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.
“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.
My Favorite Recordings
Graham Dodsworth – Spotify