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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Child 9: The Fair Flower of Northumberland

Lyrics are here.

In this ballad a Scottish prisoner convinces the teenage daughter of the English lord who is jailing him to help him escape by promising to marry her.  Once they are across the Scottish border he tells her that he is already married with several children and calls her a whore for running off with him.  She eventually goes home and is forgiven by her family because they know that the Scots are just too darn crafty.

It was a knight in Scotland borne

Follow, my love, come over the strand

Was taken prisoner, and left forlorne,

Even by the good Earle of Northumberland.

And as in sorrow thus he lay,

The Earle’s sweete daughter walkt that way,

And she the fair flower of Northumberland

-Version A

I find it interesting that version A seems to be setting this up as a more typical romantic ballad.  The other versions focus on how foolish it is of  the heroine to believe him, but here the audience is taken for the emotional ride with her.

‘Faire Sir, how should I take pity on thee,

Thou being a foe to our countrey,

And I the faire flower of Northumberland’

‘Faire lady, I am no foe,’ he said,

‘Through thy sweet love here I was stay’d,

For thee, the faire flower of Northumberland.’

‘Why shouldst thou come here for love of me,

Having wife and children in thy countrie?

And I the fair flower of Northumberland.’

In other versions she goes into specifics about how many children he has, implying that she already knows something about who he is.  However, in all versions he convinces her that this is not true and that he will marry her.

She steals gold and horses from her father and uses her father’s stolen ring to bribe the jailor to set the knight free.  I can’t help but wonder how the jailor expects to profit by having his boss’s stolen ring.  That’s probably the most identifiable thing she could have given him.

There are a few verses about how she doesn’t think she can ford the river:

‘Feare not the foord, faire lady,’ quoth he,

‘For long I cannot stay for thee,

And thou the faire flower of Northumberland.’

I believe in modern English that translates to, “Stop whining and do it already or I’m leaving!”

So she fords the river, gets wet and exclaims, “This I have done for love of thee.”

When they get to Edenborow (yes, that is how it is spelled in the text) he finally tells her that he is married with five children.  He gives her the choice of going back home or becoming his mistress.  He also says he is taking her horse and leaving her to go on foot.  She begs him to kill her, but he refuses.  Finally she meets two English knights who take her home.  In this version there is nothing said of her parents reaction, but the ballad ends with a verse about how the Scots can’t be trusted.

In version B the Scottish knight hires someone to take her home instead of leaving her to her own devices.

But laith was he the lassie to tyne,

A may’s love whiles is easy won

He’s hired an old horse and feed an old man

To carry her back to Northumberland.

I like the idea that he feels partly responsible for her safety.  I can just see him thinking, “Well, I can’t let this dumb kid get herself killed going back home.”

Her dad is pissed off, but her mom forgives her:

‘O daughter, O daughter, why was ye so bold,

Or why was your love so easy won,

To be a Scottish whore in your fifteen year old?

And you the fair flower of Northumberland!’

Her mother on her gently did smile,

O that her love was so easy won!

‘She is not the first that the Scots have beguilld,

But she’s still the fair flower of Northumberland.’

And they reassure her that she will have a good dowry so that she won’t have any trouble getting married.

‘She shanna want gold, she shanna want fee,

Altho that her love was so easy won,

She shanna want gold to gain a man wi,

And she’s still the fair flower of Northumberland.’

In the notes, Child says of version E that it is:

“… a traditional version from the English border, has unfortunately been improved by some literary pen.”

Yeah, I think I can see the difference:

To think of the prisoner her heart was sore,

Her love it was much, but her pity was more.

Child compares the ballad to a Danish story where a girl rides off with a knight who promises to marry and says that he is rich.  When they get to their destination, he tests her by telling her that he is actually poor, banished, and married.  She offers him gold and to be his servant, at which point he tells her he was just kidding and that he is rich and single after all.  In some versions he is also the king of England.

Child also describes a Polish ballad in which a man convinces a rich girl to run away with him (and take some gold with her).  After a while he tells her to either go home or kill herself, and she chooses to kill herself.  Then there is a German version of the story where a king’s daughter runs off with a man who tells her that in his country there are seven mills that grind sugar, cinnamon, mace and cloves.  When they get to his country he tells her that all he has is a green heath and she responds to this by instantly killing herself.  There is no mention of him rejecting her, she would just rather die than be poor, apparently.

By comparison, the characters in “The Fair Flower of Northumberland” all act refreshingly reasonable.  The knight does what he has to do to get home to his family, and sometimes he even takes steps to make sure the heroine gets home safely, the heroine’s motives are understandable, if not smart, and her parents are angry but ultimately forgive her.  It’s nice to see characters in old ballads acting reasonably once in a while.

The next ballad is about jealousy, murder, and instruments made from dead bodies!

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Child 8: Erlinton

Lyrics here.

Child says in the notes that he almost included this as a version of Earl Brand and only listed it as a separate ballad because of the happy ending.

In version A, Erlinton locks his daughter up in a “bigly” bower and tells her six sisters and seven brothers to watch her and not to let her out at night.  (On a side note, I had heard the word “bigly” used at the Renaissance Faire in the context of a silly and suggestive play, but I didn’t know it was a real word.)

She hadna been i that bigly bower

Na not a night but barely ane,

Till there was Willie, her ain true love,

Chappd at the door, cryin ‘Peace within!’

Willie asks her to let him in.  She says that she can’t, but that she will meet him at the “green-wood” in the morning.

In the morning she goes to the green-wood with two of her sisters.  Willie kisses both sisters and sends them home.  No word on the motivations of the sisters.  Either they were in on it from the beginning, or they were so charmed by Willie’s magic kisses that they did everything he said.

When they ride into the woods, fifteen knights come after them.  They demand that Willie “yield to me thy lady bright.”  When I first read this, I assumed that the knights were sent by her father, but on second thought, no association is mentioned, and I think they are meant to be common outlaws.  If this is the case, it makes their request quite a bit more menacing.

Anyway, Willie fights and kills fourteen of the knights and leaves the oldest to “carry the tidings hame.”  Then he and the lady kiss and Willie declares that they will “walk the green-wood free.”

Version B is similar to version A except for a few minor differences.  I notice that there are a lot of unused siblings in these ballads.  In both versions the heroine’s brothers are told to guard her and then never mentioned again.   In version A, six sisters are introduced, but only two of them go into the woods with her.

Version C is about Robin Hood, and is “supposed to have been written about 1650.”

Instead of the heroine being locked up in the beginning, she has apparently run away for reasons that are never mentioned.  Robin Hood sees her in the woods and starts making out with her.  He asks her to be his “true love” and she responds that her brothers wouldn’t like him.  He spends five verses convincing her that he’s tough enough to deal with her brothers and can take care of her in the forest.

Then her two brothers arrive and ask why she ran away:

‘With us, false maiden, come away,

And leave that outlawe bolde,

Why fledst thou thy home this day,

And left thy father olde?’

She never answers this question, and most of the rest of the ballad consists of Robin Hood fighting the brothers and killing the older one (very graphically) while the girl pleads with them to stop fighting.

Similar to Earl Brand, the girl asks Robin Hood to spare the younger one, distracting Robin enough for her brother to get in a blow.

‘Away, for I would scorn to owe,

My life to thee, false maide!’

The youngest cried and aimed a blow

That lit on Robin’s head.

Unlike in Earl Brand, the blow isn’t fatal.  The heroine stands between Robin and her brother until Robin can get up and fight again.  Robin honors her request not to kill the younger brother.  He fights until the brother is exhausted and then Robin and the girl both ride off together pledging love to each other.

What I notice about these ballads is that the heroes are basically medieval supermen.  They can win against impossible odds.  The same was true of Earl Brand, though apparently saying his name was his kryptonite.

In version C, I would be interested in knowing why the heroine decided to run away in the first place.  Probably to get away from her overly controlling brothers.

I was unable to find any recordings of this ballad.  The Child Ballad Database claims that Hester NicEilidh recorded version C, but my Google search turned up no results.

The Jolly Soldier, sung in the video below by Paul Brady, is listed on The Child Ballad Database as a version of Earl Brand.  It doesn’t resemble any of the versions that Child collected, and the story has elements of both Earl Brand and Erlinton.  Like Earl Brand, it is a song about a girl running off with a man that her father disapproves of to the point that he tries to kill both of them.  Like Erlinton, it has a “happy ending,” though instead of simply riding off together, the couple go back with the girl’s father and he makes them his heirs in exchange for sparing his life.  Also unlike Earl Brand, the girl shows no sentimental feelings for her father, going so far as to reject his first offer when he is begging for his life.


I finally got around to recording this one myself.  Since I couldn’t find a tune for it anywhere, I put it to the tune of William Taylor.

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Child 7: Earl Brand

I’ve made a new tag titled “messed up family dynamics.”  I get the feeling I will be using it a lot. It is clear that many of these ballads are about a time and place where people have values different from my own.  Since I am not an expert on any of these times or places, I feel it is more honest for me to judge the characters based on my own values than it would be to pretend that I actually know how earlier audiences would have responded to the actions of the characters.

What I can say about Earl Brand is that it is both a tragic love story and a story about a rebellious teenage girl who finds herself regretting her decisions.  I find a surprising amount of emotional complexity in all versions of this ballad.  The lyrics can be found here.

I think the heroine’s family is meant to be seen as cruel and controlling, choosing to send armed men after her rather than to let her elope with her low-status lover.  However, in the versions of the ballad where the armed men are her father and brothers, her grief at seeing her lover kill her family creates the central tragedy of the story.  She comes across as a realistically flawed and painfully human character.

Version A is the one where the heroine comes across as the least conflicted and least sympathetic.  This is because it is also the only version where her father sends generic armed men after the lovers instead of coming after them himself with her brothers.

This version specifies that the heroine is the daughter of the king of England and “scarcely fifteen years of age,” when “brave Earl Bran” seduces her and convinces her to ride off with him.

Then they run across this figure:

Until they met with old Carl Hood;

He comes for ill, but never for good.

Carl Hood?  My first thought was to wonder whether he is Robin Hood’s evil twin.   According to Child’s notes, he is the god Odin in disguise:

This malicious personage reappears in the Hrômund saga “Blind the Bad” and “the Carl Blind, surnamed Bavís,” and is found elsewhere.  His likeness to “old Carl Hood,” who “comes for ill, but never for good,” and who gives information of Earl Brand’s flight with the king’s daughter, does not require to be insisted upon.  Both are identical, we can scarcely doubt, with the blind [one-eyed] old man of many tales, who goes about in various disguises, sometimes as beggar, with his hood or hat slouched over his face, — that is Odin, the Sí∂höttr or Deephood of Sæmund, who in the saga of Hálf and his champions is called simple Hood, as here, and expressly said to be Odin.  Odin, though not a thoroughly malignant divinity, had his dark side, and one of his titles in Sæmund’s Edda is Bölverkr, maleficus.  He first caused war by casting his spear among men, and Dag, after he has killed Helgi, says Odin was the author of all the mischief, for he brought strife among kinsmen.

The heroine wants to get rid of him so he won’t give them away.

“Earl Bran, if you love me,

Seize this old carl, and gar him die.”

That’s one bloodthirsty fifteen-year-old girl.  Ok, so she’s obviously afraid he’ll tell her father, and she’s right.  But still…

“O lady fair, it would be sair,

To slay an old man that has grey hair.

“O lady fair, I’ll no do sae;

I’ll gie him a pound and let him gae.”

Bribery is nicer than murder!

 “O where hae ye ridden this lee lang day?

O where hae ye stolen this lady away?”

“She is my only, my sick sister,

Whom I have brought from Winchester.”

According to the notes, Winchester refers to a nunnery.

“If she be sick, and like fo dead,

Why wears she the ribbon sae red?”

So Carl Hood goes to her house and alerts her father, who then sends out fifteen men after them.  Earl Brand kills all but one of the men, and the last one gives him a fatal wound.  He lives long enough to go home to his mother who doesn’t react well to her new daughter-in-law:

“O my son’s slain, my son’s put down,

And a’ for the sake of an English loun.”

Earl Bran tells his mother to marry her to his youngest brother.  I think there are a few verses missing, but the last one says that seventeen people died in all.  Going by the end of some of the other versions, this may refer to the fourteen men Earl Bran killed, Earl Bran himself, the heroine and his mother who dies of grief.

In all of the other versions, it is her father and brothers who come after them, and the heroine regrets her decision when her she sees that her lover has killed her brothers and is about to kill her father.  Versions B-E all contain some variation of this line:

‘O hold your hand, Lord William!’ she said,

‘For your strokes are they are wondrous sair;

True lovers I can get many ane,

But a father I can never get mair.’

I think it is implied in most of these versions that he kills her father, but that she has distracted him long enough for her father to inflict the fatal wound.

‘O chuse, O chuse, Lady Margret,’ he said,

‘O whether will ye gang or bide?’

‘I’ll gang, I’ll gang, Lord William,’ she said,

‘For ye have left me no other guide.’

– Version B

’For to go home to my mother again,

An unwelcome guest I’d be; But since my fate has ordered it so,

I’ll go along with thee.’

– Version D

So it is implied that she resents him for what he’s done and that she would go home if she could.  She apparently forgives him by the end of the ballad.

He lifted her on a milk-white steed,

And himself on a dapple gray;

They drew their hats out over their face,

And they both went weeping away.

-Version C

Sir William he died in the middle o the night,

Lady Margaret died on the morrow;

Sir William he died of pure pure love,

Lady Margaret of grief and sorrow.

– Version D

So they are buried in different places that are apparently separated by a wall, a rose grows out of her grave and a brier out of his.  The plants symbolically grow together in a “lover’s knot.”  In most of the ballads the story end’s there, but version B ads this verse:

But bye and bye rade the Black Douglas,

And wow but he was rough!

For he’s pulld up the bonny brier,

And flang’t in St. Mary’s Loch.

In this version “Lord Douglas” is her father.  I’m not sure if this “Black Douglas” is supposed to be her father, who survived after all, or another relative.  From a modern writer’s standpoint, it makes more sense not to introduce a new character at this point, but going by previous ballads, I wouldn’t dismiss the possibility of this being a completely different person.

According to the notes, Child was particularly impressed by how well preserved this ballad was and how consistent the details were in various versions found around Europe.

Most of the versions from recitation are wonderful examples and proofs of the fidelity with which simple people “report and hold” old tales; for, as the editor has shown, verses which had never been printed, but which are found in old manuscripts, are now met with in recited copies; and these recited copies, again, have verses that occur in no Danish print or manuscript, but which nonetheless are found in Norwegian and Swedish recitation, and, what is more striking, in Icelandic tradition of two hundred years standing.

In many of these versions, the hero is named Hildebrand, which Child believes is the basis for the name “Earl Brand.”

In the Scandinavian versions that Child talks about, the lover’s name has some sort of magic power and the heroine saying it allows him to be killed, as opposed to the English and Scottish versions where it is implied that she just distracted him long enough for her father to get in the fatal blow.

“Though thou see me bleed, name me not to death; though thou see me fall, name me not at all!”

“No sooner was his name pronounced than Ribold received a mortal wound.”

Many of these versions also begin with the hero promising to take the heroine to a magical paradise:

“He said he would carry her to a land where death and sorrow came not; where all the birds were cuckoos, and all the grass was leeks, and all the streams ran wine.”

Child sees this as evidence that this part of the story migrated from another story about a demonic being trying to lure off a mortal woman.  He explains that saying the name of a magical or demonic creature is a traditional way to defeat it, and implies that this trait carried over to the hero of this story.

In many of the Scandinavian versions that Child describes, the heroine survives her lover long enough to be locked up and sold into servitude by her family, usually in exchange for a church bell.  She tells her story to the queen who is her employer and then dies of grief.

Then there are other versions where:

  • They both survive and get married
  • They both end up killing themselves in a sort of Romeo and Juliet like misunderstanding
  • The hero dies, but the heroine survives to marry someone else, sometimes his younger brother

In a Neapolitan-Albanian ballad the hero has convinced the heroine’s mother and father to let them get married, but fails to convince her brother, who attacks them with an assortment of other relatives and kills them.

The notes also touch on the possible real-life locations for this story:

“The ballad of the ‘Douglas Tragedy,’” says Scott, “is one of the few to which popular tradition has ascribed complete locality.  The farm of Blackhouse, in Selkirkshire, is said to have been the scene of this melancholy event.  There are the remains of a very ancient tower, adjacent to the farm-house, in a wild and solitary glen, upon a torrent named Douglas burn, which joins the Yarrow after passing a craggy rock called the Douglas craig…  From this ancient tower Lady Margaret is said to have been carried by her lover.  Seven large stones, erected upon the neighboring heights of Blackhouse, are shown, as marking the spot where the seven brethren were slain; and the Douglas burn is averred to have been the stream at which the lovers stopped to drink: so minute is tradition in ascertaining the scene of a tragical tale, which, considering the rude state of former times, had probably foundation in some real event.”

It is a bit strange to read about it possibly being “based on a true story” after seeing all of the alternate versions of the story from other countries.  Of course, just because there are alternate versions doesn’t mean nothing like this ever happened.  It’s possible that either an old ballad could have been re-written to reflect real events, or a true story could have been changed as it was re-told.

Here is my recording:

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Well, I had an obligatory family event this weekend that left time for little else, so it looks like Child #7, Earl Brand, will have to wait for next week.  In in the meantime, here’s another dramatic interpretation of Heer Halewijn:

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