FS46: The holland handkerchief

This is Child 272, although if you go off to Child to check the versions you’ll be sadly disappointed; Francis Child could only find one version of this one, and it’s a narrative poem in rhyming couplets. It survived in the oral tradition in Ireland; this version was sung by Packie Byrne and later by Norma Waterson.

I love this song. The setup is simple and familiar – the urban legend of the Vanishing Hitch-hiker is very similar. But there are mysteries here, not least the fact that (like the children in The lady gay) the ghostly lover is solid and physically present. And why did the young man die in the first place? According to Child’s version he died of heartbreak, but you’ve got to wonder if the girl’s father was more directly involved. Is the headache a clue to how he died, or is it just a sign that he’s making his body do something it can’t do any more? Mysteries, mysteries.

There are two concertina tracks, although you probably won’t be able to make one of them out for most of the song. I’m quite pleased with the chord sequence, which I arrived at through two distinct methods. One involves a lot of muttering and counting on my fingers (“one, four, five… “G, Goes Down And Ends E minor”…); the other involves picking a chord, then swapping some notes around and seeing what happens. I’m not sure what all the chords are called (although there’s definitely a Dsus4 in there). I like the way they sound, though.

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Filed under Child ballad, folk song

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