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.
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
My Favorite Recordings
Iona Fyfe – Spotify