A few years ago, I first heard about Murder Ballads. I only heard about them because I inadvertently bought songs of the type, on Karen Elson's Ghost Who Walks.
I thought they might be from a book of ballads collected by Carlton Finbarr Murder in 1872, but apparently not. They're ballads about murders.
Yesterday, I was looking up the history of the song Gallows Pole - specifically, the song sung by famous early 20th-Century African-American blues singer Lead Belly that is actually an English song that dates back several hundred years. How did he learn it? That's a question that led - no pun intended - me to buy a copy of Hugh Barker and Yuval Taylor's Faking It - The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music. The book has actually answered the question, but since I haven't finished it yet, I won't spoil it for you.
Gallows Pole, sometimes known as The Maid Freed From The Gallows, is about a young woman (or a young man) who has been condemned to death, and who attempts to delay the hanging until various family members can arrive with sufficient bribes to persuade the hangman to free her.
(There are a number of versions of the Lead Belly song on YouTube, spelled both ways.)
In the Led (no relation) Zeppelin version, the song ends with the hangman accepting the bribes, but then going right ahead and hanging her. (With new twists like that, it's a shame that the mollycoddled youth of today have learned to think of Plant and Page as plagiarists rather than bluesmen, but hey hey what can I do?)
Anyway, while I was researching it...looking it up...oh, all right, Googling it, I learned that it was one of the Child Ballads. I was all excited.
Was this a new genre of songs, ballads about children?
No, it's a book of folk myths/poems/songs collected by James Francis Child under the title The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, in 1882. Chapter 95 collects the Gallows Pole stories. One version:
‘Hold up, hold up your hands so high!
Hold up your hands so high!
For I think I see my own father
Coming over yonder stile to me.
‘Oh father, have you got any gold for me?
Any money for to pay me free?
To keep my body from the cold clay ground,
And my neck from the gallows-tree?’
‘Oh no, I’ve got no gold for thee,
No money for to pay thee free,
For I’ve come to see thee hangd this day,
And hang d thou shalt be.’
‘Oh the briers, prickly briers,
Come prick my heart so sore;
I ever I get from the gallows-tree,
‘Oh yes, I’ve got some gold for thee,
Some money for to pay thee free;
I’ll save thy body from the cold clay ground,
And thy neck from the gallows-tree.’
‘Oh the briers, prickly briers,
Don’t prick my heart any more;
For now I’ve got from the gallows’tree
I’ll never get there any more.’
Some of the other Child Ballads made it over to the land of the Murder Ballads. One of the most unlikely, Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight, apparently managed to do so. I find it hard to imagine Appalachian banjo players banging it out, but they did.
In this set of songs, a lady often known as May Colven, rather than Lady Isabel, is seduced by an evil Elf-Knight, who takes her away on horseback. As he is about to do the deed, he lets her know she is the seventh lady he has taken away, and he has killed all the others. She tricks him into looking away from her, kicks him into the water and then rides away on his horse. So far, so good. But the really awesome thing about Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight is, when she gets back to the castle, her parrot squawks, "I saw what you did!" and the noise wakes up the King. She hushes the parrot and begs him not to tell, and when the King asks him what the commotion was, he squawks, "I saw the cat coming up to my cage and I was rousing May Colven to save me!"
Any maid who can drown an Elf-Knight and get a parrot to lie for her is okay in my book.