The Battle of Otterburn (161)

I think it’s important to recognize that the Child Ballads came from a particular place and culture – the English-Scottish border region. This fact explains much of the peculiar qualities of the songs such as their general bloodiness. Life was hard there, especially in the medieval era. The armies of Scotland and England were always marching through on their way to fight each other and, as armies of the day did, they lived off the land – a polite way of saying they stole their food from the inhabitants, usually murdering and raping as well. When those countries weren’t at war, local raiders took advantage of the lawlessness of the area and plundered both sides of the border leaving more dead and starving in their wake. Loyalty to clans was everything. A clan was who protected you from raiders and allowed you to form raiding parties of your own.

I find it fascinating that horrible, oppressive circumstances often produce wonderful music. Who, for instance, has contributed more to the musical traditions of the United States than African Americans? Anyway, the the ballad I want to talk about here concerns a historical battle that took place in the borderlands in the 14th century.

Skirmish Line at otterburn
“Skirmish line at the battle of Otterburn” – S. Walsh

Around that time the Earl of Douglas gathered a bunch of Scottish clans for a large scale raid into Northern England. He plundered the countryside, burning towns and castles as he went. Eventually he faced off against Henry Percy, son of the Earl of Northumberland in several skirmishes that culminated in the battle of Otterburn, near the town of the same name. Douglas was killed but the Scottish forces, though outnumbered, won the day and took Percy captive. Apparently the Bishop of Durham, who was coming to reinforce Percy, declined to attack when he saw the Scots arrayed before him. I mostly find this interesting because it reminds me there was a time when “Bishop” was as much a political and military position as it was religious.

The ballad is mostly accurate in its content though it provides much embellishment in the face-off between Douglas and Percy. It begins by describing the raid across the border.

It fell about the Lammas tide,

When the muir-men [lowland Scots] win their hay,

The doughty Douglas bound him to ride

Into England, to drive a prey.

You can always tell how old a ballad is by how it describes the time of year. Before the four seasons became the agreed upon standard, people in Britain often kept time by festivals. “Lammas tide” was a harvest festival around August. Also, describing a raid as “driving a prey” is a little chilling. When I would go hunting in rural Minnesota we would “drive” deer through the woods. The use of a term you’d normally use when hunting animals to describe your very human foes says something about how your enemy is viewed.

The song goes on to describe the face off between Percy and Douglas where Douglas makes prophetic remarks about how one of them is fated to die here. There’s also a short stanza about Percy’s wife watching her husband from the castle wall, pale and frightened. It’s a lovely humanizing element. This song would become a sort of patriotic song celebrating a Scottish victory but there’s really nothing in it vilifying the English. It describes them fighting bravely. It reminds me of how the Hector and the Trojans are humanized in Homer’s Iliad.

After the first clash of armies, Percy and Douglas meet in single combat.

When Percy with the Douglas met,

I wat [saw] he was fu fain [glad];

They swakked [swung] their swords, till sair they swat [greatly they sweat],

And the blood ran down like rain.

'After Chevy Chase' (Battle of Otterburn 1388) by Herbert Thomas Dicksee (London 1862 ¿London 1942)
‘After Chevy Chase’ (Battle of Otterburn 1388) – Herbert Thomas Dicksee

Douglas is killed by a crushing blow to the head. The armies clash once more and the Scots beat back the English but Percy refuses to yield to anyone until asked by Sir Hugh Montgomery, nephew to Earl Douglas. I guess it was considered dishonorable to surrender to anyone not of high rank.

My favorite rendition of this ballad is by the English singer June Tabor. It’s significantly more melancholy than the other renditions I’ve linked below which are all high spirited and full of martial vigor, though excellent in their own right.

Something about “melancholy” just feels right for this subject. Much is made here about the English and Scottish heroes but I keep thinking about the peasants whose homes and crops were devastated in the raid. It can be frustrating to read history which is generally so focused on the nobility and so silent on the experiences of peasants, ordinary soldiers, laypeople, etc. Even the songs from the borderlands, which offer many rare glimpses into the lives of ordinary folk, still tend to have historical songs be about kings, earls, bishops, and knights. These were songs sung by the lower classes! I don’t know why those prejudices were so pervasive but they were. It’s an eternal irritation even if I love the songs themselves.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

June Tabor – YouTube | Spotify

Graham Pirt, Janet Russell – YouTube | Spotify

Wolfhound – YouTube | Spotify

Gaberlunzie – YouTube | Spotify

Tam Lin (39)

In order to better understand the actions, fears, and motivations of pre-modern people it is crucial not to underestimate belief in the supernatural. Several hundred years ago we began to understand our world as a collection of mechanical processes obeying immutable natural laws. Before that, people – no less curious about the world around them – saw things in more human terms. A raging storm meant God was angry. A tumor might be cosmic justice for a crime you committed. Mischievous spirits played tricks on children.

The Puritans, for instance, were perhaps the best educated people of their time – some of the first to instate compulsory education and founders of the best universities in the world today (Harvard, Yale). But in the 1600s you’d be hard pressed to find any of them, high or low, who didn’t believe unicorns ranged the hills of Massachusetts and mermaids swam off Cape Cod.

We might scoff at these antiquated beliefs but we’d be fooling ourselves to deny there’s an allure to them. That fascination with mythology, fantasy, and fairy tales helps explain the enduring popularity of “Tam Lin”, one of the best known of the Child Ballads.

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Illustration by Julia Menshikova

The story is centered around a young maiden who is warned against venturing into the woods of Carterhaugh (a real place in Scotland). The woods are guarded by the mysterious Tam Lin. As spirited as any Scottish heroine, she defies the warning, enters the woods, and is at once accosted by Tam Lin, a magical elf, who forcefully takes her virginity and makes her pregnant. Afterwards, she interrogates him and learns he was once a man but has become enslaved by the Queen of Fairies.

Now here is one of the more difficult parts for a modern audience to understand. Rape is a common occurrence in border balladry but the crime is not so much that it involves violence but sex with no intention of marriage. The solution is therefore the same as it was for consensual extra-marital sex – a forced marriage. Strangely, the woman is usually the one who attempts to force this, sometimes by going to the King who declares that if her assailant is married he shall be hanged, and if he is single they shall be wed. Both were seen as her receiving justice.

“Tam Lin” follows this same plot line but instead of Tam Lin not wishing to marry because of general male wantonness, he is held by a magic spell which the heroine must break. He informs her that the Queen of Fairies makes a tithe or sacrifice to Hell every seven years and he is worried that this time it will be him. The ritual is to take place on Halloween, believed to be an especially important day in paganism and devil-worship.

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‘Tam Lin, The Escape’ by Joanna Barnum

When the day arrives, the young woman hides where Tam Lin told her he would be. The Queen and her troupe arrive, at which point the heroine grabs Tam Lin and rides off with him. The Fairy Queen turns Tam Lin into a variety of objects from a snake to a wolf to a fiery coal but she clings to him until he is finally turned into a naked man and the spell is broken. The ballad ends with the Queen of Fairies mourning her loss.

I’ve always found it a curious choice to end on a note of loss instead of triumph. The Queen of Fairies is undoubtedly meant to be the villain of the piece but her distress at the end almost humanizes her. I say almost because her words about what she should have done are pretty creepy.

‘Had I kend [known], Thomas,’ she says,

‘A lady wad hae borrowd thee,

I wad hae taen [taken] out thy twa [two] grey een [eyes],

Put in twa een o tree [“eyes of tree” or tree knots].

 

‘Had I but kend, Thomas,’ she says,

‘Before I came frae hame [home],

I had taen out that heart o flesh,

Put in a heart o stane [stone].’

The wish to have replaced his eyes with wooden knots is probably, according to Child, to prevent Tam Lin from being able to recognize fairy folk. Humans were not supposed to be able to see them but Tam Lin had probably been granted this gift when he was abducted.

My favorite rendition of this ballad is by Steeleye Span, a folk-rock group that was an important part of the British folk revival scene in the 60s and 70s. Their take on the song contains three sections, each with its own beautiful melody.

Perhaps what I love most about this ballad is its melding of real issues with fantasy. Assault and rape were and continue to be frustratingly common. Cults and human sacrifice may not be so common but falling in with wicked people and feeling trapped is as human as it gets. Entwining these issues with the supernatural, I think, can give us a way to process our fears and emotions – a sort of catharsis. In the songs we can be heroic and outwit those who would do us harm even if it doesn’t always turn out like that in reality.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Steeleye Span – YouTube | Spotify

Moira Craig – YouTube | Spotify

Holly Tannen – YouTube | Spotify

Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer – YouTube | Spotify

The Bonnie Banks O’ Fordie (14)

One of the great film directors ever to live – Ingmar Bergman – made a medieval movie in the ’60s called The Virgin Spring about a young girl who is waylaid by bandits, raped, and killed. By chance, the bandits seek shelter in her family’s home, are discovered, and subsequently killed by her father. I was obsessed with Bergman’s work while I was in film school and interested to learn the story was based on a 13th century Swedish ballad. It’s not perhaps the most well known movie, though it was remade in the ’70s by horror icon Wes Craven as The Last House on the Left (which was itself remade again in 2009). This is film-trivia though and probably not the most interesting unless you are as obsessed with movies as me.

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Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring

Fast-forward ten years and I learn that one of the Child Ballads is the Anglicized version of the Scandinavian ballad that inspired Bergman’s movie! Fascinating, right? Well, to me it is. The Child Ballads have many connections with the folk music of France, Germany, and other countries but nowhere do they have as many ties as they do with the Scandinavian nations. There are probably many reasons for this kinship from the viking settlements in Northern Britain, to a shared Germanic language, to a close religious and cultural history but that’s a blog post for another time.

In “The Bonnie Banks O’ Fordie” (or “Babylon”) a “robber-man” or “banished man”  accosts three sisters in the woods and, one by one, demands that each becomes his wife (gives him her maidenhead) or die by his penknife.

‘It’s whether will ye be a rank robber’s wife,

Or will ye die by my wee pen-knife?’

The first two choose death. The youngest, when presented with the same choice, refuses to play and tells the man that her brother Babylon wanders these woods and will avenge anything done to her. The outlaw realizes she is talking about him and, in horror at what he has done to his sisters, kills himself.

Mackie, Charles Hodge, 1862-1920; 'There were three maidens pu'd a flower (by the bonnie banks o' Fordie)'
‘There were three maidens pu’d a flower (by the bonnie banks o’ Fordie)’ by Charles Hodge Mackie

As a side note, when you hear the word penknife, you usually think of a pocket knife or folding blade knife but the term was originally applied more generally to short bladed knives that, unsurprising, were used to shave down feathers to make quills. Like box cutters today they could be easily concealed for more criminal purposes.

Mistaken identity, often involving family members, is a prominent theme in the Child Ballads and most end just as tragically. From Shakespeare to Hitchcock, mistaken identity plots are common no matter the era, though most modern instances tend to be comedic and slapstick rather than bloody and incestuous (with the prominent exception of Oldboy).

My favorite version of this ballad is a rendition by Old Blind Dogs. They’re becoming regulars in this blog.

I don’t know quite how to feel at the brother’s grief when he realizes who he has killed. Does the fact that the women you intended to rape or murder were related to you really make all the difference? He can’t have even been close to them if no one recognized each other. Perhaps family meant more back then, or at least everyone else mattered less.

I tend to dislike such sweeping generalizations about “the past” in its kaleidoscopic variations but I think some generalizations apply. In most every era and area people lived shorter, more violent lives. That has to have an affect on your moral outlook, right?

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Old Blind Dogs – YouTube | Spotify

Highland Reign – YouTube | Spotify

Dick Gaughan – YouTube

Ewan MacColl – YouTube | Spotify

Glenlogie (238)

Ballads are so often somber or grisly affairs that it’s a welcome surprise when you come across one with a happy ending. I can still remember all the times I had Philippians 4:8 quoted to me growing up – “whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable … think about such things.” I don’t necessarily agree with this – and my taste in music, movies, etc. certainly doesn’t reflect the advice – but I can’t help wondering about the drawbacks of saturating my life with macabre stories. At the very least it’s probably healthy to mix it up.

FW06930
Artwork for a show by Rory and Alex McEwen

The ballad “Glenlogie” (or “Jean O Bethelnie”) is a lovely and lively tale about a young (15-17 yrs) maiden who is smitten by the handsome Glenlogie while in her father’s hall and tells him her feelings. He politely turns her down, explaining he’s promised to another. She collapses in her bed intent on dying. Her father and mother offer other, richer men to her but she’ll have none of them. Finally, her father’s chaplain writes a letter to Glenlogie who is moved by Jeannie’s love and rushes to her side, promising to make her his bride.

The song has remained popular, mostly in Scotland, well through the mid-1700s when it was first set down to the present day. Its themes are certainly timeless – from Paris and Helen to Lü Bu and Diochan, history is full of stories about lovesickness causing all manner of foolishness. The classic gender roles are swapped here (I love the brazenness of Scottish heroines!) and fortunately for Jeannie the consequences are less dire but the story is familiar.

There are, however, things that tie this to a particular place and time. Marrying for love is so natural now that it would be considered irresponsible – in most developed countries at least – to do otherwise. Stories about rebelling against parents and society for love have begun to feel positively old-fashioned. This cultural shift is generally seen as the result of enlightenment and moral progress but I don’t see any indication that Jeannie’s parents entreating her with wealthier matches is done out of anything but care. Economic security used to be tied to names and lineages not education levels and job placement. I suppose you could view this attitude as nobility jealously guarding its privileges or the love of parents for their daughter. Either way, it’s good to be reminded that Jeannie’s choice is more transgressive than it might appear today.

My favorite rendition of this song is from the Scottish band Old Blind Dogs – a musical group I positively adore and will certainly feature in this blog more.

One of my favorite elements from the song is the role of the chaplain who intercedes on Jeannie’s behalf with Glenlogie. He’s described as a man with a prodigious talent for writing and I love his approach in changing Glenlogie’s mind. It’s somewhere between chastisement and begging. These verses describe the letter and Glenlogie’s reaction:

But her father’s old chaplain, a man of great skill,

He wrote a broad letter, and penned it well.

Saying, O brave Glenlogie, why must it be so?

A maid’s love laid on you, shall she die in her woe?

Then reading the letter, his heart was like to break

That such a leal virgin should die for his sake.

May we all have such advocates when our heart is set on something.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Old Blind Dogs – YouTube | Spotify

Heidi Talbot – YouTube | Spotify

Mary Smith – YouTube | Spotify

Dick Gaughan – YouTube | Spotify

Young Hunting (68)

Well, now that I’m done with moving and the flu I can get back to this project. Life does tend to get in the way of these things. “Young Hunting” is a murder ballad that originated in Scotland but is perhaps better known as its American variant, “Henry Lee”. All versions are – at their core – a story about a young man who visits his mistress one last time and tells her he is to marry someone else. He usually incenses her by saying how much more beautiful his bride-to-be is. Upset at being abandoned, she stabs him and watches him bleed out. Perhaps a bit panicked, she hastily tries to cover up her crime by hiding the body, but a bird sitting in a tree begins to taunt her and call her a fool. She tries to lure the bird down and then threatens to shoot it but the bird is unmoved.

vagabondage-the-sweet-trade-henry-lee
Promotional artwork for a rendition by the bands Vagabondage and The Sweet Trade

Now there’s plenty to pick apart here but it’s worth mentioning that older versions of the ballad continue on with her neighbors discovering the body – sometimes with the help of the bird – and burning the woman at the stake. I suppose this ending was eventually omitted because it was assumed inevitable. I did, however, find the crime solving methods fascinating. The neighbors float candles stuck in a loaf of bread to identify the location of the body in the river. That a candle would be attracted to the resting spot of a corpse was an old folk belief but Child does mention that streams generally have pools formed by eddies in which bodies and floating debris alike would be pulled into. The superstition the townsfolk use to identify the murderer – that a corpse would bleed when approached by the guilty party – has less scientific standing.

This ballad could be seen as containing a sharp admonishment for both sexes – men, don’t treat your sweethearts poorly and women, don’t get carried away by jealousy – but I prefer seeing it more as a tragedy. Neither party is particularly villainous. Both act cruelly toward the other but there are strong feelings there for one another. The song opens with the woman begging the man to stay:

‘Come to my arms, my dear Willie,

You’re welcome hame to me;

To best o chear and charcoal red,

And candle burnin free.’

He is attempting to kiss his lover when she stabs him and in some versions tells her he loved her best as he lies dying. Her guilt hangs over her head in the form of the bird as she goes about disposing of the body. It reminds her, often mockingly, of his love for her.

The bird could be seen as a manifestation of her conscience or the dead man’s soul reborn (a not uncommon trope) or it could simply be one of the many anthropomorphized denizens of a folk tale. I’m not sure whether her attempts to lure the bird down with promises of a golden cage are meant as an obvious act of desperation or if the original singers actually believed birds preferred a life of gilded confinement.

My favorite version of this song is by the Appalachian folk singer Sheila Kay Adams. This rendition lacks any instrumentals which, to my ears, gives it a somber, haunting quality.

The rendition of the song that is most familiar to modern audiences, however, would have to be the recording by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (I will link this below). The music is less traditional and it’s full of all sorts of tweaks and variations but I love that about it. These ballads transformed and morphed over time and across the Atlantic but that is exactly the quality that makes folk music so fascinating and compelling. I hope we keep it up.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Sheila Kay Adams – YouTube | Spotify

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – YouTube | Spotify

Brian Peters – YouTube | Spotify

Martin Simpson – YouTube | Spotify

Iona Fyfe – Spotify

 

Sir Patrick Spens (58)

I think this is the point in a project where I’m most in danger of abandoning it. I’ve wanted to get this blog started for a long time, but now that I’ve written a couple posts I feel a little deflated – like I was hoping I’d get some cosmic satisfaction. Oh well – just need to write through it I think.

Sir_Patrick_Spens_window,_Abbot_House_Dunfermline
Stained glass window by Charles Baillie

Sir Patrick Spens is one of the most popular Child Ballads. In it, the Scottish King asks his courtiers who the best sailor in all his lands is. One of them vouches for Patrick Spens. When Patrick receives a letter ordering him to Norway to bring home the King’s bride, he openly weeps. It’s the dead of winter and the seas are deadly for even the most skillful sailor. But, loyal to the end, he departs at once. In some versions his ship is wrecked in a storm immediately – in others tragedy strikes on the return voyage. In either case, everyone aboard drowns.

This story feels especially melancholy because the protagonist foresees his own death but is honor bound to carry out his King’s will. In this way it’s structured like a Greek tragedy – where forces outside his control direct a man to his long-foreshadowed doom. I don’t know if the people who originally sang this would have viewed Patrick’s obedience as laudable or foolish. I can’t help but think it provided some catharsis for all those servants who knew better than their lord but were ignored anyway. After all, many of the King’s nobles are drowned on the voyage alongside Patrick and his sailors.

A good part of the song’s popularity must come from its wonderfully poetic use of imagery. Take these lines for instance, from after the storm sets in:

O laith [loath], laith [loath] were our gude Scots lords

To weet their cork-heeld shoon [shoes];

But lang or a’ the play was played,

They wat their hats aboon [wet their hats above – i.e. drowned].

 

And mony was the feather-bed

That flattered [fluttered] on the faem [foam],

And mony was the gude lord’s son

That never mair cam hame.

 

The ladyes wrang their fingers white,

The maidens tore their hair,

A’ for the sake of their true loves,

For them they’ll see na mair.

As an interesting side note, sailors apparently liked to sleep on feather beds both because they were comfortable and because they could double as life rafts.

Most versions also contain the bad omen of “the new moon yestreen, wi the auld moon in her arm” – a phenomenon known to modern science as “earthshine” where the unlit part of the moon is dimly lit from sunlight bounced off the earth. This gives the impression that a sliver of bright moon is cradling a dim full moon. This actually tends to coincide with high tides and therefore dangerous seas. It raises the interesting question of whether a superstition that has scientific backing is still a superstition.

My favorite version of the song is sung by Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer.

Going to sea might not be viewed to be as dangerous as going to war but the death rates for a sailor could easily exceed those of a soldier in medieval times and the age of discovery. Ship building technology has steadily improved century to century but 500 years ago, very few vessels were built to survive deep waters and those that were nevertheless sank at very high rates. That’s not to mention the dangers of disease, malnutrition, mutiny, and becoming lost. Mortality rates on voyages to East Asia during the spice trade, for instance, were about 50%. It’s crazy to me to think of gambling with those kind of odds.

Francis Child writes in his notes on the song that scholars have been unable to tie it to a specific historical event though several medieval Scottish voyages appear to be strikingly similar. Nevertheless the people who sang it wouldn’t have much cared if Patrick Spens was a real person. I like this perspective. If a story means something to you in one way or another it possesses its own truth.


Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Anaïs Mitchell, Jefferson Hamer – YouTube | Spotify

Buffy Sainte-Marie – YouTube | Spotify

Martin Simpson – YouTube | Spotify

Ewan MacColl – YouTube | Spotify

The Three Ravens (26)

“The Twa Corbies” – Arthur Rackham

“The Three Ravens” is a particularly old ballad, first recorded in 1611 but possibly much older. There’s a Scottish variant – “Twa Corbies” – that has a darker flavor than its English sibling though, honestly, both are quite bleak.

In the English version, the eponymous birds sit talking about where to take their next meal. One suggests the corpse of a knight in a nearby field. He is, however, still guarded by his faithful hawks and hounds. As they’re talking a “fallow doe” – meant to symbolize the knight’s pregnant lover – comes upon his body. She proceeds to clean and bury him, then dies herself. All in all, it’s an intensely somber reflection on death.

The Scottish version is grimmer. Usually titled “Twa Corbies” (“corbies” being Scots for “crows”) it sets up a similar scene but here, the knight’s hawks and hounds have abandoned him and his wife has taken another lover. The lyrics also go into gruesome detail about how the crows will use his body parts to build their nest.

‘Ye’ll sit on his white hause-bane [breast-bone],

And I’ll pike out his bonny blue een [eyes];

Wi ae lock o his gowden hair

We’ll theek [feather] our nest when it grows bare.

I feel like it’s too easy to say the Scottish one is more pessimistic because Scotland has had a difficult history of colonialism, poverty, warring clans, etc. Other pairing of Scottish/English songs (“The Battle of Otterburn”/”The Hunting of the Cheviot”) seem to be unbalanced in the other direction. Besides, from what I know, the people to either side of the border had more in common with each other than with the rest of their respective countries.

“The Three Ravens” – Henry Matthew Brock

The tune for “The Three Ravens” was, remarkably, preserved from the start. “Twa Corbies” – though less old than its counterpart – lost its melody somewhere along the way until the Scots poet R.M. Blythman set it to the music from an old Breton (French) song “An Alarc’h.” It fit so well that it became a very popular song again.

I love both versions but I think I prefer the English one here. The music is just so wonderfully melancholy and the way the story subtly moves from the perspective of the ravens to an omniscient narrator gives it a satisfying mythic quality.

The rendition below is one that drew me into the Child Ballads in the first place. It’s by a short-lived trio from the ’60s – The Black Country Three. I’ve listened to it more times than I can count.

One question that I keep dwelling on is what this meant for the people who sang it originally. A part of its appeal for me (and probably others who still sing it) is the window it gives me into the past. But that element obviously didn’t exist for the original singers.

It’s basically a story about a nameless knight who has died of unknown causes and his lover who quickly follows him to the grave. In this way it’s pretty broad and universal in its imagery. Even ravens are ubiquitous in the Northern Hemisphere. And death finds everyone everywhere.

The imagery of hawks and hounds – the proper accessories for a medieval knight while hunting – tie it closer to a particular place and time. And of course we don’t keep time by the canonical hours – “the prime” is around dawn and “euen-song time” is evening.

But I think the common themes explain part of its appeal and offer an explanation for its longevity in folk traditions.

The final lines are a commendation of the knight’s loyal companions.

God send euery gentleman,

Such haukes, such hounds, and such a Leman [Lover].

This makes for a hopeful note to go out on though I suppose there’s the suggestion that not everyone experiences such love and devotion – an idea the Scottish version takes and runs with.


Ballad Text

The Three Ravens – Internet Sacred Text Archive

The Twa Corbies – Bartleby

My Favorite Recordings

The Black Country Three – YouTube | Spotify

Kay McCarthy – Spotify

Andreas Scholl –  YouTube | Spotify

Ayreheart – YouTube | Spotify

Bardmageddon – Spotify

Hamish Imlach – YouTube | Spotify

 

 

The Trooper and the Maid (299)

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Canadian folk band The Duhks

“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.


Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

The Duhks – YouTube | Spotify

Malinky – YouTube | Spotify

North Sea Gas – Spotify

The Claire Hastings Band – YouTube

Ewan MacColl & Peggy Seeger – YouTube | Spotify