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.

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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

The Bold Pedlar and Robin Hood (132)

About one in ten of the Child Ballads feature the folk-hero Robin Hood. Stories of the outlaw have been enormously popular since the 15th century and if the rate of Robin Hood movies coming out of Hollywood are any indication – quality notwithstanding – he remains a beloved figure. Over time, he has been adapted and re-appropriated to represent many causes and fight many injustices. For instance, 20th century adaptations often show him fighting for an England where Norman and Saxon can live together in peace (seemingly a way to comment on modern race relations).

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My favorite of the Robin Hood movies – “The Adventures of Robin Hood” starring Errol Flynn

The earliest accounts we have available of the British folk-hero actually come from the ballads that Francis Child collected. In these stories, Robin Hood is closer to a petty outlaw than the nobleman-on-the-run he would become. He is identified specifically as a yeoman (commoner) and isn’t at all concerned with Richard the Lionheart being the rightful King. The ballads are mostly playful, exciting, and sometimes comedic – a tone that sets them apart from most of the other ballads.

“The Bold Pedlar and Robin Hood” is a brief tale about Robin and Little John encountering a peddler on the road and demanding he give up half his wares. Apparently these early incarnations were less concerned with robbing exclusively from the rich. The peddler proclaims he will grant them half his pack if they are able to move him from where he stands. Little John whips out his sword but the peddler beats him back. Robin then tries his luck but is defeated in turn.

Then Robin Hood he drew his sword,

And the pedlar by his pack did stand;

They fought till the blood in streams did flow,

Till he cried, Pedlar, pray hold your hand!

Robin asks for his name but the peddler, as the victor, refuses until they give him their names. Once satisfied, he reveals himself to be “Gamble Gold of the gay green woods” who has fled from his home for murder. Robin Hood recognizes him as his “mother’s sister’s son” (cousin), and they happily set off to an alehouse and drink the day away.

The ending reminds me of something that the popular science author Jared Diamond wrote about in Guns, Germs, and Steel. He mentions that if a tribesman from the highlands of New Guinea encounters a stranger in the woods they will often sit down and go through their family tree – trying to find a connection and a reason they won’t have to fight each other. The closest social unit in any culture has always been the family, but the importance of blood and kin always seems significantly magnified outside of modern, urban, individualistic societies. The fact that most of us encounter multiple strangers a day without fearing for our lives is, perhaps, not something to be taken for granted.

The trope of Robin Hood losing a fight and then becoming friends with his enemy is quite common in these ballads. Many of his foes end up joining his band of merry men. I find it interesting that he isn’t terribly concerned with his status as the “best” and more with attracting talented comrades. That, I believe, is the mark of a good leader.

My favorite rendition of the ballad is by Chris Caswell and Danny Carnahan, a duo from California I don’t know very well but their paired singing here is wonderfully spirited.

Child got his version of the song from “an aged female in Bermondsey, Surrey” who claimed to have often heard her grandmother singing it. It’s quite common for Child’s sources to have been old women. Similarly, the Grimm brothers’ best sources when collecting their German folk tales were older women. Many turned out to be extraordinary repositories of folk culture, such as Dorothea Viehmann, who was able to retell her stories over and over without changing a word. Whether named or not I want to salute the contributions of these matriarchs who were so instrumental in passing down the stories of the world and shaping their communities.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Chris Caswell & Danny Carnahan – YouTube | Spotify

Joshua Burnell – Spotify

Barry Dransfield – YouTube | Spotify

Steeleye Span – 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.

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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.

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‘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.

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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.

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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

 

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.

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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

 

 

The Trooper and the Maid (299)

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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