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,
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.