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


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.

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