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.
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.
My Favorite Recordings
Ellie Bryan – YouTube
Ewan MacColl – YouTube | Spotify
Eliza Carthy – YouTube
Simon Orrell – YouTube