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Published: October 7th 2021
I discovered the English and Scottish and Irish ballads mainly through the music I listened to as a teenager and young man. Folk rock bands like Pentangle, Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span - as well as traditional singers like Martin Carthy - recorded stirring versions of traditional ballads: ‘She Moved Through the Fair’ (
an Irish song which I have written about previously: https://www.travelblog.org/Asia/Vietnam/Southeast/Ho-Chi-Minh-City/blog-1047912.html), ‘Matty Groves’, ‘Sir Patrick Spens
’, ‘John Barleycorn
’, 'The Bonny Black Hare
' and many others. My knowledge was supplemented by studying traditional ballads as part of the English Literature degree course at Leeds University.
I had not read or listened to a traditional ballad for some time when, recently, one appeared in The Guardian
newspaper. It was an old favourite of mine: ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well
’. Here it is: There lived a wife at Usher’s Well, And a wealthy wife was she; She had three stout and stalwart sons, And sent them oer the sea. They hadna been a week from her, A week but barely ane,
Whan word came to the carline wife
That her three sons were gane. They hadna been a week from her,
A week but barely three,
Whan word came to the carlin wife
That her sons she’d never see. ‘I wish the wind may never cease,
Nor fashes in the flood,
Till my three sons come hame to me,
In earthly flesh and blood.’ It fell about the Martinmas,
When nights are lang and mirk.
The carline wife’s three sons came hame,
And their hats were o’ the birk. It neither grew in syke nor ditch,
Nor yet in ony sheugh;
But at the gates o’ Paradise,
That birk grew fair eneugh. ‘Blow up the fire, my maidens,
Bring water from the well;
For a’ my house shall feast this night,
Since my three sons are well.’ And she has made to them a bed,
She’s made it large and wide;
And she’s ta’en her mantle her about,
Sat down at the bed-side. Up then crew the red, red cock,
And up and crew the gray
The eldest to the youngest said,
‘Tis time we were away.’ The cock he hadna craw’d but
And clapp’d his wings at a’,
When the youngest to the eldest said,
‘Brother, we must awa’. ‘The cock doth craw, the day doth daw,
The channerin’ worm doth chide;
Gin we be miss’d out o’ our place,
A sair pain we maun bide.’ ‘Lie still, lie still but a little wee while,
Lie still but if we may;
Gin my mother should miss us when she wakes,
She’ll go mad ere it be day.’ ‘Fare ye weel, my mother dear!
Fareweel to barn and byre!
And fare ye weel, the bonny lass
That kindles my mother’s fire!’
It is a ghost story describing the return to their mother of three drowned sons. The fourth stanza is terrific, depicting the intense grief of the mother, whose lamentations for the untimely dead are intertwined with vengeful anger against the living. When her dead sons return home one dark night, the mother receives them as if they are still alive, prepares a feast and watches over them as they sleep. When the cock crows at dawn, the ghosts realize they must leave. There is a wonderfully human touch in the penultimate stanza when the sons decide not to move before the mother wakes, because of the distress their disappearance would cause her. And, in the final stanza, their regret at having to swap earthly pleasures for heavenly ones is very touching.
It is a magnificent poem, concise and dramatic, demonstrating the power of love. Hearing it read or sung in an authentic Scottish accent is a bonus.
Rereading ‘The Wife of Usher’s Well
’ after so many years put me in mind of another ballad: ‘The Border Widow’s Lament
’. I came across this circa 1970 on a folk sampler LP, sung by an obscure Scottish band named The Clutha – or, rather, by their lead singer, Gordeanna McCulloch. Here is the text of the poem: My love he built me a bonnie bower And clad it all with lily flower A brawer bower ye ne'er did see Than my true love he built for me There came a man by middle day He spied his sport and went away And brought the King that very night Who broke my bower and slew my knight He slew my knight to me sae dear He slew my knight and poin'ed his gear My servants all for life did flee And left me in extremity I sewed his sheet, making my moan I watched the corpse, myself alone I watched his body, night and day No living creature came that way I took his body on my back And whiles I gaed and whiles I sat I digged a grave and laid him in And happ'd him with the sod sae green But think not ye my heart was sair When I laid the mold on his yellow hair Oh think not ye my heart was woe When I turned about, away to go No living man I'll love again Since that my lovely knight is slain With a lock of his yellow hair I'll chain my heart for evermore
On the printed page, this is moving enough. The stanzas describing how the woman deals with her lover’s corpse, and then the final stanza with its superb chain metaphor, are heart-rending. But listening to Gordeanna McCulloch singing it, with minimal musical accompaniment, is something else. Her soaring voice, especially in that final stanza, brings tears to my eyes. The LP I used to have has long since gone, but the album 'Scotia
', which includes 'The Border Widow’s Lament'
, is available on Youtube. I think Gordeanna McCulloch’s rendition of the ballad is a masterpiece, one of the glories of folk music.
Which brings me to my third and final ballad: ‘Edward Edward
’. For me, this is the greatest of all the traditional ballads. I read it at university and well remember our lecturer, Charles Barber; saying it was one of the finest poems in English. Here it is: Why does your brand sae drop wi' bluid Edward, Edward? Why does your brand sae drop wi' bluid? And why so sad gang thee, O? O, I hae killed my hawk sae guid Mither, mither. O, I hae killed my hawk sae guid And I had nae mair but he, O. Your hawk's bluid was never sae reid, Edward, Edward. Your hawks bluid was never sae reid, My dear son I tell thee, O. O, I hae killed my reid-roan steed, Mither, Mither. O, I hae killed my reid-roan steed, That erst was sae fair and free, O. Your steed was auld, and you hae more Edward, Edward. Your steed was auld, and you hae more Some other duel you drie, O. O, I hae killed my faither dear, Mither, Mither. O, I hae killed my faither dear. Alas and woe is me, O! And what penance will you drie for that Edward, Edward? And what penance will you drie for that My dear son, now tell me, O. I'll set my feet in yonder boat Mither, Mither. I'll set my feet in yonder boat And I'll fare over the sea, O. And what will you do wi' your towers and your hall Edward, Edward? And what will you do wi' your towers and your hall That were so fair to see, O? I'll let them stand til they down fall, Mither, Mither. I'll let them stand til they down fall, For here never mair maun I'll be, O. And what will you leave to your bairns and your wife Edward, Edward? And what will you leave to your bairns and your wife When you gang over the sea, o? The world's room, let them beg through life Mither, Mither. The world's room, let them beg through life For them never more will I see, O. And what will you leave your own mother dear, Edward, Edward? And what will you leave your own mother dear? My dear son, now tell me, O. The curse of Hell frae me shall you bear Mither, Mither. The curse of Hell frae me you shall you bear, Sic councils you gave to me, O.
The poem is in the form of a dialogue between mother and son. It is full of suspense as the son keeps on changing his story – from hawk’s blood to horse’s blood and then to father’s blood. We assume the son has murdered his father for personal reasons, and that the mother is shocked, but then in the final line all is revealed: the mother has put the son up to it. This is a shattering climax. We are left with the great unanswered question: why did the mother tell him to kill his father and why did he agree to do it? This causes the poem to resonate in the reader’s mind long after reading it. Unlike the other two ballads, ‘Edward Edward
’ does not lend itself to singing but, especially when read aloud in a Scottish accent, has enormous power.
These centuries-old ballads, penned anonymously, make a refreshing change from the sort of poetry nowadays in vogue: pretentious, often inaccessible, verbal exercises with no emotional appeal. The three ballads I have explored deal with the issue of untimely death – murder or drowning – and its effect on the living. They have universal emotional appeal. They are dramatic, concise and highly visual. Their apparent simplicity conceals a rare narrative skill and an unpretentious but effective way with words. I will continue to enjoy them until the day I die.
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