The Natural and the Unnatural, Naturally

Study for “There Were Three Maidens Pu’d Flower” by Charles H. Mackie

Death Before Dishonor?

The themes in “Babylon” pointed me back to reviewing Pat’s excellent series of posts on “Edward,” (Child 13), particularly this one, which is a careful, reluctant, and thorough exploration of the incest theme in that ballad.  With similar reluctance, and after a read through some of Pat’s source material, I’ve come to think that the contrived appearance of the ballad that I was sorting out in the last post is probably mostly a product of an overly naive reading of the song.  (Pat is probably now saying, “Well, duh!”)

From within that naive reading, the song is tragic because of the misunderstanding, and the horror and tragedy of the murder is not compounded by any sexual transgression.  The sisters are virtuous, and the outlaw brother’s remorseful suicide at being the instrument of their death provides a relatively noble end to the situation.

But, in the discussion in the Traditional Ballad Index entry on the ballad, the attraction between adult siblings raised separately seems to be the only thing of interest to the writer of that entry.  So, something else is probably going on here.  Maggi and Coover in the last post both address how the folk tales and myths that underlie these songs may lose their resonance as their context fades into history, and the untidier elements get winnowed away.  

This is, potentially, what we have here; however unpleasant the result may be.  Perhaps there are quite a few untidy elements. As with our earlier discussion of unreliable narrators, it’s quite possible things are not what they seem.  Pat’s discussion of “Edward” notes that the sibling incest theme, although somewhat common in the ballads, is the most likely to be euphemized.  It doesn’t make sense at face value, because it may not be intended to be taken at face value.  

James Twitchell, in his study, “The Incest Theme and the Authenticity of the Percy Version of Edward,” includes “Babylon” in a group of incest ballads in which the theme is “better disguised” than in “Edward” or “Lizzie Wan,” but “the paradoxical ’emotional core’ remains the same.” He summarizes the matter with gently highlighting the euphemism with quotes:  “This [that the murder is tied to incest] may also be the case in ‘Babylon’ (Child 14) in which the brother unknowingly kills his unsuspecting sisters.”  The “wee pen knife” becomes, perhaps, somewhat overdetermined.


The Scottish group Malinky performs their version of the “Bonnie Banks o Fordie” in an excellent arrangement that blends in the Swedish traditional tune “Pennknivsmördaren” (“The Pen Knife Murderer”).  It appears that the pen knife symbol has at least in one case stayed with a stream of music even after the words fell away completely.  One gets the sense in Malinky’s medley of two musical relatives being brought back together after some time.  OK, let’s not go there.  Well, we’ll give it a listen anyway.

“The Bonnie Banks o Fordie/Pennknivsmördaren” by Malinky (Spotify)

What we have in the versions of “Babylon” we’ve inherited may be an inherent instability of meaning.  We might also have a ballad that winds up being reasonably safe for all audiences, with its folk tale aspects being on display in a deadly, but still somewhat innocent way.  This listener experiences the paradoxical tragedy and relief at the same point–that the sisters died, but that no other taboo was violated. Another listener listens between the lines, and finds the tale’s underbelly below, experiencing more of the shock of that “emotional core” to which Twitchell refers.  This is decidedly not where I thought things would end up in our exploration of this song.  It’s an interesting moment when you begin to the suspect that the song is effectively lying to you.

The Birds They Sang So Sweetly

One of the things that struck me about Tim O’Brien’s “Fair Flowers of the Valley,” is that the ugliness of the actions depicted in the text, let alone the subtext, are so well contrasted with the sweetness of the arrangement.  This is augmented, I think, by by O’Brien’s choice of refrain–alternating “oh, fair flowers of the valley” with “and the birds they sang so sweetly.”  Many of the others use the riverbank theme as the refrain (“by the bonnie banks of Fordie” or “Vergie-O”), and the Nic Jones, Variant E version has the odd “oh, I am so bonnie.”

We’ve had occasion before to discuss the interplay of natural elements in both the refrain, and in the text of the song.  Pat’s discussion of “Two Sisters” brings up questions of whether refrains present mere nonsense syllables or generally serve as a sort of aesthetic release valve relative to the grimness of the subject matter.  I certainly think we have that with O’Brien’s choice.  I won’t analyze this element to death, but do think he accomplishes a good deal with it. Jones’s version and Malinky’s (to a certain extent) have this release valve function. 

John Jacob Niles’s “Bonnie Farday” version of “Babylon” uses “jury flow’r and rosemary” as the  persistent refrain.  His arrangement seems deliberately crafted to be more haunting (although, try as I might, it’s a bit difficult to purge the image of Tiny Tim singing this one from my head, which undercuts the menace…somewhat.  Give it a listen):

“Bonnie Farday” by John Jacob Niles (Spotify)  (These lyrics are close.)

Also, I think O’Brien’s invocation of birds is an apt traditional choice.  Shaleane’s posts on “Young Hunting” involved us in a discussion of the role of the natural world in providing a witness or a contrast to the action–rivers and birds figuring prominently.  In “Young Hunting,” the bird becomes an active character, a witness to the murder.  In “Fair Flowers of the Valley,” I think, the birds’ role is more ambiguous.  They may be witnesses (perhaps hints of Odin watching in the background), they may just be contrast, or they may be signs of the souls’ ascents.

Old Blind Dogs

I intended this post to be a bit richer musically than the previous ones, which have been fairly long on text.  So, I don’t want to let it go without including another one of my favorites.

“The Bonnie Banks o’ Fordie” by the Old Blind Dogs (Spotify)

For a few other versions, you can check out my Spotify playlist for “Babylon” (Child 14).

Today’s post was a bit rushed to press, so to speak, and I’m not sure that I’m done with thinking things through with this ballad, but I at least feel that I’ve worked through to the point of redeeming its choice.  I hope you feel the same.  I’d be interested in your feedback on any and all of the points raised here, and perhaps will leave concluding thoughts to the comments.  Thanks for reading.

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