Monday, 26 December 2016

Murder Ballad Monday--The Two Sisters

Hello and welcome to part five of Murder Ballad Monday.

This beautifully sung version of Child Ballad 10 is entitled The Two Sisters is sung by Emily Portman. It was released in 2010 and is from her album The Glamoury.  I chose it because it has a completely different refrain than any of the other versions I have heard. The refrain is:
Oleander yoleing/down by the waters rolling. 

I searched through The English and Scottish Popular Ballads and I could not find this refrain in any other ballad in the collection. I have not been able to read Bronson's collection online as it was too recent to be in the public domain, but I would be keen to see it and find this variation as well as others I do not yet know about. Luckily, Emily Portman can tell us a bit about it. 

In the liner notes to The Glamoury she says: The words of this magical ballad are a collage of my favourite bits from the Child and Bronson collections. The tune has been adapted from a version in Bronson “sung by Mrs. Martha L. Sistrunk, White Springs, Fla. [, 1936]” [Bronson: Child no. 10, version 88] which I misread and rewrote. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the refrain line should include the name of a flower that symbolises a warning, the oleander.

Image result for oleander white

The oleander plant is a beautiful but deadly one--an evergreen shrub or tree that is deadly in every part. But what was yoleing? Was it just a nonsense word that rhymed with rolling? Was it an antiquated word that we don't use any more? On the internet where I found the lyrics to the song yoleing was spelled yolling and so I tried googling yolling and came up with this from Urban Dictionary:
Yolling--When a man puts his head up during sexual intercourse and screams/ yodels while climaxing.
So, definitely NOT what I was looking for. I tried spelling variations and discovered that yole sometimes spelled yoal is a type of clinker built (overlapping boards) wooden boat used around the Shetland Islands in Scotland. The yoal was originally imported from Norway.

Yes, now this made sense. If yoleing or yoaling meant boating, then this word works as the sister is drowned in the river. 

Here you can listen to Emily Portman singing a version of this ballad. I love this version for Emily Portman's sweet, breathy voice and simple harp accompaniment. 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: Two Sisters
Performed by: Emily Portman
Refrain:                                                                                                                                              Oleander yoleing
Down by the waters rolling
Number of sisters: two
Where did they live: in a bower
Appearance described as: younger sister has cherry cheeks and long yellow hair, the older not described
Sweetheart:  a king who courted the oldest with gifts but loved the youngest
Excuse to go to the water:  to hear the black birds change their tune
Body of water: river
“Sometimes she sank, sometimes she swam”: yes
Miller and child: yes, miller and daughter
Mistaken for: mermaid or swan
Described in death: no
Who finds her on the bank: a minstrel
Instrument she becomes: harp
Body parts used: breastbone, three locks of her yellow hair
Would her song “melt a heart of stone”: yes
Do the strings sing individually: no
What does the instrument sing:                                                                                                   
“Yonder sits my love the king,
    Oleander yoleing
How he’ll weep at my burying,
    By the waters rolling                                                                                                                      ”And yonder sits my sister the queen,
    Oleander yoleing
She drowned me in the cold, cold stream,
    Down in the waters rolling”
Is the sister punished: does not 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.

Two little sisters living in a bower
    Oleander yoleing
The youngest was the fairest flower
    Down by the waters rolling

A noble knight came riding by,
Two little sisters caught his eye.

And he courted the eldest with diamonds and rings
The other he loved above all things.

“Sister, sister, come down to the broom,
We’ll hear the black birds change their tune.”

So she took her sister by the hand
And led her down to the river strand.

And as they stood at the river's brim
The eldest pushed her sister in.

“Sister, sister, reach me your hand
And you’ll be the heir to my riches and land.”

”Oh Sister, sister, that will never be
Till salt and oatmeal grow of a tree.”

”Oh sister, sister, lend me but your glove
And you shall have my own true love.”

“It's your own true love I'll have and more,
  But you shall never come to shore,

For your cherry cheeks and your long yellow hair
Made me a maid for evermore.”

Sometimes she sank, sometimes she swam,
Till she came to a miller’s dam
The miller and his daughter stood at the door
And watched her body floating to shore

“Oh father, father, draw your dam,
For it's either a mermaid or a swan.”

The miller he dragged her out on to the shore
And he stripped her of all that she wore.

He laid her body on the bank to dry,
A minstrel he came riding by.

And he made a harp of her breast-bone
Whose sound could melt a heart of stone.

He took three locks from her long yellow hair
With them strung a harp so rare.

And he took the harp to the king's high hall
There was the court assembled all.

And he laid the harp there upon a stone,
The harp began to play alone.

But the only tune that the harp would play was,
    Oleander yoleing
The only tune that the harp would play,
    Down by the waters rolling

It sang, “Yonder sits my love the king,
    Oleander yoleing
How he’ll weep at my burying,
    By the waters rolling

”And yonder sits my sister the queen,
    Oleander yoleing
She drowned me in the cold, cold stream,
    Down in the waters rolling”

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

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