It's not a first-rate love song until somebody dies
February 6, 2010 12:35 PM   Subscribe

How do you like your snow white pillow? How do you like your sheet?
And how do you like the fair young bride that's lying in your arms asleep?

What banks, what banks, are those, my love,
that rise so dark and cold?

And every jow that the dead bell gave
Cried: Woe to Barbara Allen.

On a snowy day inside, please enjoy some of the Child Ballads, the canonical collection of English and Scottish folk ballads and ballad types. They were set down in the 19th century, although some are as old as the 14th. Although some have already been popularized in famous watery versions, others still open a small psychological window to the past.

A couple more of my own favorites from Youtube:

What care I for my house and my land?

O we'll sit on his bonnie breast-bone, and we'll peck out his bonnie grey eyes.

This site, although unfortunately saddled with embedded midis, features a complete list.
posted by Countess Elena (30 comments total) 54 users marked this as a favorite
Things I've learned from British folk ballads. Excerpt:
Avoid navigable waterways. Don’t let yourself be talked into going down by the wild rippling water, the wan water, the salt sea shore, the strand, the lowlands low, the Burning Thames, and any area where the grass grows green on the banks of some pool. Cliffs overlooking navigable waterways aren’t safe either.

If you’re a young lady, dressing yourself in men’s array and joining the army or the navy has all sorts of comic possibilities, but you yourself aren’t going to find it too darned humorous at the time.

If you are an unmarried lady and have sex, you will get pregnant. No good will come of it.

If you are physically unable to get pregnant due to being male, the girl you had sex with will get pregnant. No good will come of it. You’ll either kill her, or she’ll kill herself, or her husband/brother/father/uncle/cousin will kill you both. In any case her Doleful Ghost will make sure everyone finds out. You will either get hanged, kill yourself, or be carried off bodily by Satan. Your last words will begin “Come all ye.”

Going to sea to avoid marrying your sweetie is an option, but if she hangs herself after your departure (and it’s even money that she’s going to) her Doleful Ghost will arrive on board your ship and the last three stanzas of your life will purely suck.

If you are a young gentleman who had sex it is possible the girl won’t get pregnant. In those rare instances you will either get Saint Cynthia’s Fire or the Great Pox instead. No good will have come of it.

New York Girls, like Liverpool Judies, like the ladies of Limehouse, Yarmouth, Portsmouth, Gosport, and/or Baltimore, know how to show sailors a good time, if by “good time” you mean losing all your money, your clothes, and your dignity. Note: All of these places are near navigable waterways. In practical terms this means that if you’re a sailor you’re screwed (and so are any young ladies you happen to meet). See also: Great Pox; Doleful Ghost.

If you are a young lady do not allow young men into your garden. Or let them steal your thyme. Or agree to handle their ramrods while they’re hunting the bonny brown hare. Cuckoo’s nests are right out. And never stand sae the back o’ yer dress is up agin the wa’ (for if ye do ye may safely say yer thing-a-ma-jig’s awa’).

Never let a stranger teach you a new game. No good will come of it.
In general, if you talk to strangers, leave your village or do something different from whatever it is your ancestors have been doing since time immemorial, no good will come of it.
posted by Kattullus at 12:57 PM on February 6, 2010 [51 favorites]

I would kill to hear little margaret by Sinead o Connor. Also, *This is good*.
posted by uni verse at 1:18 PM on February 6, 2010

Doleful Ghosts get all the press, but what about the Perfectly Content Ghosts, or GHosts You Just Hang Around And Spook Grandma For Kicks?
posted by The Whelk at 1:32 PM on February 6, 2010

Great post, Countess Elena. My favorite "Lady Margaret" is Buffy Sainte-Marie's.
posted by applemeat at 2:03 PM on February 6, 2010

My favourite version of number 95.
posted by permafrost at 2:16 PM on February 6, 2010

My favorite "Tam Lin" is Fairport Convention's. My dad used to play this on warm summer mornings when I was four, when the family would go down to Cape Cod for a few days. As brooding and intense as some of these songs are, I hear them through a four-year-old's filter of fairytale and suspense, but can also hear my own love of the sun and surf and waiting to have pancakes on the deck.

...sorry, you were saying?
posted by pxe2000 at 2:16 PM on February 6, 2010

"to handle their ramrods while they’re hunting the bonny brown hare"

Was that what they called it back then?
posted by acb at 2:30 PM on February 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

The Melbourne Scottish Fiddle Club's version of Tam Lin never fails to give me chills.
Thanks for posting this, lots of good things to listen to!
posted by Adridne at 2:32 PM on February 6, 2010

David Kessler's Child Book of Etiquette. Excerpt:
One warning: Make sure you know where your love is buried before you set out; your journey may take any number of verses to complete and her servants may all be gone by the time you next return. Knowing where she is buried may save you a great deal of trouble.
posted by nonane at 2:42 PM on February 6, 2010

The Baltimore Consort and Custer LaRue have excellent versions of most of the ballads posted - they have a couple of albums (The Daemon Lover and The True Lover's Farewell) where they combine Appalachian versions of Child ballads with Elizabethan-era instrumentation, which turns out to be a fantastic combination.
posted by janewman at 2:49 PM on February 6, 2010

Things I've learned from British folk ballads.

Avoid competitive fornication events with both Eskimos and Arabs.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:13 PM on February 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I know a number of Celtic folk musicians and they all love the Child ballads. Sadly, I can't find a video of Clandestine doing their version of 10, which they called "The Cruel Sister", but it's my favorite.

And here's a searchable Child ballad database (no commentary, just lyrics) for your pleasure.
posted by immlass at 3:33 PM on February 6, 2010

Avoid situations where the obvious rhyme-word is “maidenhead.”

If you look at the calendar and discover it’s May, stay home.

The flowing bowl is best quaffed at home. Don’t drink with strangers. Don’t drink alone. Don’t toss the cups or pass the jar about in bars where you haven’t arranged to keep a tab. Drinks of unusual or uncertain provenance should be viewed askance, especially if you’re offered them by charming members of the opposite sex. Finally, never get drunk and pass out in a bar called the “Cape Horn.”

Members of press gangs seldom tell the truth. Recruiting sergeants will fib to you shamelessly. They are not your friends, even if they’re buying the drinks. Especially when they’re buying the drinks.

If you’re drinking toasts, mention your One True Love early and often.

Tee hee hee
posted by The Whelk at 3:52 PM on February 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have a bumper sticker: "If you're in a folk song, don't go down to the river."

yes, I *do* get a lot of funny looks whilst driving, why do you ask?
posted by notsnot at 4:05 PM on February 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

"Down to the river" also shows up in Leadbelly's "Good Night Irene."The themes of old British and Celtic music tended to be echoed in Appalatian music, Blue Grass, and the blues, though the musical details evolved over time. That stuff dies hard
posted by path at 5:05 PM on February 6, 2010

I've really liked Bob Dylan's Good As I Been To You and World Gone Wrong albums as introductions to a bunch of these.
posted by dreamyshade at 5:22 PM on February 6, 2010

Did Emmy Rossum ever recorded the song "Barbara Allen" in its entirety? Or did she only sing that little snippet of it in Songcatcher?
posted by Hannahesque at 5:57 PM on February 6, 2010

Ah damn. record, I meant...
posted by Hannahesque at 5:59 PM on February 6, 2010

Isn't it "how do you like my luxury good one, and how do you like my luxury good two?"?

I posted that Making Light post back when and am now envious of the favorite count Kattullus' comment has. I am aware that this is silly.
posted by kenko at 6:24 PM on February 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

careful, you could lead to the first internet folk ballad "green he was of favors got, down he went a knife ha bought -"
posted by The Whelk at 6:42 PM on February 6, 2010

Aw, love this. Growing up, my mother used to sing me Barbara Allen. One thing I love about folk music is its variability--the version here is only a shade of the one I know. but somehow the sad, sad soul remains the same.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:48 PM on February 6, 2010

Also, whether you're a shepherd or a shepherdess, you're screwed. Just in different ways.
posted by drlith at 7:06 PM on February 6, 2010

Little Margaret/Lady Margaret seems to be a variation of Matty Groves. Another variation is called Shady Grove.
posted by Stove at 9:41 PM on February 6, 2010

Ha! My craven tactic was a success!
posted by kenko at 9:48 PM on February 6, 2010

Sigh, I love this music. Grew up listening to Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention albums with my dad and learned later in life that these were not things everyone heard growing up. I'll have Matty Groves stuck in my head for the next six weeks. I love how it starts (I'm thinking of the Fairport version here)..."A holiday, a holiday, and the first one of the year" so perfectly frames Lord Darnell's wife casting her eye about for the strappingest young lad at church to have a quickie with.

I thought it was entertaining that The Rose & the Briar, a book ostensibly about the American ballad, takes its title from (some versions of) Barbara Allen, a song mentioned in Samuel Pepys' diary in 1666. Sure, there were a few hundred white people singing these kinds of songs in America back then...but c'mon, we couldn't have found an indigenous American folksong to inspire the title?

Though honestly, to me Barbara Allen and the 1951 movie Scrooge with Alistair Sim are absolutely inseparable. When I hear the song, I think of the movie, and vice versa. It's used in so many pivotal, crucial scenes. Great movie if you're a big fan of the song...or if you aren't.

Thanks for posting this!
posted by crinklebat at 11:23 PM on February 6, 2010 [2 favorites]

For me, the Carolina Chocolate Drops own Little Margaret. Alasdair Roberts does a suitably mournful Lord Ronald (aka Lord Rendal). The Haints took Jimmie Tarlton's version of Young Hunting, and turned it into the sweet, but deadly, Lowe Bonnie.

"Child ballads, brought to you by the makers of wee pen-knives and no contraception ..."
posted by scruss at 4:51 AM on February 7, 2010

Glad y'all liked it!

Rhiannon of the Carolina Chocolate Drops does indeed do the best version of Little Margaret that I had yet heard, but it's not online, or I would have linked it. The first I ever heard of it was on the unjustly forgotten Songs from the Mountain CD by Tim O'Brien and Dirk Powell, which came out between the Cold Mountain book phenomenon and the movie -- the movie's soundtrack isn't anywhere near as compelling.

Buffy Sainte-Marie's voice on it is incredible, though. I have really just found out that Buffy Sainte-Marie needs to be listened to. Her name fooled me into thinking that she would have a repertoire like Mickey's in A Mighty Wind, but no way.

When Songcatcher came out, I read a poor review of it somewhere and never got around to seeing it. But after seeing a clip with Emmy Rossum's "Barbara Allen," I think I just have got to. I learned "Barbara Allen" in a sweetened parlor-music version during voice lessons long ago, and even so I couldn't forget it.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:07 AM on February 7, 2010

It's interesting to note this section from "Little Margaret" / "Fair Margaret & Sweet William":

"She said how do you like your bed
How do you like your sheet
How do you like your fair young bride
That's lying in your arms alseep

He said very well do I like my bed
Much better do I like my sheet
But best of all that fair young girl
That's standing at my bed feet"

... appears to be lifted/readapted from Little Musgrave & Lady Bernard... aka Matty Groves, which dates to 17th century Britain.

"And how do you like my bed musgrave
And how do you like my sheets
And how do you like my fair lady
That lies in your arms asleep

It’s well I like your bed he said
And well I like your sheets
But better I like your fair lady
That lies in my arms asleep"

The classic Irish band Planxty is well-known for their version of it. Here's a more traditional British version as well.
posted by markkraft at 3:33 PM on February 7, 2010

"And how do you like my curtains...
...that I got in the sale last week?"

- "Matty Groves" live version from Fairport Convention Live Box Set with the Cricket Stuff on the Box.
posted by KMH at 4:42 AM on February 8, 2010

I can't believe no one has mentioned Charles Vess' Book of Ballads. It's definitely worth taking a look at.
posted by domo at 8:46 AM on February 8, 2010

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