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.
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.
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