This started off as a blog about folk songs. I haven’t talked about them much recently but they are there still as the backdrop to my writing and so, to give you something of their flavour, here’s a post about five of the Child Ballads, ones I’ve listened to over and over.
Scarborough Fair/The Cambric Shirt/The Tricoloured House/The Elfin Knight (Child no. 2)
If you only know one of the Child Ballads, it’s probably this one. It comes in a multitude of versions, and has nearly as many names, but always centres on a series of impossible demands. Depending on which version you’re listening to, it’s either a dialogue (he demands, she counterdemands and ends up trumping him) or list of tasks required by him before he’ll marry her. My favourite singings are Dr Faustus’s The Cambric Shirt and Alasdair Roberts’ The Tricoloured House.
Twa Corbies/The Three Ravens (Child no. 26)
Two different songs these, each the mirror to the other. Both start with crows eyeing up the corpse of a nameless knight, both describe the behaviour of his horse, his hounds and his lady. Twa Corbies is the cynical version, The Three Ravens the sad one. I like Steeleye Span’s singing of the former and Malinky’s version of the latter.
The Wife of Usher’s Well (Child no. 79)
If you’ve read this blog before you’ll know this is one of my favourite ballads, and that I wrote it up, fairly faithfully, as a short story; it also lies behind another of my stories (Banish Misfortune in the two-story collection An End and a Beginning). It’s a ghost story, achingly sad and hauntingly lovely. Like many other ballads it gains a lot of its poignancy by interweaving very solid objects with the supernatural. My favourite version is Karine Polwart’s but those by Martin Carthy and Bellowhead are also worth looking up.
Willy o’Winsbury/John Barbary (Child no. 100)
A tale of seduction and hidden pregnancy. Fairly standard fare, that, for folk songs. What makes it (more than) slightly unusual is that the young man proves honourable and nobody dies. Happy endings aren’t so common in ballad-land. My favourite singing is that by Sweeney’s Men, with The Owl Service’s version running a close second. Willy o’Winsbury is set in a king’s court but Kate Rusby sings the more domestic version, John Barbary, in which the king is replaced by a well-to-do merchantwoman.
Patrick Spens (Child no. 58)
I’ve been known to buy albums just to hear a singer’s take on this ballad. Fortunately many other people like it as much as I do so there are many versions to choose. It’s got it all: political subterfuge, malicious lords, a princess, omens, a storm, a shipwreck and – in some versions – mermaids. It might be based on the story of the Maid of Norway but it just as easily might not. Folk songs are slippery that way, sliding between the bounds of fact and fiction. June Tabor sings the long form of the ballad but my favourite is the brief version by Kris Drever, which distils it down to the essence: red wine, new moon, high weather.