“He therefore did confess…”

Lough Neagh, in windy weather – Martin North, Convective North
For our third post on “Young Emily” this week, we’ll travel to Northern Ireland and the banks of Lough Neagh, and there find it called “Young Edmund in the Lowlands Low.”  

For the history of the ballad and an introduction to our theme for the week see our first post, which also introduces an Ozark variant called “The Diver Boy.”  For the oldest English variants, and an examination of the murder motive, see our second post for the week.  Today’s post assumes you’re familiar enough with the ballad to appreciate what happens to it when it crosses the Irish Sea.  And in our last post for the week, we’ll come back home to Appalachia.

Now, this is version of this ballad we haven’t yet considered.  It seems almost certainly to have roots in Northern Ireland, as you’ll see below, and it is quite evocative – its melody perhaps is most so of all we’ll hear this week.  The performances we’ll share today are masterful.  We’re short on YouTube clips of these unfortunately, so we’ll be relying heavily on Spotify.

This gold will be your foe…

If you’re an American folkie, you actually may first have heard this gem from Ulster performed by our own Jody Stecher, on his 1999 album Oh the Wind and Rain: Eleven Ballads, with the title “Edmund and Emily.”  I won’t even try to describe his treatment of it.  I just suggest, humbly but strongly, that you listen if you’ve got ten minutes to spare.  In fact, if we were face to face I’d have gentle hands on both of your shoulders trying to convince you!

Stecher’s performance seems to have a great deal in common with Paul Brady‘s “Young Edmund in the Lowlands Low” recorded over twenty years earlier and included on his 1978 album Welcome Here Kind Stranger.  Their lyrics are not perfectly aligned, but are quite close.  However, the melody Stecher uses is very much the same and indeed most moving.  While Stecher uses a sparse but lovely guitar, Brady does it a cappella. Both sing as if their lives depended on it, and I’m thankful I get to hear both at my leisure instead of having to choose one over the other as a favorite!

They’re clearly singing the same variant of “Young Edwin”, but they come off as quite different to my ear.  See what you think.

Now, both Stecher and Brady are professional musicians, and so it’s not clear by comparing their two versions alone that this particular variant is from Ireland.  However, we find an almost identical performance by Geordi Hanna on the famous The Voice of the People series.  The original track was recorded by Robin Morton in Sarah Anne O’Neill’s home near Derrytresk, Coalisland, County Tyrone in 1977, for the album On the Shores of Lough Neagh: Traditional Songs of a Tyrone Familyreleased in 1978.  We can see then that the variant is Irish, and as well was still popular in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, well past World War II. 

(Here’s a neat video clip of Hanna’s sister, the wonderful Sarah Anne O’Neill, talking a bit about him.)

Without liner notes for any of these albums, I can’t say for sure if Hanna’s performance is Brady’s source; but everything points that way.  The lyrics are the same and the melody is as well; and Hanna was of course an authentic traditional singer while Brady was a professional recording artist, a fine performing student of traditional material.  The path of transmission seems obvious, but I’ll hold off on being definitive until I have proof.  

You may still be skeptical that this is indeed a uniquely Irish variant of the English original. If so, there’s another version to consider that makes almost perfectly clear that this is likely an Ulster variant.  But before we go there, let’s raise again the thematic question for our week.  

For the cruel deed that he had done, he therefore did confess...

What can we make of the cruel father in the Irish variant of the ballad?

It seems to me that this version has been somewhat rationalized to do two things – to tighten up the narrative so the murder motive is clear, and to cast an iron clad sense of justice to lock and seal the conclusion.

In the second post this week, we explored the ‘missing story’ – the spaces in the narrative that allow us to read in that the murder was really more about controlling Emily than about getting Edmund’s gold.  Here though there is a subtle recasting of the situation, wherein it’s really made clear that Emily’s father *didn’t* know it was his daughter’s lover’s blood on his knife.  The motive is made much more clearly to be the gold.  

As Edmund he did enter there, and all his gold did show – 

Says Emily’s cruel Father,“This gold will be your foe, 

For I’ll send your body sinkin’,down in the Lowlands Low.”

Her father dismisses Emily’s asking after ‘the stranger’ by nonchalantly stating that he’s dead and will tell no tales.  And though other variants do include such lines as that, and those above, none I’ve found but this Irish one include this verse just after Emily tells her father that she’s going to turn him in for justice –

And Emily’s cruel Father could not day or night get rest; 

For the cruel deed that he had done he therefore did confess; 

He was tried and he was sentenced, and he died a public show, 

For the murder of young Edmund Deares that ploughed the Lowlands Low.

If the original English versions we saw in the last post tend toward a morality play about greed but are inadvertently unclear, this variant seems to lean the other way and leave no question.  Her father confesses to the murder only after she tells him of Edmund’s identity.  Had he known before the act who his victim was in relation to his daughter, why would he feel the guilt so strongly *after* she confronted him?  He’s clearly not wringing hands about it before – his fists are full of gold!  It seems to me that this narrative twist fills those ‘spaces’ more thoroughly (if not entirely logically or believably) and make it more or less a black and white tale about the evils of greed.

Further, there is a satisfying end for the cruel father.  He hangs as a public show after confessing his guilt before God and the law.  And, interestingly, in this strain of the Irish version at least, Emily suffers nothing more in the way of insanity after it all.  She’s lost her love, but not her mind, and we don’t blame her one bit for turning her father in.

I won’t venture a thesis as to why this neatly tied package seems unique to Ulster, other than to suggest the obvious – that the well-defined moral lines, the seeming lack of shades of gray, *must* have spoken deeply and consistently to local singers.  Musicologists, psychologists, and historians are all more qualified than I to take on the question.  But even an amateur can see that this tale must have taken this particular form in Ireland for some significant and likely complicated set of reasons.

Down by yon beech green isle…

I mentioned one more performance that seems to cinch the case of this as a version properly cited as being from Ulster.  It’s a variant from County Fermanagh, which borders the Republic and not Lough Neagh.  It’s melodically different enough from Hanna’s to show that this particular ballad had been around the lough a few times.  Yet, though there is also some lyric variation, the verses match up in terms of the narrative structure and both include the key elements I mentioned immediately above.  It’s clearly part of the same immediate family as Hanna’s version.

According to this source, well worth reading, the ballad was recorded by Keith Summers in Maggy Murphy‘s cottage, in Tempo, County Fermanagh, in 1979.  It’s quite a lovely performance!

In this one, Emily is called Mary instead, and there is a final verse wherein she watches “great big steamers and small boats pass to and fro”, though she doesn’t pass into madness.


I know we’ve stayed geographically local in each of our posts this week, but today we need to take a short day trip to Aberdeen, Scotland to hear another unique version and to make a closing point.

Lizzie Higgins was the daughter of the renowned Scottish Traveller Jeannie Robertson, and was a musical treasure of Scotland in her own right.  I don’t mean to open up another avenue of exploration here in the conclusion, but I think it worth giving her version of this ballad (recorded in 1970) a listen before we come home to Appalachia at the end of the week.  It’s both musically and lyrically unique, but more to the immediate point, it really seems to do the opposite of the Irish version we’ve considered above.  This one is pared down and sparse.  It shifts the possible reading of the cruel father’s (well, parents’ in this version) motives so much that it’s almost impossible to conclude that the murder was about anything other than denying Emily (Emslie in this version) her love.  

I guess what I’m saying is that there really is *quite a bit* of variation in this ballad across even short distances, much less an ocean as we’ll see next.  At some point within the last century you could hear the same story ringing out on the streets of London, Belfast, and Aberdeen; the same story, but clearly not the same song.

I’ll leave musing and analysis aside now; if you’re up for listening, you’ll surely be equipped to draw your own conclusions.  You won’t be disappointed in playing this one though – guaranteed, or you’ll get all of your gold back!   Enjoy, and I hope you join me for one more trip upon these waters soon.

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