"Into the Woods" series, 48: The Child Ballads (Part II)
Blessing the dark and the light

Tunes for a Monday Morning

John William Waterhouse

We're starting the week with a clutch of murderous, melancholy, and magical tunes from the British Isles, since after discussing the ballad collections of Francis James Child on Thursday and Friday, what else could we have but ballads this morning?

Above, Scottish singers Caorolyn Allan and Jenny Keldie sing "The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry," Child Ballad No. 113, and explain its meaning on the BBC programme "Scotland's Music, with Phil Cunningham." There are also many other fine recordings of this song, including "The Great Selchie" by American folk singer Judy Collins, "The Grey Silkie" by Scottish folk singer Jean Redpath,  "The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry" by English folk singer June Tabor, "The Grey Selchie" by the Irish band Solas, and "The Great Selchie" by Breton harpist Cécile Corbel.

Below, Scottish singer Emily Smith performs "My Darling Boy," a variant of "The Trees Grow High." This classic ballad, I was surprised to learn, doesn't appear in the Child Ballad collections, but it is listed in the Roud Folk Song Index. Other good versions of the song include recordings by Joan Baez, Pentagle, Martin Carthy, and Bright Young Folk (John Boden & Fay Hield).

Next:

"Annachie Gordon," Child Ballad No. 239, performed by The Unthanks, featuring the smoky-voiced singers Rachel and Becky Unthank from Northumbria. Other versions include a classic rendition by the great Irish singer Mary Black, a version adapted for harp by Canadian musician and Celtic music scholar Loreena McKennitt, and a lovely performance of "Annachie" by former members of The Unthanks, Jackie Oates (Jim Moray's sister) & Belinda Hooley.

Fourth:

"Two Sisters," Child Ballad No. 10, sung by Emily Portman, from Glastonbury (audio only). There are many good versions of this song, including Pentangle's classic version "Cruel Sister," Emily Smith's  "Twa Sisters,"  Méav Ní Mhaolchatha's "Wicked Sister," Clannad's "Two Sisters,"  Loreena McKennitt's "The Bonny Swans," Julie Fowlis' "Wind and Rain" (in Gaelic and English), "Wind and Rain" by the Irish band Altan, and "Wind and Rain" by the American band Crooked Still.

Fifth:

A contemporary take on "Lord Bateman," Child Ballad No. 53, from Jim Moray's lovely album Sweet England (audio only). There's are also gorgeous recordings of the song by Chris Wood, Susan McKeown, and The Askew Sisters, a traditional a cappella version sung by Arthur Knevett, and an Appalachian variant sung by Jean Ritchie.

Sixth:

A very contemporary take on "Lord Randall," Child Ballad No 12, by Roanoke, a new trio from Rome, Italy (Ilaria Paladino, vocals; Nicola Alianellos, guitar; Marcello Puggioni, percussion). For more traditional versions of the song, try Martin Carthy's classic English rendition, Jean Ritche's Appalachian rendition, and Emily Smith's variant, "Lord Donald."

(For another decidedly untraditional performance of a Child Ballad, see Sam Lee's strange and brilliant "The Ballad of George Collins," also known as "Clerk Covill," Child Ballad No. 42.)

And last:

"The Outlandish Knight" (also known as "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight" and "May Colven"), Child Ballad No. 4, performed by Kate Rusby, from Yorkshire. In addition to the classic Nic Jones rendition (1970), there are also terrific versions by Emily Smith, Kadia, Sileas, and Jon Boden's exuberant band Bellowhead.

If you're up for a little more this morning, I recommend "Why aren't we all folk singers?" -- a TED talk by musician and folk music scholar Fay Hield.

John William Waterhouse
Art by John William Waterhouse (1849-1917)

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