Murder Ballad Comedy, Part 5: “Marrow Bones”

Jean Ritchie recording Seamus Ennis, March 1952 - photograph by George Pickow

Jean Ritchie recording Seamus Ennis, March 1952 – photograph by George Pickow

“There was an old woman from Wexford…”

Almost two years ago, Ken initiated an occasional series for our strange little blog wherein we explored the intersection of murder and comedy in ballads. Between his posts, mine, and Becky’s, we explored mainly 20th century examples of the phenomenon. However, at times we reached back into the world of the traditional ballad to find some funny and disturbing forerunners. My subject today, known as “Marrow Bones” among other titles, falls squarely into those realms – traditional, funny, and just a bit disturbing.

The key to our series is the tension between the taboo and the terribly funny. John Cleese explains it at some length in his inimitable style in this clip on YouTube, but it’s simple enough.  A clever attempt at humor which invokes something taboo, in the loose sense of the word, benefits from the energy created by the anxiety in the audience.  For most people, that anxiety is transmuted to energy when the joke ‘fires off’ – the anxious energy thus augmenting the humor.

While it’s true we’ve found in our explorations that one generation’s idea of taboo comedy might not work for another, the comic mechanism is a constant.  The joke works, or doesn’t, based on how far ‘over the line’ the given taboo is for a given generation of listeners – but the trigger is effectively the same.  Let’s see then if today’s ballad is funny to you.  It may not make you chuckle, but I doubt you’ll find it offensive. Either way, I think you’ll get why it was funny in traditional Anglo and American societies.

Lyrics for “Marrow Bones”                     “Marrow Bones” on Spotify

“She loved her old man dearly, and another one twice as well…”

My introduction to “Marrow Bones” came from a cassette tape I picked up in a bargain bin when I first began exploring folk music back in 1990 or so.  It was an obscure record label and I don’t remember the album title except that it promised something Irish and traditional.  I was game.  On it were recordings that are now easily identified as being those from Seamus Ennis’s 1958 album, The Bonny Bunch of Roses.

I knew little of the Folk Revival in Britain or America when I bought the tape, and nothing of Ennis’s role as one of its founding fathers.  I just knew that I liked what I heard. Indeed, it was that cassette that convinced me to continue to explore traditional Irish music.  One of the songs that was most persuasive in that regard was “Marrow Bones.”  It was just so weird!  By that point I’d heard murder ballads on bluegrass albums, but I’d never really heard a traditional song that so effectively made fun out of murder.

The humor comes essentially verse by verse, starting with the first – “She loved her old man dearly, and another one twice as well.”  The comic effect builds by degrees as the old woman learns how to blind her husband, but he is made aware of her plot by a concerned doctor.  She thinks she gets lucky when he loses his sight, in that he ostensibly decides to kill himself; no need to sneak!  She offers to help him avoid the sin of suicide by assisting him in the grisly task.

Every verse adds a little joke and the refrain maintains the mood but, despite the comedic scaffolding, the anxious tension is still released as great humor in a crescendo of taboo action.  The scheming wife runs to push her sightless husband into the water to drown, but he steps aside instead to let her suffer the fate she intended for him.  The denouement continues as before; the old man tells his wife she can howl all she wants but he can’t see her, then mysteriously he is able to use a barge pole to prevent her from gaining the shore.

It’s not clear if he leaves her to drown, and knowing would lend nothing to the humor of the song.  It’s not really about murder at all.  Indeed, the ‘moral’ of the story is the final comic line, and it’s not overt wagging finger at all.  One imagines that, even if it’s not something that makes you laugh now, both men and women would have found more than a few chuckles from it back in the day.

Now eggs are eggs, and marrowbones
may make your old man blind
But if you want to drown him
you must creep up close behind

It’s the battle of the sexes!  It’s the revenge of the cuckold!   It’s love, pre-industrial style – or divorce, Irish-style!  I know that sounds like a large set of grand conclusions regarding what is, after all, a seemingly simple song.  So, how do I know this song was a big deal and not just some one-off weird Irish ballad?  Because, though I certainly didn’t know so when I first heard it, it’s cataloged and quite well-known beyond Éire.

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