Bonny Bee Hom (92)

I thought I’d finished with this blog, but my love of the music hasn’t diminished and it’s been in the back of my mind to keep posting. Like an itch that can’t be scratched. I’m particularly prone to spurts of enthusiasm when I encounter a new subject. In the past it’s been ancient coins or French (you can probably guess I’m on the geeky side). But, to my own eternal frustration, those interests often fizzle and I latch on to something new. And the cycle continues. Certain interests have stuck, however, and this appears to be one of them.

“Bonny Bee Hom” is a ballad that tells of a woman’s lament for her love who is going to sea. It is also, as far as I know, not sung anymore. But folk music is like a whole ecosystem. In a forest the plants and wildlife are constantly changing, growing old, dying, adapting to new environments and interlopers. Even the mighty, centuries-old trees that may appear immortal have changed over time and will someday expire. Ballads change as the language and times change. They change as immigrants arrive and emigrants depart. This can make it difficult, as Francis James Child found, to demarcate where a ballad begins and ends. How different does it have to be before it becomes a new song entirely?

“The Lowlands of Holland” is a much more commonly known ballad and is vaguely related to “Bonny Bee Hom”. The story is similar – it describes a woman who laments her love who was press-ganged into the Royal Navy (more on that later) and then drowned. One section in particular, is strikingly similar to another from Bee Hom. It goes:

‘There shall neither coif come on my head

nor comb come in my hair;

There shall neither coal nor candle-light

shine in my bower mair [more];

Nor will I love another one until the day I die,

For I never lovd a love but one, and he’s

drowned in the sea.

Then in Bee Hom:

‘Ohon, alas! what shall I do,

Tormented night and day!

I never loved a love but ane [one],

And now he’s gone away.

‘But I will do for my true-love

What ladies woud think sair [sore – or “distressing”];

For seven year shall come and go

Ere a kaim [comb] gang in my hair.

Of course, in folk songs, quotes and imagery are often borrowed as a necessary mnemonic device – since they were passed down orally. There are also many differences between these two, which I won’t go into here, but those lines and the general subject matter are enough to link them in my view. Just know that it’s a bit of a fool’s errand to try to definitively categorize folk music. It’s about as far from an exact science as you can get.

The “Holland” where the man is set to sail does not appear to be the actual Netherlands. The song describes the land as one “Where sugar there in canes do grow, the tea falls from the tree” which would require a tropical climate Holland is not exactly known for. Most likely it refers to the Dutch East Indies or “New Holland” – an old name for Australia. Those areas were rife with British naval activity that saw them constantly at odds with the Dutch and French. Which required a steady supply of young men to crew their ships.

The Press Gang – Robert Morley

The woman’s husband, in the song, is taken from her by a press gang. These were groups of men who patrolled coastal towns in Britain looking for able bodied men to crew ships for the Royal Navy. They often had to resort to kidnapping and violence. Generally the men they chose already worked on merchant or fishing vessels. “Gentlemen” were exempted. The practice was much hated but the lower classes had little legal recourse. It was, in fact, one of the 27 colonial grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence and a major cause of the War of 1812. Eventually the practice died out as conscription became commonplace, though, as we see today with Russia’s war in Ukraine, conscription can also fall disproportionately on the marginalized, with exemptions for those higher on the social ladder.

My favorite recording of “The Lowlands of Holland” is by Ye Vagabonds – consisting of two brothers from Ireland. Being as it’s a mournful song, fewer musicians feels more correct. A number of renditions of the ballad come from Ireland though they probably came from Scotland originally. This is helped by the fact that the “Galloway” in the song (a region of Scotland) can easily be substituted for “Galway” (a town in Ireland).

On a personal note, I had an experience while visiting Portugal recently that reminds me of this song. My friends and I stumbled across a restaurant late at night where a woman sang the most mournful, beautiful songs. In Portugal it’s called fado music – songs of longing and melancholy, often about those who have gone to sea. The experience was so enchanting not just because of the singing – which was wonderful – but the whole atmosphere cast a spell. The lights were turned off, we had the fire from the stove crackling and flaring up behind us, the tables were cramped but the windows and door were open to a cool night breeze. Passersby would poke their heads in and record the singing on their phones. The drinks kept coming and the restaurant owner would join in for certain songs. It’s such an indelible memory for me and a reminder that I should seek out more folk music, Child Ballads or otherwise, in live venues.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Ye Vagabonds – YouTube | Spotify

Steeleye Span – YouTube | Spotify

The Dubliners – YouTube | Spotify

ELÍR – YouTube | Spotify

The Chieftains – YouTube | Spotify

The Gardener (219)

The world in which I composed my last post here – less than a month ago – feels entirely different than the one today. Covid-19 has reordered societies the world over as people are encouraged to quarantine themselves to slow the spread of the virus. I’ve been working from home (thankfully, as a web developer, the transition was easier for me than most) and rarely venture out these days. I was hoping to use these limitations to force myself to be more productive in areas I could such as writing or reading books I’ve put off. I haven’t done a great job of it though. I’m constantly anxious over the fact that I’m not putting my time to good use. Too much time wasted watching YouTube or playing video games. All the uncertainty makes it easy to fall back on old habits. It’s a constant struggle.

The Gardener – Arthur Rackham

But enough about me – I was really looking forward to writing about one of the loveliest, most charming ballads I’ve had the pleasure of listening to. “The Gardener” is a short little song with a beautiful melody. It has no shortage of recordings up through the present day but not much has been written about it. It contains no historical allusions, famous figures, or much of anything to go off of besides poetic imagery. The entire thing is an exchange between a gardener and a young maid. He playfully attempts to woo her by promising her various articles of clothing made of plants and flowers if she will give herself to him.

‘The lily white to be your smock;

Becomes your body best;

And the jelly-flower to be your quill,

And the red rose in your breast.

‘Your gown shall be o the pingo white,

Your petticoat cammovine,

Your apron o the seel o downs;

Come smile, sweet heart o mine!

She rebuffs him in kind – by saying she’ll make a suitable set of clothes for him all of icy, snowy, wintry materials. In other words, that which is anathema to flowers and spring.

‘The steed that you shall ride upon

Shall be o the weather snell,

Well bridled wi the northern wind,

And cold sharp showers o hail.

‘The hat you on your head shall wear

Shall be o the weather gray,

And aye when you come into my sight

I’ll wish you were away.’

This kind of pursue and rebuff dynamic is very common in the Child Ballads about love and romance. The gender dynamics are pretty interesting. The man is generally the pursuer but even though the woman is spurning his advances she’s often doing it playfully. She’ll challenge him with riddles or set up obstacles as a game he must win in order to gain her affection. It almost feels like a performative dance she must put on, as proof she’s a good or “chaste” sort of woman, before they can get what they both actually want.

Treating love and courtship as a game with certain unspoken rules is not some old-fashioned idea. The rules have changed but there are any number of rules we learn (sometimes the hard way) as we navigate avenues of love and sex today. Men being expected to text first, women not sleeping with a partner until date number whatever, not bringing up an ex on the first date, etc. Some rules have become less gendered thanks to feminism, such as men being expected to pay, but others persist.

My favorite recording of this ballad is by the legendary folk singer Ewan MacColl. MacColl was perhaps the most important figure in the British folk revival and has recordings of an enormous number of Child Ballads. He even went on to marry the famous American folk singer Peggy Seeger. His recordings, being older than most others available today, are heavily accented in his native Scots dialect making them real treasures of music and history.

Looking at The Gardener outside of the lenses of gender theory and societal expectations I find it to be tremendously endearing. The poetic verse, the contrast between winter and spring, frost and growth, the silliness of expressing your love in such blatant horticultural terms. And isn’t the tune so simple and sweet? Sometimes it’s just really nice to encounter a bit of lovely, charming music.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Ewan MacColl – YouTube | Spotify

Grace Notes – YouTube| Spotify

Jean Redpath – YouTube| Spotify

Wendy Weatherby – YouTube| Spotify

Circled By Hounds – YouTube | Spotify

Glasgow Peggie (228)

Last time I wrote about how certain songs survived the British diaspora and others, more tied to their homeland, did not. This month’s ballad is one that is not sung much in America, Australia, or even England. It’s peculiarly Scottish and in Scotland it has remained. It’s also a love song (of sorts) and I felt the tenor of my posts had been rather morose as of late. So today it’s something lighthearted and cheery!

The Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland

“Glasgow Peggie” or “Kilbogie” concerns a Scottish Highlander who rides into the Lowlands to take Peggie, a woman who has caught his fancy, as his bride. Much of Scottish history in the last half millennium has revolved around relations between the Highlands and the Lowlands. I’ve included a map that gives a rough approximation of where one ends and the other begins. There were a number of real and important differences between these regions. The Lowlands (with the large cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh) contained the majority of the population. The people tended to farm and they spoke Scots, a sort of dialect of English with a lot of Gaelic influence. Many of the Child ballads were sung and written in Scots. You’ve probably seen examples of it in the lyrics I’ve quoted: “Mother” becomes “mither”, “make” becomes “mak”, and “from” becomes “frae.” For another example “Auld Lang Syne” – a song most everyone has heard – is Scots for “Old Long Since.” The Lowland Scots were usually viewed as (comparatively) civilized and settled.

The Highlanders, on the other hand, were stereotyped as uncivilized, violent, and backwards. They organized in clans and inhabited the rocky, mountainous areas of Scotland. The terrain was unsuitable for agriculture, thus they tended to herd sheep and cattle. Being more removed from the reach of England and the Lowland Scottish aristocracy, they spoke Scottish Gaelic, an older language not related to English.

The Highlanders were viewed by the Lowlanders (whose views were more likely to survive in written form) with a mix of prejudice, terror, and romanticism. Sort of like cowboys in the American West. The Highlands were the wild frontier, beautiful but dangerous. These attitudes are important to understanding “Glasgow Peggie.” When the Highlander arrives in Glasgow he is leading an armed company and demands Peggie’s father give her up. Her father, furious, at first refuses but is forced to give in. Peggie leaves, sometimes with a warning from her mother about what kind of men Highlanders are, and rides with her suitor into the hills of the North.

After several days riding they lay together in the grass and she bemoans her fate – missing her soft bed back home. But he treats her kindly and reveals himself to be a wealthy Lord (usually wealthier than her own family) and she quickly changes her tune.

Now a’ that Peggy had before

Was a wee cot-house and a little kail-yairdie,

But now she is lady o the whole Isle o Skye,

And now bonny Peggy is ca’d my Lady.

So, despite the abduction and warning from her mother, things work out for Peggie in the end. It reminds me of the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers where seven women each fall in love with their abductors. Or if you substitute a wealthy Scottish Lord for a handsome prince you get Beauty and the Beast.  These stories are recognized as problematic today and perhaps even in their own time but music can serve as a way of coping with and rationalizing problematic things.

Part of the allure of this ballad, I find, is the wonderfully charming tune. The version I’m choosing to highlight is by the Glasgow born singer Alex Campbell who, along with Ewan MacColl, was the seminal figure of the British folk revival of the 50s. Though the two were friends they differed on some key points of theory. MacColl was a bit of a purist who believed folk musicians should only play songs tied to their own regional background. Campbell believed in cultivating an eclectic repertoire (a philosophy I happen to agree with) and sang English and American songs as well as Scottish.

It’s hard to explain why exactly his version of the song resonates with me. It has a warm quality almost like a reminiscence. And there’s just so much feeling and emotion radiating from Cambell’s voice. Listening to it just now was sort of transportive. I had such a vivid image of Peggie and her Highland lover sitting on a wind-blown grassy hilltop. I’m well aware of how silly it sounds but there were tears in my eyes. Sometimes, reading history or listening to these ballads I feel hit with the weight of past lives. So many people saw and felt and did so much. It’s a spooky feeling that makes me feel very small. I don’t know, like I say it’s hard to put into words.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Alex Campbell – YouTube | Spotify

Silly Wizard – YouTube | Spotify

Distant Oaks – YouTube | Spotify

Old Blind Dogs – YouTube | Spotify

Ray Fisher & Archie Fisher – YouTube | Spotify

Tam Lin (39)

In order to better understand the actions, fears, and motivations of pre-modern people it is crucial not to underestimate belief in the supernatural. Several hundred years ago we began to understand our world as a collection of mechanical processes obeying immutable natural laws. Before that, people – no less curious about the world around them – saw things in more human terms. A raging storm meant God was angry. A tumor might be cosmic justice for a crime you committed. Mischievous spirits played tricks on children.

The Puritans, for instance, were perhaps the best educated people of their time – some of the first to instate compulsory education and founders of the best universities in the world today (Harvard, Yale). But in the 1600s you’d be hard pressed to find any of them, high or low, who didn’t believe unicorns ranged the hills of Massachusetts and mermaids swam off Cape Cod.

We might scoff at these antiquated beliefs but we’d be fooling ourselves to deny there’s an allure to them. That fascination with mythology, fantasy, and fairy tales helps explain the enduring popularity of “Tam Lin”, one of the best known of the Child Ballads.

Illustration by Julia Menshikova

The story is centered around a young maiden who is warned against venturing into the woods of Carterhaugh (a real place in Scotland). The woods are guarded by the mysterious Tam Lin. As spirited as any Scottish heroine, she defies the warning, enters the woods, and is at once accosted by Tam Lin, a magical elf, who forcefully takes her virginity and makes her pregnant. Afterwards, she interrogates him and learns he was once a man but has become enslaved by the Queen of Fairies.

Now here is one of the more difficult parts for a modern audience to understand. Rape is a common occurrence in border balladry but the crime is not so much that it involves violence but sex with no intention of marriage. The solution is therefore the same as it was for consensual extra-marital sex – a forced marriage. Strangely, the woman is usually the one who attempts to force this, sometimes by going to the King who declares that if her assailant is married he shall be hanged, and if he is single they shall be wed. Both were seen as her receiving justice.

“Tam Lin” follows this same plot line but instead of Tam Lin not wishing to marry because of general male wantonness, he is held by a magic spell which the heroine must break. He informs her that the Queen of Fairies makes a tithe or sacrifice to Hell every seven years and he is worried that this time it will be him. The ritual is to take place on Halloween, believed to be an especially important day in paganism and devil-worship.

‘Tam Lin, The Escape’ by Joanna Barnum

When the day arrives, the young woman hides where Tam Lin told her he would be. The Queen and her troupe arrive, at which point the heroine grabs Tam Lin and rides off with him. The Fairy Queen turns Tam Lin into a variety of objects from a snake to a wolf to a fiery coal but she clings to him until he is finally turned into a naked man and the spell is broken. The ballad ends with the Queen of Fairies mourning her loss.

I’ve always found it a curious choice to end on a note of loss instead of triumph. The Queen of Fairies is undoubtedly meant to be the villain of the piece but her distress at the end almost humanizes her. I say almost because her words about what she should have done are pretty creepy.

‘Had I kend [known], Thomas,’ she says,

‘A lady wad hae borrowd thee,

I wad hae taen [taken] out thy twa [two] grey een [eyes],

Put in twa een o tree [“eyes of tree” or tree knots].


‘Had I but kend, Thomas,’ she says,

‘Before I came frae hame [home],

I had taen out that heart o flesh,

Put in a heart o stane [stone].’

The wish to have replaced his eyes with wooden knots is probably, according to Child, to prevent Tam Lin from being able to recognize fairy folk. Humans were not supposed to be able to see them but Tam Lin had probably been granted this gift when he was abducted.

My favorite rendition of this ballad is by Steeleye Span, a folk-rock group that was an important part of the British folk revival scene in the 60s and 70s. Their take on the song contains three sections, each with its own beautiful melody.

Perhaps what I love most about this ballad is its melding of real issues with fantasy. Assault and rape were and continue to be frustratingly common. Cults and human sacrifice may not be so common but falling in with wicked people and feeling trapped is as human as it gets. Entwining these issues with the supernatural, I think, can give us a way to process our fears and emotions – a sort of catharsis. In the songs we can be heroic and outwit those who would do us harm even if it doesn’t always turn out like that in reality.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Steeleye Span – YouTube | Spotify

Moira Craig – YouTube | Spotify

Holly Tannen – YouTube | Spotify

Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer – YouTube | Spotify

Glenlogie (238)

Ballads are so often somber or grisly affairs that it’s a welcome surprise when you come across one with a happy ending. I can still remember all the times I had Philippians 4:8 quoted to me growing up – “whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable … think about such things.” I don’t necessarily agree with this – and my taste in music, movies, etc. certainly doesn’t reflect the advice – but I can’t help wondering about the drawbacks of saturating my life with macabre stories. At the very least it’s probably healthy to mix it up.

Artwork for a show by Rory and Alex McEwen

The ballad “Glenlogie” (or “Jean O Bethelnie”) is a lovely and lively tale about a young (15-17 yrs) maiden who is smitten by the handsome Glenlogie while in her father’s hall and tells him her feelings. He politely turns her down, explaining he’s promised to another. She collapses in her bed intent on dying. Her father and mother offer other, richer men to her but she’ll have none of them. Finally, her father’s chaplain writes a letter to Glenlogie who is moved by Jeannie’s love and rushes to her side, promising to make her his bride.

The song has remained popular, mostly in Scotland, well through the mid-1700s when it was first set down to the present day. Its themes are certainly timeless – from Paris and Helen to Lü Bu and Diochan, history is full of stories about lovesickness causing all manner of foolishness. The classic gender roles are swapped here (I love the brazenness of Scottish heroines!) and fortunately for Jeannie the consequences are less dire but the story is familiar.

There are, however, things that tie this to a particular place and time. Marrying for love is so natural now that it would be considered irresponsible – in most developed countries at least – to do otherwise. Stories about rebelling against parents and society for love have begun to feel positively old-fashioned. This cultural shift is generally seen as the result of enlightenment and moral progress but I don’t see any indication that Jeannie’s parents entreating her with wealthier matches is done out of anything but care. Economic security used to be tied to names and lineages not education levels and job placement. I suppose you could view this attitude as nobility jealously guarding its privileges or the love of parents for their daughter. Either way, it’s good to be reminded that Jeannie’s choice is more transgressive than it might appear today.

My favorite rendition of this song is from the Scottish band Old Blind Dogs – a musical group I positively adore and will certainly feature in this blog more.

One of my favorite elements from the song is the role of the chaplain who intercedes on Jeannie’s behalf with Glenlogie. He’s described as a man with a prodigious talent for writing and I love his approach in changing Glenlogie’s mind. It’s somewhere between chastisement and begging. These verses describe the letter and Glenlogie’s reaction:

But her father’s old chaplain, a man of great skill,

He wrote a broad letter, and penned it well.

Saying, O brave Glenlogie, why must it be so?

A maid’s love laid on you, shall she die in her woe?

Then reading the letter, his heart was like to break

That such a leal virgin should die for his sake.

May we all have such advocates when our heart is set on something.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Old Blind Dogs – YouTube | Spotify

Heidi Talbot – YouTube | Spotify

Mary Smith – YouTube | Spotify

Dick Gaughan – YouTube | Spotify

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


The Trooper and the Maid (299)

Canadian folk band The Duhks

“The Trooper and the Maid” (or “The Light Dragoon”) tells the story of an eager young woman who meets her soldier sweetheart one evening and plies him with food and drink until they finally fall into bed together. They’re awakened the next morning by trumpets and the sounds of the soldier’s regiment departing. As he hurries to join them, the woman ask him when he’ll be back to marry her and be her “bairnie’s” (Scots for “baby’s”) daddy. He responds with a series of poetic put-offs – “when cockle shells grow silver bells” or “when apples trees grow in the seas” – that indicate it will never happen.

The theme of youthful love and seduction is about as common a theme as you can come across in Child Ballads – or probably most genres of music past and present for that matter. The more unusual element is the woman playing the role of seducer. This fact was so off-putting to one collector, the Rev. Baring-Gould, that he rewrote it with the roles swapped.

My favorite rendition of this is by the Canadian folk band The Duhks.

One of the things I love so much about the Child Ballads is their preservation of the female perspective. It’s a testament both to their status as “low art” that lacked the kind of gate-keeping present in loftier institutions and the critical role of women in preserving oral folk traditions. So many of these songs were preserved simply because mothers would sing them to their children.

Most versions of the song are Scottish in origin, though some exist in England and North America. This is especially apparent in the heavily Scots inflected lyrics Child records.

‘O when will we twa meet again?

Or when will you me marry?’

‘When rashin rinds grow gay gowd rings,

I winna langer tarry.’

As progressive or perhaps just lascivious as the ballad is in some ways it ends with a sharp conservative lesson for the woman. Don’t trust men, even if they wear dashing uniforms, and don’t let your passions get the better of you.

As difficult as being a single mother might be today it surely doesn’t compare to the early 19th century. And, honestly, for me it’s a good reminder that as easy as it might be to mock past puritanical attitudes, actions carried more weight back then and sex – mostly for women – could have heavy consequences.

That pull between passion and practicality, is wonderfully played out here. It’s hard not to feel for the maid’s predicament.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

The Duhks – YouTube | Spotify

Malinky – YouTube | Spotify

North Sea Gas – Spotify

The Claire Hastings Band – YouTube

Ewan MacColl & Peggy Seeger – YouTube | Spotify