This week finds us in new waters – sibling rivalry.
Ok, ok, I know. One thing to love about murder ballads is that we can’t dismiss the violence with simple explanations or psychobabble. These songs are just too good for that. They exist in perpetual, swirling shades of gray. Don’t worry. There’s way more going on here, enough even to make Freud hang his head and cry. But, we should give a nod at least to this most obvious (to us) element of Child 10, a ballad often called “Two Sisters”.
I imagine now that, knowing the subject of this weekly blog and the title of the ballad, you reckon you’ve already guessed the plot! Only partly I’d wager, but we’ll get to that soon enough.
Oddly, I came to this well-known ballad rather late in my musical life. I’d never heard it until seven years ago, when my wife sang it to our infant son to calm him. She loves Celtic music and learned it from the Irish band Clannad, from their album Dúlamán. So, let’s start our listening there.
Aha! You were right about the plot! Big sister drowns little sister; and all over a man and his huge tracts of land.
But you can already see there’s more. How many songs can lift you up so high musically when the narrative leaves you so down with images of the drowned girl, her lead-boiled sister, and a petty thieving miller hanging on a mountain head? And what about those refrains? Are they courting song lines? What is all THAT doing in a murder ballad?
But hang on, friends. It gets even weirder.
See, the story at the root of this ballad is quite old. I mean, probably not “Cain and Abel” old, but maybe “halfway-back-to-Roman-times” old. In the late 19th Century, Francis Child cataloged ‘Child 10’ with twenty-one British versions and referenced as well more than two dozen Scandinavian versions in his analysis, confirming at least that the ballad “is as popular with the Scandinavians as with their Saxon cousins” and that there is “remarkable agreement” in narrative content between the two except for some “natural diversity” in the conclusions. Alan Lomax made the broader claim that the story has its roots in “pre-Christian Scandinavia, when the folk believed in magical retribution – in the bones of the dead rising to accuse their murderer.”
But wait. What? Magical retribution? Did you hear Clannad sing about the fiddle made of the dead girl’s bones and the bow made of her hair? Did you catch that its playing revealed the murderess at her wedding to the stolen groom? Of course not, and don’t feel bad. You couldn’t have guessed it either. Even CSIdoesn’t get that strange. Indeed, Clannad’s version seems in *some* ways like a modern crime drama: means, motive, opportunity, then painful justice to close the case. Shocking, but predictable – and certainly not magical. (As well, that fancy beaver hat places the Irish version that Clannad performs in the neighborhood of the 18th Century, not the 9th!)
No, the magical retribution was integrated with the detailed story told in “Two Sisters” in older, less ‘corrupted’ British and Scandinavian versions of the ballad. Fortunately that part of the original story was not lost. It is often told in a seemingly separate ballad sometimes called “Oh, the Wind and Rain” or something quite similar. Examples of this variant often truncate the drama before the drowning and focus on the aftermath, ending with the implied or explicit accusation made through the magic instrument rather than the punishment of the crime(s).Let’s sample that then. I’m partial these days to the (no doubt highly corrupt) Gillian Welch and David Rawlings cover, from the soundtrack to the movie Songcatcher. Jerry Garcia and David Grisman did a wonderful job with it too in the early 90’s. (That is the version of the song I knew first, though I didn’t have the slightest idea what a Child Ballad was when I was hanging out in the parking lot at Grateful Dead shows.) Here though is the former-
Where *does* one start? With one’s gut I suppose; at least I always do. So, I’m going to let it be for now and ask some questions. What do *you* see in this ancient tale? What version here moves you, and why? What other versions should we hear? How does it all feel, and what does it mean to you? (Please, comment below!)
I’ll explore some of my own amateur observations in separate posts; “I’ll be true unto my love…” and “Bow and Balance to Me.” I’ll also post my current favorite version later. (Hint: Whose voice would be *perfect* for an Appalachian treatment of a British murder ballad, though you’d never expect to hear him do it? You may have already found it on Spotify, but I like to pretend I’m creating suspense.)
So, to conclude for now, let’s hear a less corrupt variant where both elements we see in “Two Sisters” and “Oh, the Wind and Rain” are woven more fully together: Jock Duncan’s “Bonnie Mill Dams o’ Binnorie”. Instead of transcribing the Scots lyrics though, I’ll link you to a public domain copy of Chapter 11 of John Jacobs’ English Fairy Tales from 1890. If you read it while you listen to (and dare I say ‘feel’) Jock’s singing, it will all come together.
2. I’ll Be True Unto My Love – A helpful, detailed way to think about the folk process and how it can create so many diverse variants of a ballad like Child 10.
3. Bow and Balance to Me – My conclusions and personal reactions to the three variants, and some speculation about jealousy, flirtation, and the role of the refrains in the “Two Sisters” variant.
4. Two Sisters Redux – Part 1 – A sampler of excellent examples of variants I did not consider in my first posts, including “Cruel Sister”, “The Bows of London”, and various Scots examples such as “The Swan Swims so Bonny O”.
5. Two Sisters Redux – Part 2 – A sampler of excellent examples of “Two Sisters” and “Wind and Rain” variants, and an unsatisfactory look at the origins of both.
6. Sometimes she sank, sometimes she swam – A broad conclusion that tries to get the big picture.
7. Two Sisters – Addendum 1 – A post considering a new recording of a unique Appalachian variant of this ballad performed by Sheila Kay Adams
8. Two Sisters at the Movies – A post that looks at a wonderful short film by Anthony Ladesich that recreates this ballad on the big screen.