Well, parrots have had a mention but they’re not the only talking animals to be found in folksong. The Broomfield Hill or The Broomfield Wager (Child Ballad no. 43) has a positive menagerie of talking beasts, though all are rather less exotic than that parrot. A hawk, a hound and a horse to be precise. The ballad itself is a round in the neverending battle of the sexes. This time, the honours go to the woman who preserves her virginity and wins the wager with the aid of magic and wild flowers. Happy ending. Not so many of those in folk song.
I’ve been listening to this song a lot recently in several different versions. Personal favourite of the moment is Bellowhead‘s from the recent Hedonism album but reditions by Bob Fox and Dr Faustus are also frequently revisited. Here’s Malinky’s version. It seems to be in the repetoire of many singers, perhaps because of that happy ending and all those talking creatures. But when you think about it a little it is really quite a dark story. Quite what the lady sees in the man has always puzzled me*: he’s another of those murderous knight types, intending first her rape and then her death. Not the type of man I’d want as my true-love. But true love is a flexible commodity in folk song and such behaviour pretty well a commonplace. Even the great Tam Lin (Child Ballad no. 39) which likewise has a happy ending contains what sounds to me very much like a rape:
He took her by the milk-white hand,
And by the grass green sleeve,
And laid her low down on the flowers,
At her he asked no leave.
The lady blushed, and sourly frowned,
And she did think great shame;
Says, ’if you are a gentleman,
You will tell me your name.’
Some versions skip over this, leaving a listener as surprised as Janet’s father to find her with child after her traipse through Carterhaugh picking wild flowers. What is lovely is the calm way her father accepts his daughter is up the duff by some unknown, perhaps unearthly stranger.
And then there’s songs such as the Cruel Mother (Child Ballad no. 20) which is almost unbearable in its bitter beauty. There is a lovely version of this ballad, The Lady of York, by Chris Wood on Trespasser. It’s the other side of the story, when the young man is not willing to step up and the girl cannot confide in her father. No happy endings there, and yet as a story it rings truer than all the bridle bells in the Broomfield Hill or Tam Lin.
*Actually, I think I do know what she sees in him: he’s rich (consider the terms of his wager: Five hundred merks to your ten). But I still don’t rate their chances of living happily ever after.