If it’s not Scottish…

About this they were never wrong, the old balladeers and tale tellers: talking birds rule. We see this in the Arabian Nights (and of course Iago in Aladdin). I still remember Kaw, the crow from Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain books, childhood faves of mine. O and I’ve seen it elsewhere too!

In ye olde border minstrelsy, people try to bribe these birds — it’s just one of those ballad things, like a rose and a briar intertwining as they grow out of the star-crossed (with prejudice) lover’s graves. Usually the bird has witnessed some sort of misdemeanor. F’rinstance, after Lady Isabel (b.k.a. May Colven) has turned the tables on that ill-intentioned Elf Knight (a.k.a. False John), killed him and snuck back into the castle:

She lap on her milk steed
And fast she bent the way,
And she was at her father’s yate
Three long hours or day.

Up and speaks the wylie parrot,
So wylily and slee:
‘Where is your man now, May Collin,
That gaed away wie thee?’

‘Hold your tongue, my wylie parrot,
And tell no tales of me,
And where I gave a pickle befor
It’s now I’ll give you three.’

For what it’s worth, I can’t think of any times when the bribe is freedom. Far more often it’s some variation on the following, from another May Colven:

So she went on her father’s steed,
As swift as she could flee,
And she came home to her father’s bower
Before it was break of day.

Up then and spoke the pretty parrot:
“May Colven, where have you been?
What has become of false Sir John,
That woo’d you so late the streen?

“He woo’d you butt, he woo’d you ben,
He woo’d you in the ha,
Until he got your own consent
For to mount and gang awa.”

“O hold your tongue, my pretty parrot,
Lay not the blame upon me;
Your cup shall be of the flowered gold,
Your cage of the root of the tree.”

Up then spake the king himself,
In the bed-chamber where he lay:
“What ails the pretty parrot,
That prattles so long or day?”

“There came a cat to my cage door,
It almost a worried me,
And I was calling on May Colven
To take the cat from me.”

“Streen”! I’d like to be able to use that.

I could pretty happily rattle on more about this — post more of my Child ballads — scour the ‘net for yet more versions — transcribe folksongs I have that incorporate this stuff — branch out into a full exploration of the “Pretty Polly” meme (“There came a black cat at my door / come for to devo-ur me / and I was a-calling my Pretty Polly / to sca-at that ca-at away”). The research, unfettered from worries about the output, is fun. But y’all can do it yoursils if you want. I’m going back to reading nursery rhymes and writing thank you notes. The only reason I even got on this stupid computer was to make note of this nursery rhyme, “Cock-A-Doodle-Do”, new to me today:

Oh, my pretty cock! Oh, my handsome cock!
I pray you, do not crow before day,
And your comb shall be made of the very beaten gold,
And your wings of the silver so gray.

Naw, wait, the rhythm is reminding me of what I consider the canonical goods in this bribe, given here from yet another May Colven:

Hold your tongue, you pretty parrot
And tell no tales of me
Your cage shall be made of the yellow beaten gold
And your door of ivory.

Oh! This may be my last chance, I could die tomorrow without having transcribed “Henry Lee”. It’s the very first song on the Harry Smith Anthology, performed by Dick Justice (what with him and that nursery rhyme there’ll be no reading me in public libraries, I’m afraid).

“Get down, get down, little Henry Lee
And stay all night with me
The very best lodging I can afford
Will be fair bed around thee.”

“I can’t get down or I won’t get down
And stay all night with thee,
For the girl I have in that merry green land
I love her better than thee.”

She leaned herself against the fence
Just for a kiss or two
With a little pen knife held in her hand
She plugged him through and through.

“Come all you ladies in the town,
A secret for me keep
With a diamond ring held on my hand
I never will forsake.

Some take him by his lily white hand
Some take him by his feet
We’ll throw him in this deep deep well,
More than one hundred feet.

Lie there, lie there, loving Henry Lee,
‘Til the flesh drops from your bones,
The girl you have in that merry green land
Shall wait for your return.

Fly down, fly down you little bird
And alight on my right knee.
Your cage will be of purest gold
And need of proverty.”

“I can’t fly down or I won’t fly down
And light on your right knee
A girl who’d murder her own true love
Would kill a little bird like me.”

“If I had by benden bow,
my arrow and my string,
I’d pierce a dart so nigh your heart
Your warble would be in vain.”

“If you had your bended bow,
Your arrow and your string,
I’d fly away to the merry green land
And tell what I have seen.”

My transcription, I know, is but ill — I haven’t the ear — this one has the legal terminology I missed in the important part. But I writes ’em how I hears ’em.

This song is much corrupted in Nick Cave’s version — now I know how Charles Kinbote felt when he saw that all the best parts of John Shade’s poem had been excised.

46 Responses to “If it’s not Scottish…”

  1. e. Says:

    ::props:: This was a meme completely unknown to me.

    By “ye olde border minstrelsy” do you mean the songs of the troubadors? But this is no Provençal. It looks like ME; but lo my learning fails me! Educate, o desultor.

  2. Desultor Says:

    Border Minstrelsy was Walter Scott’s term, I believe, for the traditions of folksong, and especially ballads, in Scotland and Northern England. So the weird English here is Scots, or else Northern dialects that are like Scots. I don’t know why he called it border minstrelsy exactly – the romantic view of these is that nursey sings them to you when you’re still in short pants. I suppose “Barbara Allen” and “The Butcher Boy” might have been cradle-songs, while some of the interminable ones about cattle raids and Stewarts brawling with MacGregors and whatnot were troubadour-songs.

    Scott published, around 1800, his Border Minstrelsy book. Here’s Andrew Lang (better known for his “The (Green/Red/Purple/etc.) Fairy Book” series) writing about it, and about ballads and ballad collection in general.

    This junk is hard to find. Child, the king of ballad-collectors, is not in print, and I was at pains to get a copy of an abridged edition. There are some ballads in the dictary, collected by Lang.

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