The folksong parrot

I’ve just discovered a terrific ballad on an album bought on spec ‘cos I liked the band’s name (‘Crooked Still’ since you ask). It’s called ‘Henry Lee’ and is a version (probably) of ‘The outlandish knight’ but with a murderous woman. She stabs her lover, chucks the body down a well and then intimidates the only witness (a parrot; it’s a folksong) to silence. Reason I’m linking it to ‘The outlandish knight’ (Child Ballad no. 4) is that parrot. The tale of ‘The outlandish knight’ is known across Europe but the coda of the parrot seems to be a British variant.

This got me thinking about why a parrot. I suppose they’d be known as exotic pets. Lady Isobel/Margaret/May Colvin, the ‘heroine’ of ‘The outlandish knight’, comes from a well-heeled background – often enough she’s the king’s daughter. A talking bird would clearly be memorable and likely to find its way into a song. Anything deeper – who knows? I have come across references to parrots in art symbolising virginity. If this is so (and I’m not convinced) then the folksong parrot is subverting this – the whole point is that the lady has slipped off into the night with her lover and hasn’t come to the bad end such behaviour usually deserves. This parrot itself is of particularly dubious character, first threatening and then accepting bribes.

No one really comes out of the story well. The lady is a thief, the knight a murderer, the parrot venal and the father a fool. Which is why I like it – no chance of drawing out an improving moral. I’d add that the knight might be murderous but he is also exceedingly modest and remarkably stupid. In all versions, the lady evades her fate by simply asking him to turn around whilst she undresses (since ‘it’s not fitting that any gentleman a naked lady should see’) before she sneaks up behind him, ‘catches him round the middle so small and tumbles him all down in the sea’. In some versions he also obligingly clears the brambles away lest she should scratch herself as he pushes her in to drown.

I suspect there’s a whole other set of thoughts on stupid and murderous knights. And another on the fluid nature of folk songs.

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