Niles No. 7: The Little Drownded Girl

O P E N I N G (5)

May 25, 2015

I have to admit, I think this is the ballad I’ve been the most excited about recording since we first selected our ballads at the outset of this project.

I am a big fan of its Child forerunner “The Twa Sisters,” and love the fairytale elements often included in other versions of this ballad. In the song, two sisters are walking by a sea or stream and the ugly sister pushes her younger, lovelier sister in the water, drowning her. This is generally done due to jealousy, either of her wealth, beauty, goodness, or lover. What happens subsequently varies, but in many versions, the bones of the drowned sister are used to make a fiddle or other instrument which only plays a song recounting the story of her murder. The older sister (and her accomplice, generally the miller, if present) is then hanged for her crime.

In this variant, the fantastic elements of the story are dropped. The sisters are not described as they are in other versions, and so the only motive for the murder seems to be the murdered sister’s “lover-ee” who she offers, unsuccessfully, to her sister in exchange for her rescue. In this tale, the miller presumably strips the murdered sister of her watches and money and is therefore hung along with the ugly sister. (In other versions, the miller either ‘pushes the sister farther in,’ or is the one who fishes the body out of the water to construct the fiddle.)

The versions of this song that I’m most familiar with are Nico Muhly and Sam Amidon’s “Two Sisters” and John Jacob Niles’ own “Bowie, Bowerie.” In “Two Sisters” the bone-fiddle is described, as is its enchanted way of recounting the sister’s death; in “Bowie, Bowerie,” there is a slight allusion to this element although you would have to have an understanding of other versions in order to catch it: “When she died the fiddles played… Her father heard how she’d been slayed.” Both of these songs are haunting and eerie and sad.

I believe what I love about this variant is how lilting and sing-songy it is, almost as if written for children. There is something sweet about its language: ‘drowndery’ is much less ominous than ‘drown.’ The drowning, death, and subsequent hanging seem all the more abrupt given the charming melody.

The Little Drownded Girl (Niles No. 7) – Collected July 16, 1932 from Patterson Whetmore in Pikeville, KY

Derry derry down and around the old piney tree,
I know a lord who lived by the Northern Sea,
He had daughters by one and by two, three,
Derry derry down and around the old piney tree.

Derry derry down and around the old piney tree,
“Sister, fish me out of the raging sea,
You may have my own true lover-ee.”
Derry derry down and around the old piney tree,

She did swim around so heartily,
Until she sank and she did drowndery.

She was stripped to her bare body,
For her gold and her watches and her fee.

They hanged the sister and the miller-ee,
On a scaffold ‘side of the deep blue sea.

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