Two Sisters Redux – Part 2

detail from Twa Sisters – quilt by Dan Willig

So, as I introduced in my first post this week, I’m trying to add some depth and variety to my first series of entries from six months ago on the ballad known as Child 10, “Two Sisters”, “Wind and Rain”, etc.  You can find the entries from the original series here (for an introduction), here (for a way to think about the folk process), and here (for a conclusion and some analysis.) 

This ballad is like the Amazon; ancient yet still abundantly flowing along many principal streams, all related but distinct.  In the preceding post I explored some branches of the ballad onto which I did not venture originally, but today I’m going to go a bit further up the tributaries on which I did embark six months ago to do a more thorough exploration.  In my next post then, I’ll take all this new variety and see if I can’t come to a more fully developed understanding of the wider ‘ecosystem’ to which this ancient murder ballad gives rise.  (And in a later post, we’ll explore the new short movie “Two Sisters”, the newest water to join this great river.)

“Two Sisters” and “Bow and Balance to Me”

I opened my discussion of this ballad with this great version (or here on YouTube) recorded by Clannad, the lyrics of which can be found here (and I’m *sure* now it’s “the boys are bound for me” and not “born for me!”.)  The version, as I noted in the original series, includes nothing of the magical accusation by the instrument (fiddle, harp, etc.) which brings justice to the murdered sister at the eldest’s wedding.  Justice comes in a realistic, if brutal, way.

Likewise I introduced Tom Waitsawesome version of “Two Sisters” (lyrics), derived almost word for word and note for note from Horton Barker‘s “Bow and Balance”, and quite similar to Jean Ritchie‘s “There Lived and Old Lord” (lyrics).  Again, none include the magic.  

Listening to the refrains alone shows that all three have a clear connection to Clannad’s version (or rather its ancestor) and it would seem that there is at least a circumstantial case to be made that this stream of the ballad in America has its source in Ireland.  However, some posters in the Mudcat forum swear that Clannad got their version from America (with this as one source.) The evidence is hearsay, though believable. More surprising is the claim that the ballad has never been recorded in Ireland. This doesn’t seem to hold up to scrutiny.  Child himself noted “It has been found in England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland…”  And convincingly, Hugh Shields, in his 1972 article “Old British Ballads in Ireland“, clearly documents Anglo-Irish examples of Child 10, and argues as well that the Gaelic “Baile Leo” is “derived with certainty from” and is “an entire recreation of the English “Two Sisters””. (Can anyone say “Integrator“?) Whether or not there is a variant in English *born* in Ireland is not clear, and I note on Mudcat as well a debate about the Gaelic version, but there is no doubt at least that Child 10 spread to Ireland and has been collected there.

And while it may be true that Clannad’s version can be traced to America, it’s simply unbelievable that the variant originated in America.  The historical context of Clannad’s version is late 17th / early 18th century (note that beaver hat, not to mention the strict class system and the boiling in lead.)  Here’s a version from England collected in 1914, the text of which very much follows this later recording – “The Barkshire Tragedy.”   Note the refrain!  Did that come from Kentucky back to England?  At any rate the beaver hat and such find their way in to American versions intact or are articulated in a more 19th century manner.  We see it all in other early folk recordings as well, from diverse parts of America…  

For example

“Bow and Balance to Me” – Gale Huntington (Spotify) ca. 1957 Folksongs from Martha’s Vineyard

“The Two Sisters” – Loman Cansler (Spotify) ca. 1959 Missouri Folk Songs

“The Squire’s Daughter” – Lola Curry (Spotify) ca. 1960 American Folk Song Festival  (collected in Kentucky)

The best evidence is that we hear the same essential version sung by old folks in mid-20th century field recordings, such as these Ozark variants in the Max Hunter Folk Song Collection, and two West Virginia versions collected by Patrick Ward Gainer and cataloged down the page at this site.  So, for it to be a variant so vibrant and so lyrically consistent over such broad geography after the Civil War in America, it seems that it might have come to antebellum America and spread widely with the great numbers of immigrants across the land.  As the Germans and the Irish represented by far the greatest numbers of immigrants during that period, and the lyrics aren’t in German, it seems possible to me that, despite the ballad’s having been rarely collected in Ireland in the 20th century, Irish immigrants (whether bringing the variant directly from Ireland or from elsewhere in Britain) are the main source.  I can’t prove it of course.  It’s certainly possible too that the ‘Bow Down’ / ‘I’ll be True to my Love’ ancestor came during colonial times; though as we see it widespread in America it would had to have been a variant family known to many subgroups of British settlers.

Whatever its origin, it’s not the only course this ballad took in the new nation.

“Wind and Rain”

If the Irish and American variant noted above leaves out the magical retribution, another branch of the ballad in America focuses almost exclusively on it at the expense of the back story behind the murder.  It seems by far today to be the most popular version among American recordings artists, and is often known as “Wind and Rain” or “Dreadful Wind and Rain”.  

In my original post I introduced you to Gillian Welch’s and David Rawling’s version (lyrics), as well as Jerry Garcia’s and David Grisman’s (lyrics) as prime examples.  There are a couple other modern renditions most worthy of note.  Crooked Still definitely acquit themselves well with this ballad, and it seems to me they evoke the movement of water with their instruments.  It’s really a wonderful recording, and they pull it off live just as well.

“Wind and Rain” – Crooked Still (Spotify)       Lyrics for “Wind and Rain” by Crooked Still

And, while it may strike some of you as strange, I feel I’d be remiss in an inclusive post like this if I didn’t link you to a driving “cowpunkabilly” version by Cleveland’s own Cowslingers.  It’s just too unique to exclude.  And, honestly, it’s a pretty good track folks!


So, the harder thing to figure out here is the likely source of this variant of Child 10.  My Spotify playlist (now at 70+ tracks) has fourteen examples of this version, but only three seem to have been recorded earlier than Garcia and Grisman’s (released 1996 but recorded on 8/27/90.)  The reference to County Clare in the Welch/Rawlings version suggests an Irish origin, but both of the oldest recordings I can find are American.

“The Wind and Rain” – George and Gerry Amstrong (Spotify) ca. 1961 Simple Gifts  –  This one has the same story, but the tune is clearly not what is common to the more modern versions.

“Wind and Rain” – Kilby Snow (Spotify) ca. 1969 Country Songs and Tunes with Autoharp – Now this one is really interesting.  Note that the narrative elements mostly match the traditional Child 10, but the killer is a man and the victim his sweetheart who presumably earns his violent wrath by refusing his marriage proposal (though this is not explicit.)  
Here are the lyrics, with a note at the bottom by the folklorist D.K. Wilgus that explains something of the ‘folk process’ that produced this version.  In this one though, the tune is clearly that used in the more modern versions.
Garcia and Grisman both qualified as bona fide folk music nuts, so it’s quite possible and even probable that at some point they were exposed to both of these recordings. However, the liner notes for their album Shady Grove credit Jody Stecher’s version (ca. 1977 on Going Up On the Mountainas Garcia’s source, and say Stecher derived it from Kilby Snow’s version and made the lyrical changes that returned it to a more pure ‘Child 10 state.’   Jody Stecher was an earlier collaborator with Garcia and was and is well known among folk musicians.  At any rate, it’s clear the tune was out there in ‘old, weird America’ before people like them helped create a new, weird America.
What kind of reckless folkies would play two banjos on stage?  It’s terrifying really.

But is it Irish, or American, or does it have some other British origin?  And how old is it?  I’ll have to leave these as open questions for now.  Even a look through the Roud Folksong Index, which catalogs a staggering 466 versions of this ballad (Roud 8), turns up only one other example besides Snow’s of a song with this title.  “Wind and Rain” was collected from one Dan Tate in Virginia in 1962, and though there is no lyrical or musical content at Roud, the text and tune are on file at Mudcat here.  But even if I could hear the original recordings in Roud, I’ve not got time to listen to 466 of them to figure out if what we know as “The Wind and Rain” is also commonly called “Two Sisters” in other places.  For now, I only see references to and recordings of American versions.  Where Welch/Rawlings got the lyric that references County Clare remains to be established, and that might open a new line of investigation.


So, with my last post and this one I’ve brought you up to speed on some of the key variants of our subject ballad.  Next, I’ll take these examples and try to use them (as well as the insight I’ve gained over half a year of reading my colleague’s posts) to make some deeper points to build on what I started six months ago.  Stay tuned!

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