The first ballad, which can be read here, is a story about a knight challenging a young girl to a game of riddles and offering to marry her if she can answer them right. In most of the versions, such as the one sung here by the Askew Sisters, they get married at the end, though in others, such as this one sung by Jean Redpath, he turns out to be the devil and flies away “in a blazing flame.”
My first exposure to this ballad was the version recorded by Bok, Muir and Trickett under the name “Jennifer Gentle.” Their version is very similar to version B in the book, which was taken from Gilbert’s Christmas Carols. It is the sweetest and most innocent version collected by Child, and the only one where the youngest sister does not sleep with the knight before he asks her the questions.
In versions A, C and D, one of the questions is “what is worse than a woman was.” I think there is something sad about the fact that this is being asked to a young woman by the man she wants to marry. I do hate to see this kind of casual misogyny in the middle of a supposed love story.
Of course, in version C this question is used as a way to reveal that the knight is really the devil:
“The pies are greener nor the grass,
And Clootie’s waur nor a woman was.
“As sune as she the fiend did name,
He flew awa in a blazing flame.”
I prefer this ending. I don’t like this guy and I think the girl can do better, devil or no devil.
So anyway, at the end the version A, which is one of the ones with a “happy” ending, we get this verse:
“So now, fair maidens all adieu,
This song I dedicate to you,
I wish that you may constant prove,
Unto the man that you do love.”
I just don’t know. This is a song about a girl jumping through hoops to marry a guy in a riddle contest that bears more resemblance to a job interview than what we generally consider a “courtship,” the girl has to answer a question that starts with the assumption that women are evil, and all the narrator has to say in conclusion is “Hey women, be faithful!” Lovely.
I know that there is some values dissonance going on here, but I reserve the right to judge these ballads from my own modern perspective.
I challenged myself to sing this song with a lot of the verses I don’t usually hear, resulting in a very long, repetitive recording. You have been warned.
There was a lady of the North Country,
Lay the bent to the bonny broom
And she had lovely daughters three.
And you may beguile a fair maid soon.
There came a stranger to the gate,
And he three nights and days did wait.
He came unto the lady’s door,
And asked where her three daughters were.
“The eldest is to the washing gone,
The second is to the baking gone.
“The youngest is to a wedding gone,
And it will be night before they’re home.”
He sat him down upon a stone,
Till the three lasses came tripping home.
The oldest one’s to the bed making,
The second one’s to the sheet spreading.
But the youngest sister so bold and bright,
She lay abed with this uncouth knight.
And in the morning when it was grey,
These words to her did the stranger say.
Now answer me these questions three,
Or you shall surely go with me.
Now answer me these questions six,
Or you shall surely be old Nick’s.
What is sharper than the thorn?
What is louder than the horn?
What broader than the way?
What is colder than the clay?
What is greener than the grass?
And what is worse than a woman was?
Hunger is sharper then the thorn,
And thunder is louder than the horn.
Love is broader than the way,
And death is colder than the clay.
Envy’s greener than the grass,
And the Devil’s worse than a woman was.
As soon as she the fiend did name,
He flew away in a blazing flame.