We were thrilled to have been interviewed by Ken Bigger of Sing Out’s Murder Ballad Monday. We’re fans of both the blog and the publication (we own a well-loved, oft-used copy of Rise Up Singing), so we couldn’t be more excited.
“Tiranti, My Love,” a version of Child’s “Lord Randall,” has very old origins throughout Europe, with the oldest known variant being “L’avvelenato” (“The Poisoned Man”), which dates back to 1629 in Verona, Italy.
In the song, a son tells his mother that he has been poisoned by his lover. In most variants, it is through eating a reptile.
There are many references to it in pop culture. Bob Dylan used it as inspiration in “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” incorporating the lyrics into the opening lines of each verse. Lines from the ballad have worked their way into Sallinger and Steinbeck and Sayers. It is sometimes performed in a humorous tone (Pete Seeger’s “Henry, My Son” is a great example and the recording below is a marvelous testament to Seeger’s delivery of song and story), perhaps because the novelty of eating ‘eels’ is too foreign a concept to find particularly threatening. Indeed, Niles mentioned that Mrs. Molly Ratliff, from whom he heard “Tiranti,” “made the entire performance a little bit funny” (Ballad Book, 62). Niles, however, in his recording of the variant “Jimmy Randall” elects for a straightforward and somber performance.
Tiranti, My Love (Niles No. 9) – Collected May 15, 1934 from Mrs. Molly Ratliff in Madison County, KY
“Oh, where have you been, Tiranti, my love,
And why are you home so soon?”
“It’s I’ve been a-courting, oh Mother dear,
And I’m dying to lie down.”
“What did you eat, Tiranti, my love,
What did you eat, my son?”
“Some pizened eels, oh Mother dear,
But I ate only one.”
“One eel is enough, my little son,
Yes, one will surely do.
But two would be too many eels
For one bonny boy like you.”
“Oh what will you give the great lady
Who was to you untrue?”
“A strong piece of rope for hanging, for hanging,
And that will hardly do.”
The first time I heard Joanna Newsom, I fully and completely thought it was a joke. A gag recording along the lines of that American Idol contestant who went on to release an album of Christmas songs, sung weakly and off-pitch.
Do you blame me? Her voice is strange. It warbles. It whines. Without having seen a picture of her (she’s really very pretty, though that shouldn’t matter), I recall envisioning some sort of banshee. Or maybe (though this would be anachronous) a creature along the lines of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. That’s just the way she sounds to me.
But after listening to her albums over and over, I love her music. For her beautiful lyrics and instrumentation (she plays the harp) and also because of (not in spite of) her voice. In its lack of polish and perfection, it feels guileless and beautiful in its uniqueness and inimitability. Her ability to emote, unfettered by any attempt at a typical vocal, is unparalleled.
She is not alone in this category of brilliant musicians with unusual voices. Likely the most cited would be Bob Dylan. I would certainly put The Tallest Man on Earth in this category. I’m sure you can think of others. Here’s the deal: if you dislike their voices, you can either get over it and focus on their lyrics and music and love them for that, or you can’t. Some people can’t. Plenty can, as is evidenced by their success.
John Jacob Niles was a trained classic vocalist, but that doesn’t stop many from finding his voice off-putting. He had a trademark habit of pitching his voice high into his falsetto, often to delineate a change in character in a ballad. Niles’ vibrato is also very prominent.
Obviously, I’m a fan. I find the emotion of Niles’ voice and his ability to use it to tell a story completely compelling. I’m hooked. That doesn’t mean you are. And if you aren’t, I doubt this will change your mind. But in his defense, in defense of ‘strange’ voices everywhere — I can think of nothing sadder than a world in which music was only sung by people who had taken years of voice lessons and adhered strictly to convention. There would be a lot more cheesy show tunes. Can you imagine hearing “Like a Rolling Stone” sung classically? Ew.
I’ve taken voice lessons, and I am fairly certain I will never be a strong vocalist. Jonathan hasn’t taken voice lessons, but he is a great singer. He can do a mean Jeff Buckley impression. It’s pretty spot on (and I find it oh-so attractive). What’s beautiful is, it comes easily to him. It’s his voice.
I, on the other hand, can do a pretty spot-on Vashti Bunyan. That’s me. That’s my voice. It’s not particularly strange but it’s not especially ornamental either. It’s like how I talk, only set to music.
But there is a place for that kind of straightforward singing, in folk music especially. I would say the same defense applies to low-tech recordings, flawed but deeply felt. Folk music is not about being polished, and it is not about being perfect. It is about sharing stories and traditions, it is about a communal harmony comprised of singers endlessly varied.
So here’s to voices strange and beautiful. Here’s to John Jacob Niles, and Joanna Newsom, and Bob Dylan and a hundred others. Their voices beautiful because they are true, because they are authentic, because they add something to the musical landscape we share, and because at the end of the day each of us can only be who we are.
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.
Since our next two songs fall under the folk sub-genre of “murder ballads,” it seems as good a time as any for a brief thought or two on the topic.
I come to folk songs in part through a love of fairy tales. They seem to me two branches of the same tree (and I suppose if you titled that tree it would be called “stories of nascent man,” and would probably have a third branch called mythologies.)
Like folk songs, fairy tales are marked by violence. One need look no further than the Grimm Brothers’ “The Juniper Tree” to be convinced of the depth of their grimness and suddenly feel the surprise of gratitude to Disney for reworking some aspects to be more suitable for today’s children. I am very glad I didn’t, at three years of age, witness in cheery animation one of Cinderella’s step sisters slicing away at her heel to cram it into a slipper.
Maybe such plot points aren’t suitable for child cinema, but I would argue that they needn’t be left out of stories. Child psychologists generally agree that children like even these darker aspects of fairy tales, and that they can be beneficial for their developing sense of morality and goodness. Bruno Bettelheim goes into great detail on this in his book Uses of Enchantment, which I thoroughly recommend. Children are still pure and innocent with very black and white interpretations of right and wrong. Because of this, they like it when wicked people get punished. Then too, it helps solidify their understanding of these concepts: deceitfully cut up your heel to pass yourself off as another woman, eventually get your eyes pecked out by birds. Message received.
This phenomenon does not diminish as we get older, which explains why thousands tune in to the ever-grating voice of Nancy Grace, eager to watch her lambaste whatever inane guest is on to talk about some otherwise unheard of murder. Watching other people get in trouble is riveting. Maybe it makes us feel morally superior as we watch: my daughter would never be caught with that boy, would never party like that, would never… And we watch and judge and are entertained, and we can play it off as learning from the mistakes of others. We can argue that by televising trials we’re discouraging future crime. Right.
So I think that’s part of what we see when there is death and murder in fairy tales and folk songs. It’s this weird intersection of cautionary tale meets juicy gossip.
One of the main differences between fairy tales and folk songs though is that characters of fairy stories seldom have names: they are Cinder-girl or Prince or King. (Rumpelstiltskin and Baba Yaga are among a few exceptions.) That is part of their appeal to children too: it is easy to imagine that you are Prince. It is harder to dream yourself into the story of Hercules.
But unlike fairy tales, folk songs often were written about real historical events. Names are often given, particulars included. In this way, ballads were and are records, musical accounts of true life murders. “Jesse James” is a great example of this, even giving the particulars of his death and naming his murderer. Our upcoming ballad of “Tiranti, My Love” is potentially based on a centuries old murder. Songs continue to serve this purpose today: Murder Ballad Monday, which recently joined Sing Out! Magazine, has broadened their discussion of the genre to include many more modern incarnations including Crosby, Still, Nash, and Young’s “Ohio” and Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane.” I’m waiting for them to write about Sufjan Stevens’ “John Wayne Gacy, Jr” – a contemporary murder ballad if ever there was one.
For me though, I think murder ballads serve as part of the “ars moriendi.” To sing about a life cut short is to contemplate how short even the longest of lives are. We mourn often for twenty or forty or fifty years or so that might have been but weren’t, and it is hard not to feel in those moments a deeper sadness that we all die soon. I love songs and literature about death because they help root me in the present, in life, by reminding me that my death will come too and I must be mindful of time’s passing.
All of that is to say, there are a lot of murder ballads in the Ballad Book. You can treat them as cautionary tales, or gruesome gossip you wish it wasn’t part of human nature to like, or you can let them sweep over you, sadden you, help your mourn your own inevitable passing.
Or you can skip them all together and listen to Dueling Banjos and pretend that’s what Southern music really is.
The shortest ballad we’ve recorded to date, “The Sinful Maiden” is a variant of Child Ballad No. 9, “The Fair Flower of Northumberland.” In the Child ballad, an imprisoned knight convinces a young maiden in Northumberland to help him escape to his home in Scotland. She helps to free him and follows him home, however once they reach his native land he reveals that he is already married with children, and demands that she return home to Northumberland. The maiden pleads, begs to be kept even as a servant, but ultimately returns, pleading with her parents for forgiveness.
Here, the story is almost entirely lost. We have a young girl, still in her “nonage” (a minor), release a prisoner. She then begs for her parents’ forgiveness. Niles notes that in some versions, there is a prodigal son aspect to this portion of the ballad, with the parents welcoming their daughter home joyfully. We are not given that scene here.
The Sinful Maiden (Niles No. 6) – Collected July 5, 1932 from Solomon Holcom in Whitesburg, KY
As she walked by the jailhouse,
She heard a fellow say,
“It’s getting awful lonesome here,
I’d like to get away.”
Then as she was a silly one,
And in her nonage too,
She stole a key and let him out,
A thing she’d often rue.
“Oh Mother, and oh father,
He said I’d be his wife,
He said he’d love and cherish me
As long as I had life.
“But now I’m coming home to you,
And I hope you’ll let me in,
And soon forget the day that I
Committed all this sin.”
Our fifth ballad is derived from Child Ballad No. 7: Earl Brand. In most variants, a Lord steals or woos a maiden of a wealthy or noble family, taking her away to be his bride. A battle ensues between the Lord (here, William, in other versions, Earl Brand) and the maiden’s family. Before battle, the Lord instructs his bride not to name him — this is based in magical traditions in which to know someone’s name is to have power over them (think Rumplestiltskin). In most versions, she names him anyway, generally citing that she could have many true loves, but only one father. The Lord is then slain in battle, though he lives long enough to return to his home, where his bride and mother die of grief.
One interesting element of this ballad is that it formerly had a talking horse who instructs William and Ellen. You can see echoes of that here, though as ballad singer Solomon Holcomb remarked to John Jacob Niles, “People hain’t got no interest in talkin’ animals of any kind, and particularly, talkin’ horses” (Ballad Book, pg. 33).
William and Ellen (Niles No. 5) – Collected July 4, 1916 from Red Jules Napier, Black Jules Napier, and Chester Staffer, Hazard, KY
Lord William fetched up his bride,
He fetched up his horse.
Said, “If we fail at the watery ford,
We’ll suffer then a loss.”
His horse’s name was Pointed Star,
And then he quickly said,
“If you don’t call me by my name,
We’ll leave them all cold dead.”
“Oh Ellen, Ellen, tell me true,
Tis now you must decide.
It’s go back to your mother, dear,
Or stay and die my bride.”
There was no wedding on that day,
No wedding on that night,
For they were dead and laid to rest
With chant and candle light.
His mother died account of grief,
Of sorrow died his bride,
And there they laid the three to rest,
In churchyard side by side.
Come all young men and ladies
Who yearn for love’s delight.
Remember how Lord William’s rose
Hugged Ellen’s briar so tight.
After recording and studying a song like “King William’s Son” I’m struck by the dichotomy of the singers of these ballads and the storied songs they sing. I’ll remind you that John Jacob Niles collected these ballads from isolated, rural areas of the southeastern United States.
So lest you think Niles somehow selected only high brow folks to collect ballads from, or if somehow you’ve yet to imagine how strange it must have been for Niles to hear talk of castles and the ocean while sitting in a forest in the middle of a land locked county, I’ll remind you: these songs all came from Southerners: they belong to us. We carried them over the sea.
When Jonathan and I first read the ballad book, it was the collection stories as much as the ballads that struck us. The songs are haunting and beautiful, but it is the gift of the singers’ personalities, bestowed to all of us by Niles, that gives much of The Ballad Book its heart.
I’d like to focus on the singers of Niles No. 2, Uncle Brother Patterson, and Niles No. 4, an unnamed singer.
Uncle Brother Patterson, Niles tells us, was “a cattle drover…[who] had once owned a very fine farm” (Ballad Book, pg. 17). He lost his property due to some unnamed illegal transgression, and later ended up in a bloody brawl and was imprisoned (pg 18). Niles writes that after serving his term, Patterson found himself a vagabond, doing occasional odd jobs (18).
He had heard his noisy relatives sing the rather uninteresting “Parsley Vine” song, and to establish his position as a singer he took me aside and sang “The Shirt of Lace” very quietly and accurately. None of the Patterson men could read or write… My notes say: ‘A very interesting melodic line. The music in the family came from a Patterson grandmother, who emigrated from Virginia at the end of the War Between the States.’ ” – The Ballad Book, pgs. 18-19
Uncle Brother Patterson, immortalized in only a few short paragraphs, leaves a haunting impression. His troubled past, his desire to prove himself as a singer and learned individual despite his illiteracy, and the ballad he gave to Niles provide a complicated and striking portrait.
However, my favorite character thus far has been the unnamed singer of Niles No. 4. Niles describes her as a “tall, angular woman of great age” (Ballad Book, 28). She does not wish for Niles to publish her name due to “family difficulties and embarrassments brought down upon her by her children” (28). Niles informs us that she is now raising her grandsons.
More than her story though, it is the stark contrast between her diction and the song she sings. As already described, King William’s Son (No. 4)is a very complex ballad. Indeed, Child writes that his fourth ballad is likely the most common folk ballad of Europe, with numerous variants. (Generally, “Barbra Ellen” is considered the most common folk ballad of North America). The song takes place by the sea, in a castle; its actors are lords and ladies who speak poetically and articulately.
But Niles provides us with some of the singer’s own dialogue:
“If a body wants to be glum-faced…there always be lots of reasons for it. Why if I worked at it, I could be as sour as any straddle-pole politician in Franklin, North Carolina.” (28)
Later, she talks about her relationship with her grandsons:
“Them cute little fellers playin’ out yonder in that cow-stomp are my only partners now… they’s young enough to mind me, and they ain’t old enough to be a botherment – not yet.” (29)
For those long used to Southern stereotypes, such diction is not surprising. Her ballad though – so sad, so haunting, with roots so ancient – does render complexity and depth to our understanding of this unnamed character and Uncle Brother Patterson too. These two singers are not atypical of the myriad other characters John Jacob Niles encountered, who, despite little formal education, contained inside themselves the wealth of folk knowledge and fable, passed down these long centuries.
As much as our project is a tribute to Mr. Niles, it increasingly feels a tribute to these people he collected from too, for with each song a miniature resurrection takes place, and we find ourselves in the presence of a cast of characters long dead. They are the ghosts of the South, and it is their words we sing, their melodies.
If you will, sing along with us. Join your own warble, your own inimitable timbre, to the thousands of other voices who sang these songs before you.
You will find yourself, then, with us, and John Jacob Niles, and Uncle Brother Patteson, and the woman whose name we will never know. You will find yourself in the great loveliness of ghosts.
Despite being an accomplished composer, John Jacob Niles seldom used more than one instrument in his folk recordings. Instead, Niles relied upon the theatricality of his voice and simple strumming techniques to deftly convey complex characters and musical landscapes. Here, unwittingly, Jonathan and I have channeled this idea: our recording of “King William’s Son” contains only voice, banjo, bass recorder, and drum.
As a result, it is the story of the ballad that matters most.
There are many things to love about this ballad. The melodic line is haunting, unexpected, enchanting. It has been stuck in my head since first learning it. The story is commanding and complex. Lady Isabel is a heroine worthy of both admiration and pity, we share King William’s presumed shame for the ignominy of his first-born son, and we too wish that the parrot would desist by the song’s end (hasn’t Isabel had a rough enough night already?). The classic elements of the ballad are rich and varied and the specific lyrics of this version simultaneously bawdy and heroic.
This ballad is a version of “Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight.” In other versions of this song, it is not a human ruler (Prince Jamie) but instead an elf (this might explain the reference to Jamie’s ‘slender hips’). The story is as follows: an elf knight or lord of some sort seduces a young lady, especially by singing. He then leads her to the sea, where he reveals that he intends to kill her and steal all her possessions (including her clothing and thus, presumably, her virtue). Often, he explains that he has killed many other women in a similar way. Explaining that she doesn’t wish to be seen naked, Isabel asks the Knight to turn his back so that she can undress. She then throws him to the sea. The Knight begs to be saved at which point Isabel smartly refuses, citing the other maids’ deaths, and flees, leaving him to drown. When she returns home, she must contend with her parrot, who threatens to tell her father what has happened. The parrot is then bribed with the promise of a gold cage.
As with many other folk songs, “King William’s Son” resists a straightforward interpretation. There’s the title which seems misplaced: is Jamie the main figure of this song? He’s dead by verse 7. Other versions of the song have been titled “The King’s Daughter,” which seems more fitting. Why does the ballad begin with the mention of King William, whose character has been entirely dropped by the close of the song, replaced by Isabel’s father? The exchange between Isabel and the parrot at the end feels disjointed too, as if a new story is being tacked on. For someone more accustomed to analyzing literature, folk songs and stories can prove a maddening puzzle, since often the significance of a line or character has been lost to a hundred years of repetition and retelling, much akin to a musical game of ‘telephone.’
Lady Isabel is a compelling heroine, but a problematic one too. She is crafty enough to trick Jamie once they’ve reached the sea. She is clever enough to refuse him when he promises to marry her and make her Queen in exchange for his rescue. Indeed, her response is so full of confidence and disdain that it is hard not to cheer with her, despite some gruesome imagery: “Soon the fish will eat your meat/ Instead of eating me.” She then rides home across the countryside, leading his horse along with her, arriving at the castle in a sweat. This is no damsel in distress.
But why has she followed him there to begin with? In some versions, the elf-knight uses enchantments, but in this more straightforward tale we are told only that Jamie was the worst of the King’s sons. His reputation seems well-known. The fact that she follows him does make her seem comparatively “silly.”
Then too, once she rids herself of Jamie and flees home victorious, she is essentially blackmailed by her parrot. It is more explicit in some versions, but I love the subtlety of this “poll” when he is asked to be quiet: though Isabel has not told him any details of her misadventure, he seems well aware and reveals how “The cat was at [his] cage’s door,/and [Isabel] shooed her away” (Ballad Book, pg 29). It is a clever enough metaphor, and Isabel feels proportionately threatened. The song closes with her bribe to the bird, a cage made of gold instead of wood: “Thy cage shall be made of beaten gold/
Instead of the willow tree” (29). It’s hard not to feel these lines have something to do with Isabel too.
It is possible that in “King William’s Son” we are seeing a combination of the parrot in “Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight” and his counterpart in another Child ballad, “Young Bunting.” In the former, the parrot aligns himself more with Lady Isabel; in the latter, the parrot sides more (and indeed seems to share the plight of) the murdered lover. The undertones of antagonism between Isabel and the parrot in “King William’s Son” seems to allude to his “Bunting” counterpart. (For much, much more on these ideas, please read Barre Toelken’s “What the Parrot Tells us that Child Did Not” as found in The Folklore Historian: Vol. 14, especially pages 47-50, which I have drawn from here. Toelken discusses these ideas as well as the symbol of the parrot in a cage vs. the parrot atop a cage or let loose as representative of domesticity vs. sexual liberty. Toelken, of course, makes no reference to “King William’s Son” as it is an little-known variant).
It is a frustrating turn for Isabel’s audience that, while she has managed to keep her gold from Jamie, she now must cede it to the parrot. The Isabel of the last three verses feels tired and desperate, repeating lines and caving to demands.
Below are a few other versions of the ballad, including one of our own recorded years ago: “Pretty Polly.” In it, Isabel has become Polly, she is stripped of her agency, and is buried in a shallow grave.
King William’s Son (Niles No. 4B) – Collected Summer 1936 from an elderly woman who wished to be unnamed, western North Carolina
Of all the sons King William had,
Prince Jamie was the worst,
And what made the sorrow even more,
Prince Jamie was the first.
He sang his song to Isabel,
A song like none did sing,
And she did follow him away,
A very silly thing.
They wandered over hill and dale,
They came upon the sea,
“Light down, light down, fair Isabel,
And give your clothes to me.”
“Hit’s turn, oh turn your head away,
And look at yonder sea.
I do not wish to have it said
I let you see my bare body.
“Oh turn, oh turn your head away,
Behold the yon seaside,
And do not look this way a bit
Or you’ll see me in my hide.”*
And as he stood a-waiting
And a-looking o’er the lea,
She grabbed him by his slender hips
And pitched him in the sea.
“Oh save me, save me from this death,
And when the King is dead,
I will be King Jamie
And you’ll be queen instead.”
“If you could lie to nine young maids,
You’ll lie as quick to me,
But soon the fish will eat your meat
Instead of eating me.”
She mounted quick the dapple gray,
And then she led the black
Across the fields and pastures,
A-homing she rode back.
“Where have you been and what have you done,
Your horse is all a-sweat?
Your father looked the castle o’er
And hasn’t found you yet.”
“If you would only hold your tongue,
You’ll never have to lie.
My father ne’er must ever know
How near I come to die.
“No talk, no talk, my pretty poll,
It be the break of day.”
“The cat was at my cage’s door,
And you shooed her away.”
“Well said, my parrot bird, well said,
No cat shall bother thee,
And thy cage shall be made of beaten gold
Instead of the willow tree.”
*In describing the elderly woman who sang him this ballad, Niles mentions that “In spite of all her troubles, she had a great sense of humor and was ready to laugh at almost everything, including herself… She used the word ‘hide’ in “King William’s Son” — possibly for the sake of rhyme, but more probably, I think, for humor’s sake” (Ballad Book, pg. 28) I love watching the singers’ personalities sneak into the ballad!