Glasgerion (67)

I titled this blog “Best of the Child Ballads” not “All the Child Ballads” which sort of gives me an out so I don’t have to write 305 posts. Not that I ever really intended that. Some ballads are very fragmentary, have no recording I could find, or simply haven’t made much of an impression on me. I think this blog has nearly run its course and it will be on to another project for me. That makes picking the next few songs a bit tricky. Actually, this one wasn’t that hard.

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The Bert Jansch album named after this ballad

“Glasgerion” occupies a curious (but not completely unusual) space in the Child Ballad canon. It’s only since the folk revival of the 60s that it has gained much popularity. Until then – at least as far as we know – it was not terribly wide-spread. It was A. L. Lloyd, the British folk-singer and communist, who set it to a tune and made it popular under the new title “Jack Orion”. “Glasgerion” refers to the Welsh harpist Geraint Fardd Glas who, despite existing purely in mythology, hardly occupies a space of mythic proportions in peoples’ minds today. So Glasgerion became Jack Orion and exchanged his harp for a fiddle to keep up with the times.

The tune this ballad is set to is lively and merry though none of the characters are in a merry mood by the end. It’s one of those ballads that skirts the line between humorous and tragic. The protagonist is said to be the best musician around with some colorful examples given of his prowess.

He’d harpit a fish out o saut [salt] water,

Or water out o a stane [stone],

Or milk out o a maiden’s breast,

That bairn [child] had never nane.

One evening, while playing in a great hall, he catches the attention of a countess who invites him to meet her in her chambers that morning. Jack, as happy as you can imagine, goes back to his own quarters and orders his servant Tom to wake him up when the cock crows. Tom plays his master to sleep then steals off to the countess himself. It’s dark in her chambers and though she makes comments about Jack’s strange clothes and the feel of his hair, she doesn’t learn the truth. Tom runs back to his master and wakes him up as if nothing were amiss. When Tom makes his rendezvous with the countess she is perplexed and jokes that he can’t get enough of her. He swears he was never here before – and she realizes it was Tom she slept with. In some versions she kills herself because she cannot offer herself to Jack due to the antiquated belief she has been “ruined”. Jack is quickly off back home where he hangs Tom from his gate as high as he possibly can.

I don’t know what Tom was expecting to happen but he definitely seemed overconfident in the ability of his ruse to hold up. Cases of mistaken identity are popular in tales of the time – just think of Shakespeare – and it is mostly this aspect that gives the song its comedic flavor. Actually, I read an entire book on the case of Martin Guerre – a medieval French peasant who left his wife and child for several years before turning up again. He lived happily with his family for another three years before being taken to court as an impostor. And at the height of the trial the real Martin Guerre shows up! The impostor, Arnaud du Tilh, was hung. So there’s some symmetry with this ballad. The real life story of Martin Guerre actually seems less plausible then the fictional story in “Jack Orion” (though I think the wife almost certainly knew in Martin’s case).

My favorite version of this song is by Fay Hield who is a wonderful up-and-coming folk singer from England. I’ve actually seen her make several posts from quarantine recently on her Facebook page. I hope she’s able to make it to the States when the Coronavirus  is under control.

There’s a little bit of social commentary here I think. Jack doesn’t seem to imagine his servant capable of such subterfuge but, as always, the underclasses are more cunning than their betters imagine. To a point at least – I still don’t know if Tom thought this one through all the way. The end sort of serves as a warning to everyone involved. Servants fear your masters. Masters don’t underestimate your servants. And women, light a candle before you engage in your trysts.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Fay Hield – YouTube | Spotify

Bert Jansch – YouTube | Spotify

Graham Dodsworth – Spotify

Laura Cortese – YouTube| Spotify

A. L. Lloyd – YouTube| Spotify

The Gardener (219)

The world in which I composed my last post here – less than a month ago – feels entirely different than the one today. Covid-19 has reordered societies the world over as people are encouraged to quarantine themselves to slow the spread of the virus. I’ve been working from home (thankfully, as a web developer, the transition was easier for me than most) and rarely venture out these days. I was hoping to use these limitations to force myself to be more productive in areas I could such as writing or reading books I’ve put off. I haven’t done a great job of it though. I’m constantly anxious over the fact that I’m not putting my time to good use. Too much time wasted watching YouTube or playing video games. All the uncertainty makes it easy to fall back on old habits. It’s a constant struggle.

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The Gardener – Arthur Rackham

But enough about me – I was really looking forward to writing about one of the loveliest, most charming ballads I’ve had the pleasure of listening to. The Gardener is a short little song with a beautiful melody. It has no shortage of recordings up through the present day but not much has been written about it. It contains no historical allusions, famous figures, or much of anything to go off of besides poetic imagery. The entire thing is an exchange between a gardener and a young maid. He playfully attempts to woo her by promising her various articles of clothing made of plants and flowers if she will give herself to him.

‘The lily white to be your smock;

Becomes your body best;

And the jelly-flower to be your quill,

And the red rose in your breast.

‘Your gown shall be o the pingo white,

Your petticoat cammovine,

Your apron o the seel o downs;

Come smile, sweet heart o mine!

She rebuffs him in kind – by saying she’ll make a suitable set of clothes for him all of icy, snowy, wintry materials. In other words, that which is anathema to flowers and spring.

‘The steed that you shall ride upon

Shall be o the weather snell,

Well bridled wi the northern wind,

And cold sharp showers o hail.

‘The hat you on your head shall wear

Shall be o the weather gray,

And aye when you come into my sight

I’ll wish you were away.’

This kind of pursue and rebuff dynamic is very common in the Child Ballads about love and romance. The gender dynamics are pretty interesting. The man is generally the pursuer but even though the woman is spurning his advances she’s often doing it playfully. She’ll challenge him with riddles or set up obstacles as a game he must win in order to gain her affection. It almost feels like a performative dance she must put on, as proof she’s a good or “chaste” sort of woman, before they can get what they both actually want.

Treating love and courtship as a game with certain unspoken rules is not some old-fashioned idea. The rules have changed but there are any number of rules we learn (sometimes the hard way) as we navigate avenues of love and sex today. Men being expected to text first, women not sleeping with a partner until date number whatever, not bringing up an ex on the first date, etc. Some rules have become less gendered thanks to feminism, such as men being expected to pay, but others persist.

My favorite recording of this ballad is by the legendary folk singer Ewan MacColl. MacColl was perhaps the most important figure in the British folk revival and has recordings of an enormous number of Child Ballads. He even went on to marry the famous American folk singer Peggy Seeger. His recordings, being older than most others available today, are heavily accented in his native Scots dialect making them real treasures of music and history.

Looking at The Gardener outside of the lenses of gender theory and societal expectations I find it to be tremendously endearing. The poetic verse, the contrast between winter and spring, frost and growth, the silliness of expressing your love in such blatant horticultural terms. And isn’t the tune so simple and sweet? Sometimes it’s just really nice to encounter a bit of lovely, charming music.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Ewan MacColl – YouTube | Spotify

Grace Notes – YouTube| Spotify

Jean Redpath – YouTube| Spotify

Wendy Weatherby – YouTube| Spotify

Circled By Hounds – YouTube | Spotify

The Cruel Mother (20)

For this post I tried to pick the most disturbing Child Ballad – or at least the one I had the strongest reaction to. It wasn’t an easy task. People can be hateful and vicious to each other. They can also kill, rape, or maim with chilling indifference. There’s a ballad about a blood libel – a common medieval anti-Semitic belief that Jews killed Christian children and used their blood to make matzah bread. “The Prioress’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales tells a similar story. There’s a ballad where a man massacres a woman’s family, rapes her, and then imprisons her until she bears him a child.

Honestly, as I’m writing this, all I can think about is that I’m really looking forward to my next post where I’m done with my self-inflicted sojourn into the darkest Child Ballads. This might be shorter than usual.

The ballad I settled on is titled “The Cruel Mother” and concerns a woman who is pregnant with illegitimate twins. She gives birth to them alone in the woods and then kills them with a penknife. In one version, after burying them, she attempts to wipe the blade clean but the more she wipes the redder it grows.

She wiped the penknife in the sludge;

The more she wiped it, the more the blood showed.

This was a common storytelling trope indicating guilt, as in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Later she finds two children playing with a ball and tells them that if they were her own she would dress them in finery and take care of them. They turn and inform her that they are the ghosts of her murdered children and know she would do no such thing. They tell her that hell awaits her.

This is a well known ballad in Scotland, England, and America. There are also related versions in other countries, most notably Germany. In the German song, the children appear to a bride at her wedding and she denies having had them, wishing the devil would take her if it was true. So the devil comes and snatches her up.

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Illustration by Arthur Rackham for “Some British Ballads” (1919)

I probably don’t need much of an explanation for why this is so disturbing to me. Acts of violence are harder to bear when done to infants and children. The way their ghosts appear to her also makes my skin crawl. The song has little sympathy for her. It was probably meant to impart a moral lesson to young girls. The Birmingham singer Cecilia Costello, born in the 1880s, recalled her father putting her on his knee and singing it to her with the admonition that she was not to act so. Modern singers have made note of the difficulties of the woman, however, living in a time where postpartum depression was not understood and where if her illegitimate birth was to be made public she could be disowned and exiled. Historians have noted that such infanticides were probably quite common in the past, but little reported for obvious reasons. As horrified as I am by her actions I do feel something for her.

My preferred version of the song (though I rarely listen to it) is by the New Zealand band Lothlórien. It is grim and matter of fact about the subject matter

I don’t have much more to say except that I’m not against making songs about such awful things. In fact, I believe in the capability of music to help us face the harrowing aspects of life. It’s just that sometimes I really don’t like it.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Lothlórien – YouTube|Spotify

Appalachian Celtic Consort – YouTube| Spotify

Shirley Collins – YouTube| Spotify

Lizzie Higgins – YouTube| Spotify

Sheath and Knife (16)

In my continued downward descent into the darker branches of border balladry I’ve chosen to highlight “Sheath and Knife” – a disturbing tale of incest, death, and grief. I believe this was one of the first Child Ballads I stumbled upon and it’s definitely the first one to make a great impression on me. It’s completely heartbreaking and has stuck with me the way particular tragic stories do for any of us – something to dwell on when feeling gloomy. I don’t quite understand why but when you’re sad you are drawn to sad things. It’s perversely comforting.

The story is as follows. A woman is pregnant with her brother’s child and asks him to go down with her to the broom. The broom, in this context, would have been a meadow of thorny shrubs with yellow flowers that were commonly called “broom.” The branches of the shrub were often used to sweep or dust and thus gave their name to the household instrument we use today. Anyway, the woman asks her brother to do something for her.

‘Now when that ye hear me gie [give] a loud cry,

Shoot frae [from] thy bow an arrow and there let me lye.

‘And when that ye see I am lying dead,

Then ye’ll put me in a grave, wi a turf at my head.’

While it sounds at first like she’s asking him to shoot her it was supposedly an old belief that one should choose a burial spot by shooting an arrow and digging a grave where it lands. Whether the sister then dies of suicide or childbirth isn’t clear. In other versions the brother does explicitly kill her. Either way, he buries her and her child and returns home to find a feast in progress with minstrels and dancing. His father asks why he is grieving and he responds that he lost a sheath and knife – a euphemism for his sister and her child. His father, not taking his meaning, offers him a better sheath and knife but the brother claims there are none in all the world that compare.

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From Ballad Book by Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe  p. 159

And that’s it. I’ve basically included the entire song in my description. It’s quite short. I think its simplicity actually magnifies the feelings of loss and anguish. When experiencing raw grief it can be difficult to speak or put into words what you’re feeling. Sometimes you can only manage to choke out a few sentences. So it is here.

The ballad was not always well-preserved with verses missing in many versions. One of these was pulled from the recollection of Sir Walter Scott in the late 1800s but he could only remember bits and pieces. I’ve included his notes in the image on the right.

As uncomfortable as the brother sister relationship is, I suppose incestuous relationships have existed since forever and the people in them did experience real love, stress, and pain. That’s what the Child Ballads do best – shed light on the hidden, illicit corners of the world. So as squeamish as it might make me, I really do feel for the duo in this song. What a thing to go through.

My favorite version of the ballad is by Ellie Bryan. I don’t know much about her but I found her rendition on YouTube and her voice has a perfect wavering quality to communicate grief.

Neither sibling makes any acknowledgement that what they did was wrong or expresses remorse for their incestuous relationship. But they’re clearly aware of it being taboo or the sister wouldn’t have committed suicide (or assisted suicide) and asked for a hidden burial. Shame has historically been a major reason for suicide. In Roman times and in feudal Japan, just to name a couple examples, it was often considered the only honorable option after you had failed a superior or publicly humiliated yourself. I don’t think it’s ever really gone away as a motivating factor either, with “deaths of despair” being talked about in the news lately and linked to declining social status and economic fortunes in the American heartland. These deaths are especially prevalent in states like West Virginia – heavily settled, coincidentally (or not), by the descendants of the British Borderers.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Ellie Bryan – YouTube

Ewan MacColl – YouTube | Spotify

Eliza Carthy – YouTube

Simon Orrell – YouTube

 

Edward (13)

My last post about the murder of a poacher and his dogs was a bit on the darker side. At first I thought, “let’s balance this out and write about a love ballad or something whimsical.” But, thinking about this more, I feel like I’ve been avoiding some of the really harrowing ballads and I should probably tackle a few as they’re an important part of the border ballad tradition. “Edward” is not the darkest, but it’s getting closer. I think in my next couple posts I’ll see how far down we can go.

“Edward” or “My Son David” is pure dialogue between a son and his mother which is unusual for a ballad. It begins when a young man comes home and his mother asks about the blood stains on his clothes or sword. He claims they’re from his hawk but his mother says the blood of a hawk could never be so red. He claims they’re from his horse but she doesn’t believe that either.

‘O I hae killed my reid-roan steid [horse],

Mither, mither,

O I hae killed my reid-roan steid,

That erst was sae fair and frie O.’ [that used to be so fair and free]

‘Your steid was auld [old], and ye hae gat mair [more],

Edward, Edward,

Your steid was auld, and ye hae gat mair,

Sum other dule ye drie O.’ [some other grief you are enduring]

He then admits he has killed a man, usually his father or brother. His reasons are not entirely clear but more on that later. His mother usually asks what he’s going to do with his wife, children, house, and lands. He says he must abandon them and sail across the sea (or sometimes commit suicide). Some versions end here but in others the mother asks what he’s leaving for her and he answers “a curse from hell” with the implication that she put him up to the murder. This short addition changes the ending dramatically from a sorrowful farewell to a shocking revelation.

I wasn’t able to find much analysis of this ballad which is strange because it has been and remains immensely popular. Then again, it does add some allure to an already enigmatic story. Most versions of this have been found in America and there are quite a few variants in Scandinavia as well. In Scotland it was considered lost until it was rediscovered in the 20th century as a popular song with Scottish Travelers which is fitting, I think, considering the protagonist decides to banish himself in most versions.

The Scottish versions usually have the father as the murder victim and the mother implicated at the end. In America it’s usually the brother who is slain and the mother is not complicit. I’ve heard it suggested that the ending was toned down to make it more palatable in America which could be true but I’m not convinced. The Scandinavian ones tend to match the American versions and theirs are quite old. I’m guessing there have just been a lot of versions of this song floating around for a while.

Now about the motive for the murder – in the Scottish versions it’s suggested the mother lied to her son to manipulate him into killing his father. What she lied about is never said. In the American versions, on the other hand, he says something like “it was mostly over the cutting of a rod that never will be a tree” i.e. his brother cut down a sapling. Now, this could be taken at face value – fatal arguments often occur over trivial matters. But some have suggested that the sapling is a euphemism for a child and the brother has killed a pregnant woman. Such euphemisms are common in other ballads but are usually a bit more obvious to the listeners. So it’s hard to say what exactly caused the brother’s murder. But like I say, this adds an aura of mystery to the ballad, which for me just makes it more interesting.

My favorite recording of this is by the American folk band Red Tail Ring. I love the slow mournful playing of the fiddle and the Southern sounding twang and drawl in the vocals.

I’ve made a distinction between the Scottish and American versions but since the mid 1900s there has been a good deal of cross-contamination with musicians setting the Scottish words to an American tune or vice-versa which is pretty cool.

Kinslaying has been considered a particularly monstrous deed since Cain and Abel. In Greek Tragedy, Oedipus blinds himself on discovering he killed his father. Orestes is relentlessly hounded by the Furies for killing his mother. The “protagonist” of this ballad seems to realize his life is over whatever the provocation was. Even so, this is not as grim as the Child Ballads get as you’ll discover in my next post.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Red Tail Ring – YouTube | Spotify

Hex – YouTube | Spotify

The Johnstons – YouTube | Spotify

The Furrow Collective – YouTube | Spotify

Old Blind Dogs – YouTube

Johnie Cock (114)

My goal has been to put out one of these a month, which I’ve more or less managed to do but it’s been two months and I’ve got nothing to show for it. Though I’d like to just blame the holidays I think I’ll try to write two posts quickly to make up for it. And now I’ve put the promise into writing so I’m more likely to follow through.

“Johnie Cock” or “Johnny O’Breadisley” is described by Francis Child as a “precious specimen of the unspoiled traditional ballad.” I’m not a hundred percent sure why – the earliest version is only from the late 18th century – but I think it contains some particular elements that suggest an older source. One of the early versions was found in the textbook of an apparently illiterate drummer. The original collector deemed it of little value because it was so badly written. Child bemoans his mistake, saying the illiteracy of the author only gives it more authority.

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‘Johnny of Braidislee’ by Samuel Edmund Waller

The ballad’s story is straightforward. Johnie goes poaching in the woods though his tearful mother entreats him to remain at home. He kills a deer with his hunting dogs and together they feast and fall asleep with full bellies. A group of “foresters” (men who enforce the King’s law against poaching) come upon Johnie and attack him while he’s still asleep. Though wounded, Johnie fights them off in spectacular fashion, leaving only one to carry off the tidings of what happened.

Johnie’s set his back against an aik [oak],

His fute [foot] against a stane [stone],

And he has slain the Seven Foresters,

He has slain them a’ but ane [all but one].

He has broke three ribs in that ane’s side,

But and his collar bane;

He’s laod [laid] him twa-fald ower his steed,

Bade him carry the tidings hame [home].

Some ballads end with his mother retrieving his body, others with the image of Johnie and his dogs lying dead in the woods, having succumbed to their wounds.

This song was popular in the borderlands – both the Scottish and English sides. Only one version has been found in America (Virginia). The subject matter didn’t translate easily, I think. Poaching was simply less of an issue in America with its vast forests and abundant game. In Britain though, all the way from medieval times, poaching carried heavy penalties – usually death. It’s easy for us to think of medieval Europe as a wild environment where people simply lived off the land but in fact most forests and “wildernesses” were carefully cultivated and controlled. And not only Europe, in medieval (Tokugawa) Japan, for example, they set up and enforced tree plantations to combat forest loss. Deforestation has long been a scourge in many older countries. That’s why most huts in Britain were made of stone while American settlers could build log cabins. Poaching laws also served as environmental protection but mostly they were put in place to provide hunting grounds for the Anglo-Norman nobility. This, as evidenced by innumerable songs and stories, caused much resentment among the commoners. Their diets were often deficient in meat, and as such, poaching was widespread. That is why Johnie is the hero of the song and the foresters are the villains.

The Child Ballads (despite occasional confusion stemming from the name) were songs for adults. This is why so many of the heroes are law-breakers or political dissidents. Children’s songs and folk tales tend to stress conformity and punish rule breakers – think “The Ants Go Marching” or “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” This, I think, reflects the relationship between parent and child where parents are generally trying to instill obedience in their offspring. Songs for adults can be more subversive. Outlaws thrive as heroes. Though the foresters have the law on their side, Johnie rebukes them for attacking him while he sleeps, something he says even a wolf would not do. He might be breaking the law but their behavior is far more villainous.

My favorite rendition of the song is by the wonderful Old Blind Dogs. It’s both somber and energetic at the same time and has a gripping rhythm that builds toward Johnie’s last stand.

I find the final verse to be especially poignant. It’s such a haunting image.

Now Johnie’s gude bend bow [bent bow, i.e. not a crossbow] is broke,

And his gude graie dogs are slain,

And his bodie lies dead in Durrisdeer,

And his hunting it is done.

Many lawbreaking heroes end up dead in the Child Ballads though they often go out with a bang. Johnie’s slaying of the foresters being a perfect example of that. “Matty Groves” (191) is another.

You might notice that “slain” and “done” from the verses above don’t appear to rhyme. If you listen it in the rendition I’ve linked, however, you will hear “done” pronounced more like “dane” which is how it sounds in Scots English. Poetry, song, or anything that rhymes can be invaluable tools for historians and linguists in reconstructing how a language or dialect sounded. Scots is still spoken today but Shakespeare, for instance, is used in this capacity to reconstruct how Early Modern English (that following Middle English) sounded.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Old Blind Dogs – YouTube | Spotify

June Tabor – YouTube | Spotify

Hamish Imlach – YouTube | Spotify

The Corries – YouTube | Spotify

Alastair McDonald – YouTube | Spotify

Glasgow Peggie (228)

Last time I wrote about how certain songs survived the British diaspora and others, more tied to their homeland, did not. This month’s ballad is one that is not sung much in America, Australia, or even England. It’s peculiarly Scottish and in Scotland it has remained. It’s also a love song (of sorts) and I felt the tenor of my posts had been rather morose as of late. So today it’s something lighthearted and cheery!

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The Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland

“Glasgow Peggie” or “Kilbogie” concerns a Scottish Highlander who rides into the Lowlands to take Peggie, a woman who has caught his fancy, as his bride. Much of Scottish history in the last half millennium has revolved around relations between the Highlands and the Lowlands. I’ve included a map that gives a rough approximation of where one ends and the other begins. There were a number of real and important differences between these regions. The Lowlands (with the large cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh) contained the majority of the population. The people tended to farm and they spoke Scots, a sort of dialect of English with a lot of Gaelic influence. Many of the Child ballads were sung and written in Scots. You’ve probably seen examples of it in the lyrics I’ve quoted: “Mother” becomes “mither”, “make” becomes “mak”, and “from” becomes “frae.” For another example “Auld Lang Syne” – a song most everyone has heard – is Scots for “Old Long Since.” The Lowland Scots were usually viewed as (comparatively) civilized and settled.

The Highlanders, on the other hand, were stereotyped as uncivilized, violent, and backwards. They organized in clans and inhabited the rocky, mountainous areas of Scotland. The terrain was unsuitable for agriculture, thus they tended to herd sheep and cattle. Being more removed from the reach of England and the Lowland Scottish aristocracy, they spoke Scottish Gaelic, an older language not related to English.

The Highlanders were viewed by the Lowlanders (whose views were more likely to survive in written form) with a mix of prejudice, terror, and romanticism. Sort of like cowboys in the American West. The Highlands were the wild frontier, beautiful but dangerous. These attitudes are important to understanding “Glasgow Peggie.” When the Highlander arrives in Glasgow he is leading an armed company and demands Peggie’s father give her up. Her father, furious, at first refuses but is forced to give in. Peggie leaves, sometimes with a warning from her mother about what kind of men Highlanders are, and rides with her suitor into the hills of the North.

After several days riding they lay together in the grass and she bemoans her fate – missing her soft bed back home. But he treats her kindly and reveals himself to be a wealthy Lord (usually wealthier than her own family) and she quickly changes her tune.

Now a’ that Peggy had before

Was a wee cot-house and a little kail-yairdie,

But now she is lady o the whole Isle o Skye,

And now bonny Peggy is ca’d my Lady.

So, despite the abduction and warning from her mother, things work out for Peggie in the end. It reminds me of the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers where seven women each fall in love with their abductors. Or if you substitute a wealthy Scottish Lord for a handsome prince you get Beauty and the Beast.  These stories are recognized as problematic today and perhaps even in their own time but music can serve as a way of coping with and rationalizing problematic things.

Part of the allure of this ballad, I find, is the wonderfully charming tune. The version I’m choosing to highlight is by the Glasgow born singer Alex Campbell who, along with Ewan MacColl, was the seminal figure of the British folk revival of the 50s. Though the two were friends they differed on some key points of theory. MacColl was a bit of a purist who believed folk musicians should only play songs tied to their own regional background. Campbell believed in cultivating an eclectic repertoire (a philosophy I happen to agree with) and sang English and American songs as well as Scottish.

It’s hard to explain why exactly his version of the song resonates with me. It has a warm quality almost like a reminiscence. And there’s just so much feeling and emotion radiating from Cambell’s voice. Listening to it just now was sort of transportive. I had such a vivid image of Peggie and her Highland lover sitting on a wind-blown grassy hilltop. I’m well aware of how silly it sounds but there were tears in my eyes. Sometimes, reading history or listening to these ballads I feel hit with the weight of past lives. So many people saw and felt and did so much. It’s a spooky feeling that makes me feel very small. I don’t know, like I say it’s hard to put into words.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Alex Campbell – YouTube | Spotify

Silly Wizard – YouTube | Spotify

Distant Oaks – YouTube | Spotify

Old Blind Dogs – YouTube | Spotify

Ray Fisher & Archie Fisher – YouTube | Spotify

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

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