Being somewhat of a traditionalist and murder-ballad aficionado, it seem natural to make this Child Ballad the subject of my first post here. Jealousy, murder and a magical instrument, what’s not to love?
This ballad was apparently published as a broadside in the 1650s under the title “The Miller and the King’s Daughter.” These title-characters have come and gone in the various versions of the song on both sides of the Atlantic, but the gist of it remains the same. An older sister (often a brunette) pushes the younger, fairer one in the sea or a river, most often to seduce the knight that did like both but clearly preferred the younger fairer one. The body drifts away to a bank where it is find by a miller. In some version, the miller disappears to be replaced by a minstrel, and sometimes both characters appear. The musician (miller or minstrel) decides to turn the dead girl’s corpse into an instrument (as you would…) sometimes a harp, sometimes a fiddle. He then goes to play the instrument in front of the parents of the two girls, or in front of the knight who has married the elder sister. The instrument begins to play by itself, telling the story of the younger sister and finally putting the blame on the elder one by the end of the ballad.
Justice is therefore served and it is once again proved that crime doesn’t pay (or at least not eternally, since in most versions the elder sister did marry the knight and live in wealth before the harp’s revelations.)
Musically, most versions include a refrain at the end of each verse, which has greatly varied. You’ll notice that the English versions presented below have varying refrains (the one in Pentangle’s version, “Lay the Bent to the Bonny Broom” is actually taken from another Child Ballad, Riddles Wisely Expounded; but other version have gone with different refrains as you’ll see with Emily Portman), while the American, Irish and Scottish Gaelic version went with “Oh, the wind and the rain”.
Research seems to have established the Scottish origin of the ballad, although English variants do exist and are the ones which influenced the American iterations of the tune.¹
It is also worth noticing that the ballad sometimes appears in fairy tale collections in prose, under the title Binnorie. This and other tales of singing bones from all over the world (yes, this is apparently a genre…) can be found collected, translated and edited by Prof. D.L. Ashliman on the website of Pittsburgh university.
This version by British folk artist Emily Portman is by far my favorite. The simple voice and harp accompaniment (by Rachel Newton) creates a light and yet eerie atmosphere which of course evokes the tune played by the magical harp at the end of the ballad. Very subtle harmonies are to be heard on the refrain during the drowning scene, and again towards the end of the ballad as the harp plays the accusatory tune. The refrain is wisely omitted at the end of some of the verses which avoids too much repetition. A little reverb seems added to the conclusion of the ballad, to suggest the illusion of “the king”s hall” in which the minstrel brings the magical harp.
Pentangle perhaps has the most famous version on the eponymous album Cruel Sister, released in 1970-the band’s only album completely made up of arrangements of traditional songs. McShee’s lead vocals (harmonized by the men), Jansch’s guitar and Renbourn’s sitar stand out in this track which, as I mentioned before, lifts the refrain from another totally different ballad.
An “Irishified” version can be found on Altan‘s Local Ground album, which sets the story in County Clare, Munster, Ireland. It’s interesting to note that the band, well know for its song in Irish, decided to keep the lyrics in English, and went with the “Wind and Rain” refrain.
Unlike Altan, the ever-wonderful Scottish folk singer and multi-instrumentalist Julie Fowlis did translate the song into her preferred Scottish Gaelic to offer a bilingual Gaelic/English and necessarily-shortened version of the tune on her album Uam.
Finally, we’re moving on to the other side of the pond where the tune took root as well. The best version is to me given by one of my personal goddesses, Gillian Welch. She and her duet partner David Rawlings harmonize on the Irish version (notice the mention of Country Clare) on the soundtrack of Songcatcher, a movie about a musicologist discovering and collecting traditional tunes in the Scots-Irish communities of Appalachia at the turn of the twentieth century.
And finally, a more bluegrassy arrangement of the tune by The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, on guitar and mandolin.
Fans of Loreena McKennitt may also checkout her version under the title The Bonny Swans. Tom Waits also did a version on his Orphan album.
¹ Taylor, Archer. “The English, Scottish, and American Versions of the ‘Twa Sisters’.” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 42, no. 165, 1929, pp. 238–246. http://www.jstor.org/stable/535038.