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Blood & Roses Volume 1

by Ewan MacColl & Peggy Seeger

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Now Liddesdale has ridden a raid He'd hat done better to bide at hame; For Michael o' Whinfield he is deid And Jock o' the Side is prisoner ta'en And Jock o' the Side is prisoner ta'en His mither's awa' by the waterside, She's kilted her kirtle abune her knee, And when she cam' tan Mangerton The tears were rinnin' doon frae her e'e. The tears were rinnin' doon frae her e'e. "Whit news, whit news?" the Laird he cried, "O, whit's the news ye've brocht tae me?" The news is ill, my brither dear, For Michael is deid end they've ta'en my Johnny. For Michael is deid end they've ta'en my Johnny. O never ye fear, my sister dear, For I tide cows and ewes fu' many; My barns and byres are a' weel-filled And I'll gie them a' to save our Johnnie. And I'll gie them a' to save our Johnnie. There's three o' my men will ride the nicht, A' harnessed wi' Toledo steel; The English dogs'll rue the day, They'll aye remember our Johnnie weel. They'll aye remember our Johnnie weel. The Laird's Jock, ane, and the Laird's Wat, twa, And Hobbie Noble the third will be; Thy coat is blue but ye hae been true Since England banished thee to me. Since England banished thee to me. Noo, Jock, my man, hear whit I say, Ye'll shod your horses wrang way roond: And it's no' like gentry ye will ride, But gang like beggars upon the ground. But gang like beggars upon the ground. Ye will nae show your Spanish blades, But cover them a' wi' beggin' weeds, And ye will gang like country loons And ride bare-backed upon your steeds. And ride bare-backed upon your steeds. And when they cam' tae Newcastle toon, Jock cried: "The gates we maun ding doon.' But the porter stood on the wall. sae high And cried, "Ye canna come in the toon." And cried, "Ye canna come in the toon." Jock's lowpit doon frae his horse's back And wrung the keeper's neck in twa; They've ta'en his life and they've ta'en his keys And cast his body ahint the wa'. And cast his body ahint the wa'. And when they cam' to Newcastle jail Unto the prisoner they did ca': "Sleep ye or wake ye, Jock o' the Side? "We've come to carry ye ower the wa'." "We've come to carry ye ower the wa'." O, wha is it there that speaks sae big To Jock o the Side, wha lies in chains? I sleep saft and I wake aft And I doubt that I'll ever be free again. And I doubt that I'll ever be free again. Fifteen stane o' iron chains And bolted bars they've laid on me; Though a' Liddesdale were here the nicht I fear they never could set me tree. I fear they never could set me tree. O, haud your tongue noo, Jock o' the Side We need nae mair but just us three; Ye work within and we'll work without, For we hae promised to set ye free. For we hae promised to set ye free. The firstan door that they Cam' tae, They opened the lock without the key; And Hobbie he kicked the next door doon, Says, "Come awe', Jock, it's time to leave." Says, "Come awe', Jock, it's time to leave." The Laird's Jock broke the iron bands, And Jock o' the Side on his back he's ta'en. And he's gene lowpin' doon the stairs Wi' Jock o' the Side and the iron chain. Wi' Jock o' the Side and the iron chain. Noo, Hobbie he said tae the Laird's ain Jock "Some o' the weight ye may lay on me." "ye needna bother yoursel'," said Jock. "I count him as licht as a bumblebee." "I count him as licht as a bumblebee." Then oot o' Newcastle they a' did ride, Jock o' the Side and his kinsmen three; And they're awa' through the broken yetts Rantin' and singin' sae wantonly. Rantin' and singin' sae wantonly. O Jock, ye ride sae winsomely, Wi' baith o' your feet hingin' on ae aide; Your chains they ring like weddin' bells, O Jock, my man, you're a bonnie bride. O Jock, my man, you're a bonnie bride. And when they cam' tae the river-side The water o' Tyne ran like the sea; And the Laird's raft Wat, he roared and grat, "We'll a' be drooned and I'm feared to dee,' "We'll a' be drooned and I'm feared to dee,' "Come fire or flood," says the Laird's ain Jock, "There's nae man dees afore his time." And he's led them into the roarin' flood, And they hae crossed the water o' Tyne. And they hae crossed the water o' Tyne. They scarce had won to the northern side When they heard the cries o' men behind; And they mocked and fleered at the English loons Wha daurna cross the water o' Tyne. Wha daurna cross the water o' Tyne. The sergeant o' the English troop, Says, "Tak' your man, let him gang free; Tak' your man to Liddesdale. But leave his fetters, I pray, to me." But leave his fetters, I pray, to me." "C'wa' wi' that!" says the Laird's ain Jock, "Shoon for my guid grey mare they'll be. "She carried them ower the water o' Tyde "And I'm sure she's bought them dear fae thee." "And I'm sure she's bought them dear fae thee." Then they hae rid to Liddesdale, Just as fast as they could ride; And when they cam' to Liddesdale They cast the chains frae Jock o' the Side. They cast the chains frae Jock o' the Side. They filled a bowl wi' the guid red wine, And after that they filled anither; And aye the toasts birled roond and round Just as if they had been brither and brither. Just as if they had been brither and brither.
It's of an old and wealthy man, He had a daughter and her name was Ann. She were handsome, fine and tall, She had a loving face withal. Sing lady, lady, lady fair, Many a suitor had she there; A widow's son of low degree, Among them all, she fancied he. Sing courting, courting, courting cane, There's many a courtship all in vain, For when her father came to know He sent her far, O, far from home. One night as she were lying down, The quiet loosening of her gown; She heard a low and deathly sound, Says, "Loose my bonds, I'm earthly bound." She looked out of her window clear, She seen her love on her father's mare; Here's your mother's cloak, here's your father's roan They sent me here, love, to bring you home. He's mounted up, she's on behind, And they rode on with contented mind; But all along complaint he make, "O love, O love, my head do ache." Her handkerchief from her neck around, She bound it round his head, around; He set her down at her father's door, Then her true love she saw no more. "Awake, awake, awake!" said she, "Is no-one here for to welcome me?" "You're welcome home, dear child," said he, "But what trusty friend did come for thee?" Did you not send one I do adore, That love so dear, and must love no more? Her father frowned and shook his heed, Says, "'Your true love been one year dead." He's summoned clerk and clergy too, That grave was opened and him to view; And though he had been a twelvemonth dead, Her handkerchief was bound round his head. So a warning to you old folks still: Don't hinder young ones from their will. The first they love they'll never forget, Though he he dead, she'll love him yet.
O Willie stands at his ha' door, And aye he straiked his milk-white steed; And then oot over his white fingers, His nose began to bleed. O mither, gie my horse its corn, Gie some meat to my servant man; For I'm awe' to Maggie's bower, I'll in ere she lies doon. O, Willie, bide this nicht at hame, Bide this nicht at hame wi' me; And the bestan sheep in a' the fauld For your supper ye shall hae. Ye can keep your sheep and a' your flocks, For them I wouldna gie a pan; For I'm awa' to Maggie's bower, And this nicht I'll win in. Gin ye should gang to Maggie's bower It will be sair against my will; The deepest hole in Clyde's water My malison ye'll fill. Then he rode up yon high, high hill, And he rode doon yon dowie glen; The rush that was in Clyde's water Vas white before his e'en. O Clyde, sae loud and wild ye roar, Your waters they rin wide and deep; Gin ye permit me to gang over, A tryst wi' you I'll keep. Then he rode on tae Maggie's bower, And he has tirled low at the pin; Sleep ye or wake ye, my dear Maggie, O rise, and let me in. O, wha's it stands at my ha' door, And wha is it kens me by my name? It is your ain true love, your Willie That's newly tome frae hame. Open the door, O Maggie, dear, Open the door and let me in; For my shoon are fu' o' Clyde's water And I'm shivering to the chin. My barns are fu' o' corn, Willie, And a' my byres they are fu' o' hay; My bower is fu' o' gentlemen, And they'll bide here till day. Then fare ye weel, my fause true love, Fare ye weel and a Ling adieu; I got my mither's malison This nicht when I cam' to you. Then he's gane up yon high, high hill, And he rode doon yon dowie glen; The rush that was in Clyde's water Took the whip frae Willie's hand. The rush that was in Clyde's water Took his hat from him by force; The rush that was in Clyde's water Took Willie frae his horse. Just at the hour young Willie fell Into the hole sae wide and deep, Then awoke his ain dear Maggie, Oot o' her drowsy sleep. Come here, come here, O mither dear, Mither, come here and read my dream: I dreamed my love stood at our ha' door, And nane would let him in. Lie doon, lie doon, my Maggie dear, Maggie, lie doon and tak' your rest; Your ain true love was at our ha' door, No' twa quarters past. Then nimbly, nimbly she rose up; "Willie!" she cried, "O turn again!" But the higher that the lady cried, The louder blew the wind. The firstan step the lady took She steppit in untae the quoit; The nextan step the lady cried, "Your water's' wondrous deep!" The nextan step the lady took She steppit in unto the chin; The deepest hole in Clyde's water She found young Willie in. Willie, ye'd a cruel mither, And a cruel ane had I; But we will cheat them baith, my Willie, In Clyde's waters we will lie.
I warn you all, you ladies fair, That do wear red and brown, That you don't leave your father's house To run with a boy from town. For here am I, a lady fair, That did wear red and brown, And I did leave my father's house To run with a boy from town. He's mounted on his big white horse And fast away rode he; She dressed herself like a little footboy She ran at the horse's knee. And when they came to the river's edge That ran so deep and wide; "O, will you swim?" her lover said, "Or hang on the horse's side?" The very first step that lady took, It reached up to her knee; "O alas, alas!" that lady said, "I fear you're drownding me! "Lie still, lie still, my baby dear, "Don't work your mother woe; "Your father's high on high horseback He cares not for us two." But when they came to the other side, She's mounted on a stone; He's turned around his big white horse And took her on behind. O, do you see yon high castel That shines so white and free? There is a lady in that castel That will part you and me. 9 She will eat the good white bread You will eat but corn; And you will set and curse the hour Ever you was born. "If there's a Lady in that castel "That will part you and I; "The day I see her," EIlen said, "That day I will die." Four-and-twenty ladies gay Welcomed the young man home; But the fairest one among them all In the great hall stood alone. And then upspoke his old mother, And a wise woman was she: "Where did you come in with that little footboy "That looks so sad at thee? "Sometimes his cheek is rosy red "Sometimes it's pale and wan; "He looks like a woman deep in love, "Or caught in deadly sin." It makes me smile, my mother dear, To hear them words from thee, That's but a lord's own younger son Who for love have followed me. Rise up, rise up. my little footboy, Go feed my horse his hay. O, that I will, my master dear, Fast as ever I may. She took the hay in her soft, white hands She ran out from the hall, She ran into that great stable And into the horse's stall. And there she did begin to weep, She did begin to mourn, For even among them great horse-feet She had to bear her son. Lie still, lie still, my baby dear, Thou pledge of careless love: I would thy father was a king, Thy mother in her grave. Rise up, rise up, my darling son, Go see how she do fare; For I heard a woman and her baby Calling for your care. Up he rose and down he goes Into the barn went he, "Fear not, fear not, Fair Ellen," he said, "There's no-one here but me," Up he took his little young son, And give to him sweet milk; And up he took Fair Ellen then And dressed her in green silk.
The Injuns stole fair Annie away As she walked by the see; Lord Thomas for her a ransom paid In gold and silver fee. Then he took her, O, to be his dear, No one knew from whence she came. She lived in a mansion house with him, Never told him her name. Make your bed so narrow, Annie, And learn to lie, to lie alone; For I'm going over the far ocean To bring a new, a young bride home. I'm going over the far ocean, To bring a new, a young bride home; With her I can get lands and slaves, With you I did get none. But who will make my wedding feast? Who will pour the red, red wine? Who will welcome in my young bride? She's the darling love of mine. I will make your wedding feast, I will pour the red, red wine; I will welcome in your new bride, You're the darling love of mine. No, the one that welcomes my young bride Must look a maid, a maiden fair, With lace all around her waist so small, And the flowers all among her hair. Come down your hair, your yellow hair, Then comb it back unto a crown, That you may look so fair a maid As when first I brought you home. How can I look so fair a maid, When a maid, a maiden I am none? Have I not borne to you six fair sons, And I am with child again. He's hung a towel on the back of the door, A silken towel on a silver pin; Fair Annie, you may wipe your eyes As you work out and in. When a year was over and past and gone, Fair Annie thought the time was long, When there she seen Lord Thomas' ship, Bringing his bridal home. She took her baby in her arms, And her little son by the hand; Out on her front porch she's gone, For to see how the ship do land. Come down, come down, my mother dear, Come down, come down from the porch so tall; I fear if longer you stand and cry. You'll make yourself to fall. So she took her baby on her hip, And her little son by the hand; And the other five they come a-following along, For to see their father land. "You're welcome, welcome, Lord Thomas," she said, "To your mansion and your farm; "Welcome, welcome, you fair young bride, "For all that's here is yours," Who is that lady, my good lord, She welcomes fairly you and me? That ain't nothing but my housekeeper, Your friend she's going to be. Fair Annie served them all the whole day long, She smiled sweetly upon them all; But when her sons took them toasts all round, Down the tears did fall. When the wedding was over and the feast all gone, And all them guests bound for bed, When the groom and the bonnie bride, In the one bed they were laid. Fair Annie took a banjo in her hand For to play them two to sleep; But ever as she played and sang, Ever did she weep. O, but if my sons was seven grey rats Running on the milkhouse wall - I myself to be a big tom-cat, I soon would worry them all. But if my sons was seven grey wolves, Running in the brushy hill - I myself to be a good hound dog, I soon would chase my fill. But if my sons was seven buck deer, All drinking at the old salt-lick - I would be a good shotsman, I soon would see them kick. Then upspoke the new young bride, From the bride-bed wherein she lay: "Who is that so sadly sing? "Who is that so sweetly play?" What is it ails you, housekeeper? Why do I hear such grief from thee? Have you lost them keys from all about your waist? Is your wedding feast all gone? No, it ain't because my keys are lost, Nor it ain't because my feast is gone; I have lost my own true love, He's married another one. "Come in here,"said the new, young bride, "Dear Annie, sit you down by me; "Tell to me your father's name, dear, "And I'll tell mine to thee." The Lord of Salter was my father, The Lady of Salter my mother dear, Sweet Susan was my own sister, Lord James my brother, too. If the Lord of Salter is your father, It's O, I know he is mine; And you are O, my sister Annie, And my true love is thine. But take your husband, Annie dear, For you been never wronged by me; No more than a kiss from his own sweet lips As we come over the sea. I brought six ships, six bonnie ships, Loaded with dowry to the brim; Five of them I'll leave with you, And the last gonna carry me home again.
There lives a man in Rynie's land And anither in Auchindore, But the bravest lad among them a' Was Lang Johnnie More. Now, Johnnie, he's a growin' lad Fu' sturdy, stout and strang, And the sword that hung by Johnnie's side Was fully ten feet lang. Now, Johnnie was a clever youth A sturdy lad o' might, He was full three yards aboot the waist And fourteen feet in height. Johnnie's gene to London toon To see what he could see; And the fairest lass in a' the lands Fell in love wi' young Johnnie. The news has sane through London toon Till it cam' to the king, That a muckle Scot has won the hairt O' his dochter, Lady Jean. Now, when the king got word o' that, A muckle oath swore he, That Johnnie More should stretch a rope And be hangit on a tree. Now, Johnnie heard the sentence passed, A muckle laugh gied he; While I hae strength to life my sword They'll no' be hangin' me. But the English dogs are cunning rogues And around him they did creep; And they gied him drops o' laudamy While he lay fast asleep. When Johnnie waukened frae his sleep, A sorry hairt had he, Wi' jaws and hands in iron bands And his feet in fetters three. O, whaur will I get a bonnie boy That will win meat and fee? That will rin to my uncle's house At the foot o' Benachie? O, here am I, a bonnie boy Will work for meat and fee; And I'll rin to your uncle's hoose At the foot o' Benachie. When ye come to Benachie, You'll neither chap nor ca'; But you'll ken auld Johnnie stannin' there Three foot abune them a'. Ye'll gie to him this lang letter Sealed wi' my faith and troth; And ye'll bid him bring alang wi' him The lad ca'd Jock o' Noth. And when he cam' to Benachie He would neither chap nor ca', But he kent auld Johnnie stannin there Three feet abune them a'. Whit news, whit news, my little wee boy, You were never here before. Nae news, nae news, but a letter frae Your nephew, Johnnie More. He sends to you this lang letter Sealed his faith and troth; And ye're bidden bring alang wi' ye The lad ca'd Jock o' Noth. Noo, Benachie lies unco' low And the tap o' Noth lies high- But for a' the distance 'tween them twa They heard auld Johnny cry. very And when these twa auld champions cam' A-rinnin' side by side, There were three feet between their brows, And their shouthers three yards wide. They rin ower hills, they rin ower dales, They ran ower mountains high, Until they cam' to London toon At the dawn o' the third day. And when they cam' to London's gates Bound wi' an iron band; Wha should they see but a trumpeter Wi' a trumpet in his hands. O, what's the matter, ye keepers all, And what's the matter within, That the drums do beat and the bells do ring And mak' sic a doleful din. "There's naithin' the matter," the keeper said, "There's naithin' that matters to thee. "But a muckle Scot's to stretch a rope "And this morn he maun dee." Then open the gates, ye keepers proud, Open without delay! But the keeper winked his e'e and said, "I hanna got the key." Open the gates, ye keepers proud, Open without delay! For here's a laddie at my back Frae Scotland's brocht the key. "Ye'll open the gates," says Jock o' Noth, "Ye'll open them when I ca'!" And wi' his foot he has drove in Three yards' breadth o' the wa'. They geed in by Drury Lane And doon by the toon' ha', And there they saw young Johnnie More Stand on the English wall. Ye're welcome here, my uncle dear, Ye're welcome here to me; Come loose the knot and slack the rope And set me frae the tree. O is't for murder or for theft Or is't for robbery? If ye've injured ony wee folk here There's nae remeid for thee. It's no' for murder nor for theft, It's no' for robbery; It's a' for lovin' a bonnie lass They mean to gar me dee. "Then whaur's the lady?" says Jock o' Noth, "It's fain I wad her sea." She's lockit in her ain chamber And the king he keeps the key. So they has gane before the king Wi' courage bold and free, And their armour bricht cast sic a licht It almost blint his e'e. "O whaur's the lass?" says Jock o' Noth, "It's fain we wad her see. "We've come to see her bedded "Fae the foot o' Benachie." "O tak' the lady," says the king, "You're welcome a' for me. "But I never thought to see sic lads "Fae the foot o' Bennachie." "If I'd hae kent," says Jock o' Noth "Ye'd hae been surprised at me, "I'd wad hae brocht my brither, "He's three times as big as me. "Likewise, if I had thocht that I'd "Been sic a fright tae thee, "I'd hae brocht young Jock o' Erskine Park "He's thirty foot and three." "Wae be to the bonnie boy," said the king "That brocht the news to thee. "Let a' England say what it will, "High hangit he shall be." O, if ye hang that bonnie boy That brocht the news to me, We'll come to the funeral And we will bury thee. "O tak' the lady," says the king "And let the bonnie boy be." "A priest, a priest!" young Johnnie cried, "To join my love and me." "A clerk, a clerk!" the king he cried, "To seal her tocher wi'." "We need nae clerk," auld Johnnie said, "We need nae gear fae thee. "For I hoe cows and ewes enough, "And fifty plows and three, "And a hunder horse to pu' them wi' "At the foot o' Benachie." Hae ye any masons at your court Or ony at your ca'? Ye 'd better noo send some o' them To mend your English wa'. So auld Johnnie More and young Johnnie More And Jock o' Noth, a' three, And the English lady and the little wee boy Went back to Benachie.
"Where are you going?" Cried the False, fie the False Fidee; "I'm going to the school," Cried the child, and there still she stood. "Whose sheep are those?" Cried the False, fie the False Fidee; "They're mine and my mother's," Cried the child, and there still she stood. "Which one is mine?" Cried the False, fie the False Fidee; "The one with the blue tail," Cried the child, and there still she stood. "There's nary a one with a blue tail," Cried the False, fie the False Fidee; "And nary a one will you have," Cried the child, and there still she stood. "I wish I had you up a tree," Cried the False, fie the False Fidee; "And a ladder under me," Cried the child, and there still she stood. "I wish I had you on the sea," Cried the False, fie the False Fidee; "And a good ship under me," Cried the child, and there still she stood. "I wish I had you at the well," Cried the False, fie the False Fidee; "And you in the deepest pits of hell," Cried the child, and there still she stood.
It fell aboot the Martinmas time When the wind blew shrill and cauld, Said Edom o' Cordon tae his men, "We maun draw tae some ha'. "Whit ha', whit ha', my merry men? "Whit ha', whit ha'?" quo' he. "I think we'll gang tae Towie's hoose, "And see his fair lady." She thocht it was her ain dear lord That she saw riding hame; But 'twas the traitor, Edom o' Gordon That reeked nee sin nor shame. "Come doon, come doon, Lady Campbell," he said, "And gie your hoose to me; "Or else this nicht I swear I'll burn You and your bairns three." "I winna come doon,", the lady said "For laird nor yet for loon, "Nor yet for ony rank robber "That comes frae Auchendown. "Come here, come here, my Jock," she cried, "And gie my gun tae me. "This nicht I'll malt' a Gordon bleed, "A fause traitor tae dee." The lady, free the battlements, Twa bullets she let flee; But she missed her mark wi' Gordon For it only grazed his knee. "Noo, Lady Campbell," the Gordon cried, "That shot will cost you dear." And he has ca'd the lady's Jock To bring the faggots near. "For seven years," the lady said, "I paid ye weel your fee; "And would ye noo turn Gordon's Jock "And burn my babes and me?" For seven years I served ye weel And ye paid me weel my fee; But noo I am turned Gordon's Jock, I maun either do or dee. Then oot it spak her youngest son, Sat on the nurse's knee: "Open the door and let me oot, "For the reek is choking me." "I would gie a' my land," she said, "My gear and a' my fee, "For ae blast o' yon wastlin' wind "Tae blaw the reek frae thee." Then oot and spak her dochter dear She was baith jimp and sma: "O, row me in a pair o' sheets "And throw me ower the wa'." They've rowed her in a pair o' sheets, And thrown her ower the wa', But on the point o' Gordon's sword She's got a deidly fa'. The Gordon turned her ower and ower, And O, her face was wan; Ye are the first that e'er I slew I wished alive again." The Gordon turned her ower and ower, And O, her face was white; I micht hae spared that bonnie face T'hae been some man's delight. O, wae tae see yon castle brunt That was built wi' stone and lime; And wae for Lady Campbell hersel That was brunt wi' her bairns nine. Three o' them were married wives, And three o' them were bairns, And three o' them were leal maidens That ne'er lay in men's airms.


WHEN IS A BALLAD NOT A BALLAD? WHEN IT HAS NO TUNE. It is with this conundrum and its answer that Bertrand Bronson opened his introduction to The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads. While agreeing with the spirit of the answer, we would go a little further and say that "a ballad is not a ballad until it is sung."

We had been singing ballads for quite a long time when this recording was made. Of the hundred-and-forty albums we had made, more than half have contained at least one or two ballads; and as far as live concerts and clubs are concerned, we have both regarded the ballads as a necessary part of any program.

What is it about the ballads that we find so fascinating? Well, the stories themselves are first rate. They have certainly stood the test of time, and that isn't a bad recommendation. Then again--the poetry can be breathtaking. Most of the ballads we've sung contain some memorable lines: perhaps it is just a phrase, a line of incremental repetition, or it can be an entire stanza: but however brief the moment of pure poetry, it generally generates enough heat and light to radiate an entire ballad. Finally, there is the element of challenge. The mere length of most of the ballads is challenge enough. We sometimes regard them as actors regard the great classic roles of Hamlet, Lady MacBeth, Clytemnestra and King Lear.

On the face of it, the challenge is a formidable one. You are faced with an audience made up of a number of separate individuals who may or may not share anything in common (other than the more or less sophisticated attitude to life and each other, which is the result of long exposure to TV and radio, with its instant news, instant politics, instant simulated passion yelled, sobbed and moaned by a never-ending succession of pop-singers).

And the ballad singer, for the next eight or ten or twelve minutes is going to sing a tale in the form of a long narrative poem organised into twenty or thirty (or more) quatrains, tied to a melody that will be repeated every four lines. Not much room for manoeuvre! Furthermore, the poetry is of a kind that few people in the audience have had the opportunity to become familiar with. It is full of odd usages, repetitions, strange combinations of romantic love and incredible violence. To complicate matters still further, some of the texts are in braid Scots. A challenge indeed...!

Occasionally, the challenge has been taken up with results that have been less than encouraging. "Sir Patrick Spens" with spangles and a rock accompaniment; they have dragged "Barbara Allen", protesting, into the Middle Ages to the (albeit skilled) thrumming of shawns and crumhorns. But the ballads don't lend themselves to this kind of treatment. They don't make good "production numbers". The poetry gets in the way: too much action, too many incidents, and the quality of the language leads to a kind of rock parody. The words of the ballads have something of the feeling of stones fashioned into a smooth perfection by endless tides. Attempts to create settings, arrangements for the poetry only succeed in making it seem overdressed--like putting a silk garter on the Venus de Milo. Also, in a curious way, a ballad appears to have difficulty breathing inside an arrangement, for though the bond that fuses the ballad text and tune into a single whole is oddly flexible and appears to be constantly shifting its centre of gravity, it appears to be unable to function in the proximity of foreign musical influences.

Our own feelings for the ballads are something that we have nurtured throughout most of our joint working life as singers. Time and again we have returned to this or that ballad and discovered

something new in it. Occasionally we have been led to conduct major explorations into territory that we thought we already knew. The end result has been the complete reworking of a ballad...and a new search for the degree of tension to match one's new understanding of the piece. Finding the right amount of tension and sustaining it over thirty or forty stanzas: That's where the skill lies!

And what is tension? It is compounded of many elements. It is the right weight of vocal attack, the weight which best suits the theme and the nature of the ballad; it is the right tempo, the one in which the action of the story has time to unfold without confusing the listener; it is the right pulse, that is the right combination of breathing, articulation, sense and shape of the tune; it is complete empathy with words and music; it is the right length of pause, of silence between the verses, during which both listener and singer make the jump into thinking to a new unit of the story; and finally, it is creative judgment, the singer's knowledge of how far tune and text can be teased out and worked in each performance without destroying any part of the ballad's structure; it is the singer's ability to add colour to a word, to thicken or attenuate a line, to let a hint of harshness creep into the tone, to suggest that somewhere--not far off--there is a laugh lying in wait..and to be able to do all these things without upsetting the delicate balance of the ballad, and, moreover, without the listener being aware that it is being done.

There comes a moment during the singing of a long ballad when everything is working. You have moved into the story crabwise, not giving too much of yourself at first. Then, suddenly, for a moment you are conscious of the people listening, and they are all breathing in time with you! And all around you there is silence, except for the voice guiding you through the ineluctable dark landscape of the ballad.

© Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger (1979)

About Child and Bronson:

The definitive collection of traditional ballad texts was made by Francis J. Child (The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1882-1892, five volumes).

The definitive collection of tunes was made by Bertrand Barris Bronson (The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, Princeton, New Jersey, 1959-1972, four volumes).


released September 12, 1979

Produced by Neill MacColl
Engineered by Nikki Cohen & Nigel Sharpe
Recorded at Pathway Studios, London


all rights reserved



Ewan MacColl London, UK

This site is maintained by the MacColl family, aiming to make Ewan's catalogue available to download.
Ewan MacColl is known to most as a songwriter and singer, but he was also of significant influence in the worlds of theatre and radio broadcasting. His art reached huge numbers through the folk clubs, greater numbers through his recordings and untold millions through the radio. ... more

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