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

Edward (13)

My last post about the murder of a poacher and his dogs was a bit on the darker side. At first I thought, “let’s balance this out and write about a love ballad or something whimsical.” But, thinking about this more, I feel like I’ve been avoiding some of the really harrowing ballads and I should probably tackle a few as they’re an important part of the border ballad tradition. “Edward” is not the darkest, but it’s getting closer. I think in my next couple posts I’ll see how far down we can go.

“Edward” or “My Son David” is pure dialogue between a son and his mother which is unusual for a ballad. It begins when a young man comes home and his mother asks about the blood stains on his clothes or sword. He claims they’re from his hawk but his mother says the blood of a hawk could never be so red. He claims they’re from his horse but she doesn’t believe that either.

‘O I hae killed my reid-roan steid [horse],

Mither, mither,

O I hae killed my reid-roan steid,

That erst was sae fair and frie O.’ [that used to be so fair and free]

‘Your steid was auld [old], and ye hae gat mair [more],

Edward, Edward,

Your steid was auld, and ye hae gat mair,

Sum other dule ye drie O.’ [some other grief you are enduring]

He then admits he has killed a man, usually his father or brother. His reasons are not entirely clear but more on that later. His mother usually asks what he’s going to do with his wife, children, house, and lands. He says he must abandon them and sail across the sea (or sometimes commit suicide). Some versions end here but in others the mother asks what he’s leaving for her and he answers “a curse from hell” with the implication that she put him up to the murder. This short addition changes the ending dramatically from a sorrowful farewell to a shocking revelation.

I wasn’t able to find much analysis of this ballad which is strange because it has been and remains immensely popular. Then again, it does add some allure to an already enigmatic story. Most versions of this have been found in America and there are quite a few variants in Scandinavia as well. In Scotland it was considered lost until it was rediscovered in the 20th century as a popular song with Scottish Travelers which is fitting, I think, considering the protagonist decides to banish himself in most versions.

The Scottish versions usually have the father as the murder victim and the mother implicated at the end. In America it’s usually the brother who is slain and the mother is not complicit. I’ve heard it suggested that the ending was toned down to make it more palatable in America which could be true but I’m not convinced. The Scandinavian ones tend to match the American versions and theirs are quite old. I’m guessing there have just been a lot of versions of this song floating around for a while.

Now about the motive for the murder – in the Scottish versions it’s suggested the mother lied to her son to manipulate him into killing his father. What she lied about is never said. In the American versions, on the other hand, he says something like “it was mostly over the cutting of a rod that never will be a tree” i.e. his brother cut down a sapling. Now, this could be taken at face value – fatal arguments often occur over trivial matters. But some have suggested that the sapling is a euphemism for a child and the brother has killed a pregnant woman. Such euphemisms are common in other ballads but are usually a bit more obvious to the listeners. So it’s hard to say what exactly caused the brother’s murder. But like I say, this adds an aura of mystery to the ballad, which for me just makes it more interesting.

My favorite recording of this is by the American folk band Red Tail Ring. I love the slow mournful playing of the fiddle and the Southern sounding twang and drawl in the vocals.

I’ve made a distinction between the Scottish and American versions but since the mid 1900s there has been a good deal of cross-contamination with musicians setting the Scottish words to an American tune or vice-versa which is pretty cool.

Kinslaying has been considered a particularly monstrous deed since Cain and Abel. In Greek Tragedy, Oedipus blinds himself on discovering he killed his father. Orestes is relentlessly hounded by the Furies for killing his mother. The “protagonist” of this ballad seems to realize his life is over whatever the provocation was. Even so, this is not as grim as the Child Ballads get as you’ll discover in my next post.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Red Tail Ring – YouTube | Spotify

Hex – YouTube | Spotify

The Johnstons – YouTube | Spotify

The Furrow Collective – YouTube | Spotify

Old Blind Dogs – YouTube

Johnie Cock (114)

My goal has been to put out one of these a month, which I’ve more or less managed to do but it’s been two months and I’ve got nothing to show for it. Though I’d like to just blame the holidays I think I’ll try to write two posts quickly to make up for it. And now I’ve put the promise into writing so I’m more likely to follow through.

“Johnie Cock” or “Johnny O’Breadisley” is described by Francis Child as a “precious specimen of the unspoiled traditional ballad.” I’m not a hundred percent sure why – the earliest version is only from the late 18th century – but I think it contains some particular elements that suggest an older source. One of the early versions was found in the textbook of an apparently illiterate drummer. The original collector deemed it of little value because it was so badly written. Child bemoans his mistake, saying the illiteracy of the author only gives it more authority.

‘Johnny of Braidislee’ by Samuel Edmund Waller

The ballad’s story is straightforward. Johnie goes poaching in the woods though his tearful mother entreats him to remain at home. He kills a deer with his hunting dogs and together they feast and fall asleep with full bellies. A group of “foresters” (men who enforce the King’s law against poaching) come upon Johnie and attack him while he’s still asleep. Though wounded, Johnie fights them off in spectacular fashion, leaving only one to carry off the tidings of what happened.

Johnie’s set his back against an aik [oak],

His fute [foot] against a stane [stone],

And he has slain the Seven Foresters,

He has slain them a’ but ane [all but one].

He has broke three ribs in that ane’s side,

But and his collar bane;

He’s laod [laid] him twa-fald ower his steed,

Bade him carry the tidings hame [home].

Some ballads end with his mother retrieving his body, others with the image of Johnie and his dogs lying dead in the woods, having succumbed to their wounds.

This song was popular in the borderlands – both the Scottish and English sides. Only one version has been found in America (Virginia). The subject matter didn’t translate easily, I think. Poaching was simply less of an issue in America with its vast forests and abundant game. In Britain though, all the way from medieval times, poaching carried heavy penalties – usually death. It’s easy for us to think of medieval Europe as a wild environment where people simply lived off the land but in fact most forests and “wildernesses” were carefully cultivated and controlled. And not only Europe, in medieval (Tokugawa) Japan, for example, they set up and enforced tree plantations to combat forest loss. Deforestation has long been a scourge in many older countries. That’s why most huts in Britain were made of stone while American settlers could build log cabins. Poaching laws also served as environmental protection but mostly they were put in place to provide hunting grounds for the Anglo-Norman nobility. This, as evidenced by innumerable songs and stories, caused much resentment among the commoners. Their diets were often deficient in meat, and as such, poaching was widespread. That is why Johnie is the hero of the song and the foresters are the villains.

The Child Ballads (despite occasional confusion stemming from the name) were songs for adults. This is why so many of the heroes are law-breakers or political dissidents. Children’s songs and folk tales tend to stress conformity and punish rule breakers – think “The Ants Go Marching” or “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” This, I think, reflects the relationship between parent and child where parents are generally trying to instill obedience in their offspring. Songs for adults can be more subversive. Outlaws thrive as heroes. Though the foresters have the law on their side, Johnie rebukes them for attacking him while he sleeps, something he says even a wolf would not do. He might be breaking the law but their behavior is far more villainous.

My favorite rendition of the song is by the wonderful Old Blind Dogs. It’s both somber and energetic at the same time and has a gripping rhythm that builds toward Johnie’s last stand.

I find the final verse to be especially poignant. It’s such a haunting image.

Now Johnie’s gude bend bow [bent bow, i.e. not a crossbow] is broke,

And his gude graie dogs are slain,

And his bodie lies dead in Durrisdeer,

And his hunting it is done.

Many lawbreaking heroes end up dead in the Child Ballads though they often go out with a bang. Johnie’s slaying of the foresters being a perfect example of that. “Matty Groves” (191) is another.

You might notice that “slain” and “done” from the verses above don’t appear to rhyme. If you listen it in the rendition I’ve linked, however, you will hear “done” pronounced more like “dane” which is how it sounds in Scots English. Poetry, song, or anything that rhymes can be invaluable tools for historians and linguists in reconstructing how a language or dialect sounded. Scots is still spoken today but Shakespeare, for instance, is used in this capacity to reconstruct how Early Modern English (that following Middle English) sounded.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Old Blind Dogs – YouTube | Spotify

June Tabor – YouTube | Spotify

Hamish Imlach – YouTube | Spotify

The Corries – YouTube | Spotify

Alastair McDonald – 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

The Battle of Otterburn (161)

I think it’s important to recognize that the Child Ballads came from a particular place and culture – the English-Scottish border region. This fact explains much of the peculiar qualities of the songs such as their general bloodiness. Life was hard there, especially in the medieval era. The armies of Scotland and England were always marching through on their way to fight each other and, as armies of the day did, they lived off the land – a polite way of saying they stole their food from the inhabitants, usually murdering and raping as well. When those countries weren’t at war, local raiders took advantage of the lawlessness of the area and plundered both sides of the border leaving more dead and starving in their wake. Loyalty to clans was everything. A clan was who protected you from raiders and allowed you to form raiding parties of your own.

I find it fascinating that horrible, oppressive circumstances often produce wonderful music. Who, for instance, has contributed more to the musical traditions of the United States than African Americans? Anyway, the the ballad I want to talk about here concerns a historical battle that took place in the borderlands in the 14th century.

Skirmish Line at otterburn
“Skirmish line at the battle of Otterburn” – S. Walsh

Around that time the Earl of Douglas gathered a bunch of Scottish clans for a large scale raid into Northern England. He plundered the countryside, burning towns and castles as he went. Eventually he faced off against Henry Percy, son of the Earl of Northumberland in several skirmishes that culminated in the battle of Otterburn, near the town of the same name. Douglas was killed but the Scottish forces, though outnumbered, won the day and took Percy captive. Apparently the Bishop of Durham, who was coming to reinforce Percy, declined to attack when he saw the Scots arrayed before him. I mostly find this interesting because it reminds me there was a time when “Bishop” was as much a political and military position as it was religious.

The ballad is mostly accurate in its content though it provides much embellishment in the face-off between Douglas and Percy. It begins by describing the raid across the border.

It fell about the Lammas tide,

When the muir-men [lowland Scots] win their hay,

The doughty Douglas bound him to ride

Into England, to drive a prey.

You can always tell how old a ballad is by how it describes the time of year. Before the four seasons became the agreed upon standard, people in Britain often kept time by festivals. “Lammas tide” was a harvest festival around August. Also, describing a raid as “driving a prey” is a little chilling. When I would go hunting in rural Minnesota we would “drive” deer through the woods. The use of a term you’d normally use when hunting animals to describe your very human foes says something about how your enemy is viewed.

The song goes on to describe the face off between Percy and Douglas where Douglas makes prophetic remarks about how one of them is fated to die here. There’s also a short stanza about Percy’s wife watching her husband from the castle wall, pale and frightened. It’s a lovely humanizing element. This song would become a sort of patriotic song celebrating a Scottish victory but there’s really nothing in it vilifying the English. It describes them fighting bravely. It reminds me of how the Hector and the Trojans are humanized in Homer’s Iliad.

After the first clash of armies, Percy and Douglas meet in single combat.

When Percy with the Douglas met,

I wat [saw] he was fu fain [glad];

They swakked [swung] their swords, till sair they swat [greatly they sweat],

And the blood ran down like rain.

'After Chevy Chase' (Battle of Otterburn 1388) by Herbert Thomas Dicksee (London 1862 ¿London 1942)
‘After Chevy Chase’ (Battle of Otterburn 1388) – Herbert Thomas Dicksee

Douglas is killed by a crushing blow to the head. The armies clash once more and the Scots beat back the English but Percy refuses to yield to anyone until asked by Sir Hugh Montgomery, nephew to Earl Douglas. I guess it was considered dishonorable to surrender to anyone not of high rank.

My favorite rendition of this ballad is by the English singer June Tabor. It’s significantly more melancholy than the other renditions I’ve linked below which are all high spirited and full of martial vigor, though excellent in their own right.

Something about “melancholy” just feels right for this subject. Much is made here about the English and Scottish heroes but I keep thinking about the peasants whose homes and crops were devastated in the raid. It can be frustrating to read history which is generally so focused on the nobility and so silent on the experiences of peasants, ordinary soldiers, laypeople, etc. Even the songs from the borderlands, which offer many rare glimpses into the lives of ordinary folk, still tend to have historical songs be about kings, earls, bishops, and knights. These were songs sung by the lower classes! I don’t know why those prejudices were so pervasive but they were. It’s an eternal irritation even if I love the songs themselves.

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

June Tabor – YouTube | Spotify

Graham Pirt, Janet Russell – YouTube | Spotify

Wolfhound – YouTube | Spotify

Gaberlunzie – 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

The Bonnie Banks O’ Fordie (14)

One of the great film directors ever to live – Ingmar Bergman – made a medieval movie in the ’60s called The Virgin Spring about a young girl who is waylaid by bandits, raped, and killed. By chance, the bandits seek shelter in her family’s home, are discovered, and subsequently killed by her father. I was obsessed with Bergman’s work while I was in film school and interested to learn the story was based on a 13th century Swedish ballad. It’s not perhaps the most well known movie, though it was remade in the ’70s by horror icon Wes Craven as The Last House on the Left (which was itself remade again in 2009). This is film-trivia though and probably not the most interesting unless you are as obsessed with movies as me.

Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring

Fast-forward ten years and I learn that one of the Child Ballads is the Anglicized version of the Scandinavian ballad that inspired Bergman’s movie! Fascinating, right? Well, to me it is. The Child Ballads have many connections with the folk music of France, Germany, and other countries but nowhere do they have as many ties as they do with the Scandinavian nations. There are probably many reasons for this kinship from the viking settlements in Northern Britain, to a shared Germanic language, to a close religious and cultural history but that’s a blog post for another time.

In “The Bonnie Banks O’ Fordie” (or “Babylon”) a “robber-man” or “banished man”  accosts three sisters in the woods and, one by one, demands that each becomes his wife (gives him her maidenhead) or die by his penknife.

‘It’s whether will ye be a rank robber’s wife,

Or will ye die by my wee pen-knife?’

The first two choose death. The youngest, when presented with the same choice, refuses to play and tells the man that her brother Babylon wanders these woods and will avenge anything done to her. The outlaw realizes she is talking about him and, in horror at what he has done to his sisters, kills himself.

Mackie, Charles Hodge, 1862-1920; 'There were three maidens pu'd a flower (by the bonnie banks o' Fordie)'
‘There were three maidens pu’d a flower (by the bonnie banks o’ Fordie)’ by Charles Hodge Mackie

As a side note, when you hear the word penknife, you usually think of a pocket knife or folding blade knife but the term was originally applied more generally to short bladed knives that, unsurprising, were used to shave down feathers to make quills. Like box cutters today they could be easily concealed for more criminal purposes.

Mistaken identity, often involving family members, is a prominent theme in the Child Ballads and most end just as tragically. From Shakespeare to Hitchcock, mistaken identity plots are common no matter the era, though most modern instances tend to be comedic and slapstick rather than bloody and incestuous (with the prominent exception of Oldboy).

My favorite version of this ballad is a rendition by Old Blind Dogs. They’re becoming regulars in this blog.

I don’t know quite how to feel at the brother’s grief when he realizes who he has killed. Does the fact that the women you intended to rape or murder were related to you really make all the difference? He can’t have even been close to them if no one recognized each other. Perhaps family meant more back then, or at least everyone else mattered less.

I tend to dislike such sweeping generalizations about “the past” in its kaleidoscopic variations but I think some generalizations apply. In most every era and area people lived shorter, more violent lives. That has to have an affect on your moral outlook, right?

Ballad Text

Internet Sacred Text Archive

My Favorite Recordings

Old Blind Dogs – YouTube | Spotify

Highland Reign – YouTube | Spotify

Dick Gaughan – YouTube

Ewan MacColl – 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

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