|Cain Leadeth Abel to Death – Chromolithograph book plate, James Tissot, 1904|
This week we’re back in to the Child Ballads. It’s been over a month since Ken’s last foray into this territory, so I figure we’re due and that it’s my turn to make the trip. I’ve been meaning to get to “Edward“, one of my favorites, since Ken first asked me to join him in this journey. I considered making it my first effort!
But I’ve hesitated until now, mainly because in relatively few versions of this ballad is the reason for the murder (usually fratricide) even clearly implied, much less declared. It makes writing about it feel like walking through a cow pasture at night. So, I studied up and now at least I think I’ve got some moonlight to help. But we still need to be careful about making claims concerning just *why* this murder happens. I will say this – “Cain and Abel” it ain’t – I mean, unless you want it to be. Oh, but I’ll get into all that later this week.
“Edward” – Jean Ritchie (Spotify)
Lyrics for Ritchie’s version (note Jean’s interesting commentary before the printed music and lyrics)
My introduction to this ballad came from Jean Ritchie. It was one of those songs that I just happened to be listening to as part of an album I’d sought out for a different tune. In the background it played, but I turned it up as I began to grasp just how truly weird and powerful it was. I was mesmerized. And even now, after digging deeply into its confused history, this one has an odd and powerful hold on me.
How came that blood…?
What about that history then? I’ll keep it streamlined for now. Francis Child wrote about this ballad in the 1880’s as his #13. Of it he enthused “Edward is not only unimpeachable, but has ever been regarded as one of the noblest and most sterling specimens of the popular ballad.” He collected though only two complete versions and a verse of a third. However, the Roud Folksong Index today identifies it as #200, and catalogs nearly 300 versions thus far. Besides the typical dispersal in the English speaking world, there are also many Scandinavian versions, some of which Child used in his work. I’ll do more with the scholarship on this ballad in my second post.
The controversy surrounding Child’s main ‘specimen’ I’ll take up in detail in my third post this week. Suffice it for now to note that it is the oldest known written version, taken from Bishop Thomas Percy’s 1765 edition of Reliques of Ancient English Poetry – and it is *highly* impeachable as a folk ballad; indeed, most likely rewritten by a gentleman editor. I wouldn’t spend time on it in its own post but for two things. It was rewritten *quite well* and so it most certainly moves a reader, and there are some great recorded versions that do the same for a listener!
I skip it temporarily in favor of what seems to be that ‘noble and sterling’ ballad of the folk, mostly uncovered since Child’s time and (more or less) independent of Percy’s version. Today we’ll get a glimpse of it in America and Ireland, then Scotland and England in my second post.
In all versions, it’s a ballad in two voices; a mother and her son’s. The mother sees the blood on her son’s sword or clothes, and asks after it. The son dissembles, claiming it is of this animal or that. But Mama knows! (I guess if you don’t get your meat in grocery stores, you just know the different shades of blood.) Eventually her son reveals he’s killed his brother, brother-in-law, or (in Percy’s case) father. Many Irish versions have him killing an unrelated boy or young man. In versions other than Percy’s, the motive is usually revealed to be an argument about a bush or sapling yet to grow full. (See what I mean? Weird. We’ll see in the next post though that this *may* be the key to the song.) Anyway, in all versions the two then play out the consequences for his crime, which usually involves the son leaving on a boat, never to return.
Hazelnuts and Sycamores, Roosters and Hounds
Ritchie’s Appalachian version leaves out the sapling and makes the victim a brother-in-law, implying perhaps jealousy over a wife as a motive for the murder, though we are left wholly to speculate. (And if you start thinking on whose wife and why the jealousy, you’ll see why we ought to be careful where we walk with this one.) Most American versions though usually highlight the argument about the young tree, and make it a fight between brothers. Here are two field recordings from the Ozarks (lyrics and playback file integrated on each page.) The sapling is a hazelnut in these.
“The Blood of the Old Red Rooster” – Irmadene Finch, 1953
To round out our American sample, we have an experimental and quite pleasing effort by Amps for Christ. While it’s esoteric musically, the lyrics are clearly traditional and resemble almost wholly an Appalachian version Cecil Sharp collected in the early 20th Century. Interestingly, in the YouTube version the two voices are of two different singers as in “Jack Straw“. It works quite well in my humble opinion; I find it most pleasing.
Amps for Christ – “Edward” (Spotify, different than the YouTube version)
In all of these American versions, the animals (like the sapling when named) are native or commonly known in the areas of ballad collection. As many before have noted, the hawk we’ll see in Percy’s version is rarely seen; not because of its native range but probably because keeping birds of prey was not hobby of the disappearing gentle class in America.
(For art’s sake I should link you as well to the version by Muleskinner Jones – also with two voices/singers. The treatment he gives the ballad is not my cup of tea, but it’s clearly good work and may appeal to you.)
I was fishing and a-fowling the whole day through…
Irish versions of the ballad, known usually as “What Put the Blood?” or “Who Put the Blood?”, are perhaps the most popular today; they seem to account for the most recent professional recordings. They also differ from the American versions we sampled in a few key ways. First though, let’s listen to some.
Karan Casey gives us a musically modern version with traditional lyrics. I can’t find a copy on Spotify or YouTube, but you can go to her homepage and use her ‘widget’. It’s song number 8, and worth the extra clicking to hear!
Al O’Donnell recently recorded a similar version, with on old-time banjo accompaniment that is both jarring and haunting. This became one of my favorite recordings of this ballad as soon as I heard it! (Al doesn’t have much of a web presence, but this comment on Mudcat gives us a start.)
Al O’Donnell – “What Put the Blood?” (Spotify)
Two recorded versions from the 1970’s, now available in the Voice of the People series, can shed a bit more light. One is from Paddy Tunney and the other Mary Delaney. Both perform in the traditional manner but each of course brings their own style and voice to it, and they’re both well worth hearing.
Granting that this is only a sliver of the Irish representatives of the ballad, we can nonetheless see some patterns that differentiate it from the American variants. Three of the four versions have it as a homicide, of an unrelated boy specifically; only Delaney’s makes it fratricide. Like the American versions, all still have the sapling as the spark for violence. All of the Irish versions here, and those others I’ve listened to but left out, have the killer as a man of means. This is not the case in the American variants that I know, and it probably explains the difference in structure. The Irish versions focus more on what the man has to lose as a consequence, whereas the American versions tend to linger on the man’s lies to his mother.
Percy’s version, we’ll see, also has the son as a gentleman like the Irish versions, though I don’t mean to suggest that they are directly derived from Percy’s. Interestingly, Tunney’s version introduces the idea that the mother plays some part in all this, which we’ll also explore in more depth with Percy’s version. You’ll see then though that Tunney’s version doesn’t really work the same way with regard to the mother’s involvement.
Let me close today then with an exciting version of this ballad from an energetic artist who is establishing his name in folk music today; Sam Amidon, from Vermont. I post his version here mainly because it rocks, but also because lyrically to my ear it seems like a combination of both American and Irish versions, with a bit of Percy thrown in for good measure. (Here are his lyrics.) Musically, it’s compelling and delightfully eclectic. It seems to be derived from Cordelia’s Dad’s version, which you’ll hear later this week, but when you hear the performance you probably won’t care all that much about that ‘origins’ stuff anyway.
Note: This week’s exploration inspired a personal response from me too, here.