My last post about the murder of a poacher and his dogs was a bit on the darker side. At first I thought, “let’s balance this out and write about a love ballad or something whimsical.” But, thinking about this more, I feel like I’ve been avoiding some of the really harrowing ballads and I should probably tackle a few as they’re an important part of the border ballad tradition. “Edward” is not the darkest, but it’s getting closer. I think in my next couple posts I’ll see how far down we can go.
“Edward” or “My Son David” is pure dialogue between a son and his mother which is unusual for a ballad. It begins when a young man comes home and his mother asks about the blood stains on his clothes or sword. He claims they’re from his hawk but his mother says the blood of a hawk could never be so red. He claims they’re from his horse but she doesn’t believe that either.
‘O I hae killed my reid-roan steid [horse],
O I hae killed my reid-roan steid,
That erst was sae fair and frie O.’ [that used to be so fair and free]
‘Your steid was auld [old], and ye hae gat mair [more],
Your steid was auld, and ye hae gat mair,
Sum other dule ye drie O.’ [some other grief you are enduring]
He then admits he has killed a man, usually his father or brother. His reasons are not entirely clear but more on that later. His mother usually asks what he’s going to do with his wife, children, house, and lands. He says he must abandon them and sail across the sea (or sometimes commit suicide). Some versions end here but in others the mother asks what he’s leaving for her and he answers “a curse from hell” with the implication that she put him up to the murder. This short addition changes the ending dramatically from a sorrowful farewell to a shocking revelation.
I wasn’t able to find much analysis of this ballad which is strange because it has been and remains immensely popular. Then again, it does add some allure to an already enigmatic story. Most versions of this have been found in America and there are quite a few variants in Scandinavia as well. In Scotland it was considered lost until it was rediscovered in the 20th century as a popular song with Scottish Travelers which is fitting, I think, considering the protagonist decides to banish himself in most versions.
The Scottish versions usually have the father as the murder victim and the mother implicated at the end. In America it’s usually the brother who is slain and the mother is not complicit. I’ve heard it suggested that the ending was toned down to make it more palatable in America which could be true but I’m not convinced. The Scandinavian ones tend to match the American versions and theirs are quite old. I’m guessing there have just been a lot of versions of this song floating around for a while.
Now about the motive for the murder – in the Scottish versions it’s suggested the mother lied to her son to manipulate him into killing his father. What she lied about is never said. In the American versions, on the other hand, he says something like “it was mostly over the cutting of a rod that never will be a tree” i.e. his brother cut down a sapling. Now, this could be taken at face value – fatal arguments often occur over trivial matters. But some have suggested that the sapling is a euphemism for a child and the brother has killed a pregnant woman. Such euphemisms are common in other ballads but are usually a bit more obvious to the listeners. So it’s hard to say what exactly caused the brother’s murder. But like I say, this adds an aura of mystery to the ballad, which for me just makes it more interesting.
My favorite recording of this is by the American folk band Red Tail Ring. I love the slow mournful playing of the fiddle and the Southern sounding twang and drawl in the vocals.
I’ve made a distinction between the Scottish and American versions but since the mid 1900s there has been a good deal of cross-contamination with musicians setting the Scottish words to an American tune or vice-versa which is pretty cool.
Kinslaying has been considered a particularly monstrous deed since Cain and Abel. In Greek Tragedy, Oedipus blinds himself on discovering he killed his father. Orestes is relentlessly hounded by the Furies for killing his mother. The “protagonist” of this ballad seems to realize his life is over whatever the provocation was. Even so, this is not as grim as the Child Ballads get as you’ll discover in my next post.
My Favorite Recordings
Old Blind Dogs – YouTube