“The Trooper and the Maid” (or “The Light Dragoon”) tells the story of an eager young woman who meets her soldier sweetheart one evening and plies him with food and drink until they finally fall into bed together. They’re awakened the next morning by trumpets and the sounds of the soldier’s regiment departing. As he hurries to join them, the woman ask him when he’ll be back to marry her and be her “bairnie’s” (Scots for “baby’s”) daddy. He responds with a series of poetic put-offs – “when cockle shells grow silver bells” or “when apples trees grow in the seas” – that indicate it will never happen.
The theme of youthful love and seduction is about as common a theme as you can come across in Child Ballads – or probably most genres of music past and present for that matter. The more unusual element is the woman playing the role of seducer. This fact was so off-putting to one collector, the Rev. Baring-Gould, that he rewrote it with the roles swapped.
My favorite rendition of this is by the Canadian folk band The Duhks.
One of the things I love so much about the Child Ballads is their preservation of the female perspective. It’s a testament both to their status as “low art” that lacked the kind of gate-keeping present in loftier institutions and the critical role of women in preserving oral folk traditions. So many of these songs were preserved simply because mothers would sing them to their children.
Most versions of the song are Scottish in origin, though some exist in England and North America. This is especially apparent in the heavily Scots inflected lyrics Child records.
‘O when will we twa meet again?
Or when will you me marry?’
‘When rashin rinds grow gay gowd rings,
I winna langer tarry.’
As progressive or perhaps just lascivious as the ballad is in some ways it ends with a sharp conservative lesson for the woman. Don’t trust men, even if they wear dashing uniforms, and don’t let your passions get the better of you.
As difficult as being a single mother might be today it surely doesn’t compare to the early 19th century. And, honestly, for me it’s a good reminder that as easy as it might be to mock past puritanical attitudes, actions carried more weight back then and sex – mostly for women – could have heavy consequences.
That pull between passion and practicality, is wonderfully played out here. It’s hard not to feel for the maid’s predicament.
My Favorite Recordings
North Sea Gas – Spotify
The Claire Hastings Band – YouTube