This week’s first post introduced us to the ballad “Edward” in Ireland and America. My second post this week introduced a version from England and one from Scotland, and mainly pursued the elusive murder motive in this mysterious ballad. This last post today will be shorter, and usher us in to understanding an odd but critical controversy unique to this ballad in relation to Child’s work.
I also want to lay a great piece of music on you. So, let’s start with that.
This version of “Edward”, of all that I’ve heard, moves me most. It also gets right to the heart of that controversy.
Old Blind Dogs – “Edward” Lyrics (including translation)
Old Blind Dogs deliver an incredible performance, and they’re working with good material. It’s worth reading the words even if you don’t like the music, and I’ve included a translation underneath the original to make it all clear. (We’ll have to explore the linguistic element some other day, as it’s a loose research end I just don’t have time to tie up at this point.)
The lyrics they use are in fact Child’s ‘version 13B’, which he gathered from Thomas Percy’s 1765 edition of Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. The story behind Percy’s successful and influential work is interesting, as is his cavalier approach to and care of his source material. But concerning this particular ballad it’s important to note that Percy claimed it came to him from Sir David Dalrymple, Lord Hailes. It is in fact the oldest known version in print. It inspired both Brahms and Schubert in their compositions! However, suspicion as to its ‘purity’ as a ballad of the folk was raised as early as 1827 by William Motherwell, and the critics haven’t stopped snapping at its heels since. (Motherwell was offering a different version, and claimed it as older and more pure than Percy’s though it was collected later. He even accused Hailes of changing out a Scots name for the English “Edward”. Child made Motherwell’s his ‘version 13A‘.)
Even Child, who defended Percy’s version vehemently as being of the folk, admitted at least that the word ‘brand’ for sword was “possibly more literary than popular.” And therein lies the gist of the line of criticism that Motherwell started. Many argue that Percy’s version in many ways seems contrived and too well-written to be truly of the people. Child admitted that only one word might have been edited, but others through the years found multiple possible examples, the details of which we need not go in to here.
Bertrand Harris Bronson took up the case in 1940 in “Edward, Edward: A Scottish Ballad”, and upon his work a more sophisticated line of criticism rests. He took issue as well with some of the language but moved it to a higher and more interesting level, noting for example that the mother asking Edward “why so sad gang ye, O?” seems entirely out of place in a traditional ballad; more romantic than medieval. One might say today, “That’s too “touchy-feely” for a medieval Scots ballad.”
Bronson’s analysis is multifaceted, but one convincing line of criticism boils down to the excellence of the *structure* of the song. He writes for scholars familiar with ballad study but, pared down, his words are clear enough for amateurs like us. “To be sure, the devices here employed are the familiar ones of incremental repetition… Nevertheless, no other ballad makes use of them with anything like the same sophistication.” He compares the interrogative structure in Percy’s “Edward” to ballads like “Lord Randall” and finds and an “unnatural richness of the questions and answers.”
The end result of this structure is marvelous; a shocking surprise ending. We see it operate quite effectively in the building of suspense and its release in the Old Blind Dog’s version above, which brilliantly uses the music and instrumentation as well to help achieve the effect. But in the same way a traditional ballad singer wouldn’t have the benefit of a studio and professional instrumentation to achieve the same, Bronson essentially argues that neither would s/he have the literary devices at such a level of polish as we see in Percy’s “Edward”.
What is that surprise ending? It’s really the key to understanding the difference between Percy’s version and all others.
And what wul ye leave your mither dear
Young Edward, oh young Edward?
And what wul ye leave your mither dear
When ye gang over the sea O?
The curse of hell shall ye bear
My dear mither, my dear mither
The curse of hell shall ye bear
For sic counsels ye gave to me O
Percy’s version clearly implicates the mother in the crime, and you don’t know it until the last line of the song! In all of the other versions we’ve considered this week, only Paddy Tunney’s makes any reference to the mother’s “treachery”, but it comes in the first verse and gains no purchase in the rest of the song. In Percy’s version though, the mother clearly advised the son to kill his father. The listener has to go back and reconsider the whole song! As Bronson points out in his “A Footnote to ‘Edward, Edward'”, “The mother already knows everything. The son knows she knows.”
All this, he points out, comes down to one of two possibilities. Either the writer of Percy’s version was painting a picture of intense, psychologically complex characters, or the whole thing is structured brilliantly to achieve maximum suspense. While the former might make sense to us today, or in a play of Shakespeare’s, it’s atypical and beyond the realm of reasonable explanation in the context of a folk ballad. The latter possibility though makes perfect sense if Percy’s source was in fact familiar with the old ballad we’ve seen in our first two posts, but educated and creative enough to polish it up into a ‘sterling specimen’ of balladry.
Of course, the scholarship on the theme of incest I explored in my second post has in turn spurred all sorts of Freudian speculation as to *why* the mother advised her son to kill his father. It’s as if, once Phillips Barry let that genie out of the bottle, its magic forced everyone to see Oedipus in Percy’s version. James Twitchell’s 1975 article “The Incest Theme and the Authenticity of the Percy Version of ‘Edward‘” is a summative assessment of it all, claiming Percy’s “Edward” as a “textbook example of the Oedipus Complex”, and pointing to the complete lack of anything like it in the ballad tradition as further evidence of the ‘literary’ editing that must have taken place. (Interestingly, if you go to this page, and skip down to Patrick Gainer’s version of Child 13, you’ll hear the only non-modern version I know of or have seen referenced that is clearly a reworking of Percy. Given Gainer’s position though as a ballad-singing scholar, without knowing for sure his source I have to leave it as an outlier for now and can’t call it a true ‘folk’ version. Here as well is a modern version by Barbara Dymock that shows Percy’s influence. )
Ugh. Oedipus? I really wonder if we have to go there. This all smacks of that self-referential scholarship Atkinson went on about, that I covered in my second post. Let’s leave the incest motive out of it all completely and see what happens. We can still observe that in the versions of the ballad we’ve sampled but for Percy’s, whatever the mysterious motive for the murder might have been, the mother is never clearly implicated in the crime. That alone suggests a unique authorship for Percy’s version, likely an 18th Century British gentleman given all else we know. Might it have been possible that this editor was just as confused about the ballad in its folk form as the rest of us have been, and wanted to give it more than literary beauty? Maybe he wanted a structure and meaning intelligible by his landholding, educated peers. A mother’s advice to her son to kill his father certainly qualifies.
Why then must we jump immediately to Oedipus for the motive? Is it not just as likely that the mother in this fiction had other reasons for wanting her husband dead? It’s been known to happen, right? At the very least, the dead father’s property would come to her eldest son, presumably her trusted Edward. Or perhaps she was even sneakier, knowing that he’d have to leave after the crime. (Listen to Gainer’s intro above – this is where he goes with it!) You could read that last verse as her expectation of receiving something substantial from him, and his realization that such was her game all along. It seems to me we can come up with a number of ‘hidden’ motives surrounding property and gender that would have been just as intelligible to an educated and privileged 18th Century British audience as Oedipus.
But I’m no scholar, and if I can claim some self-righteousness on that point in being able to avoid the dark magic of the ‘incest hypothesis’, I must also admit my limitations in being able to pursue this line of reasoning further in any academic sense. I’d be happy to bat around ideas in comments below though, so feel free to type away!
So, let’s leave with some good-natured ribbing of the Percy version. I found this while digging on YouTube and it cracks me up. Admittedly, it probably wouldn’t be funny to someone who doesn’t know the ballad, but if you’ve read this far you know enough to get a laugh out of it!