A Cage of Beaten Gold – “False Sir John”

Golden Cage 4 - acrylics on canvas. 2008 by Fareha Zeba

Golden Cage 4 – acrylics on canvas. 2008 by Fareha Zeba

This is the second post concerning the ballad Child 4.  See also Part 1.


In my first post this week, I looked briefly at the history of the ballad Francis Child cataloged as his #4, known by many names; “Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight”, “False Sir John”, “May Colvin”, “The Outlandish Knight”, etc.  I spent the bulk of that post interpreting Sheila Kay Adams’s version of the song, learned from her mother as part of the ballad tradition in Madison County, North Carolina.

Though my conclusions in detail may not precisely hit the mark, I believe overall that the message of the ballad as she delivers it is straightforward and clear – and meant specifically for a young woman.  Be smart, be strong, and watch out for false men, and you’re going to be okay.

Today though, as I mentioned in the first post, I want to figure something out about that parrot!  If you haven’t read that post, you need to know that many versions of Child 4 in English end with our heroine (we’ll call her May Colvin, instead of Polly, for disambiguation in this post) negotiating with her parrot to keep silent from her father all of her day’s exploits; especially the part about murdering that young man, or so we assume.

Now, I’m not an advocate for parrots per se, I just think there’s something more there. For example, women with parrots are a fairly common theme in art.  That’s obviously not random, and a simple online dive reveals a great deal about the symbolism.  I don’t propose a deep exploration of all that – though I find it fascinating.  But I don’t think a parrot shows up accidentally in a ballad any more than it does on an artist’s canvas.   So, I just want to see if I can get that pretty bird to tell us a little more about what May Colvin really needs to keep secret.

False Sir John a wooing came…

We don’t need to go far from western Carolina to find a different variant, and one with the nosy bird at that.  Jean Ritchie’s “False Sir John” is an example of Child 4 from Perry County in eastern Kentucky, about a hundred miles away from Madison County as the crow flies; way on the other side of the Cumberland Gap if you’re travelling by foot or hoof.

Part of Jean’s introduction to the ballad in her songbook supports my ‘big picture’ read on Sheila Kay Adams’ version – it may be cautionary, but this is not a ballad that wags fingers at young women.  It speaks their language – at least it seems to have in the eastern mountains in the last century or two.

“…Being a woman, I have always liked this one…our hills are full of the beautiful and sad laments of maidens loved and deserted.  This is one of the few songs in which we get even!”

You can read her full introduction and her lyrics here.

YouTube version of “False Sir John” by Jean Ritchie

In the liner notes for Ritchie’s album, Kenneth Goldstein states that the plot of this variant best matches that categorized by Tristram Coffin in The British Traditional Ballad in North America as “Story Type A” for Child 4.

“A knight, or other deceiver, convinces the seventh daughter to rob her family and elope with him. He leads her to the water where he has drowned her six sisters. When he requests her to remove her valuable robe (other objects may be added or substituted) before she dies, she makes him turn around that he may not see her naked. (Sometimes she asks him to clear brambles or give her an opportunity to pray.) He complies, and she pushes him in the stream to drown. After she returns home and puts the money back, a parrot questions her concerning her activities. By the promise of an elaborate cage, she convinces him not to tell on her. Thus, when the king asks the parrot what the fuss is, he replies a cat has been around his cage.”

So, except for the parrot, the plot is essentially the same as Adams’ version.  But if you drill down to the lyrics you’ll see how different they are in some ways.

For reference, here is Sheila Kay Adams’s version, as well as a link to her lyrics.

Appalachian communities were almost fully isolated from one another until the Civil War, and a hundred miles might as well have been a thousand for most of the common folks living thereabouts in those days. We saw in the last post that this is one of the oldest ballads extant in the English language, so we can be almost certain that variants of it went west with the folks who followed Daniel Boone and in every emigrant wave thereafter.  The differences between these two Appalachian variants then are remarkable, but not surprising.  Still, such subtleties matter in the way one hears the song – and, perhaps in the deeper message.

Until he gained her low consent…

Ritchie’s version feels older, though I have no direct evidence.  It’s longer than Adams’, 17 stanzas to 12, though that alone proves nothing.  Still, more is made in Ritchie’s version of the heroine’s class and wealth (“her father’s only heir”) and the villain has a noble title, “Sir John”, instead of just a name and description as a “proper tall young man” as in Adams’. This perhaps suggests a more immediate connection to an old world provenance.  And the lyrics overall seem more ‘decorative’ and less direct, though we can’t know for sure if that indicates relative age.  Either way it seems clear that, though it sits geographically to the west, this variant is not derived from the one that Adams sings.  There are just too many differences.

Young Woman at Piano - 1878, oil on panel Julius LeBlanc Stewart

Young Woman at Piano – 1878, oil on panel
Julius LeBlanc Stewart

Adams’s version uses euphemism and suggestion to describe their sexual liaison, as discussed in my first post, while Ritchie’s seems to leave it out altogether.  In Ritchie’s, the knight woos May Colvin ‘until he gains her low consent to mount and ride away.’  I’m at a loss to explain the phrase “until he gained her low consent”, so I suppose that leaves open the possibility that she agreed to ride off with him after a sexual encounter.  But it just doesn’t strike me that way – my gut tells me the meaning of the phrase is something more like ‘she went with him for the wrong reasons’.  If anyone has insight, please comment!

Whether they consummate their relationship or not, as in Adams’ version May Colvin rides away willingly with her suitor, and not empty-handed.  She takes her parents’ gold and horses clearly of her own free will.  Nothing else here suggests that May Colvin has been charmed by magic as in many of the old world variants.  Goldstein’s notes for Ritchie’s recording suggest that such is the case for most examples collected in the early 20th century, American or European.  (The liner notes were written in 1961.)

The sentient parrot though persists on both continents. But before we get to that strange ending, there is one other difference in these two Appalachian versions that feels significant.

In Ritchie’s version, May Colvin kills Sir John by pushing him in to the water with her “tender little arms.”  She is strong of spirit, but not of body as Polly is in Adams’ version where she “manfully” throws William to his watery grave.  How do we know then that Ritchie’s May Colvin is strong of spirit?  In this variant, and not Adams’, we see a strand common in others wherein the false knight begs for her help to be saved.  He promises to take her home if she rescues him. But she has none of it, no matter how pitiful his pleas – she tells him the bed he has now is as cold as what he’d meant to give her – and she leaves him to drown.  Strong of spirit, indeed!

So, both young women are heroines that save themselves, but Ritchie’s May Colvin plays the traditionally weak English maiden while Adams’ Polly appears much more like a strong American farm girl than a dainty young gentle lady.  It would seem then that our heroine’s physical strength is a variable that a rationalizer or confabulator might tweak to make a point, set a tone, or identify a social norm or ideal.

I’ll buy you a cage of beaten gold with spokes of ivory…

So, May Colvin kills the man that would have killed her, then rides one horse back and leads the other carrying her parents’ gold.  At daybreak she makes it home and finds herself interrogated by her bird, and therein enters an ultimately successful negotiation to keep him from ‘singing’.  (Ritchie’s version only implies it, but there are variants wherein the parrot goes on to lie to May’s father on her behalf, after the bribe of course.)

Tempting Sweets - 1924, Oil on Canvas Robert Lewis Reid

Tempting Sweets – 1924, Oil on Canvas
Robert Lewis Reid

Then up spoke that little parrot,
said, “May Colvin, where have you been?
And what have you done with false Sir John
that went with you riding?”

“Oh, hold your tongue my pretty parrot,
and tell no tales on me,
and I’ll buy you a cage of beaten gold
with spokes of ivory.”

We’ve seen birds before in the blog, most notably in “Young Hunting” (and again in the second part of Shaleane’s work on that ballad.)  In that ballad, the bird witnesses a man’s murder at the hands of a jealous lady, though that bird refuses the bribe for his silence.  Indeed, many traditional and Child ballads include birds, and often specifically parrots, in their narrative.  Of course, since that’s true, it turns out that folklorists and ballad scholars have been trying to get those birds to sing for awhile now!  Some posit that they say little or nothing in the narratives, and others see worlds of meaning in their voices.

I instinctively fall on the side of the latter.  As Barre Toelken wrote, “Trusting that parrots have not fallen into the ballads by mere coincidence, I see no reason to view them simply as the live ancestors of our plastic yard flamingos; indeed, I believe there is persuasive evidence that a ballad parrot provides symbolic depth in addition to its use as a communicative device.”  To what will no doubt be your great relief, I’m not going to outline all that here.  Instead I’ll pick the interpretation that comes closest to what I’ve felt in my amateur, untrained mind as I considered the parrot in this ballad over the last several days.  It connects to that piece of art by Fareha Zeba with which I started today’s post.

My intuition told me in listening to Ritchie’s and other versions of the ballad that the parrot was somehow a reflection of May Colvin, perhaps her conscience.  Certainly the bird in “Young Hunting” refuses to let the woman off the hook for her foul crime, even with the bribe, whereas May Colvin’s bird in this group of variants is more than willing to let the mortal sin of murder slide for a shiny new cage.  That interpretation may be too psychologically modern for a medieval ballad.  Perhaps it functions more simply as a moral signal to the listener; ‘hey, if the parrot’s cool with it, you should be too!’  I am not satisfied with either of those as a full explanation, though I see some truth in both.

When, in looking for eye-candy for this post, I stumbled on Fareha Zeba’s painting, I knew I’d found the visual representation of my intuitive read on the parrot.  But how to put it in to words?

I was feeling that, despite the celebration of the heroine’s wiles and her spiritual or physical strength, there is still an ultimately stifling view of womanhood embedded in the narrative.  Really, the young woman is the one in the cage.  It’s a pretty cage – lavish even – but boy was she willing to fly the coop for the promise of something fun and exciting; for the promise of freedom!  She managed to get out of a bad spot when her new-found freedom turned potentially lethal, and that’s the most thrilling part of the plot – but the whole song only resolves happily when she finally makes it back to her father’s house, safe and sound.  In other words, ‘Come on girls, Daddy’s cage isn’t so bad, is it?

The Caged Bird - 1907, oil on panel - John Byam Liston Shaw

The Caged Bird – 1907, oil on panel – John Byam Liston Shaw

Of course, I knew if scholars have been writing about birds in ballads for awhile, and even this particular parrot in Child 4, I would neither be the first to say this nor the most articulate in its expression.  And I was right.  Let me close with Barre Toelken’s words then from What the Parrots Tell Us That Child Did Not: Further Considerations of Ballad Metaphor“, in The Folklore Historian, Volume 14.  Note that Toelken is considering those versions as well where the parrot goes further and lies for the girl, often by telling the father he’s making noise because a cat came after him and May Colvin is up because she saved him.

“What does this ending mean in terms of the ballad action?  As far as simple communication goes, it means that the would-be victim is safely back in her parents’ house without having to worry about punishment for having run off, having endangered her life and virtue, and having potentially been lost to her father’s royal family.  But why couldn’t the potential tattletale be a younger sister or a servant? – they abound in other ballads.  What does a parrot offer to this scene that a nosy sister would not?  And why wouldn’t an earnest bribe offer something a parrot would like – such as great food or even a companion parrot?

For one thing, the parrot (potentially suggestive of sexuality) being saved from a predator who was “a thief I could not see” is certainly parallel to the heroine’s situation.  The endangered king’s daughter is now back in her castle; the parrot is in a cage (and has the promise of an even better one).  Both are single, potentially vulnerable actors protected from predatory intrusion by the proverbial idea…  that “safety is better than freedom.”  Clearly the cage (its gold and ivory of much greater value to humans than to parrots) is far more than a convenient bribe:  it is a metaphor for a human condition within a culturally constructed set of values.”

So, the secret that bird is really keeping is deeper than the narrative.  It’s one we’ve got to out and come to grips with if we really want to understand why these murder ballads have meant so much to us and survived.  I wonder, for example, if the bird ceased to be useful in the Madison County version because that wasn’t a lesson the people thereabouts wanted to stress over the simpler positive message to their young women.  (Of course, Sheila may just have forgotten that verse as well, or dropped it herself for her own reasons.)

Beyond this ballad and that bird, we need to get at what it means to be a woman as defined in the traditional ballads if we want to help them find a new context for survival today.


There is a great deal more to talk about with Child 4, but I promised myself this year I’d try not to bite off more than I can chew in the blog, particularly with the Child Ballads.  I barely succeeded this time!  I’ll satisfy myself, and hopefully you, with the promise of coming back to this incredibly interesting ballad after I’ve spent more time listening and reading.  In the meantime, I hope you’ve enjoyed listening to our two variants this week and reading my little musings.

It’s risky to be a man and try to write about these things – I know I have blind spots and I’m more than willing to take my lumps in comments below.  Please!  I think we’d all benefit.  I’d only ask that you not toss me off the cliff into the cold, deep water.  I’m just trying to do what I can to see that golden cage, even if it takes a woman’s strength to turn the ivory key.

Thanks for reading folks!

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