33. Mary Hamilton

I had a little extra free time today, so I took the opportunity to get The Ballad Tree out of the music library. It looks like a really interesting history of balladry, and I’m really looking forward to sitting down and reading it instead of flipping through it waiting for a ballad to catch my eye.

Mary Hamilton is Child 173. I quite liked the version in The Ballad Tree, but when I looked it up, I realized what was missing: there’s an important reason why Mary is condemned to death! So instead, I’ve given the words to version 173G, and the tune from The Ballad Tree, which is almost frighteningly chipper…

033 Mary Hamilton by aliothsan

Mary Hamilton to the church is gone,
With ribbons in her hair;
And the king thought more of Mary
Then any that were there.

Mary Hamilton’s to the preaching gane,
With ribbons on her breast;
And the king thought more of Mary
Than he thought of the priest.

Soon word is through the palace gone,
I heard it told yestereen,
The king loves Mary Hamilton
More than he loves his queen.

A sad tale through the town is gone,
A sad tale on the morrow;
Mary Hamilton has born a babe,
And slain it in her sorrow!

And down then came the old queen,
Her hair with gold was tied:
‘What did you with the wee little babe
That just now loudly cried?’

‘There ne’er was a babe into my room,
And as little designs to be;
‘Twas but a stitch of my sore side,
Came over my fair body.’

‘Rise up now, Mary,’ said the queen,
‘Rise up, and come with me,
For we must ride to Holyrood,
A gay wedding to see.’

The queen was dressed in scarlet fine,
Her maidens all in green;
And every town that they came through
Took Mary for the queen.

But little knew young Mary,
As she rode in the throng,
That she was gone to Edinbro town
Her doom would befall ere long.

When she came to the Netherbow Port,
She laughed both loud and high;
But when she reached the gallows-tree,
The tears blinded her eye.

‘Oh often have I dressed my queen,
And put gold in her hair;
The gallows-tree is my reward,
And shame must be my share!

‘Oh often have I dressed my queen,
And soft, soft made her bed;
And now I’ve got for my reward
The gallows-tree to tread!

‘There’s a health to all gallant sailors,
That sail upon the sea!
Oh never let on to my father and mother
The death that I maun dee!

‘And I charge you, all you mariners,
When you sail o’er the main,
Let neither my father nor mother know
But that I’ll come home again.

‘Oh little did my mother know,
The day she cradled me,
What lands I was to travel in,
Or what death I should die.

‘Last night the queen had four Maries,
This night she’ll have but three;
There’s Mary Seaton, and Mary Beaton,
And Mary Carmichael, and me.’


Here’s another fun bouncy song, from Canada this time, that I found while wandering around the Digital Tradition Database. It’s strongly rhythmic, but somehow isn’t begging for a lot of instrumentation… maybe just finger snaps on the off beats.

NB: the Jew’s Harp is an actual instrument, but has absolutely nothing to do with Jewish people. I don’t know what the stovepipe and bootjack are doing in there either, but they’re objects around the house that could conceivably be pressed into service as percussion instruments… which brings to mind a lively family entertaining themselves while snowbound. (Yep, no Canadian stereotypes here at all.)

032 Rattle on the Stovepipe by aliothsan

Rattle on the stovepipe, bootjack, Jew’s harp
Rattle on the stovepipe, bootjack, Joe!
Rattle on the stovepipe, bootjack, Jew’s harp
Rattle on the stovepipe, bootjack, Joe!

She was kissing, I was wishing
Didn’t know what she was about,
Robbed me of my gold and silver
Then she kicked me, threw me out.


Blue it is a pretty color
‘Fore it gets the second dip,
Young boys when they go a-courting
Very often get the slip.


Ripest apples soon grow rotten
Hottest love will soon grow old,
Pretty fair maids are soon forgotten
Pray, young man, don’t be so bold.


Deepest water running swiftly,
Birds a-flying through the air,
Kiss a young man, go a-courting
Kind sir, I don’t have a care.


Here’s Peggy Seeger singing about good old-timey sexism. I am so lucky that I never had to face anything like this, but it’s not that far distant — my mother has plenty of stories about sexism in finance. It’s important for me and my peers to remember that it used to be this much worse, and also that we’ve still got a ways to go.

When I was a little girl I wished I was a boy
I tagged along behind the gang and wore my corduroy
Everybody said I only did it to annoy
But I was gonna be an engineer

Momma told me, Can’t you be a lady
Your duty is to make me the mother of a pearl
Wait until you’re older, dear, and maybe
You’ll be glad that you’re a girl

Dainty as a Dresden statue
Gentle as a Jersey cow
Smooth as silk, gives creamy milk
Learn to coo, learn to moo
That’s what you do to be a lady now

When I went to school I learned to write and how to read
Some history, geography and home economy
And typing is a skill that every girl is sure to need
To while away the extra time until the time to breed
And then they had the nerve to say, What would you like to be
I says, I’m gonna be an engineer

No, you only need to learn to be a lady
The duty isn’t yours, for to try and run the world
An engineer could never have a baby
Remember, dear, that you’re a girl

So I become a typist and I study on the sly
Working out the day and night so I can qualify
And every time the boss come in he pinched me on the thigh
Says, I’ve never had an engineer

You owe it to the job to be a lady
It’s the duty of the staff for to give the boss a whirl
The wages that you get are crummy, maybe
But it’s all you get cos’ you’re a girl

She’s smart, for a woman
I wonder how she got that way
You get no choice, you get no voice
Just stay mum, pretend you’re dumb
That’s how you come to be a lady today

Then Jimmy come along and we set up a conjugation
We were busy every night with loving recreation
I spent my day at work so he could get his education
And now he’s an engineer

He says, I know you’ll always be a lady
It’s the duty of my darling to love me all her life
How could an engineer look after or obey me
Remember, dear, that you’re my wife

As soon as Jimmy got a job I began again
Then, happy at my turret-lathe a year or so, and then
The morning that the twins were born, Jimmy says to them
Kids, your mother was an engineer

You owe it to the kids to be a lady
Dainty as a dish rag, faithful as a chow
Stay at home, you’ve got to mind the baby
Remember you’re a mother now

Every time I turn around there’s something else to do
It’s cook a meal or mend a sock or sweep a floor or two
I listen in to Jimmy Young, it makes me want to spew
I was gonna be an engineer

Now I really wish that I could be a lady
I could do the lovely things that a lady’s s’posed to do
I wouldn’t nearly mind if only they would pay me
And I could be a person too

What price for a woman?
You can buy her for a ring of gold
To love and obey, without any pay
You get a cook and a nurse, for better or worse
No you don’t need a purse when a lady is sold

But now that times are harder, and my Jimmy’s got the sack
I went down to Vickers, they were glad to have me back
But I’m a third-class citizen, my wages tell me that
And I’m a first-class engineer

The boss he says, We pay you as a lady
You only got the job ’cause I can’t afford a man
With you I keep the profits high as may be
You’re just a cheaper pair of hands

You’ve got one fault, you’re a woman
You’re not worth the equal pay
A bitch or a tart, you’re nothing but heart
Shallow and vain, you got no brain
You even go down the drain like a lady today

I listened to my mother and I joined a typing pool
I listened to my lover and I put him through his school
But if I listen to the boss, I’m just a bloody fool
And an underpaid engineer

I’ve been a sucker ever since I was a baby
As a daughter, as a wife, as a mother and a dear
But I’ll fight them as a woman, not a lady
I’ll fight them as an engineer!

30. Cluck Old Hen

Here’s another fun, rhythmic tune whose words mean little, similar to Shady Grove — in fact, it’s even in the same meter and mode, so they flow together quite naturally, as I discovered while wandering YouTube. (Plus, bonus insight into how to play Dorian on the mountain dulcimer!)

030 Cluck Old Hen by aliothsan

Cluck old hen, cluck and sing
Ain’t laid an egg since ‘way last spring.

Cluck old hen, cluck and squall
Ain’t laid an egg since ‘way last fall.

My old hen’s a good old hen
She lays eggs for the railroad men.

Sometimes one, sometimes two
Sometimes enough for the whole damn crew.

Sometimes nine, sometimes ten
That’s enough eggs for the railroad men.

My old hen, she won’t do
She lays eggs and taters too.

The old hen she’s raised on a farm
Now she’s in the new ground diggin’ up corn.

The first time she cackled, she cackled a lot
Next time she cackled, cackled in the pot.

Here, again, I can personally vouch that Cluck Old Hen makes fabulous dance music. One time at the MIT Folk Dance Club I had the opportunity to contra-dance to Perpetual e-Motion, who are sort of a rock/fusion traditional fiddle duo. (You can hear lots of their music, including Cluck Old Hen, at that link.)

29. Shady Grove

Shady Grove is from Jean Ritchie, but it’s not a ballad, just a short little song. The focus here is really on the tune and the rhythm rather than the words — indeed, Shady Grove is often performed by a solo fiddle or dulcimer, without any singing at all. And I can vouch that it makes good dance music.

The video I wanted to link to is gone, so here’s another video — really poor sound quality, but you can make out some of the words, and the main value is that it’s actually Jean Ritchie playing.

029 Shady Grove by aliothsan

Shady Grove, my little love,
Shady Grove I know;
Shady Grove, my little love,
Bound for the Shady Grove.

Cheeks as red as the blooming rose,
Eyes of the deepest brown;
You are the darling of my heart,
Stay till the sun goes down.

Shady Grove, my little love,
Shady Grove I know;
Shady Grove, my little love,
Bound for the Shady Grove.

Went to see my Shady Grove
Standing in the door,
Shoes and stockings in her hand,
Little bare feet on the floor.

Shady Grove, my little love,
Shady Grove I know;
Shady Grove, my little love,
Bound for the Shady Grove.

Wish I had a big fine horse,
Corn to feed him on,
Pretty little girl, stay at home,
Feed him when I’m gone.

Shady Grove, my little love,
Shady Grove I know;
Shady Grove, my little love,
Bound for the Shady Grove.

Shady Grove, my little love,
Shady Grove I say,
Shady Grove, my little love,
Don’t wait till the Judgement Day!

Jean Ritchie’s father, Balis Ritchie, recounted to her a wonderful story of the first time he heard a fiddler play Shady Grove in the schoolhouse.

But you know that stranger had a fiddle in his hand, first one any of us had seen, and pretty soon he propped her up in the cradle of his arm here and commenced to play that thing. Lordie! I thought that was the prettiest sweepingest music. I hadn’t heard a sound like that in my life before me, and it seemed like the only thing I’d been a-waiting for all this time. I wanted to holler and jump up and down. I just couldn’t mortally stand to sit still on that log bench and that tune snakin around so. No sir, that was one tune that didn’t stay in one place no time atall… Finally I let out a yell and leapt off’n that bench and commenced to dance and clog around. Everybody hollered out a-laughing, and some of the other boys jumped up, too. Teacher didn’t even try to hold us, he was grinning and patting, too, and having the hardest kind of a time standing anyways still.

It really doesn’t get any better than that.

Who Would True Valour See is not a folk song at all except in the sense that it’s fun to sing, sounds fine with minimal or no instrumentation, and was performed by Maddy Prior. The text is from Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, and the tune is “Monks Gate”, a traditional tune from Sussex arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams. This is one of the best examples I’ve ever heard of the tune matching the words. Put together “jovial”, “noble”, and “virtuous”, and you get “so valiant it almost hurts“.

(I’ve included the melody separately from the video because it can be a little hard to pick out.)

028 Who Would True Valour See by aliothsan

Who would true valour see,
Let him come hither;
One here will constant be,
Come wind, come weather
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent
To be a pilgrim.

Whoso beset him round
With dismal stories
Do but themselves confound;
His strength the more is.
No lion can him fright,
He’ll with a giant fight,
He will have a right
To be a pilgrim.

Hobgoblin nor foul fiend
Can daunt his spirit,
He knows he at the end
Shall life inherit.
Then fancies fly away,
He’ll fear not what men say,
He’ll labor night and day
To be a pilgrim.

[optionally repeat first verse]

Over at Cyberhymnal you can find the hymn He Who Would Valiant Be, which is the same but for some minor changes that put more focus on God.

27. Martinmas Time

I found this ballad in a pile of Anne Briggs recordings. (Do yourself a favor and search for her on YouTube — she’s got a fabulous voice.) “Martinmas Time” is about the most nondescript title you could possibly give a ballad, because “It fell about the Martinmas time” is in so many ballads. I suppose “A Lover and his Lass” would be even vaguer, but I’ve never heard of a song called that.

It fell about the Martinmas time,
When snow lay on the borders
There came a troop of soldiers here
To take up their winter quarters.

With me right fol lay-dle lee-dle lai-da dar-i-o
With me right fol lay-dle lee-dle lar-i.

They rode up and they rode down, and
They rode over the border.
There they met a fair pretty girl
And she was a farmer’s daughter.


They made her swear a solemn oath
With a salt tear in her eye, oh,
That she would call at their quarter gates
When no-one did espy, oh.


So she goes to the barber shop
To the barber shop went soon, oh,
She’s made them cut her fine yellow hair
As short as any dragoon, oh.


Then she goes to the tailor shop
And dresses in soldier’s clothes, oh,
A pair of pistols down by her side
And a nice little boy was she, oh.


When she came to the quarter gates,
It’s loud, loud she did call, oh,
“There comes a troop of soldiers here
And we must have lodgings all, oh!”


The quartermaster he comes out
He gives her half a crown, oh,
“Go and find lodgings for yourself,
For here there is no room, oh.”


But she drew nearer to the gates
And louder she did call, oh:
“Room, room, you gentlemen,
We must have lodgings all, oh!”


The quartermaster he comes out
He gives her eighteen pence, oh
“Go and find lodgings in the town
For tonight there comes a wench, oh.”


She’s pulled the garters from her legs
The ribbons from her hair, oh,
She’s tied them ’round the quarter gates
As a token she’s been there, oh.


She drew a whistle from her side,
And blew it loud and shrill, oh
“You’re all very free with your eighteen pence
But you’re not for a girl at all, oh.”


And when they knew that it was her
They tried to overtake her.
She’s clapped her spurs to her horse’s side
And she’s galloped home a maiden.


I think part of the reason Martinmas Time appeals to me, besides the usual aesthetic factors, is that it shows a female character who is quite seriously distressed at the threat of rape, but then rallies and . There’s a lot of ballads about women who use wiles or cleverness to avoid being raped or killed, but they never seem to lose their cool throughout the whole episode. There’s at least one where women choose to die rather than lose their honor. And there’s a few where a guy lays a girl down and “he’s never once asked her leave”, which I guess is a grey area because it’s not clear whether she consents or not, but still squicks me out.