The Demon Lover (The House Carpenter)

This is the first of four posts on Child Ballad 243. The next three installments can be found here, here, and here.

Well Met, Well Met

"The Demon Lover" from 'Ballads Weird and Wonderful' (Vernon Hill, 1912)

“The Demon Lover” from ‘Ballads Weird and Wonderful’ (Vernon Hill, 1912)

What lengths will a singer go to in changing the song’s “facts” to keep closer to the song’s “truth”?  While I generally believe that neither facts nor truth are completely relative, in the search to express meaning in a song, the truth is something that we often meet half way.  More relevantly, the truth is something that art approaches through metaphor and indirection. It’s clearly a collaborative project, both between the artist and the song and among artists and interpreters–and the truth is often more emotional truth than it is factual truth, to whatever extent the facts are relevant in the song.  Many voices find a power in a song’s narrative, and keep working at honing the song to capture that essential power.  Child Ballad 243, “The Demon Lover” or “House Carpenter” gives us an excellent example of this kind of collaborative project, using and endlessly revising a story to drill down to a core truth.

This may only be the first of a few weeks, occasionally distributed over the months ahead, on this song.  As with “Two Sisters,” there is probably more to it than one week, and certainly one blogger, can unearth.  A number of existing on-line resources provide a bibliographical take on the song, so it won’t be my aim to fully reprise them here–if I can help myself.

My hope today is to outline the framework of Child 243, and then to discuss the song as a murder ballad.  As we’ll discover, it’s not an entirely neat fit, but it is at least a worthwhile comparison.  What I mainly hope to do is provide you with a set of issues and themes to consider, rather than doing a complete archaeological excavation of the song in all its variety–again, if I can help myself.  There are many people digging through the strata on this “site.”

In the end, I think we’ll see that at least one branch of the song is a murder ballad, while all of the branches touch on themes that resonate deeply with categories of emotional truth and moral judgment that we find in some of our other musical tales.  Whether or not we classify the song as a murder ballad is probably less important than demonstrating that this song has some pretty powerful currents within it–currents that appealed to 17th and 18th century audiences, and currents that appeal to 21st century audiences.  That is, as I intend to draw out over a few posts, this song is enduring and powerful because it taps into something rather elemental in human experience.  The best initial evidence of this is that artists keep working at refining this song and keeping it a going concern.

Here are two versions to get you acquainted with the song we’re talking about.  The first is a performance of “The Demon Lover,” the more British variant:

The second is Tony Rice’s recording of “House Carpenter,” the more American variant of Child 243:

“House Carpenter” by Tony Rice (Spotify)

Where to Begin?

Carl Sandburg's albums at Connemara, Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site (photo by K. Bigger)

Carl Sandburg’s albums at Connemara, Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site (photo by K. Bigger)

Poet and folklorist Carl Sandburg says “The House Carpenter,” the version he includes in The American Songbag, “is among the hoary and tarnished keepsakes of the ballad world.”  The song was old by the time it got into his hands; perhaps not as old as some we have explored along the way, but still quite old.  Judging by Sandburg’s lyrics, the original ballad had been well winnowed already.

Laurence Price receives the credit for the original song, published as a broadside in 1657, and entitled “James Harris (The Daemon Lover).”  It bears the somewhat more descriptive subtitle of:

“A Warning for Married Women, being an example of Mrs Jane Reynolds (a West-country woman), born near Plymouth, who, having plighted her troth to a Seaman, was afterwards married to a Carpenter, and at last carried away by a Spirit, the manner how shall be presently recited.”

Broadside, indeed.  As you will shortly see, both the title and the song got considerably shorter.  Jon Boden accounts for some of the song’s history on his page about the song.  You can read Price’s lyrics here.

Price’s original runs 32 verses.  It tells of the plighted troth of “Jane Renalds” and her first true love, James Harris.  The two secretly vow to marry, but on the day they are to wed, James is pressed into service on the sea.  Jane remains faithful to him for three years, after which she receives word of his death.  Another year passes, and she marries a carpenter and has a family.  Seven years after his departure, a Spirit returns, claiming to be James. He lures Jane away from her settled life with her husband (who happens to be away from home at the time) and her children.  She goes away with him, never to be seen again.  Her husband returns to find her gone, and in madness and desperation hangs himself.  The children are thus made orphans.

Francis J. Child (source: Wikipedia)

Francis J. Child (source: Wikipedia)

The versions collected by Francis James Child include Price’s as version A, and show both the variety introduced to the story and the honing of the song that occurred over the intervening two centuries between Price’s origination and Child’s collection.   By the time Sandburg includes the song in his book, we hear neither the names of the characters involved nor the fate of the abandoned husband and children.  Whether and how long Jane was faithful to her vows to James is unmentioned.  “Hoary and tarnished” in some respects, but more to the point, the action and the crucial elements of the narrative are compressed.  All of the versions we’ll listen to will be roughly half the length, at most, of Price’s original.  The original story is shaggy and detailed.  The shorter versions spruce up the verses a bit and manipulate the story; hoping, I suppose, to accomplish something similar to Price’s artistic goal, but without all of Price’s details.

The Demon Lover and the House Carpenter

British and Irish versions tend to favor “The Demon Lover” as the title of choice, and American versions generally favor “House Carpenter.” Some British artists pick up “House Carpenter,” but these are often explicitly sourced to American artists.  All modern versions essentially agree on the core elements of the story, however much they each stray from the original.  The song as we have it today reliably dispenses with the initial courtship of James Harris and Jane Reynolds, his being pressed into ship’s service, and any details of the carpenter’s demise at the end of the song.

Depending on the goals of the singer, the remaining details are tweaked in the story.  There are some variables.  These include:

  • The length of the separation of the lovers. If it is specified, it is either seven years, as in the Price original, or “three-fourths of a long, long year.”
  • The number of children born to the carpenter’s wife
  • Whether the carpenter’s wife requires her old true lover to demonstrate his ability to support her
  • Whether the carpenter’s wife puts on a display of finery as she departs
  • Whether the lover who lures her away is a demon who kills her through supernatural means. If he is not, her demise is depicted as accidental/natural.

Sometimes these options appear to be mixed and matched, unrelated to other elements or who is singing the song where.  Other options tend to correlate strongly with each other or other factors.  For one, basically all the Old World versions (regardless of which title they choose) invoke a supernatural agent; the lover reveals himself to be a demon.  In essentially all of the New World versions, there is no demon.  The only view of the supernatural, if any, is that our heroine views the hills of Heaven and of Hell, and learns which way she will go.

For some examples, we’ll turn first to a few recordings that capture the song in an authentic ballad style or with old-time accompaniment.   Here is A.L. Lloyd‘s performance of “The Demon Lover”:

Listen here on YouTube (Lyrics)

In Lloyd’s version, the demon responds to “Jane’s” weeping by explaining that he’ll take her to the bottom of the sea.  He then transforms in size and crushes the ship single-handedly.  One fascinating element of Lloyd’s version, as you’ll soon see, is that is one of the relatively very few versions of the song that makes no reference to children.  (Rosalie Sorrels‘s version of “House Carpenter is another.  Sorrels’s version is also the only recording I’ve found so far that makes any reference at all to the fate of the carpenter.  Her concluding verse ends with a curse upon the sailor “for the robbing of the house carpenter and the taking away of his life.”  It’s not a clear or explicit reference and comes across as some kind of vestigial tail/tale from an earlier point in the evolution of the ballad.)

Clarence "Tom" Ashley c. 1960 (uncredited photo from Southern Folklife Collection at UNC)

Clarence “Tom” Ashley c. 1960 (uncredited photo from Southern Folklife Collection at UNC)

For old-time versions of “House Carpenter,”  we should turn first to Clarence “Tom” Ashley, whose recording appeared on Harry Smith‘s Anthology of American Folk Music.  The Anthology was an incredibly influential source for a vast number of artists and audiences in the mid-twentieth century, and therefore Ashley’s version has to be seen as one that advanced the ballad’s popularity in wider and wider circles.

Initially recorded either in 1928 or 1930 (depending on your source) and released by Columbia Records, Ashley accompanies himself on 5-string banjo.  Smith’s summary of the song and liner notes get some things right and some things wrong:


“Child (No. 243 James Harris-The Demon Lover) gives 6 versions of this ballad (all Scottish) from oral tradition and two broadside printings, one which, “B” (from The Rambler’s Garland, 1785) is very similar to the American texts.  The supernatural theme of the early versions has disappeared almost completely in America.”

“House Carpenter” by Clarence Ashley (Spotify)

(This link provides the lyrics to Ashley’s version, and also includes an amusing anecdote of how Ashley appeared to convince the recording executive from Columbia that this song belonged to a distinct genre of “lassy makin'” tunes.  You can also use the link to hear Ashley’s performance through an mp3 file at the Internet Archive.)

Ashley’s version also demonstrates another correlation among our variables–specifically the first two.  If the length of the “true lovers'” separation is “three-fourths of a long, long year,” she has only one child.  This tie happens only in American versions of the song.  In versions where the time is not specified (American or Old World), or is specified as seven (Old World only), there may be two or three children.  The implication here has to be that the baby is either Harris’s, or that she was faithful to her vow to him for no more than a moment before wedding the house carpenter.  Both of these choices are significant departures from the original narrative.

Of the versions I’ve reviewed, only U.S.-based (or sourced) versions of “House Carpenter” make the time of separation three-fourths of a year.  The one U.K.-based exception I can find is Peter Bellamy‘s, but Bellamy clearly credited the American Watson Family version as his source.

  (Lyrics in the “clearly credited” link above.)

We should step back at this point and take a look at a few things, including how Child 243 functions similarly to some of the murder ballads we’ve discussed.  As we’ve noted, murder ballads can function as warnings to young, single women not to meet handsome strangers by river banks and other similar activities (see, for example, “Omie Wise“).   Laurence Price’s original “James Harris (or the Demon Lover)” is a comparable kind of warning, but in this case for married women.

The other thing to pay attention to is that crafters and refiners of the more abbreviated versions of the song develop other ways of advancing the song’s lessons, but in other contexts and more modern settings.  I’m going to spend some time in the next couple posts thinking through exactly what that lesson might be, both for audiences of the past and the present.  For our present purposes, we should pay attention to the fact that the shorter period of separation between the two “true lovers” in the “House Carpenter” variant  is just one of several ways the song and its singers invite the listener to judge song’s protagonist morally.

The new song accomplishes part of its work of moral warning, then, through characterizing still more of “Jane Reynolds’s” actions as blameworthy.  It’s not just her errors in judgment, but flaws in her character. Remember, in the original ballad, she receives actual word of Harris’s death after being faithful to her vow to him for three years, and that it’s been seven years since he was seen or heard from.  She goes at least as far as anyone would deem humanly reasonable.  British and Celtic versions generally stick with this seven year time frame.  And, when “Harris” does appear, they make clear that he’s a demon in disguise.  In many of the American versions of “House Carpenter,” though, he arrives after a time short enough to have allowed him to be the father of the one baby she abandons.

Let’s add one more factor to the mix before closing things down for today.  As multiple sources state, the American versions remove the supernatural from the song.  We’ll get to some of the examples in the next post, but it’s fair to say that the farthest the American versions stray from a completely realistic telling of the story is that they tell the story of the doomed woman’s sense of impending and final judgment–gazing upon the hills of heaven and hell, and knowing where she will be going.

Listen here on YouTube.

Doug Wallin‘s version of “House Carpenter” probably goes to the greatest lengths of any of the versions I have heard to diminish any sympathy we might have for our victim, highlighting her vanity and her pride in addition to the sins of faithlessness and abandonment.  Before departing, she demands extensive proof that her old true lover has the means to support her.  As in many other versions, she dresses up and parades out of town as she departs with the old true love. And, finally, Wallin’s version shows us our protagonist gazing upon the hills of heaven and hell, knowing where she will wind up. A significant part of her dying confession is that she is “too rich and costly to die in the salt, salt sea.”

Murder, Warning, and Moral Judgment

Even without going to the extent Wallin does, there really isn’t meaningful sense in which you can say that in the American versions our decedent is anything but a victim of her own bad judgment and a maritime accident.  Nobody kills her.  In the original and the supernaturally-based European variants, the demon kills her–a supernatural murder, perhaps, along the lines of “The Deil’s Awa’ with the Exciseman.”  Depending on your reading of the role of the supernatural in these songs, this may be a distinction without a difference, but it definitely implies a different sense of moral agency.

Strangely, the only people we definitively know die in Price’s original are James Harris (whom the Spirit impersonates) and the carpenter.  Jane Reynolds is merely missing and reasonably presumed dead.  The original, therefore, accomplishes its work primarily through the destruction that Jane’s choice wreaks on others.  She is a somewhat more sympathetic character, having done her level best to be faithful.  (We’ll see in another post, perhaps, why that might be a good idea.)  The more contemporary versions, both “The Demon Lover” and “House Carpenter” focus on the destruction it wreaks on Jane.  In the former, she is deceived by a supernatural trickster, in the latter, she meets her doom because of a leaky ship and her own bad judgment–natural causes, in more ways than one.

Next up

Having gone this far to set the stage, and account for the principal actors in this fascinating bit of folk process, my next few posts will explore some excellent performances not only of this song, but of its legitimate “heirs.”  Along the way, I’ll spend a little time trying to draw out exactly why Child 243 continues to resonate.  I think it has to do not only with some enduring constants of the human experience, but also with ways that modern developments have given us reasons to listen to what it has to say.

My next post will present some of the more compelling recordings of the song, along both its main streams and address the question of why some things remain the same in all the versions, regardless of which of the above kind of variables they introduce.  Next, I’ll take a look Bob Dylan’s take on “House Carpenter,” and how it serves as an artistic launching point for a significant segment of his work.  Finally, we’ll give a listen to some of the “heirs” of “The Demon Lover,” drawing some contrasts with how these songs function relative to the themes introduced by their musical forebear.

Stay tuned.  I think we’ll be going a few interesting places, and I promise not to wreck the ship.


Comments are closed.