Child Ballads

I first discovered my love of ballads when I heard of this poem, recited by Anne Shirley in “Anne of Green Gables” called “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes.

The Highwayman is a ballad about an unnamed highwayman who falls in love with a girl. She sacrifices her life in order to warn him of an ambush.  When he learns of her death, he comes riding to her revenge, and is shot down on the highway.

Some years passed, and I began to come across more and more of these dark, murderous tales. I discovered that a number of songs and books in my collection referenced stories from “The Child Ballads.”  They are a collection of English and Scottish ballads culled together in the 1800s by Francis James Child.  I am going to shamelessly quote Wikipedia here as to the general content of the Child Ballads:

Child Ballads are generally heavier and darker than is usual for ballads. Some of the topics and other features characteristic enough of Child Ballads to be considered Child Ballad motifs are these: romance, enchantment, devotion, determination, obsession, jealousy, forbidden love, insanity, hallucination, uncertainty of one’s sanity, the ease with which the truth can be suppressed temporarily, supernatural experiences, supernatural deeds, half-human creatures, teenagers, family strife, the boldness of outlaws, abuse of authority, betting, lust, death, karma, punishment, sin, morality, vanity, folly, dignity, nobility, honor, loyalty, dishonor, riddles, historical events, omens, fate, trust, shock, deception, disguise, treachery, disappointment, revenge, violence, murder, cruelty, combat, courage, escape, exile, rescue, forgiveness, being tested, human weaknesses, and folk heroes.

So without further ado….

“Long Lankin” by Steeleye Span


Long Lankin is a ballad about a bogeyman named Lamkin or Long Lankin.  Later versions of the ballad explain that Lamkin is a mason who has not been paid for his work.  This man then warns the lord, before leaving,

Beware of Long Lankin that lives amongst the gorse;
Beware the moss; beware the moor; beware of Long Lankin.
Make sure the doors are bolted well,
Lest Lankin should creep in.

Long Lankin returns to the house once the master has left and murders the family.  The particiularly grisly part comes when he collects the blood of the baby in a basin.

So they pinched him and they pricked him,
Then they stabbed him with a pin,
And the false nurse held the basin
For the blood all to run in.


“The Death of Queen Jane” by Karine Polwart


This is your good old-fashioned garden variety tragedy.  It is based on Henry VIII and his third queen, Jane Seymour giving birth to Henry’s only son, Edward VI. It’s a somber song.

I love this song, and Karine Polwart’s version in particular.

Queen Jane lay in labour full six days or more,
Till the women grew weary and the midwives gave o’er.
They sent for King Henry to come with great speed
To be with Queen Jane in her hour of need
King Henry came to her and sat by her bedside
Saying “What ails thee my Jeannie? What ails thee my bride?”
“O Henry O Henry do this one thing for me
Rip open my right side and find my baby”
“O Jeannie, O Jeannie that never will do
It would lease thy sweet life and thy young baby too”
She wept and she wailed and she fell into a swoon
They opened her right side and her baby was found
Well the baby was christened the very next day
While his poor dead mother a mouldering lay
Six men went before her and four more travelled on
While loyal King Henry stood mourning alone
He wept and he wailed until he was sore
Saying “The flower of all England will flourish no more”


“The Lover’s Ghost” by Alasdair Roberts

This story is based on the Child ballad, “The Grey Cock.” The story is about a revenant or lover’s ghost, which returns to the world of the dead at cock-crow.  In this version, her lover has perished at sea, but his ghost returns to her in the night, only to disappear with the dawn at cock-crow.

Johnny he promised to marry me,
But I fear he’s with some fair one gone.
There’s something bewails him and I don’t know what it is,
And I’m weary of lying alone.

Johnny come here at the appointed hour,
And he’s knocked on her window so low.
This fair maid arose and she’s hurried on her clothes
And she’s welcomed her true lover home.

She took him by the hand and she laid him down,
She felt he was cold as the clay.
“My dearest dear, if I only had one wish
This long night would never turn to day.”

And finally, we come to one of my favorite books.  Rarely do I buy new hardcovers, but I opened this book at the store, and was immediately captivated.

“The Good People” by Hannah Kent


I wrote extensively about this book in another post, which you can view here.

This book opens with a 17th century Irish murder ballad. It is sometimes called “The Cruel Mother.”  It is a story of infanticide.

In answer to your question, it is apparent that children never made out well in these sordid tales.

There was an old woman and she lived in the woods,

weile weile waile.

There was an old woman and she lived in the woods

down by the river Saile.

She had a baby three months old,

weile weile waile.

She had a baby three months old

down by the river Saile.

She had a penknife, long and sharp,

weile weile waile.

She had a penknife long and sharp

down by the river Saile.

She stuck the penknife in the baby’s heart,

weile weile waile.

She stuck the penknife in the baby’s heart

down by the river Saile.

Three hard knocks came knocking at the door,

weile weile waile.

Three hard knocks came knocking on the door

down by the river Saile.

“Are you the woman that killed the child?”

weile weile waile.

“Are you the woman that killed the child

down by the river Saile?”

The rope was pulled and she got hung,

weile weile waile.

The rope was pulled and she got hung

down by the river Saile.

And that was the end of the woman in the woods,

weile weile waile.

And that was the end of the woman in the woods

down by the river Saile.

The setting for “The Good People” marks the end of a time when a majority of society believed in the last vestiges of a world beyond our own.  Kent describes these boundaries as “the strange hinges of the world, the thresholds between what was known and all that lay beyond” (170).  It is the end of a time when people treated the Church and the “Old Ways” of superstitions and inherited lore with equal respect.  The Old Ways include the belief in fairies, also known as The Good People.  However, these are not the beautiful, magical sprites that I always imagine when I think of fairies/faeries.  The Good People are more like troublesome spirits that exist purely to meddle in human affairs. They are “not good enough for Heaven, but not bad enough for Hell.”  To this early nineteenth century Irish community, the faeries are the last best way of explaining the queerness of the world.  Irrational, and impossible, yet Kent conveys their superstitions in a way that you almost think it is possible that the Good People could disrupt people’s lives by stopping the cow from giving milk, or afflicting people with strange maladies that only secret herbal knowledge can cure.

So I leave you here with a quote from this book, some photos of mine, and one of my favorite songs, completely unrelated to the ballads.

Be well my friends.

Samhain Eve came upon the valley, announced by a wind that smelled of rotting oak leaves and the vinegar tang of windfall apples.  Nora heard the happy shrieks of children as they traced the field walls and their dressing of brambles, plucking the last bloody berries before night fetched the púca to poison them with his breath.  They emerged from the ditches in the smoky peace of twilight like a band of murderers, their hands and mouths stained purple.


A place, where night-time lost its madness,

where darkness lost its bite…

In this winter sleep, the land dreams….

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