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.
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.