Monday, 12 December 2016

Murder Ballad Monday--Cruel Sister

Hello and welcome to part three of Murder Ballad Monday.
Image result for pentangle cruel sister album
In 1970, a band called Pentangle recorded a version of the The Twa Sisters entitled Cruel Sister. They were clearly familiar with the Child Ballads because they took a version of Child Ballad 10, but used the refrain from Riddles Widely Expounded which is Child Ballad 1.  The earliest version we have of Child Ballad 1 is called  Inter diabolus et virgo  and is from around 1450. There is a modern Appalachian version entitled The Devil's Nine Questions.

 Riddles Widely Expounded are a collections of riddle ballads which contain two major themes

  • a knight or a king who will marry a maiden, but only if she is clever enough to answer the nine riddles put before her
  • a scoundrel or sometimes the devil who will rape a maiden if she can't answer the nine  riddles he has put before her (this version often appears in American versions of the ballad found in the Appalachians) 
Basically, these are sexual ballads that deal with the destruction or salvation of a maiden depending on how clever she is. The refrain used in Riddles Widely Expounded Child Ballad 1A is:
Lay the bent to the bonny broom/fa la la la la la la la

There is considerable debate online as to the meaning of Lay the bent to the bonny broom. I have read The English and Scottish Popular Ballads online (thank you!)  and I have lurked on many folk music forums trying to look for common threads. 

This is what I have discovered:
Theory one:
Broom is a flowering bush that carries sexual connotations. Bent in an antiquated word for horn and is a phallic symbol therefore this is either a rape metaphor or a deflowering one. So in some ways, it does not belong in this ballad whose chief theme is murder and revenge. 
Theory two:
Someone from Scotland weighed in on this debate and she had always been told the line was Lay the bairn to the bonny broom because the word bairn means baby and the broom which grows near the river was where you abandoned your illegitimate babies in secret hoping the current would wash them away. Again, an interesting theory, it does concern murder, but still has a sexual connotation.
Theory three:
Bent is a type of coarse reedy grass that was said to ward off the devil or the evil eye. Broom was said to keep  witches or evil spirits away so by laying the bent over the broom to form a cross was a type of magical spell to protect a household against evil.
Theory four:
On one of the folk music forums I visited someone said that 'lay the bent to the bonny broom' was an old saying of Celtic origin meaning 'Dance around the old oak tree.' Most likely of Scots Gaelic origin. I can find nothing else that corroborates this theory.

Basically, the refrain does not fit with the song. Any version that you hear that uses this refrain was undoubtedly influenced by the Pentangle version. However, despite this, it is lovely ballad and Pentangle do it very well. 

Here you can listen to Pentangle singing a version of this ballad. I have provided the lyrics at the bottom in case you want to follow along.

So here is how it breaks down as compared to other versions:

Name of ballad: Cruel Sister
Performed by: Pentangle
 Lay the bent to the bonnie broom
Fa la la la la la la la la la
Number of sisters: two
Where did they live: North Sea shore
Appearance described as: youngest was “bright as in the sun” and the eldest was “coal black”
Sweetheart:  a knight who courted the oldest with gifts of gloves and rings, but loved the youngest
Excuse to go to the water: “to watch the ships sail on the sea”
Body of water: North Sea strand
“Sometimes she sank, sometimes she swam”: no
Miller and child: no
Mistaken for: swan
Described in death: no
Who finds her on the bank: two minstrels
Instrument she becomes: harp
Body parts used: breastbone, yellow hair
Would her song “melt a heart of stone”: yes
Do the strings sing individually: yes
What does the instrument sing:
The first string sang a doleful sound
The bride her younger sister drowned
The second string as that they tried
In terror sits the black-haired bride
The third string sang beneath their bow
And surely now her tears will flow
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.
There lived a lady by the North Sea shore
Lay the bent to the bonnie broom
Two daughters were the babes she bore
Fa la la la la la la la la la

As one grew bright as is the sun
So coal black grew the elder one

A knight came riding to the lady's door
He'd traveled far to be their wooer

He courted one with gloves and rings
But he loved the other above all things

Oh, sister will you go with me
To watch the ships sail on the sea?

She took her sister by the hand
And led her down to the North Sea strand

And as they stood on the windy shore
The dark girl threw her sister over

Sometimes she sank, sometimes she swam
Crying, "Sister, reach to me your hand"

Oh sister, sister, let me live
And all that's mine I'll surely give

Your own true love that I'll have and more
But thou shalt never come ashore

And there she floated like a swan
The salt sea bore her body on

Two minstrels walked along the strand
And saw the maiden float to land

They made a harp of her breastbone
Whose sound would melt a heart of stone

They took three locks of her yellow hair
And with them strung the harp so rare

They went into her father's hall
To play the harp before them all

But as they laid it on a stone
The harp began to play alone

The first string sang a doleful sound
The bride her younger sister drowned

The second string as that they tried
In terror sits the black-haired bride

The third string sang beneath their bow
And surely now her tears will flow

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

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