Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard (81)

It’s worth talking about the relationship between Britain and America here. I think it gets lost how connected these two countries are because of the American revolution. We like to think of ourselves as free and untethered to anyone. We define our own destiny. This sort of thinking, I believe, can obfuscate just how British the United States is. Most people, if they sit down to think about it, would probably recognize this on some level. We speak English, after all, and our legal system is based on English Common Law. If we were to dig down further, we’d learn how much of our society has British roots from architecture to music to the free market. But most of us aren’t ethnically British. We’re German, West African, Irish, Polish, Italian, Mexican, Chinese, etc. The first three of those groups might each outnumber Brits. But the British were the majority of the original settlers and immigrants tend to assimilate into a dominant culture. So here I am, with my Norwegian and German ancestry, listening to and writing about Child Ballads.

Side note: 23andMe tells me I have a small amount of British ancestry. It makes sense I wouldn’t have known about this. Immigrants who marry “natives” (meaning here the descendants of first settlers) tend to identify as the recent ancestry e.g. the child of a Polish immigrant and an American with English ancestry usually identifies as Polish-American. So British ancestry is probably under-reported.

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A 17th century broadside of today’s ballad (held in the Bodleian Library)

Why is this important? I’ve talked previously about how the Child Ballads are rooted in the Scottish-English border region. But cultures are always in flux. Most of the people who sings these songs now don’t live there. Many have no ties to that people or region whatsoever. In one sense that’s a little tragic. Much of the language, culture, and stories passed down from my Norwegian ancestors have been lost here in Minnesota. For others, like African Americans, it’s been violently ripped away. On the other hand it’s hopeful. I and others have adopted a new culture from the Anglo-sphere. These songs don’t belong to anyone. They’re constantly moving across ethnic, geographical, and even language boundaries.

With that being said, learning about the specific cultures and regions that propagated a style of music can teach us a lot. “Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard” (much more commonly known as “Matty Groves”) is one of the Child Ballads that has many more versions in North America than it does in Britain. That tells us a couple things. One – it’s old. Most of the immigration from Britain happened early – in the 17th and 18th centuries. The Child Ballads from the 19th century on tend to be sung more often in the land of Albion. Another thing it tells us is that its themes stayed relevant outside of its birthplace. Ballads like “The Bonnie Earl O’ Moray” that involve historical events that happened in Scotland for instance, tended to become less popular in the colonies for obvious reasons. “Matty Groves”, in pretty much all versions, takes place in England but murder and adultery are not purely English affairs.

The song begins with Lady Barnard going to church. After the service she approaches “Little Matty Groves” and asks him to come to bed with her. He refuses at first, afraid of her husband, but she assures him her husband is away tending to livestock. Her foot page, deciding his loyalties lie with the lord rather than the lady of the house, runs off and tells his master. When Lady Barnard and her lover awake in the morning, Lord Barnard is standing over them. He demands Matty Groves get up and fight him (the names are all a little different in each version).

‘Win up, win up, ye Little Munsgrove,

Put all your armour an;

It’s never be said anither day

I killed a naked man.


‘I hae twa brands [swords] in ae scabbard,

Cost me merks [silver coins] twenty-nine;

Take ye the best, gie me the warst,

For ye’re the weakest man.’


The firs an stroke that Munsgrove drew

Wounded Lord Burnett sair [sore];

The next an stroke Lord Burnett drew,

Munsgrove he spake nae mair [no more].

Having killed the poor boy, Lord Barnard seizes his wife and asks who she prefers. She responds:

‘O better love I this well-faird face,

Lyes weltering in his blude [blood],

Then eer [ever] I’ll do this ill-faird face,

That stands straight by my side.’

This response enrages her husband who kills her on the spot. The song ends with a softening of Lord Barnard’s heart and he demands they both be buried, though his wife will be buried on top “for she was of noble kin”. It’s one of those lines that feels very alien to modern sensibilities. Having  just committed double murder, he’s still careful to observe distinctions of class.

The song is easily one of the most tragic ballads I’ve encountered. Matty Groves and Lady Barnard – who one can imagine have longed for one another during many a church service – both seem to be speeding towards an end they can see coming. They even appear to invite the inevitable – Matty by telling Lord Barnard how much he enjoyed being with his wife – and she with her taunt of preferring a dead Matty Groves to him. Even Lord Barnard appears to recognize the tragedy of what he’s done by demanding they be buried together. In a few versions he then kills himself.

Though most recordings are from America (primarily around Appalachia) my favorite recording is by the British folk rock band Fairport Convention. They were hugely influential in the folk revival of the 60s, themselves having been influenced by earlier American artists like Bob Dylan. See! Musical styles and traditions continue to influence each other across the Atlantic.

 

This has ended up being a rather long post but I’ll leave with an interesting anecdote. “Matty Groves” is one of the few ballads to survive in recognizable form in Jamaica after British colonial governance. This again I think speaks to the universality of the subject matter but it also touches on a subject I hope to explore in a future blog post: the often fraught but mutually enriching relationship between the musical traditions of African-Americans and the Scotch-Irish

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Fairport Convention – YouTube | Spotify

Jim Pipkin – YouTube | Spotify

Linde Nijland – YouTube | Spotify

Wylde Nept – YouTube | Spotify

Iona Fyfe – Spotify

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Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight (4)

I read an article recently about the surge in popularity of “true crime” stories and the fan bases they’ve built up. From Netflix shows like “Mindhunter” to podcasts like “My Favorite Murder” there are any number of examples. The article posits several theories for why women especially seem to love the genre – they want to avoid becoming victims, there’s a dark allure to masculine evil, etc. Regardless of ebbs and flows in pop culture, crime stories have been around for a while. And why wouldn’t we be fascinated by them? They offer glimpses of human depravity and restore our faith in justice. My mom and sister love British detective shows like “Midsomer Murders” (there’s a joke that if you went off of British TV you’d assume rural England has a higher homicide rate than war-torn Syria).

“Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight” (also “The Outlandish Knight” or “May Colven”) is an older example of such a story in ballad form. Just how old? That’s tough to say. It holds the distinction of being perhaps the most wide ranging Child Ballad with versions in Germany, Portugal, France, Poland, etc. The oldest version we are aware of is from the Netherlands – “Heer Halewijn” – dating to the 13th Century. The story is much older though with elements from pre-Christian Germanic mythology. How cool is that? A song that lived through the viking raids, the terror of the Black Death, religious reformations, the Industrial Revolution upending the old order, and it still continued to hold meaning. Hearing it is like holding an ancient coin and wondering what brought it to you – which is something I at least feel overawed by!

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“The Ballad of May Colven” by Arthur Rackham

On to the story. Though there are hundreds of variations the ones I’ll focus on are popular in Britain and the Anglo world. A young lady is approached in her home by a knight (or elf-knight in older versions) who offers to spirit her away to his lands and marry her. She agrees and takes some valuables with her at his bidding. After riding a while he bids her dismount and reveals his intention to drown her in the sea with the other maidens he has seduced. The heroine, however, manages to trick her assailant usually by singing him to sleep or bidding him turn around while she disrobes. She then either skewers him with his own sword or grabs him by the waist and throws him into the sea. She proceeds to taunt him over this reversal of fortune.

‘Lie there, lie there, you false-hearted man,

Lie there instead of me;

Six pretty maids have you drowned here,

And the seventh has drowned thee.’

In some versions she returns home and a bird threatens to tell her parents what she’s done but she bribes it into silence. I’m not entirely sure why she feels like she needs to cover up the event. Perhaps she feels guilty or humiliated for allowing herself to be seduced.

This feels like the kind of ballad mothers would sing to their daughters as a warning not to let strange men beguile them. The amount of border balladry that concerns women outsmarting or simply outfighting predatory men surely speaks to the heavy contributions of women in general to this sort of music. It doesn’t seem like subject matter that would endure long in a purely masculine environment. It also speaks to the often grim realities of gender relations. Have things gotten better? I think so. Are the themes and power dynamics alien to our modern world? Definitively no.

My favorite rendition of this ballad is by Lisa Theriot. I would really encourage you to check out the links to other versions below, however. It was quite difficult to select a favorite this time.

One of the things I love most about this ballad is how you can see the pagan, supernatural elements get replaced by more realistic imagery over the centuries. The elf-knight enchanting maidens with a magic horn is replaced by a sinister though charming man. The maiden overcomes her would-be-murderer by songs or sleep charms in earlier versions and by clever thinking in more recent ones. And the ending with the sentient bird was usually left out by Victorian times. These changes, of course, reflect a changing worldview where spiritual forces were superseded as the governing order by mechanistic, natural laws.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Lisa Theriot – YouTube | Spotify

Danú – YouTube | Spotify

Carla Gover – YouTube | Spotify

Kate Rusby – YouTube | Spotify

Custer LaRue – YouTube | Spotify

Poor Old Horse – YouTube | Spotify

The Bold Pedlar and Robin Hood (132)

About one in ten of the Child Ballads feature the folk-hero Robin Hood. Stories of the outlaw have been enormously popular since the 15th century and if the rate of Robin Hood movies coming out of Hollywood are any indication – quality notwithstanding – he remains a beloved figure. Over time, he has been adapted and re-appropriated to represent many causes and fight many injustices. For instance, 20th century adaptations often show him fighting for an England where Norman and Saxon can live together in peace (seemingly a way to comment on modern race relations).

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My favorite of the Robin Hood movies – “The Adventures of Robin Hood” starring Errol Flynn

The earliest accounts we have available of the British folk-hero actually come from the ballads that Francis Child collected. In these stories, Robin Hood is closer to a petty outlaw than the nobleman-on-the-run he would become. He is identified specifically as a yeoman (commoner) and isn’t at all concerned with Richard the Lionheart being the rightful King. The ballads are mostly playful, exciting, and sometimes comedic – a tone that sets them apart from most of the other ballads.

“The Bold Pedlar and Robin Hood” is a brief tale about Robin and Little John encountering a peddler on the road and demanding he give up half his wares. Apparently these early incarnations were less concerned with robbing exclusively from the rich. The peddler proclaims he will grant them half his pack if they are able to move him from where he stands. Little John whips out his sword but the peddler beats him back. Robin then tries his luck but is defeated in turn.

Then Robin Hood he drew his sword,

And the pedlar by his pack did stand;

They fought till the blood in streams did flow,

Till he cried, Pedlar, pray hold your hand!

Robin asks for his name but the peddler, as the victor, refuses until they give him their names. Once satisfied, he reveals himself to be “Gamble Gold of the gay green woods” who has fled from his home for murder. Robin Hood recognizes him as his “mother’s sister’s son” (cousin), and they happily set off to an alehouse and drink the day away.

The ending reminds me of something that the popular science author Jared Diamond wrote about in Guns, Germs, and Steel. He mentions that if a tribesman from the highlands of New Guinea encounters a stranger in the woods they will often sit down and go through their family tree – trying to find a connection and a reason they won’t have to fight each other. The closest social unit in any culture has always been the family, but the importance of blood and kin always seems significantly magnified outside of modern, urban, individualistic societies. The fact that most of us encounter multiple strangers a day without fearing for our lives is, perhaps, not something to be taken for granted.

The trope of Robin Hood losing a fight and then becoming friends with his enemy is quite common in these ballads. Many of his foes end up joining his band of merry men. I find it interesting that he isn’t terribly concerned with his status as the “best” and more with attracting talented comrades. That, I believe, is the mark of a good leader.

My favorite rendition of the ballad is by Chris Caswell and Danny Carnahan, a duo from California I don’t know very well but their paired singing here is wonderfully spirited.

Child got his version of the song from “an aged female in Bermondsey, Surrey” who claimed to have often heard her grandmother singing it. It’s quite common for Child’s sources to have been old women. Similarly, the Grimm brothers’ best sources when collecting their German folk tales were older women. Many turned out to be extraordinary repositories of folk culture, such as Dorothea Viehmann, who was able to retell her stories over and over without changing a word. Whether named or not I want to salute the contributions of these matriarchs who were so instrumental in passing down the stories of the world and shaping their communities.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Chris Caswell & Danny Carnahan – YouTube | Spotify

Joshua Burnell – Spotify

Barry Dransfield – YouTube | Spotify

Steeleye Span – YouTube | Spotify

 

The Battle of Otterburn (161)

I think it’s important to recognize that the Child Ballads came from a particular place and culture – the English-Scottish border region. This fact explains much of the peculiar qualities of the songs such as their general bloodiness. Life was hard there, especially in the medieval era. The armies of Scotland and England were always marching through on their way to fight each other and, as armies of the day did, they lived off the land – a polite way of saying they stole their food from the inhabitants, usually murdering and raping as well. When those countries weren’t at war, local raiders took advantage of the lawlessness of the area and plundered both sides of the border leaving more dead and starving in their wake. Loyalty to clans was everything. A clan was who protected you from raiders and allowed you to form raiding parties of your own.

I find it fascinating that horrible, oppressive circumstances often produce wonderful music. Who, for instance, has contributed more to the musical traditions of the United States than African Americans? Anyway, the the ballad I want to talk about here concerns a historical battle that took place in the borderlands in the 14th century.

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“Skirmish line at the battle of Otterburn” – S. Walsh

Around that time the Earl of Douglas gathered a bunch of Scottish clans for a large scale raid into Northern England. He plundered the countryside, burning towns and castles as he went. Eventually he faced off against Henry Percy, son of the Earl of Northumberland in several skirmishes that culminated in the battle of Otterburn, near the town of the same name. Douglas was killed but the Scottish forces, though outnumbered, won the day and took Percy captive. Apparently the Bishop of Durham, who was coming to reinforce Percy, declined to attack when he saw the Scots arrayed before him. I mostly find this interesting because it reminds me there was a time when “Bishop” was as much a political and military position as it was religious.

The ballad is mostly accurate in its content though it provides much embellishment in the face-off between Douglas and Percy. It begins by describing the raid across the border.

It fell about the Lammas tide,

When the muir-men [lowland Scots] win their hay,

The doughty Douglas bound him to ride

Into England, to drive a prey.

You can always tell how old a ballad is by how it describes the time of year. Before the four seasons became the agreed upon standard, people in Britain often kept time by festivals. “Lammas tide” was a harvest festival around August. Also, describing a raid as “driving a prey” is a little chilling. When I would go hunting in rural Minnesota we would “drive” deer through the woods. The use of a term you’d normally use when hunting animals to describe your very human foes says something about how your enemy is viewed.

The song goes on to describe the face off between Percy and Douglas where Douglas makes prophetic remarks about how one of them is fated to die here. There’s also a short stanza about Percy’s wife watching her husband from the castle wall, pale and frightened. It’s a lovely humanizing element. This song would become a sort of patriotic song celebrating a Scottish victory but there’s really nothing in it vilifying the English. It describes them fighting bravely. It reminds me of how the Hector and the Trojans are humanized in Homer’s Iliad.

After the first clash of armies, Percy and Douglas meet in single combat.

When Percy with the Douglas met,

I wat [saw] he was fu fain [glad];

They swakked [swung] their swords, till sair they swat [greatly they sweat],

And the blood ran down like rain.

'After Chevy Chase' (Battle of Otterburn 1388) by Herbert Thomas Dicksee (London 1862 ¿London 1942)
‘After Chevy Chase’ (Battle of Otterburn 1388) – Herbert Thomas Dicksee

Douglas is killed by a crushing blow to the head. The armies clash once more and the Scots beat back the English but Percy refuses to yield to anyone until asked by Sir Hugh Montgomery, nephew to Earl Douglas. I guess it was considered dishonorable to surrender to anyone not of high rank.

My favorite rendition of this ballad is by the English singer June Tabor. It’s significantly more melancholy than the other renditions I’ve linked below which are all high spirited and full of martial vigor, though excellent in their own right.

Something about “melancholy” just feels right for this subject. Much is made here about the English and Scottish heroes but I keep thinking about the peasants whose homes and crops were devastated in the raid. It can be frustrating to read history which is generally so focused on the nobility and so silent on the experiences of peasants, ordinary soldiers, laypeople, etc. Even the songs from the borderlands, which offer many rare glimpses into the lives of ordinary folk, still tend to have historical songs be about kings, earls, bishops, and knights. These were songs sung by the lower classes! I don’t know why those prejudices were so pervasive but they were. It’s an eternal irritation even if I love the songs themselves.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

June Tabor – YouTube | Spotify

Graham Pirt, Janet Russell – YouTube | Spotify

Wolfhound – YouTube | Spotify

Gaberlunzie – YouTube | Spotify

Tam Lin (39)

In order to better understand the actions, fears, and motivations of pre-modern people it is crucial not to underestimate belief in the supernatural. Several hundred years ago we began to understand our world as a collection of mechanical processes obeying immutable natural laws. Before that, people – no less curious about the world around them – saw things in more human terms. A raging storm meant God was angry. A tumor might be cosmic justice for a crime you committed. Mischievous spirits played tricks on children.

The Puritans, for instance, were perhaps the best educated people of their time – some of the first to instate compulsory education and founders of the best universities in the world today (Harvard, Yale). But in the 1600s you’d be hard pressed to find any of them, high or low, who didn’t believe unicorns ranged the hills of Massachusetts and mermaids swam off Cape Cod.

We might scoff at these antiquated beliefs but we’d be fooling ourselves to deny there’s an allure to them. That fascination with mythology, fantasy, and fairy tales helps explain the enduring popularity of “Tam Lin”, one of the best known of the Child Ballads.

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Illustration by Julia Menshikova

The story is centered around a young maiden who is warned against venturing into the woods of Carterhaugh (a real place in Scotland). The woods are guarded by the mysterious Tam Lin. As spirited as any Scottish heroine, she defies the warning, enters the woods, and is at once accosted by Tam Lin, a magical elf, who forcefully takes her virginity and makes her pregnant. Afterwards, she interrogates him and learns he was once a man but has become enslaved by the Queen of Fairies.

Now here is one of the more difficult parts for a modern audience to understand. Rape is a common occurrence in border balladry but the crime is not so much that it involves violence but sex with no intention of marriage. The solution is therefore the same as it was for consensual extra-marital sex – a forced marriage. Strangely, the woman is usually the one who attempts to force this, sometimes by going to the King who declares that if her assailant is married he shall be hanged, and if he is single they shall be wed. Both were seen as her receiving justice.

“Tam Lin” follows this same plot line but instead of Tam Lin not wishing to marry because of general male wantonness, he is held by a magic spell which the heroine must break. He informs her that the Queen of Fairies makes a tithe or sacrifice to Hell every seven years and he is worried that this time it will be him. The ritual is to take place on Halloween, believed to be an especially important day in paganism and devil-worship.

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‘Tam Lin, The Escape’ by Joanna Barnum

When the day arrives, the young woman hides where Tam Lin told her he would be. The Queen and her troupe arrive, at which point the heroine grabs Tam Lin and rides off with him. The Fairy Queen turns Tam Lin into a variety of objects from a snake to a wolf to a fiery coal but she clings to him until he is finally turned into a naked man and the spell is broken. The ballad ends with the Queen of Fairies mourning her loss.

I’ve always found it a curious choice to end on a note of loss instead of triumph. The Queen of Fairies is undoubtedly meant to be the villain of the piece but her distress at the end almost humanizes her. I say almost because her words about what she should have done are pretty creepy.

‘Had I kend [known], Thomas,’ she says,

‘A lady wad hae borrowd thee,

I wad hae taen [taken] out thy twa [two] grey een [eyes],

Put in twa een o tree [“eyes of tree” or tree knots].

 

‘Had I but kend, Thomas,’ she says,

‘Before I came frae hame [home],

I had taen out that heart o flesh,

Put in a heart o stane [stone].’

The wish to have replaced his eyes with wooden knots is probably, according to Child, to prevent Tam Lin from being able to recognize fairy folk. Humans were not supposed to be able to see them but Tam Lin had probably been granted this gift when he was abducted.

My favorite rendition of this ballad is by Steeleye Span, a folk-rock group that was an important part of the British folk revival scene in the 60s and 70s. Their take on the song contains three sections, each with its own beautiful melody.

Perhaps what I love most about this ballad is its melding of real issues with fantasy. Assault and rape were and continue to be frustratingly common. Cults and human sacrifice may not be so common but falling in with wicked people and feeling trapped is as human as it gets. Entwining these issues with the supernatural, I think, can give us a way to process our fears and emotions – a sort of catharsis. In the songs we can be heroic and outwit those who would do us harm even if it doesn’t always turn out like that in reality.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Steeleye Span – YouTube | Spotify

Moira Craig – YouTube | Spotify

Holly Tannen – YouTube | Spotify

Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer – YouTube | Spotify

The Bonnie Banks O’ Fordie (14)

One of the great film directors ever to live – Ingmar Bergman – made a medieval movie in the ’60s called The Virgin Spring about a young girl who is waylaid by bandits, raped, and killed. By chance, the bandits seek shelter in her family’s home, are discovered, and subsequently killed by her father. I was obsessed with Bergman’s work while I was in film school and interested to learn the story was based on a 13th century Swedish ballad. It’s not perhaps the most well known movie, though it was remade in the ’70s by horror icon Wes Craven as The Last House on the Left (which was itself remade again in 2009). This is film-trivia though and probably not the most interesting unless you are as obsessed with movies as me.

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Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring

Fast-forward ten years and I learn that one of the Child Ballads is the Anglicized version of the Scandinavian ballad that inspired Bergman’s movie! Fascinating, right? Well, to me it is. The Child Ballads have many connections with the folk music of France, Germany, and other countries but nowhere do they have as many ties as they do with the Scandinavian nations. There are probably many reasons for this kinship from the viking settlements in Northern Britain, to a shared Germanic language, to a close religious and cultural history but that’s a blog post for another time.

In “The Bonnie Banks O’ Fordie” (or “Babylon”) a “robber-man” or “banished man”  accosts three sisters in the woods and, one by one, demands that each becomes his wife (gives him her maidenhead) or die by his penknife.

‘It’s whether will ye be a rank robber’s wife,

Or will ye die by my wee pen-knife?’

The first two choose death. The youngest, when presented with the same choice, refuses to play and tells the man that her brother Babylon wanders these woods and will avenge anything done to her. The outlaw realizes she is talking about him and, in horror at what he has done to his sisters, kills himself.

Mackie, Charles Hodge, 1862-1920; 'There were three maidens pu'd a flower (by the bonnie banks o' Fordie)'
‘There were three maidens pu’d a flower (by the bonnie banks o’ Fordie)’ by Charles Hodge Mackie

As a side note, when you hear the word penknife, you usually think of a pocket knife or folding blade knife but the term was originally applied more generally to short bladed knives that, unsurprising, were used to shave down feathers to make quills. Like box cutters today they could be easily concealed for more criminal purposes.

Mistaken identity, often involving family members, is a prominent theme in the Child Ballads and most end just as tragically. From Shakespeare to Hitchcock, mistaken identity plots are common no matter the era, though most modern instances tend to be comedic and slapstick rather than bloody and incestuous (with the prominent exception of Oldboy).

My favorite version of this ballad is a rendition by Old Blind Dogs. They’re becoming regulars in this blog.

I don’t know quite how to feel at the brother’s grief when he realizes who he has killed. Does the fact that the women you intended to rape or murder were related to you really make all the difference? He can’t have even been close to them if no one recognized each other. Perhaps family meant more back then, or at least everyone else mattered less.

I tend to dislike such sweeping generalizations about “the past” in its kaleidoscopic variations but I think some generalizations apply. In most every era and area people lived shorter, more violent lives. That has to have an affect on your moral outlook, right?

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Old Blind Dogs – YouTube | Spotify

Highland Reign – YouTube | Spotify

Dick Gaughan – YouTube

Ewan MacColl – YouTube | Spotify

Glenlogie (238)

Ballads are so often somber or grisly affairs that it’s a welcome surprise when you come across one with a happy ending. I can still remember all the times I had Philippians 4:8 quoted to me growing up – “whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable … think about such things.” I don’t necessarily agree with this – and my taste in music, movies, etc. certainly doesn’t reflect the advice – but I can’t help wondering about the drawbacks of saturating my life with macabre stories. At the very least it’s probably healthy to mix it up.

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Artwork for a show by Rory and Alex McEwen

The ballad “Glenlogie” (or “Jean O Bethelnie”) is a lovely and lively tale about a young (15-17 yrs) maiden who is smitten by the handsome Glenlogie while in her father’s hall and tells him her feelings. He politely turns her down, explaining he’s promised to another. She collapses in her bed intent on dying. Her father and mother offer other, richer men to her but she’ll have none of them. Finally, her father’s chaplain writes a letter to Glenlogie who is moved by Jeannie’s love and rushes to her side, promising to make her his bride.

The song has remained popular, mostly in Scotland, well through the mid-1700s when it was first set down to the present day. Its themes are certainly timeless – from Paris and Helen to Lü Bu and Diochan, history is full of stories about lovesickness causing all manner of foolishness. The classic gender roles are swapped here (I love the brazenness of Scottish heroines!) and fortunately for Jeannie the consequences are less dire but the story is familiar.

There are, however, things that tie this to a particular place and time. Marrying for love is so natural now that it would be considered irresponsible – in most developed countries at least – to do otherwise. Stories about rebelling against parents and society for love have begun to feel positively old-fashioned. This cultural shift is generally seen as the result of enlightenment and moral progress but I don’t see any indication that Jeannie’s parents entreating her with wealthier matches is done out of anything but care. Economic security used to be tied to names and lineages not education levels and job placement. I suppose you could view this attitude as nobility jealously guarding its privileges or the love of parents for their daughter. Either way, it’s good to be reminded that Jeannie’s choice is more transgressive than it might appear today.

My favorite rendition of this song is from the Scottish band Old Blind Dogs – a musical group I positively adore and will certainly feature in this blog more.

One of my favorite elements from the song is the role of the chaplain who intercedes on Jeannie’s behalf with Glenlogie. He’s described as a man with a prodigious talent for writing and I love his approach in changing Glenlogie’s mind. It’s somewhere between chastisement and begging. These verses describe the letter and Glenlogie’s reaction:

But her father’s old chaplain, a man of great skill,

He wrote a broad letter, and penned it well.

Saying, O brave Glenlogie, why must it be so?

A maid’s love laid on you, shall she die in her woe?

Then reading the letter, his heart was like to break

That such a leal virgin should die for his sake.

May we all have such advocates when our heart is set on something.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Old Blind Dogs – YouTube | Spotify

Heidi Talbot – YouTube | Spotify

Mary Smith – YouTube | Spotify

Dick Gaughan – YouTube | Spotify

Young Hunting (68)

Well, now that I’m done with moving and the flu I can get back to this project. Life does tend to get in the way of these things. “Young Hunting” is a murder ballad that originated in Scotland but is perhaps better known as its American variant, “Henry Lee”. All versions are – at their core – a story about a young man who visits his mistress one last time and tells her he is to marry someone else. He usually incenses her by saying how much more beautiful his bride-to-be is. Upset at being abandoned, she stabs him and watches him bleed out. Perhaps a bit panicked, she hastily tries to cover up her crime by hiding the body, but a bird sitting in a tree begins to taunt her and call her a fool. She tries to lure the bird down and then threatens to shoot it but the bird is unmoved.

vagabondage-the-sweet-trade-henry-lee
Promotional artwork for a rendition by the bands Vagabondage and The Sweet Trade

Now there’s plenty to pick apart here but it’s worth mentioning that older versions of the ballad continue on with her neighbors discovering the body – sometimes with the help of the bird – and burning the woman at the stake. I suppose this ending was eventually omitted because it was assumed inevitable. I did, however, find the crime solving methods fascinating. The neighbors float candles stuck in a loaf of bread to identify the location of the body in the river. That a candle would be attracted to the resting spot of a corpse was an old folk belief but Child does mention that streams generally have pools formed by eddies in which bodies and floating debris alike would be pulled into. The superstition the townsfolk use to identify the murderer – that a corpse would bleed when approached by the guilty party – has less scientific standing.

This ballad could be seen as containing a sharp admonishment for both sexes – men, don’t treat your sweethearts poorly and women, don’t get carried away by jealousy – but I prefer seeing it more as a tragedy. Neither party is particularly villainous. Both act cruelly toward the other but there are strong feelings there for one another. The song opens with the woman begging the man to stay:

‘Come to my arms, my dear Willie,

You’re welcome hame to me;

To best o chear and charcoal red,

And candle burnin free.’

He is attempting to kiss his lover when she stabs him and in some versions tells her he loved her best as he lies dying. Her guilt hangs over her head in the form of the bird as she goes about disposing of the body. It reminds her, often mockingly, of his love for her.

The bird could be seen as a manifestation of her conscience or the dead man’s soul reborn (a not uncommon trope) or it could simply be one of the many anthropomorphized denizens of a folk tale. I’m not sure whether her attempts to lure the bird down with promises of a golden cage are meant as an obvious act of desperation or if the original singers actually believed birds preferred a life of gilded confinement.

My favorite version of this song is by the Appalachian folk singer Sheila Kay Adams. This rendition lacks any instrumentals which, to my ears, gives it a somber, haunting quality.

The rendition of the song that is most familiar to modern audiences, however, would have to be the recording by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (I will link this below). The music is less traditional and it’s full of all sorts of tweaks and variations but I love that about it. These ballads transformed and morphed over time and across the Atlantic but that is exactly the quality that makes folk music so fascinating and compelling. I hope we keep it up.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Sheila Kay Adams – YouTube | Spotify

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – YouTube | Spotify

Brian Peters – YouTube | Spotify

Martin Simpson – YouTube | Spotify

Iona Fyfe – Spotify

 

Sir Patrick Spens (58)

I think this is the point in a project where I’m most in danger of abandoning it. I’ve wanted to get this blog started for a long time, but now that I’ve written a couple posts I feel a little deflated – like I was hoping I’d get some cosmic satisfaction. Oh well – just need to write through it I think.

Sir_Patrick_Spens_window,_Abbot_House_Dunfermline
Stained glass window by Charles Baillie

Sir Patrick Spens is one of the most popular Child Ballads. In it, the Scottish King asks his courtiers who the best sailor in all his lands is. One of them vouches for Patrick Spens. When Patrick receives a letter ordering him to Norway to bring home the King’s bride, he openly weeps. It’s the dead of winter and the seas are deadly for even the most skillful sailor. But, loyal to the end, he departs at once. In some versions his ship is wrecked in a storm immediately – in others tragedy strikes on the return voyage. In either case, everyone aboard drowns.

This story feels especially melancholy because the protagonist foresees his own death but is honor bound to carry out his King’s will. In this way it’s structured like a Greek tragedy – where forces outside his control direct a man to his long-foreshadowed doom. I don’t know if the people who originally sang this would have viewed Patrick’s obedience as laudable or foolish. I can’t help but think it provided some catharsis for all those servants who knew better than their lord but were ignored anyway. After all, many of the King’s nobles are drowned on the voyage alongside Patrick and his sailors.

A good part of the song’s popularity must come from its wonderfully poetic use of imagery. Take these lines for instance, from after the storm sets in:

O laith [loath], laith [loath] were our gude Scots lords

To weet their cork-heeld shoon [shoes];

But lang or a’ the play was played,

They wat their hats aboon [wet their hats above – i.e. drowned].

 

And mony was the feather-bed

That flattered [fluttered] on the faem [foam],

And mony was the gude lord’s son

That never mair cam hame.

 

The ladyes wrang their fingers white,

The maidens tore their hair,

A’ for the sake of their true loves,

For them they’ll see na mair.

As an interesting side note, sailors apparently liked to sleep on feather beds both because they were comfortable and because they could double as life rafts.

Most versions also contain the bad omen of “the new moon yestreen, wi the auld moon in her arm” – a phenomenon known to modern science as “earthshine” where the unlit part of the moon is dimly lit from sunlight bounced off the earth. This gives the impression that a sliver of bright moon is cradling a dim full moon. This actually tends to coincide with high tides and therefore dangerous seas. It raises the interesting question of whether a superstition that has scientific backing is still a superstition.

My favorite version of the song is sung by Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer.

Going to sea might not be viewed to be as dangerous as going to war but the death rates for a sailor could easily exceed those of a soldier in medieval times and the age of discovery. Ship building technology has steadily improved century to century but 500 years ago, very few vessels were built to survive deep waters and those that were nevertheless sank at very high rates. That’s not to mention the dangers of disease, malnutrition, mutiny, and becoming lost. Mortality rates on voyages to East Asia during the spice trade, for instance, were about 50%. It’s crazy to me to think of gambling with those kind of odds.

Francis Child writes in his notes on the song that scholars have been unable to tie it to a specific historical event though several medieval Scottish voyages appear to be strikingly similar. Nevertheless the people who sang it wouldn’t have much cared if Patrick Spens was a real person. I like this perspective. If a story means something to you in one way or another it possesses its own truth.


Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Anaïs Mitchell, Jefferson Hamer – YouTube | Spotify

Buffy Sainte-Marie – YouTube | Spotify

Martin Simpson – YouTube | Spotify

Ewan MacColl – YouTube | Spotify

The Three Ravens (26)

“The Twa Corbies” – Arthur Rackham

“The Three Ravens” is a particularly old ballad, first recorded in 1611 but possibly much older. There’s a Scottish variant – “Twa Corbies” – that has a darker flavor than its English sibling though, honestly, both are quite bleak.

In the English version, the eponymous birds sit talking about where to take their next meal. One suggests the corpse of a knight in a nearby field. He is, however, still guarded by his faithful hawks and hounds. As they’re talking a “fallow doe” – meant to symbolize the knight’s pregnant lover – comes upon his body. She proceeds to clean and bury him, then dies herself. All in all, it’s an intensely somber reflection on death.

The Scottish version is grimmer. Usually titled “Twa Corbies” (“corbies” being Scots for “crows”) it sets up a similar scene but here, the knight’s hawks and hounds have abandoned him and his wife has taken another lover. The lyrics also go into gruesome detail about how the crows will use his body parts to build their nest.

‘Ye’ll sit on his white hause-bane [breast-bone],

And I’ll pike out his bonny blue een [eyes];

Wi ae lock o his gowden hair

We’ll theek [feather] our nest when it grows bare.

I feel like it’s too easy to say the Scottish one is more pessimistic because Scotland has had a difficult history of colonialism, poverty, warring clans, etc. Other pairing of Scottish/English songs (“The Battle of Otterburn”/”The Hunting of the Cheviot”) seem to be unbalanced in the other direction. Besides, from what I know, the people to either side of the border had more in common with each other than with the rest of their respective countries.

“The Three Ravens” – Henry Matthew Brock

The tune for “The Three Ravens” was, remarkably, preserved from the start. “Twa Corbies” – though less old than its counterpart – lost its melody somewhere along the way until the Scots poet R.M. Blythman set it to the music from an old Breton (French) song “An Alarc’h.” It fit so well that it became a very popular song again.

I love both versions but I think I prefer the English one here. The music is just so wonderfully melancholy and the way the story subtly moves from the perspective of the ravens to an omniscient narrator gives it a satisfying mythic quality.

The rendition below is one that drew me into the Child Ballads in the first place. It’s by a short-lived trio from the ’60s – The Black Country Three. I’ve listened to it more times than I can count.

One question that I keep dwelling on is what this meant for the people who sang it originally. A part of its appeal for me (and probably others who still sing it) is the window it gives me into the past. But that element obviously didn’t exist for the original singers.

It’s basically a story about a nameless knight who has died of unknown causes and his lover who quickly follows him to the grave. In this way it’s pretty broad and universal in its imagery. Even ravens are ubiquitous in the Northern Hemisphere. And death finds everyone everywhere.

The imagery of hawks and hounds – the proper accessories for a medieval knight while hunting – tie it closer to a particular place and time. And of course we don’t keep time by the canonical hours – “the prime” is around dawn and “euen-song time” is evening.

But I think the common themes explain part of its appeal and offer an explanation for its longevity in folk traditions.

The final lines are a commendation of the knight’s loyal companions.

God send euery gentleman,

Such haukes, such hounds, and such a Leman [Lover].

This makes for a hopeful note to go out on though I suppose there’s the suggestion that not everyone experiences such love and devotion – an idea the Scottish version takes and runs with.


Ballad Text

The Three Ravens – Internet Sacred Text Archive

The Twa Corbies – Bartleby

My Favorite Recordings

The Black Country Three – YouTube | Spotify

Kay McCarthy – Spotify

Andreas Scholl –  YouTube | Spotify

Ayreheart – YouTube | Spotify

Bardmageddon – Spotify

Hamish Imlach – YouTube | Spotify