Category Archives: Child ballad

AS16: John from the Isle of Man

This is a variant of Willie o’ Winsbury, and one which departs from the usual storyline further than most. In this one the daughter isn’t pregnant and the father objects to “young John” on the general principle of protecting his daughter from excessive male attention. (There’s also the unusual detail of the boyfriend being called John and coming from the Isle of Man.) When they meet, of course, the King is so impressed by young John’s good looks that he drops his objections.

Both the tune and the phrasing are from a recording made by Robert Cinnamond (1884-1968), who had a large repertoire of songs learned from his father and grandmother. His delivery of this song – particularly the heavily dotted 4/4 rhythm and the emphatic swoops on unstressed syllables – was too distinctive not to imitate; I expect it’ll seep into the way I sing other songs.

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AS17: Tom the Barber

This is another Willie o’ Winsbury variant, with the same essential structure as most: King returns from abroad to find his daughter pregnant, he asks who the father is with a view to having him expelled or executed, but on meeting him is so impressed with his good looks that he immediately offers his daughter’s hand in marriage and a share of the kingdom. The consistent final twist is that the daughter’s lover is not only a bit of all right but also loaded, and has no interest in the kingdom part of the deal. It’s a father’s wish-fulfilment fantasy in some ways, although the passage where the King effectively says he quite fancies young Willie himself seems a bit excessive. A ‘Barber’ in this case is probably a Berber, or at least someone hailing from Barbary in North Africa. It’s hard to believe that his skin would have been ‘white as milk’ in the circumstances – but then, it’s not as if your disbelief hadn’t been suspended already.

This version was collected by Cecil Sharp, who seems to have excised the crucial verse; it was a bit racy by his standards. (I’ve put it back in.) I learned it from Tony Rose’s recording(s), although I couldn’t get on with his tune. The tune I use here is essentially the tune to which John Kelly sings Mary Hamilton, although – as with that song – I found it easier to sing it in 4/4 rather than 6/8.

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AS15: Jamie Douglas

Child 204.

This version is based quite closely on June Tabor’s version (retitled “Waly Waly”) on the album Airs and Graces. She did quite a lot of work on Child’s original, piecing together a version that works well from four or five of Child’s variants. I’ve made a couple more changes, pulling in two “Farewell” verses and dropping one of the floating “heartbreak and regret” verses, but by and large this is June Tabor’s Jamie Douglas.

I’m eternally wary of claimed factual origins for ballads, but it does appear that there was a historical Jamie Douglas who did send his wife back to her father as damaged goods. Beyond that, who knows?

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FS24: The bonny hind

Child 50. If there’s a sadder song in the world, I’m not sure I’ve heard it.

I learned this from Tony Rose’s version on On Banks of Green Willow. I’ve sharpened up the tempo slightly – there’s a dance tune lurking somewhere behind that melody – but otherwise it’s a fairly faithful copy. The intro is played on flute and melodica instead of concertina, and the song is accompanied by a drone.

I don’t think accidental brother-sister incest has ever been better written; you can sense the dawning realisation in the lines where they call each other liars. I think the opening is particularly effective; the brother’s lines have a relaxed, expansive jokeyness which is horribly at odds with what’s about to happen (I am no courtier, he said, save when I courted thee). And everything he knows and his father doesn’t – and the bafflement of the father, and his final suggestion (“Tell you what, go and see your sister, that’ll cheer you up”…) Beyond words.

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AS14: Sheath and knife

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.

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FS23: Little Musgrave

This is the good stuff. The song, I mean; the performance is as good as I could get it, but I’m not claiming any more than that. But the song… what a song.

Child 81, and it’s what we now think of as a typical Child ballad: it’s longish, it’s bloody, it comes in several variants and it’s got a couple of unforgettable images. (Apart from the confrontation between Musgrave and Lord Barnard – both of whom display a remarkable degree of sang froid in the circumstances – I’m particularly fond of the verse beginning “Is not your hawk”; as if to say, why would you want to leave now, when your life’s about as good as it’s ever going to be? (She was right about that, of course.))

This version is based on Nic Jones’s recorded version, which in turn is based mainly on variant 81G. I’ve doctored the text in a couple of places, mostly using material from other variants; I wanted it to be clear that Lord Barnard’s page rode as far as the wide water (version D), and I wanted to keep Lord Barnard’s closing fit of suicidal remorse (versions A and G). The other thing I didn’t much like about Nic Jones’s version was the use of two different tunes, both rather unvarying. I spent some time trying to work out a tune that was interesting enough to sustain the whole ballad; this one came to me one day when I was hanging out the washing, more or less complete (although later I made some modifications – see below).

One final change: Helen Jocys, who died last Christmas Day, used to sing Matty Groves occasionally at our local singaround. It’s quite a different song (and considerably shorter), and begins with a line that isn’t in any of the Child variants: “A holiday, a holiday, the first of all the year”. I used to follow Nic Jones’s use of “As it fell out upon a day, as many in the year”, but got a bit fed up with it – partly because it means the ballad’s starting with two lines that don’t actually say anything, and partly because of a parody I saw on Mudcat…

Then it fell out upon a day
As it often had before
But Matty tucked it in again
And hoped that no one saw

Ahem. Anyway, I was in the market for a new pair of first lines, and there (one night) were Helen and Matty.

So thankyou, Helen. She was a fine traditional singer and a remarkable accordionist, who always seemed to have the biggest repertoire in the room. She was also a really nice person and supportive of singers who were just getting started (e.g. me). She’ll be missed.

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FS22: The outlandish knight

I came up with this tune a couple of years ago. I’d learnt the Outlandish Knight from Nic Jones’s first album (see below), but I wanted to take something with a refrain to the local singaround. A bit of research online turned up about fifteen different tunes for the song, one of which I modified to produce this one. The tune I settled on was in D mixolydian (flattened seventh). I’m particularly fond of dance tunes that flatten and re-sharpen the seventh in different parts of the tune (Northumbrian tunes like Elsie Marley do this a lot); it makes me think of an unpredictably creaky step on a staircase. So for this tune I created a refrain by repeating the last line of the verse and sharping the seventh in the repeat (“And there he would marry her”). I also put a re-sharped seventh into the verse (“he promised to take her to those northern lands”), but I don’t always remember to sing this one.

Of course, the great thing about singing at singarounds, and singing songs with refrains in particular, is that people join in; sometimes they even join in with harmonies. The harmonies on this one are my tribute to the singers at the Beech who have made so much more out of so many songs – this one included.

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AS12: The outlandish knight

This reading of the song is heavily indebted to the version on Nic Jones’s first album; the tune is his and the repeated zither pattern is a cut-down version of his guitar figure.

If I’ve added anything to it, it’s the sheer quiet of the zither, which I think lends a stillness to the song. The vocal was recorded late at night, close up to the mike, adding to the sense that you’re eavesdropping on a strange and mysterious story. And this is a mysterious song. (Apart from anything else, look at the time she made getting back from the northern shore!)

The text is Child 4E with a couple of modifications, mostly following Nic Jones. In this version she’s a queen‘s daughter; this isn’t an obscure variant, it just came out that way when I sang it and I decided to keep it. Folk process innit.

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FS21: True Thomas

A.k.a. Thomas the Rhymer, Thomas Rymer; Child 37.

The text of this ballad is a bit frustrating; there’s a lot there, but there seems to be an awful lot missing. (What was it like for Thomas not to be able to speak while he was in Elfland – or not to be able to lie once he got back?)

The tune I’m using is based on Ewan MacColl’s recording; the text is Child, but anglicised and reordered a bit. The accompaniment… I wasn’t going to have accompaniment on these songs, was I? That’s New Year resolutions for you. The accompaniment is a bit more creative than I usually get; I was listening to Spiritualized in between recording it, which gave me a renewed appreciation of the uses of drones. For once the drumming’s come out quite well, too.

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FS20: Sir Patrick Spens

This is the ballad of Sir Patrick Spens.

…and as such, really needs no introduction. A Child ballad, and one of the most famous of them.

I learned this not from Nic Jones’s version (which it resembles) but James Yorkston’s, on the 2005 mini-album Hoopoe; when I first sang it in public I hadn’t yet got hold of any of Nic Jones’s recordings. (Nor when I wrote this; the last line was an educated guess.) Seems like a while ago now.

There are many other versions (here’s one); one of these days I’ll work up the one where they try to save the ship by tying it up with string. (If you don’t want to know the result, look away now.) For now, let me tell you about where the King was, what he was drinking and what happened next.

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