FS04: The cruel mother

Child 20 (or similar). This is another song that exists in many variants, and another one which tells a heart-wrenching story without pointing a moral. Emily Portman’s comment quoted here

Rather than damning the protagonist as a cruel mother I think of her as a desperate woman caught in the trappings of a time when illegitimate pregnancy could result in being outcast from family and society.

seems valid but beside the point: the song doesn’t excuse the mother, but it doesn’t exactly damn her either. (She’s literally damned, but not for being an evil person.) As I read it, the song simply says that she dealt with an unwanted pregnancy by killing her babies, and that this was a dreadful thing – for her as well as for them. It’s probably a meaningless juxtaposition, but I do like the way the refrain runs on from the last verse in this version:

While you must drag out the fires of hell
Down by the greenwood side-i-o

At the end of the song, I think that’s exactly what she’s doing.

The tune here came from Jon Boden on AFSAD, and the words may have done too – certainly none of the sources I’ve looked at are an exact match to the words I sing. Folk process innit. (I couldn’t be doing with spending seven years ringing bells like a whale in the wood, or whatever it was.) I tried to keep the refrain as plain, unadorned and (above all) consistent as possible. I generally try to get the speaking voice into my delivery of folk songs, particularly the really old ones like this one, but refrains are an exception: I think they should work like a musical phrase that keeps coming round again, almost mechanically, to frame the story as it progresses.

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Filed under Child ballad, folk song, Jon Boden, traditional

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