Child 6: Willie’s Lady

Next we have a lovely tale of witchcraft, messed up family dynamics, and an impossibly long pregnancy.  Read the lyrics here.  At least the hero of this one is more sympathetic than Gil Brenton.

Willie has taen him oer the fame,

He’s woo’d a wife and brought her hame.

An identical opening to some versions of Gil Brenton, though, as mentioned above, the hero of this ballad come across as a much better person.  When his wife becomes pregnant, his mother, who is a witch, casts a spell on her so that she will never give birth.  Willie spends 24 verses going to his mother and trying to bribe her with his wife’s possessions to take the spell off of her, but to no avail.

And to his mother he has gone,

That vile rank witch of vilest kind.

His mother refuses saying that she wants his wife to dies so that he will marry someone else.  Willie maintains that he will never marry anyone else.

‘But she shall die and turn to clay,

And you shall wed another may.’

Finally, after it has been well established that bribes won’t work, the Belly Blind, first introduced in Gil Brenton and described by Child as “a serviceable household demon, of a decidedly benignant disposition…” suggests that Willie make a fake baby out of wax, invite his mother to the christening and see what she says.  (In most of the recordings I’ve found, this is the wife’s idea.  Probably because that makes more sense to most modern audiences than suddenly introducing a friendly demon to the story.  I’m guessing the original audience for this song was already familiar with this character, since he is not given any introduction aside from his name.)

Willie’s mother is not only fooled by the wax baby, but seeing it prompts her to go on a long rant detailing exactly how to break the spell.

‘Oh wha has loosed the nine witch knots

That was amo that ladie’s locks?

‘And wha has taen out the kaims of care

That hangs amo that ladie’s hair?

So…  is the implication that she braided her daughter-in-law’s hair at one point and that no one has bothered to take it out for the months and months she’s been pregnant?  That’s a long time not to brush your hair.

In the notes, Child talks a bit about how knots of any kind were considered to be a contraceptive well into the time that he was writing in.  He also says that it is a tradition in some places for all knots to be untied from a couple’s clothes for a marriage ceremony, and for all of the knots in the house to be untied during childbirth to prevent complications.

‘And wha’s taen down the bush o woodbine

That hang atween her bower and mine?

‘And wha has killd the master kid

That ran beneath that ladie’s bed?

‘And wha has loosed her left-foot shee,

And lotten that ladie lighter be?’

So Willie does all these things, his wife gives birth to a son, and they all live happily ever after.

Child only collected one version of this ballad from Scotland, but cites a few other ballads and stories in the notes.

He cites a few examples in “classic mythology” where women are prevented from giving birth by the intervention of Juno or Hera.

He also cites several Danish ballads with similar plots to “Willie’s Lady.”  There is one in which the mother-in-law curses the pregnant woman to be pregnant for eight years.  After forty weeks, with the help of her sister-in-law, they find out that everywhere in the house is enchanted except the spot where a red rowan chest is sitting.  They move the chest, put the bed in the spot where it stood, and she gives birth.

In another version, the wife goes back to her family and dies after eight years of pregnancy.  After she is dead, they cut her open to reveal two eight-year-old boys:

The first son stood up and brushed his hair:

‘Most surely I am in my ninth year.’

The second son stood up both fair and red:

‘Most sure we’ll avenge our mother dead.’

Well, at least they got grammar and grooming lessons in the womb.  I imagine their muscles never got much chance to develop, but it’s good that they can at least stand up…  Who am I kidding?  I know they’re meant to be fully formed eight-year-old warriors.

In other versions of the story the wife is cursed by the husband’s former mistress, who is then burned.  This ending takes the ballad a bit out of the realm of fantasy for me and reminds me what often resulted from actual accusations of witchcraft.  I’ve often heard that witchcraft accusations were sometimes used to get rid of people the accuser didn’t like.  It makes me wonder if this ballad is at least partly the fantasy of a woman who either does not get along with her mother-in-law or whose husband is having an affair.

Of course, Child also describes a Romanian story where a husband openly curses his wife “to go with child till he lays his hand upon her.”  No fancy explanation of how, apparently he can just do that, and no one even bothers to accuse him of witchcraft.  He doesn’t let her give birth for twenty years, after which she gives birth to a twenty year old man who kills his father.  Then in a Wallachian version of the same story, the kid doesn’t kill his father and they all live happily ever after.

Every recording I have found, and there are quite a few, uses the same tune.  Apparently, this is a traditional Breton tune titled  Son Ar Chistr (The Song of Cider), which was attached to the words by Ray Fisher.

Update:

Raymond Crooke has recorded a version using all of the original verses, something I haven’t heard from any other musicians:

I also finally got around to recording my own version, I mostly based it on the more modernized versions that I have heard but added Belly the Blind back into the story:

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2 Responses to Child 6: Willie’s Lady

  1. Bob Cornell says:

    Wonderful post. I just discovered this ballad by way of Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hammer. Your description of the story really brings it alive, and I love your own recording. Thanks.

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