Child 16. Like the Bonny Hind, this is a Child ballad about brother-sister incest; there are four of them in all (these two plus Lizzie Wan/Edward and The King’s dochter Lady Jean).
There’s an odd little network of resemblances among the four ballads. In Lady Jean and the Bonny Hind, the two sibs are unknown to each other and are horrified to realise that they are related; both Lizzie Wan and Sheath and Knife feature a long-term incestuous relationship, with pregnancy as the trigger for the crisis. The Bonny Hind and Sheath and Knife both focus on the brother’s state of mind after the sister is dead, and in particular the sheer impossibility of telling anyone what has happened; in Lizzie Wan the brother is unwilling to talk, but his mother gets the story out of him. The sister’s death is suicide in the Bonny Hind and Lady Jean, murder in Lizzie Wan and a kind of suicide-by-proxy in Sheath and Knife. If I had to draw a diagram I would say that Lady Jean and Lizzie Wan were composed separately, with the Bonny Hind developing out of Lady Jean (the brother’s awful conversation with his father is an improvement on the way he drops dead in Lady Jean), and Sheath and Knife combining the basic setup of Lizzie Wan with elements of the Bonny Hind. But this is speculation.
I learned this song from Tony Rose’s version on Under the greenwood tree. (He revisited it on the aptly-named Bare bones, on which it’s frighteningly powerful.) Something that struck me forcibly about the song when I sung it out was the contrast between the verses, which inexorably work through an incredibly grim story, and the endless repetitions of a pretty but rather dour refrain. Tony Rose tried to get round this by humanising the refrain, introducing variations – And we’ll never…, But they’ll never… and so on. I don’t think this is right; instead of a refrain that pulls back from the song, you end up with a song that leans in over it, repeatedly nudging the audience to remind them how sad it all is. (Doing it this way also means that people who are singing along need to think about where they are in the song all the time, when one of the great joys of chorus singing is losing yourself in singing the same thing over and over again. There’s repetition in our music and we’re never going to lose it, as a great musician once said.)
I think the refrain is dour and impersonal, and that, in this song, it should be: the climactic scene of the song (and the one that gives it its title) consists precisely of one character who has no idea what’s going on in the other’s mind, and one who is completely unable to reveal it (but too consumed with it to stay silent). A refrain that says, in effect, “Aye, well, these young people, all very sad” is horribly out of keeping with the raw emotion of the song – and that’s just what makes it appropriate. With this in mind, I sang the refrains as near identically as possible, and double-tracked them with another recording of myself to distinguish them from the main song.
As for the picture (on the Bandcamp page), yes, I know there’s symbolism in the phrase ‘sheath and knife’, but I also think that symbolism is more powerful if you’ve got the actual things doing the symbolising clearly in mind. And besides, I don’t think Bandcamp would like it if I uploaded a picture of the things being symbolised.