I recently paid a visit to Chicago for the birthday of my good friend Ken, also the father and co-founder of this blog. After a party-hating thunderstorm drove Ken, his family, and me with near full coolers from a free concert in Millenium Park, we loaded the car and and set off for home. A bit wet and rattled, we soothed ourselves with the music of the late Jean Ritchie on Rich Warren’s Folkstage on WFMT. The concert to which we listened was recorded on the stage of Somebody Else’s Troubles, on February 26, 1976.
I was taken by one song particularly, as well as by Jean’s stage banter about it – “Little Devils.” Though not a murder ballad proper, in her version a hundred and one devils get killed, at least two of them by having their brains bashed out. You can see some of the dead little guys in the wonderful painting above. So the song’s got that going for it, which is nice… Forgive my dark humor but, as gruesome as it sounds, Jean sang this as a fun song and it has almost always been sung as such for centuries, so the ballad scholars say. Why fun? Well, that may depend on your gender – or more accurately, it may depend on what you think and how you feel about gender roles.
But this isn’t going to be a heavy post. For now, you just have to hear the song so we can get started. So let’s get to it! This version isn’t from Jean’s 1976 concert, but musically and lyrically it’s essentially the same. I’ll get back to her comments from the concert in context below.
“There was an old man, he lived near Hell…”
I‘m not in this one for the provenance, but I reckon a bit of background is needed here. “Little Devils” is better known as “The Farmer’s Curst Wife”, among other titles. It’s not an easy song to pin down, though we don’t need precision to get at the heart of it all. It’s old, maybe even medieval. If that’s all you need to know and you’re curious about what Jean had to say about it in her family, just skip on down to my Spotify playlist a few paragraphs below and pick up reading from there. But if history isn’t a special ring of Hell for you, bear with me for a moment. If you’re really into it, please follow the hyperlinks below as well.
“The Farmer’s Curst Wife” was cataloged by Francis Child in the late 19th century as his ballad #278 with two versions only, though he declared with limited citation “A curst wife who was a terror to demons is a feature in a widely spread and highly humorous tale, Oriental and European.” His description of the ballad itself gives the story succinctly, if from a male perspective. More on that below…
The devil comes for a farmer’s wife and is made welcome to her by the husband. The woman proves to be no more controllable in hell than she had been at home; she kicks the imps about, and even brains a set of them with her pattens or a maul. For safety’s sake, the devil is constrained to take her back to her husband.
In the Traditional Ballad Index, Waltz and Engle cite Child’s version A from James Henry Dixon’s, Ancient Poems, Ballads, and Songs of the Peasantry of England in 1846 as the song’s earliest formal publication, yet they give ample evidence that it is much older. They cite its collection, as have others, throughout England, Scotland, Ireland, much of Canada, and all of the United States, certainly suggesting that it’s no late creation. There is stronger evidence, though, of an earlier date – for example, Robert Burns turned a local Scots version into his song “The Carle o’ Killyburn Braes“ by the late 18th century. Other sources claim that it appears in a longer though recognizable form in England in 1635. Waltz and Engle go so far as to reference Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, (see lines 1218 – 1220, Prologue to “The Merchant’s Tale.”)
In America, the song was recorded by 1928 by Bill and Belle Reed, (lyrics) and that cut found its way on to Harry Smith’s seminal Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952 as Track #5. That makes it, of course, one of the key sources for the Folk Revival, though there were plenty of other variants in the folk tradition before the Reed’s recording.
This is all to prove that this song has been around, and for a good long time. It matters. The Roud Folksong Index currently includes three hundred and sixty eight citations for the ballad, cataloged as #160 in that index. Though I don’t have nearly that many to share with you, my Spotify playlist currently comes in at over 80 versions – so you’ve got at least a taste of the variety.
The next question is obvious. Why has this one lasted so long and spread so far and wide? Well, that’s where we get back to what Jean Ritchie said in that concert we heard while we were drying out in Ken’s vehicle.