Glasgerion (67)

I titled this blog “Best of the Child Ballads” not “All the Child Ballads” which sort of gives me an out so I don’t have to write 305 posts. Not that I ever really intended that. Some ballads are very fragmentary, have no recording I could find, or simply haven’t made much of an impression on me. I think this blog has nearly run its course and it will be on to another project for me. That makes picking the next few songs a bit tricky. Actually, this one wasn’t that hard.

The Bert Jansch album named after this ballad

“Glasgerion” occupies a curious (but not completely unusual) space in the Child Ballad canon. It’s only since the folk revival of the 60s that it has gained much popularity. Until then – at least as far as we know – it was not terribly wide-spread. It was A. L. Lloyd, the British folk-singer and communist, who set it to a tune and made it popular under the new title “Jack Orion”. “Glasgerion” refers to the Welsh harpist Geraint Fardd Glas who, despite existing purely in mythology, hardly occupies a space of mythic proportions in peoples’ minds today. So Glasgerion became Jack Orion and exchanged his harp for a fiddle to keep up with the times.

The tune this ballad is set to is lively and merry though none of the characters are in a merry mood by the end. It’s one of those ballads that skirts the line between humorous and tragic. The protagonist is said to be the best musician around with some colorful examples given of his prowess.

He’d harpit a fish out o saut [salt] water,

Or water out o a stane [stone],

Or milk out o a maiden’s breast,

That bairn [child] had never nane.

One evening, while playing in a great hall, he catches the attention of a countess who invites him to meet her in her chambers that morning. Jack, as happy as you can imagine, goes back to his own quarters and orders his servant Tom to wake him up when the cock crows. Tom plays his master to sleep then steals off to the countess himself. It’s dark in her chambers and though she makes comments about Jack’s strange clothes and the feel of his hair, she doesn’t learn the truth. Tom runs back to his master and wakes him up as if nothing were amiss. When Jack makes his rendezvous with the countess she is perplexed and jokes that he can’t get enough of her. He swears he was never here before – and she realizes it was Tom she slept with. In some versions she kills herself because she cannot offer herself to Jack due to the antiquated belief she has been “ruined”. Jack is quickly off back home where he hangs Tom from his gate as high as he possibly can.

I don’t know what Tom was expecting to happen but he definitely seemed overconfident in the ability of his ruse to hold up. Cases of mistaken identity are popular in tales of the time – just think of Shakespeare – and it is mostly this aspect that gives the song its comedic flavor. Actually, I read an entire book on the case of Martin Guerre – a medieval French peasant who left his wife and child for several years before turning up again. He lived happily with his family for another three years before being taken to court as an impostor. And at the height of the trial the real Martin Guerre shows up! The impostor, Arnaud du Tilh, was hung. So there’s some symmetry with this ballad. The real life story of Martin Guerre actually seems less plausible then the fictional story in “Jack Orion” (though I think the wife almost certainly knew in Martin’s case).

My favorite version of this song is by Fay Hield who is a wonderful up-and-coming folk singer from England. I’ve actually seen her make several posts from quarantine recently on her Facebook page. I hope she’s able to make it to the States when the Coronavirus  is under control.

There’s a little bit of social commentary here I think. Jack doesn’t seem to imagine his servant capable of such subterfuge but, as always, the underclasses are more cunning than their betters imagine. To a point at least – I still don’t know if Tom thought this one through all the way. The end sort of serves as a warning to everyone involved. Servants fear your masters. Masters don’t underestimate your servants. And women, light a candle before you engage in your trysts.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Fay Hield – YouTube | Spotify

Bert Jansch – YouTube | Spotify

Graham Dodsworth – Spotify

Laura Cortese – YouTube| Spotify

A. L. Lloyd – YouTube| Spotify

Sheath and Knife (16)

In my continued downward descent into the darker branches of border balladry I’ve chosen to highlight “Sheath and Knife” – a disturbing tale of incest, death, and grief. I believe this was one of the first Child Ballads I stumbled upon and it’s definitely the first one to make a great impression on me. It’s completely heartbreaking and has stuck with me the way particular tragic stories do for any of us – something to dwell on when feeling gloomy. I don’t quite understand why but when you’re sad you are drawn to sad things. It’s perversely comforting.

The story is as follows. A woman is pregnant with her brother’s child and asks him to go down with her to the broom. The broom, in this context, would have been a meadow of thorny shrubs with yellow flowers that were commonly called “broom.” The branches of the shrub were often used to sweep or dust and thus gave their name to the household instrument we use today. Anyway, the woman asks her brother to do something for her.

‘Now when that ye hear me gie [give] a loud cry,

Shoot frae [from] thy bow an arrow and there let me lye.

‘And when that ye see I am lying dead,

Then ye’ll put me in a grave, wi a turf at my head.’

While it sounds at first like she’s asking him to shoot her it was supposedly an old belief that one should choose a burial spot by shooting an arrow and digging a grave where it lands. Whether the sister then dies of suicide or childbirth isn’t clear. In other versions the brother does explicitly kill her. Either way, he buries her and her child and returns home to find a feast in progress with minstrels and dancing. His father asks why he is grieving and he responds that he lost a sheath and knife – a euphemism for his sister and her child. His father, not taking his meaning, offers him a better sheath and knife but the brother claims there are none in all the world that compare.

From Ballad Book by Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe  p. 159

And that’s it. I’ve basically included the entire song in my description. It’s quite short. I think its simplicity actually magnifies the feelings of loss and anguish. When experiencing raw grief it can be difficult to speak or put into words what you’re feeling. Sometimes you can only manage to choke out a few sentences. So it is here.

The ballad was not always well-preserved with verses missing in many versions. One of these was pulled from the recollection of Sir Walter Scott in the late 1800s but he could only remember bits and pieces. I’ve included his notes in the image on the right.

As uncomfortable as the brother sister relationship is, I suppose incestuous relationships have existed since forever and the people in them did experience real love, stress, and pain. That’s what the Child Ballads do best – shed light on the hidden, illicit corners of the world. So as squeamish as it might make me, I really do feel for the duo in this song. What a thing to go through.

My favorite version of the ballad is by Ellie Bryan. I don’t know much about her but I found her rendition on YouTube and her voice has a perfect wavering quality to communicate grief.

Neither sibling makes any acknowledgement that what they did was wrong or expresses remorse for their incestuous relationship. But they’re clearly aware of it being taboo or the sister wouldn’t have committed suicide (or assisted suicide) and asked for a hidden burial. Shame has historically been a major reason for suicide. In Roman times and in feudal Japan, just to name a couple examples, it was often considered the only honorable option after you had failed a superior or publicly humiliated yourself. I don’t think it’s ever really gone away as a motivating factor either, with “deaths of despair” being talked about in the news lately and linked to declining social status and economic fortunes in the American heartland. These deaths are especially prevalent in states like West Virginia – heavily settled, coincidentally (or not), by the descendants of the British Borderers.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Ellie Bryan – YouTube

Ewan MacColl – YouTube | Spotify

Eliza Carthy – YouTube

Simon Orrell – YouTube


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.

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