Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight / False Sir John / May Colvin / The Outlandish Knight

May Colven - Arthur Rackham, 1918 or 1919 - illustration for Some British Ballads

May Colven – Arthur Rackham, 1918 or 1919 – illustration for Some British Ballads

This is the first post concerning the ballad Child 4.  See also Part 2.


I love this image; it’s so evocative!  What secret does this young gentle lady want her pretty parrot to keep?

Well, you know the title of this blog – so it’s not hard to guess.

On the other hand, you’ll have a hard time figuring out why she wants it kept secret.  Her victim would have been her killer but for her wiles and courage, and in being simply drowned he surely got better than he deserved.  None of us today would blame her.  Indeed, her clever self-defense is admirable by any reading of the narrative.  So, maybe there’s more to her need to keep that bird from talking!

And therein lies our tale for exploration this week…

Every time I’ve written about a Child Ballad for this blog, I’ve been motivated by a long-standing interest in the particular song and a desire to dig deep.  That’s not the case this time!  Oh, I always like to get my hands dirty, so don’t worry – but this time I’m not so interested in shovels full of ballad history, others having broken that ground well already.  And indeed, I’d not even been particularly familiar with Child 4 until I started writing this.  So this is a new approach for me.  Why go for a song that never caught much of my attention before?

One afternoon recently I was browsing through YouTube videos of Sheila Kay Adams’ singing – I must admit I have a musical crush on her.  Anyway, up popped her version of “Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight”, the only song she learned directly from her mother as part of the ballad tradition of Madison County, North Carolina.   I listened through and was glad to be reminded of ‘that one where the lady drowns the knight’, as I thought it would make a good subject with a new twist for the blog.

Later that evening I was checking out Ken’s drafts for his excellent interview with the duo Eileen, and I was struck by their rewriting of “Omie Wise” to make her the killer of John Lewis, the man who’d actually murdered her.  Now, I love what Eileen did with “Omie Wise” and I think it’s critically important – but they aren’t the first to leave the woman standing safe and dry while her would-be killer drowns!  In fact, it’s already deep in the murder ballad tradition, albeit as the exception and not the rule.  Since I’d already been thinking about taking up Child 4 as a topic, Eileen’s music cinched it for me; it’s a compelling confluence.

“Tis true you’ve drowned six fair maids, but the seventh has drowned you…”

So, let’s start with the music.  Here it is folks – a ballad as old as they come wherein a naive young woman outsmarts the serial-killing man who would next murder her.  She, instead, sends him to a frigid rest in that water we here know so well!

Sheila starts singing at about 1:55.  The story she first tells her videographer, Sam Gleaves, is something to which I’ll come back below.  At first the basic provenance she describes doesn’t seem to get us far, but it turns out that if you really feel what she’s saying, there’s something deep there.  So, while I know you may be impatient for music, I hope you don’t skip her story!

Here is my transcription of her commentary and lyrics, with thanks to Milt Bigger for his ear in the work.

One thing you’ll notice is that the parrot that Rackham depicts so colorfully above is not part of this variant.  We’ll get back to our fine feathered friend too, in due time later this week.  But this western Carolina story has no need for him.  Like I said, this is an old one – and so, as usual with such ballads, we see a great deal of lyrical and musical variety today.

So, what are we to make of this strong and clever Polly in the mountains of Madison County?  By other names in other geographic variants, does she acquit herself so nobly as well?  What does she represent to the diverse people who kept her alive in song, particularly to women?  And just how old is this story anyway?

As an amateur, I can’t promise and I don’t propose to provide truly thorough academic answers to these questions.  But I think I understand enough to give you a rough sketch that may pique your interest in this ballad.

He sailed far over the raging sea…

Let’s look for the answer to the last question first.  Insofar as there’s already a great deal of information and speculation available online and in print about the ballad’s history, I won’t spend much time on it.  But a quick summary for orientation is in order.

Francis Child wrote about this ballad in his classic collection and cataloged it as his #4, “Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight”.  He collected seven versions, and identified many other variants in multiple European ballad traditions.  Indeed, his first words for this entry are a notable declaration.  “Of all ballads, this has perhaps obtained the widest circulation.”  The Roud Folksong Index today identifies it as #21 and catalogs in the range of a thousand citations!  Such variety in the English language alone suggests that Child may have been right, at least for the late 19th century.

As for the 21st century, have a look at the Spotify playlist for this ballad thus far.

If you’re interested in going in to a bit more depth with Child’s work, I suggest a blog of kindred spirit to ours, Better Know a Child Ballad, with Part 1 of the entry for Child 4 linked here.  Of note there too is the blog author’s lovely performance of Child’s version D from 1823; all 30 verses of it!  The Mudcat Cafe also has a number of lengthy discussions on the ballad, as well as lyrics and tunes for multiple variants.  You can start with this thread and pull to unravel.  And the Bluegrass Messengers’ page on the ballad seems to catch it all!

The Wikipedia link for this ballad gets us as far as we need to go for our purposes with this week.  Though I do not trust it implicitly, I’ve triangulated enough to know that it is a valid summary in broad strokes.  The ‘synopsis’ does a good job outlining the variables that distinguish one ballad variant from another.  You’ll note, for example, that Sheila Kay Adams’ version above leaves out the magical nature of the seducing knight as well as any other supernatural elements, such as the sentient parrot, common in many variants.  However, the knight’s interest in the girl’s wealth is an almost universal attribute, as are his physical intentions for her.  Suffice it to say that there are multiple knobs and sliders one can tweak lyrically to recast this ballad.

That’s no doubt due to what is described in the ‘historical background’ section of the Wikipedia article.  The footprints of this song seem to go back as far and wide as we might see.  It’s been clearly traced to the 13th century in Europe, and there is scholarship that claims the story was known in recognizable form among the Magyars and even the Mongols and thus may very well have entered Europe long ago from Asia.

I’m not particularly concerned here with just when and where those footprints were made.  We can certainly feel safe in saying that this ballad, wherein a vulnerable but strong and clever girl outwits a predatory and murderous man, is as old as any we know in Europe.  And whether or not the stories in Asia are in fact direct ancestors to this one, we can safely say that the theme and the basic narrative have powerful cross-cultural appeal in Europe.  If the Asian connection is real, that just bolsters the observation and such would not be surprising.

But instead of traipsing about Britain and Europe, where my insight is spotty at best, let’s stay close to home and take up our first question.  What might Polly and her story mean to the people who kept her alive in Madison County, North Carolina?

She had no wings for to fly away…

Before we get to her lyrics, I want to return to that story Sheila Kay Adams tells before she sings in the clip above.

Sheila bookends her commentary with the statement, “This is the only one I ever learned from my mother.”  She says it so quickly in both cases that it almost slips by unnoticed.  But I believe this simple statement, the beginning and end of her story, is really a key to unlock the ballad’s meaning in Madison County.  The rest of Sheila’s story may seem rambling to some, but her point is really rather clear once you understand that one sentence.

Death of a Ballad Singer by Daniel Dutton acrylic on canvas, 1984, collection of Bruce Orwin

Death of a Ballad Singer by Daniel Dutton – acrylic on canvas, 1984, collection of Bruce Orwin

In case you don’t know, Sheila Kay Adams learned the old songs from her grandparents’ generation – here’s a link to begin to explore that greater story.

Though it’s more pleasant to listen to her speak, let me paraphrase.  Sheila’s mother knew the old love songs and could sing them well, but she never taught Sheila because she and her husband saw the old songs as connected to poverty, to a way of life they wanted to leave behind and which they didn’t want for their children.  In her final years, she regretted her generation’s attitude towards the old traditions.  (Surely though she must have taken some comfort in knowing how beautifully Sheila carried it on.)

But, this is curious.  Sheila’s mother *did* teach her this *one* old love song.  Now, if her mother felt the tradition was not something she should help pass down, but she was willing to make an exception in only one case – well, there’s got to be a pretty important reason.   Why this one song then?

I think it’s pretty straightforward really.

In this variant, the narrative is both a clear warning to a girl about the dangers that men and temptations regarding men represent, *and* a statement about what is required of a woman to survive mountain life.  And, frankly, I don’t think I’m reading in too much.  If you follow this link and listen for just over one minute at the 3:45 mark, you’ll hear Sheila talk about the ballad tradition and end with a comment that confirms these ballads were very much seen as ‘life lessons’; as “one of the best ways to learn about life, without having to experience it.”

No doubt Sheila’s mother knew this ballad’s didactic value.  I imagine she was willing to share it even though she found the tradition regressive because the lesson was so important to pass on.  Maybe she felt it was just the right thing to do between mother and daughter, whatever her feelings about the old music might have been.

…nor tongue for to tell him nay, nay, nay.

So what, then, is that lesson?  As the son of an Appalachian mother, raised also by my mother’s mother in the same house, I remember the nature of the life lessons they taught me.  Neither of them sang ballads to me, and both I think felt the same about the older mountain music as Sheila’s mother, but nevertheless I heard the truth about life from them in many other ways.  Their lessons, as in this ballad, were pragmatic and realistic.  They didn’t mince words, and I don’t really think this variant of the ballad does either.  It may be lyric, but it doesn’t need thirty verses to make its point!

Let’s start with the sexual aspect.  We see in other versions the young man sometimes charms the girl through magic and music, which no doubt relieves her in the singer’s or listener’s mind of responsibility for whatever sin she commits .  Such is not the case here.  There is no magic, and she’s not weak.  She is painted as having agency, even to some degree in her seduction.

He followed her up and he followed her down
and he followed her to her room.
And she had no wings for to fly away
nor tongue for to tell him nay, nay, nay.

Without the magic charm, one could interpret this as plain rape; but it seems more subtle to me.  Polly saw only a ‘proper tall young man’ courting her and did not yet know of his evil nature.  When William kept after her, and followed her to her room, part of her knew that the liaison he wanted was wrong and wished to fly away, but part of her wouldn’t say ‘No.’  It doesn’t make sense that her silence would come from fear when everything else about that part of the ballad suggests romance.  William was pushy but cute, and he wanted *her*.  She *could* have said no and we don’t know what would have happened, but the point of the lyric is that she *didn’t.*  And I don’t think it was because she was dainty and weak.  It’s because she was young and human and had a choice.

Rape is described euphemistically in some ballads and openly in others, and in some variants of Child 4 the act is certainly rape – but one is rarely left to wonder as to what really happened even if the description is muted.  This verse is not so clear a formulation. The euphemism is not an obvious reference to rape.  My feeling is that this part of the song is doing more than warning of men’s physical and sexual aggression   A subtler reading would make more sense to a young woman who felt the temptation of physical intimacy with young men, even if her morals dictated that such was sinful.  That’s a *real life* situation that would grab a girl’s attention, as opposed to simple finger-wagging about bad and lustful men.  It’s the start of a compassionate lesson.

In other words, this proper tall young William did indeed charm her and he didn’t need magic.  The lesson for that part?  ‘He was handsome, he seduced her, and she fell for him – and that could happen to you!’  Note as well that the first thing he tells her after she rises in the next verse is that he’ll marry her.  So, even if she’s pregnant it’s going to be ok!  Everything about the story up to that point is an old fashioned version of a Hollywood romance.  And it’s too good to be true, of course.  Shall I keep going with the lesson?  ‘Some men will tell you anything to get what they want, and you’re liable to believe them.’

That assignment of agency to Polly is not judgement, and is perfectly compatible with an Appalachian view of women, at least as I know it in my family.  In my young life, my father (who grew up on the immigrant streets of Brooklyn) was the one that taught me about honor and hard work, but my mother and grandmother were actually the stronger ones.  I was shocked when I first stayed over at a friend’s house and his dad was the one calling the shots. Anyway, let’s get on with all that.

Oh turn yourself all around and about…

If you have any doubt about Polly’s agency in this variant, we see in the next verses that she is willing and quick to take gold and horseflesh from her parents in order to go and marry William.  In for a penny, in for a pound, I suppose.  Perhaps she feels entitled to a dowry; that might have made more sense in a different time.  But, either way, no one’s forcing her – she grabs the gold and the horses and off they go.

Again, in other versions where she is magically charmed there is no question that she’s relieved of guilt.  But you’ll notice here, interestingly, that nothing in this song takes her to task for such actions morally.  The whole mess is designed to set the listener up to see what happens in the here and now when Polly chooses poorly.  As the typical listener I think in this local tradition is supposed to be a daughter or a granddaughter, Polly herself is not judged and the question of guilt before God is left to the imagination.  This I suspect is critical if you want your daughter to actually hear the lesson you’re trying to teach!

The ugly truth, and the fine point of the ballad, becomes clear soon enough.  They stop after a long while and she is facing her death at a seaside cliff, far from home, at the hands of what we would call today a serial killer.  Here’s where things get even weirder.

Shift: English, mid 18th century, linen. Corset & side hoop: English, 1770-80 & 1778, silk damask, linen. Victoria and Albert Museum VandA Images, London / Art Resource, NY

Shift: English, mid 18th century, linen. Corset & side hoop: English, 1770-80 & 1778, silk damask, linen. Victoria and Albert Museum VandA Images, London / Art Resource, NY

As in most versions of the ballad in English, the false man demands his victim’s fine clothing before he pushes her in to the water.  She acquiesces, but therein sees her opportunity to save herself.  First her dress, then her stays (corset) come off.  When down to her final undergarment, her smock (or shift), she makes her move.

Declaring her modesty, and in this variant her disrespect for his lies, she demands that he turn around so as not to see her naked body.  Remarkably, as in most versions in English, he does.

And, as in most versions in English, at that very moment she sends him to ‘sleep with the fishes.’  In this case, she actually picks him up and throws him!  Now, those of you who find that part unrealistic obviously never met my mother.

There is, however, good cause to wonder what sort of evil killer would be respectful enough of his victim’s modesty to turn around.  Even if he believed she wouldn’t escape naked, or couldn’t harm him, why would he bother?

I think the long and short of it is that the song can’t work unless he falls for her trick.  Child points out that this bit suggests the magical nature of the killer.  “The success of this trick no doubt implies considerable simplicity on the part of the victim of it; not more, however, than is elsewhere witnessed in preternatural beings, whose wits are frequently represented as no match for human shrewdness.”  In other words, elves are really gullible.

However, we’ve already established that the magic is gone from this ballad in Madison County.  There is not even an implication of such supernatural elements.  What you see is what you get, and I suspect that the stupidity of William in this instance was basically meant to be seen as dumb luck, and realistically too good to be true.  I could be wrong, but I think that unrealistic element is key here.  Polly gets away with her life for two reasons; her own strength and wiles, and her would-be killer’s stupidity.  That stupidity is, however, unrealistic; a fluke.

The lesson?  ‘If you want to make it in this life, you need to be strong and clever.  And for God’s sake, use your brains *before* you get yourself tied up with some man that promises you the world but wants to do you wrong, because if you find yourself in a really bad spot, you probably won’t be as lucky as this Polly.”

How would a mountain girl know that last bit is true?  Well, let’s not forget, this is just one ballad in a deep tradition.  There are true stories too – murder ballads like “Omie Wise, “Cold Rain and Snow“, and a dozen others – to let a girl know just what a bad man can do and even get away with in this world.

This one gives her something different, though.  It isn’t about the fear or about the fact that the weak, poor woman needs protection, at least not as we hear it delivered by Sheila Kay Adams.  This one gives a girl hope – ‘be smart, be strong, and watch out for false men, and you’re going to be ok.’


Alright, what about that other Polly?  I mean that parrot!  We’re going to take a look at him next.  I intend to stay close to home again for that post, using Jean Ritchie’s version of “False Sir John” as our springboard.  Maybe in another week we’ll do a bit of travelling too and find out some more about this ballad in other parts of the world.  In the meantime, check out Jean’s version and start doing your own thinking about how her family’s Appalachian variant compares to Sheila’s.

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