Highwaymen ride high in the popular imagination. A higher class of cutpurse and the archetype of the romantic rogue. As the type specimen I offer you Alfred Noyes’ The Highwayman (1906)*. There’s a fair few ballads about highwaymen (Salisbury Plain and Newry Town spring to mind) – they usually end, like the rogues themselves, upon the gallows tree. I’ve only come across one about a highwaywoman. That’s Sovay.
She’s not really a highwaywoman, only a lover out to test her true love’s affection at gunpoint. It’s inspired a book, Sovay by Celia Rees, and I can see why: the ballad ticks a lot of boxes for YA fiction: strong female lead, high emotion, historical setting and romance.
I was very taken with the song the first time I heard it (Martin Carthy’s rendition from his Brass Monkey days), for much the same reasons as Rees. Women, on the whole, get short shrift in folk song but there’s definitely no messing about with Sovay. She has the initiative, the resolution and the pistol. And it has a happy ending: her lover proves true, she gives back the stuff she’s taken and all is set for their happy ever after. Then, after listening a few more times and committing the words to memory, my brain started to kick in and, as with The Broomfield Hill, I started to doubt my initial reaction and the value of Sovay as a role model.
Consider the final stanza:
‘I did intend and it was to know
If that you were me true love or no
For if you’d have give me that ring she said
I’d have pulled the trigger, I’d have pulled the trigger and shot you dead.’
True, no one actually dies but I’d not think pathological jealousy and threats of violence to be the best basis for a lasting relationship. On the other hand, it’s just a song. I could be taking the whole thing too seriously. No one looks to folk songs for role models. Only for strong feelings and stirring tunes and Sovay manages both of these.
*True love – of the more pointless sort. Given that poor Bess dies to save her highwayman his utter idiocy in getting himself shot down like a dog on the highway seems the height of ingratitude. It’s been set to music by Loreena McKennitt – try Andy Irvine’s version on Way Out Yonder.