Monday, 16 January 2017

Murder Ballad Monday--The Bows of London

Hello and welcome to Part eight of Murder Ballad Monday.

For the next two weeks, the ballad makes a slight shift. In many of the European versions the sister’s body is turned into a harp, but for the next several weeks her body is turned into a fiddle.
Image result for martin carthy

My choice for this week is a version of Child ballad 10 sung by folk singer Martin Carthy entitled
The Bows of London.  Martin Carthy is an English folk singer who inspired the likes of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon. Do you know Simon and Garfunkel's Scarborough Fair? Yeah...that's Martin Carthy's arrangement of the traditional tune. 

Martin Carthy has this to say about his version of The Bows of London:
"Ever since I heard Jody Stecher sing a luminous song called "The Wind and Rain" -a version of "The Two Sisters"- I have wanted to sing it. Its overwhelming feature is its concentration on the aspect of the story dealing with the building from the murder victim's remains of a fiddle which then takes on a life of its own and ultimately unmasks the murderer. Having found my own efforts at singing his to be as unconvincing as my efforts at American songs usually are, I cast around for a tune from this side of the water, came upon The Bows of London and then tried to stay close to Jody's words. A "bow" is the bend in a river."

Well, that answered one of my questions. I had been curious as to the meaning of the word “bow” in the song. Carthy claims it means a bend in the river, but others on various folk music forums have argued it is a reference to the “bow bells” which are the bells of the historic London church Saint Mary-le-Bow.  It is said that a true Cockney is one who born within the sound of these bells. Folklore says that the sound of bells of Saint Mary-le-Bow called to Dick Whittington telling him great things were ahead for him which made him turn around  and he eventually become mayor of London. Since this song is about a river in London, either explanation makes sense.

The refrain  Carthy chose puzzled me particularly the line Hey the gay and the grinding, but it has its roots in the Child ballads. There are three different versions that have a similar refrain.
Child ballad 10F says:
Hey with a gay and a grinding o
About a’ the bonny bows o London

Child ballad 10H says:
Hey with the gay and the grandeur o
At the bonnie bows of London town

Child ballad 10 version O says:
Hey wi’ the gay and the grinding
At the bonny, bonny bows o London

This version was recorded live and is sung by Martin Carthy while his daughter Eliza Carthy plays fiddle. I particularly like this version because it is a family affair, and my late father and I often sang together when I was growing up. I have included the lyrics below if you'd like to follow along.   Watch it here:

Here is how this version breaks down compared to other versions:

Name of ballad: The Bows of London
Performed by: Martin Carthy
Hey the gay and the grinding
By the bonny bonny bows of London
Number of sisters: two
Where did they live:  doesn’t say
Appearance described as: n/a
Sweetheart: not mentioned
Excuse to go to the water: none given
Body of water: stream
Does it contain the line “Sometimes she sank, sometimes she swam”: no
Miller and child: yes, miller and son
Mistaken for: swan
Described in death: n/a
Who finds her on the bank: a fool with a fiddle
Instrument she becomes: fiddle
Body parts used: long yellow hair, finger bones, breastbone
Would her song “melt a heart of stone”: “the sound would pierce a heart of stone”
Do the strings sing individually: no
What does the instrument sing:                                                                                    
  It sang yonder sits my father the king
Yonder sits my father the king                                                                                                                    And yonder sits my mother the queen.
How she'll grieve at my burying
And yonder she sits my sister Anne
She who drowned me in the stream
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 were two little sisters awalking alone
Hey the gay and the grinding
Two little sisters awalking alone
By the bonny bonny bows of London

And the eldest pushed her sister in
Pushed her sister into the stream

Oh she pushed her in and she watched her drown
Watched her body floating down 

Oh she floated up and she floated down
Floats till she come to the miller's dam

And out and come the miller's son
Father dear here swims a swan

Oh they laid her out on the bank to die
Fool with a fiddle come ariding by.

And he took some strands of her long yellow hair
Took some strands of her long yellow hair

And he made some strings from this yellow hair
Made fiddle strings from this yellow hair

And he made fiddle pegs from her long fingerbone
Made fiddle pegs from her long fingerbone

And he made a fiddle out of her breastbone
Sound would pierce the heart of a stone

But the only tune that the fiddle would play
Was Oh the bows of London

The only tune the fiddle would play
Was the bonny bonny bows of London

So the fool's gone away to the king's high hall
There was music, dancing and all

And he laid this fiddle all down on a stone
It played so loud it played all alone

It sang yonder sits my father the king
Yonder sits my father the king

And yonder sits my mother the queen.
How she'll weep at my burying.

And yonder she sits my sister Anne
She who drowned me in the stream

So, that’s it for version eight of the Twa Sisters. Stay tuned next Monday for version nine.

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