Thursday, April 18, 2013

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' Murder Ballads Henry Lee pt 1

This version begins with Judy Henske's wonderful comic intro.

After almost two years, I have returned to the "Nick Cave and the Bad Seed's Murder Ballads" project, with the third track on the album, Henry Lee.  Originating in Scotland, Henry Lee has been Earl Richard, Love Henry, and Young Hunting.  Other variants sing of the Proud Girl as well.

(Note: this version is cut off at the end.)
A woman, often called "Lady Margaret" bids a man to stay the night with her.  He rejects her saying that he has a love in another land.  Sometimes this other woman is in Scotland.  Other times she waits for him in Merry Green Lea, and there's even one version that sings of Arkansas.   If this wasn't enough, Henry sometimes informs the woman that his love is "ten times fairer" than she.  Ouch. 

Despite having rejected her, Henry leans over to give her a kiss.  The woman stabs him with her pen-knife, apparently the number one choice for female killers.

She then disposes of him:

She took him by his lilly-white hand
She drug him to the well,
Which you know was cold and deep 1

Like the verse up above, she often does this herself, and sometimes maid helps her with this task:

She called unto a maid of hers:
Keep a secret, keep a secret on me
All these fine robes on my body
Shall always be to thee

One takened him by his long yellow hair
And the other one by his feet
And they threw him into the deep well waters
Which was so cool and deep 2

After that a woman calls to a bird.  A talking bird.

Come down, come down my pretty little parrot 
And sit upon my knee,
And you shall have a cage of pure, pure gold
Instead of a willow tree. 3

The bird, wisely, is having none of it:

I won't come down, nor I shan't come down
To sit upon your knee
For you have murdered your true love Henery,
More sooner you would kill me 4

One striking difference between the "Scottish" and "Appalachian" versions is that the former versions tend to be much longer and often take on a supernatural element.  Once Young Hunting crossed over the pond, the story was cut short, often ending in the bird flying away.  But in the Scottish ballad the story continues as shown in this version by James Findlay.

The bird, which serves as a voice of morality in the song, plays greater role, assisting in bringing Lord Henry's killer to justice:

Then up and speaks that pretty little bird
A-sitting up high in the tree,
Saying, “Oh, cease your diving, you divers bold,
For I'd have you to listen to me.”
“And I'd have you to cease your day diving
And to dive all into the night.
For under the water where his body lies
The candles they burn so bright.”
So the divers ceased their day diving
And they dived all into the night.
And under the water where his body lay,
The candles they burned so bright. 5

The killer's guilt is also prove through otherworldly forces.  Her maid, condemned for the killing is thrown on the fire:

But the fire wouldn't take upon her cheek
And the fire wouldn't take upon her chin,
And nor would it take upon her hair
For she was free from the sin.
And when the servant girl touched the clay cold corpse,
A drop it never bled.
But when the lady laid a hand upon it
The ground was soon covered with red.
Having been found guilty by God, the lady is now placed on the stake instead of her maid:
And the fire took fast upon her cheek,
And the fire took fast upon her chin,
And it sang in the points of her yellow hair,
And 'twas all because of her sin.

As I've discussed before, there seems to have been a habit of condensing ballads once  they made it to the states.  Supernatural elements, and back stories are shortened or even outright removed: Henry rejects her, she stabs him, she throws him in a well, end scene.  For me the omission of the fate of our lady, makes the tale even more disturbing.  Henry rots at the bottom of the well, while his lost love waits for him, never knowing what happened.  No supernatural justice, just, a woman scorned, murder and a talking bird. 

Next up.  Henry Lee pt 2, or "what's up with the talking bird?"


1. Campbell, Olive Arnold. "Young Hunting" (version E).  English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians. New York, The Knickerbocker Press, 1917.  Reprint, Forgotten Books, 2012.

2.  Campbell, Olive Arnold. "Young Hunting" (version D).  

3. Campbell, Olive Arnold. "Young Hunting" (version D).  

4.  Campbell, Olive Arnold. "Young Hunting" (version E).  

5. Rose, Tony.  "Young Hunting"

6. Ibid

7. Ibid

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