This week, the Celtic year comes to a close, the clocks are turned back (at least here in England), and the nights are drawing in. Halloween is approaching: the time of the year when the borders between the worlds grown thin, when the dead return, the old gods stir, and the faeries ride in procession through mortal lands. In honor of the dark, dangerous aspects of British folklore, our music this week is drawn from the bloodier side of the ballad tradition: songs of murder and mayhem, seduction and sorrow, treachery and tragedy. Such ballads are our ancestors' version of the horror stories and films that so many people shiver to today.
Above, "The Outlandish Knight" (also known as "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight"), Child Ballad No. 4, recently performed by singer/songwriter Kate Rusby, from Yorkshire. If you are unfamiliar with the Child Ballads, go here for a previous post on the subject.
Below, "Johnny o' Bredislee" (also known as "Johnny the Brine"), Child Ballad No. 114. This version comes from Aleyn, the eleventh solo album by the great June Tabor, from Warwickshire. No one does dark balladry better than June.
Above, a fine rendition of "Twa Corbies" ("Two Ravens"), Child Ballad No. 26, by Old Blind Dogs, from north-east Scotland. It's from their second album, Close to the Bone.
Below, "The Bold Knight" performed by Seth Lakeman, from Devon, backed up by the BBC Concert Orchestra. It's an original song in ballad form, reminiscent of "Twa Corbies" but based on a local Dartmoor folk tale.
Above, "Reynardine," a broadside ballad dating back at least to the 18th century. This version comes from Country Life, the ninth studio album by Show of Hands, who are also from Devon. It's a song about a murderous, shape-shifting were-fox, related to the Mr. Fox folk.
Below, "Clyde Waters" (also known as "The Drowned Lovers"), Child Ballad No. 216, a bittersweet song that crossed the ocean centuries ago with Scottish immigrants to the New World, and then turned into a bluegrass ballad in the Appalachian mountains of eastern America. It's performed here by Anaïs Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer , from Vermont and Colorado respectively, and can be found on their album Child Ballads (2013), which I highly recommend.
If you'd like more malicious music this morning, try June Tabor's "Hughie Graeme," Alela Diane & Alina Hardin's "Matty Groves," Martin's Carthy's "The Famous Flower of Serving Men," Lucy Ward's Patti-Smith-like rendition of "Lord Randall" and his eels; Emily Smith's performance of a perversely upbeat version of "Twa Sisters," and Jim Moray's performance of the extremely creepy "Long Lankin." The painting above is an illustration of "Twa Corbies" by Arthur Rackham.
For fairy ballads in the run-up to Hallowe'en, I recommend this episode of Tamsin Rosewell's folk radio show: "My Folk and Their Friends, on the subject of Fairies and Folklore."