight that she is dancing with when it slips out of it’s sheath.  (I’m starting to wonder if some of these ballads were also meant as PSAs about sword safety.)  She lies to her father and tells him that she cut her hand on her brother’s sword, and the knight is so touched that he marries her.

Child also gives various examples of stories where a murder victim leaves nice things to friends and wishes bad things to happen to his/her murderer.

 The peculiar testament made by the bride in “The Cruel Brother” by which she bequeaths good things to her friends, but ill things to the author of her death, is highly characteristic of ballad poetry.

In “Frillens Hævn”:

a young man, stabbed by his leeman, whom he was about to give up in order to marry, leaves his lands to his father, his bride-bed to his sister, his gilded couch to his mother, and his knife to his leeman, wishing it in her body.

In “Møen paa Baalet”:

Ole, falsely accused by her brother, and condemned to be burned, gives her mother her silken sark, her sister her shoes, her father her horse, and her brother her knife, with the same wish.

In a ballad from Portugal called “Dona Helena”:

Helena leaves her husband’s house when near childbirth, out of fear of his mother.  Her husband, who does not know of her reason, goes after her and compels her to return on horseback, though she has just born a son.  The consequences are what might be expected, and Helena desires to make her shrift and her will.  She leaves one thing to her oldest sister, another to her youngest.  “And your boy?” “To your bitch of a mother, cause of my woes.” “Rather to yours,” says the husband, “For I shall have to kill mine.”

In another story from several different sources:

A lady instigates her paramour to kill her husband.  The betrayed man is asked to whom he will leave his children.  “To God Almighty, for he knows who they are.” “Your property?” “To the poor, for the rich have enough.” “Your wife?” “To young Count Frederic, whom she always liked more than me.”  “Your castle?” “To the flames.”

Child also makes another dig at Alan Cunningham:

Cunningham gives us a piece called ‘The Three Ladies of Leithan Ha,’ Songs of Scotland, II, 87, which he would fain have us believe that he did not know he had written himself.  “The common copies of this tragic lyric,” he truly says, “differ very much from this; not so much in the story itself as the way it is told.”

This seems to be what Kittredge was referring to in the introduction when he talked about people passing off their own work as traditional ballads.  I don’t know how many other writers did this, but Cunningham is the only one mentioned so far.  I must say I am enjoying the snark.

Anyway, if you are reading this blog, I hope you enjoy murder ballads, because there are quite a few of them from this point on.

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Child 10: Twa Sisters

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:

Version B:

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.

Version R:

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:

Version A:

‘O sister, o sister that may not be,

Till salt and oatmeal grow both of a tree.’

Version B:

‘Your cherry cheeks an yallow hair

Gars me go maiden for evermair.’

Version Q:

‘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.

Version G:

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:

Version B:

 ‘O father, father draw your dam,

Here’s either a mermaid or a swan’

Version F:

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:

Version Q:

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.

Version F:

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:

Version A:

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.

Version L:

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.

Version A:

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.’

Version D:

The first spring that the bonnie fiddle played,

‘Hang my cruel sister, Alison,’ it said.

Version F:

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.’

Version O:

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.

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