Sunday, 4 December 2016

Murder Ballad Monday--The Bonny Swans

Hello and welcome to part two of Murder Ballad Monday.

Today, I have decided to talk about The Bonny Swans by Loreena Mckenitt.  Loreena is one of my favourite singers because she often takes poems and stories and turns them into ballads. She does a beautiful version of Tennyson's The Lady of Shalott plus a heart stopping version of Alfred Noyes' The Highwayman. She is one of the true balladeers of our time.

So, it is no surprise that I was thrilled to hear her version of The Twa Sisters off of her CD The Mask and the Mirror. The CD was released in 1994 and the song the Bonny Swans immediately reminded me of the murder balled of Binnorie that I had read in the seventh grade. We were lucky enough to see Loreena McKennitt in concert in London a few years ago and it was amazing to hear it live. There is a great musical call and response between two instruments in her version that turned out to be an electric guitar and an electric violin.

This version has a few inconsistencies, but they don't detract from the pleasure of listening to it . For a start there are three sisters mentioned at the beginning, but the the third sister is never heard from again and a brother named Hugh is mentioned at the end. I was always puzzled by the missing sister and so was author Patricia C. Wrede who heard this version which inspired her to write a short story entitled Cruel Sisters in her 1996 anthology Book of Enchantments. The story is told from the point of view of the third sister.
Image result for book of enchantments patricia wrede
 It also begins by saying "A farmer lived in the North Country. he had daughters one, two, three" and ends with "There does sit my father the king." This is not necessarily an inconsistency, because the farmer who owned all the land and had tenants who rented from him might well have been considered the king.

While I always felt the ending line of Binnorie  "Woe to my sister, false Helen" was weak, I feel Loreena McKennitt's version hits it spot on. Here last line is There does sit my false sister Anne, who drowned me for the sake of a man combined with the way she sings it really gives you the chills.

Here you can listen to Loreena McKennitt singing a version of this ballad. I have provided the lyrics at the bottom in case you want to follow along. Loreena's version seems to be an amalgamation of several different sources. However the refrain is a variation that is similar to Child Ballad 10G (Hech, ho my Nanny o/and the swan swims bonnie o) and Child Ballad 10P (hey my bonnie nanny o/and the swan swims bonny o).
So here is how it breaks down as compared to other versions:

Name of ballad: The Bonny Swans
Performed by: Loreena Mckennett
A hey ho and me bonny o
The swans swim so bonny o
Number of sisters: three are mentioned in the beginning, but the third is never heard from in the rest of the song
Where did they live:  the north country
Appearance described as: n/a
Sweetheart:  William, sweet and true
Excuse to go to the water: none given
Body of water: river’s brim
Does it contain the line“Sometimes she sank, sometimes she swam”: yes
Miller and child: yes, miller and daughter
Mistaken for: swan
Described in death: n/a
Who finds her on the bank: a harper
Instrument she becomes: harp
Body parts used: fingers, golden hair, breastbone
Would her song “melt a heart of stone”: no
Do the strings sing individually: no
What does the instrument sing:
There does sit my father, the King
And yonder sits my mother the Queen
And there does sit my brother Hugh
And by him William, sweet and true.
And there does sit my false sister Anne
Who drowned me for the sake of a man.                                                                                                   Is the sister punished: doesn’t say

Here are the lyrics so you can follow along if you wish. I have eliminated the refrain so it won't be so long. 
A farmer there lived in the north country,
A hey ho and me bonny o
And he had daughters one, two, three,
The swans swim so bonny o
These daughters they walked by the river's brim
A hey ho and me bonny o
The eldest pushed the youngest in
The swans swim so bonny o.

Oh sister, oh sister, pray lend me your hand
And I will give you house and land.
I'll give you neither hand nor glove
Unless you give me your own true love.

Sometimes she sank, sometimes she swam
Until she came to a miller's dam
The miller's daughter, dressed in red
She went for some water to make her bread.

O father, o daddy, here swims a swan.
It's very like a gentle woman
They laid her on the bank to dry.
There came a harper passing by.

He made harp pins of her fingers fair.
He made harp strings of her golden hair.
He made a harp of her breast bone
And straight it began to play alone.

He brought it to her father's hall
And there was the court assembled all.
He laid the harp upon the stone
And straight it began to play alone.

There does sit my father, the King
And yonder sits my mother the Queen
And there does sit my brother Hugh
And by him William, sweet and true.

And there does sit my false sister Anne
Who drowned me for the sake of a man.

So that's it for Version two of The Twa Sisters. Stay tuned next Monday for Version three.

1 comment:

  1. I still have trouble with Loreena McKinnitt's high pitched voice. It still is screechy to me in places. This is a beautiful version, but I really would have had trouble deciphering the words if I didn't have the text to read while she was singing. Even then, I got lost in a verse or two and had to scan quickly to see where she was.

    I am loving this whole idea of exploring one item from many points of's always been one of my favorite intellectual exercises, especially with films of novels.