Willie’s Lady is one of those age old love stories… young man comes of age, sails across the sea, meets girl, falls in love, gets married, brings her home – so far so good – except for the mother-in-law. Willie’s mother doesn’t quite approve of the girl, and since she’s a witch, she curses her so that although Willie’s lady is pregnant she’ll never give birth. Ouch.

I was immediately drawn to the ballad for its themes and imagery – witchcraft with all the details of the spell, the Billy Blind, the wonderful trick of crafting a baby out of wax with eyes of glass, the dynamic role of the women (Willie’s Lady dictates to him what he is to say to his mother and is also the one who possesses the rich gifts offered to her). The story is extraordinary, and it all happens with such an enthralling sense of urgency.

Willie’s Lady on my series ‘Folk from the Boat’

The ballad’s existence in Britain is owed to one 18th century source – Anna Brown (née Gordon) of Falkland, Aberdeenshire – however there are several Scandinavian versions: Liten Kerstins Förtrollning in Swedish, and Hustru og Mands Moder in Danish. I wonder if the description in the Scottish version ‘he woo’d her for her yellow hair’ implies that Willie’s lady is Scandinavian. The Brown manuscript (a transcript by Joseph Ritson, Ritson-Tytler-Brown MS, made 1792-4 is now at Harvard College Library, the 1783 original is lost) contained 15 ballads, amongst which were Gil Brenton (Child 5), The Two Sisters (Child 10), King Henry (Child 32) and Brown Adam (Child 98).

Thomas Gordon (Anna’s father) gives some background to the manuscript and its source in the following letter to Alexander Fraser Tytler:

An aunt of my children, Mrs. Farquherson now dead, who was married to the proprietor of a small estate near the sources of the Dee, in the division of Aberdeenshire called Braemar, a sequestered, romantic pastoral country; if you ever went to your estate by the way of the castle of that name, you are not such a stranger to it as need a description. This good old woman, I say, spent her days, from the time of her marriage, among the flocks and herds at Allan a quoich, her husbands seat, which, even in the country of Braemar is considered as remarkable for the above circumstances. She has a tenacious memory, which retained all the songs she heard the nurses & old women sing in that neighborhood. In the latter part of her life she lived in Aberdeen, & being maternally fond of my children when young, she had them much about her, & was much with us. Her songs & tales of chivalry & love were a high entertainment to their young imagination. My youngest daughter Mrs Brown, at Falkland, is blessed with a memory as good as her aunts, & has almost the whole store of her songs lodged in it. In conversation I mentioned them to your Father [i.e. William Tytler], at whose request my Grandson Mr Scott, wrote down a parcel of them as his aunt sung them. Being then but a meer novice in musick, he added in his copy such musical notes as he supposed, notwithstanding their correctness, might give your father some imperfect notion of the airs; or rather lilts, to which they were sung. Both the words & strains were perfectly new to me, as they were to your father, & proceeded upon a system of manners, & in a stile of composition, both words & music, very peculiar, & of which we could recollect nothing similar…Mrs. Farquherson, I am sure, invented nor added nothing herself.

Anna Brown’s words are below (left), the ballad is told in 44 couplets. Alongside I give my edited version.

Willie has taen him oer the fame,
He’s woo’d a wife and brought her hame.

He’s woo’d her for her yellow hair,
But his mother wrought her mickle care

And mickle dolour gard her dree,
For lighter she can never be.

But in her bower she sits wi pain,
And Willie mourns oer her in vain.

And to his mother he has gone,
That vile rank witch of vilest kind.

He says: ‘My ladie has a cup,
Wi gowd and silver set about.

‘This goodlie gift shall be your ain,
And let her be lighter o her young bairn.’

‘Of her young bairn she’ll neer be lighter,
Nor in her bower to shine the brighter.

‘But she shall die and turn to clay,
And you shall wed another may.’

‘Another may I’ll never wed,
Another may I’ll neer bring home.’

But sighing says that weary wight,
‘I wish my life were at an end.’

‘Ye doe unto your mother again,
That vile rank witch of vilest kind.

‘And say your ladie has a steed,
The like o’m’s nae in the lands of Leed.

‘For he is golden shod before,
And he is golden shod behind.

‘And at ilka tet of that horse’s main,
There’s a golden chess and a bell ringing.

‘This goodlie gift shall be your ain,
And let me be lighter of my young bairn.’

‘O her young bairn she’ll ne’er be lighter,
Nor in her bower to shine the brighter.

‘But she shall die and turn to clay,
And ye shall wed another may.’

‘Another may I’ll never wed,
Another may I’ll neer bring hame.’

But sighing said that weary wight,
‘I wish my life were at an end.’

‘Ye doe ye unto your mother again,
That vile rank witch of vilest kind.

‘And say your ladie has a girdle,
It’s red gowd unto the middle.

‘And ay at every silver hem,
Hangs fifty silver bells and ten.

‘That goodlie gift has be her ain,
And let me be lighter of my young bairn.’

‘O her young bairn she’s neer be lighter,
Nor in her bower to shine the brighter.

‘But she shall die and turn to clay,
And you shall wed another may.’

‘Another may I’ll never wed,
Another may I’ll neer bring hame.’

But sighing says that weary wight,
‘I wish my life were at an end.’

Then out and spake the Belly Blind;
He spake aye in good time.

‘Ye doe ye to the market place,
And there ye buy a loaf o wax.

‘Ye shape it bairn and bairnly like,
And in twa glassen een ye pit;

‘And bid her come to your boy’s christening;
Then notice weel what she shall do.

‘And do you stand a little fore bye,
And listen weel what she shall say.’

‘Oh wha has loosed the nine witch knots
That was amo that ladie’s locks?

‘And wha has taen out the kaims of care
That hangs amo’ that ladie’s hair?

‘And wha’s taen down the bush o woodbine
That hang atween her bower and mine?

‘And wha has killd the master kid
That ran beneath that ladie’s bed?

‘And wha has loosed her left-foot shee,
And lotten that ladie lighter be?’

O Willie has loosed the nine witch knots
That was amo that ladie’s locks.

And Willie’s taen out the kaims o care
That hang amo that ladie’s hair.

And Willie’s taen down the bush o woodbine
That hang atween her bower and thine.

And Willie has killed the master kid
That ran beneath that ladie’s bed.

And Willie has loosed her left-foot shee,
And letten his ladie lighter be.

And now he’s gotten a bonny young son,
And mickle grace be him upon.

Oh Willie’s sailed right o’er the foam,
He’s wooed a wife and he’s brought her home.

He’s wooed her for her yellow hair,
But his mother’s wrought her mighty care.

A weary spell she’s laid on her,
That ‘though with child she’ll not give birth.

But in her bower she sits in pain
And Willy mourns o’er her in vain.

And to his mother he has gone,
That vile rank witch of the vilest kind,

He says, “My lady has a cup
With gold and silver set about.

“This goodly gift shall be your own
Let her be lighter of her bairn.”

“Of her young bairn she’ll ne’er be lighter
Nor in her bower she’ll not shine brighter.

“But she shall die and turn to clay,
And you shall wed another maid.”

“Another maid I’ll never wed,
Another maid I’ll not bring home”

But sighing says that weary man,
“I wish my life were at an end.”

“Go you unto your mother again,
That vile rank witch of the vilest kind,

“And say your lady has a steed
The like of which has ne’er been seen.

“For he is golden shod before,
And he is golden shod behind.

“And at each part of that horse’s mane
A bell rings on a golden chain.

“This goodly gift shall be your own:
Let her be lighter of her bairn.”

“Of her young bairn she’ll ne’er be lighter,
Nor in her bower she’ll not shine brighter.

“But she shall die and turn to clay,
And you shall wed another maid.”

“Another maid I’ll never wed,
Another maid I’ll not bring home”

But sighing says that weary man,
“I wish my life were at an end.”

“Go you unto your mother again,
That vile rank witch of the vilest kind,

“And say your lady has a girdle,
That’s woven red gold in the middle.

“And at every silver hem
Hangs fifty silver bells and ten;

“This goodly gift shall be your own
Let her be lighter of her bairn.”

“Of her young bairn she’ll ne’er be lighter
Nor in her bower she’ll not shine brighter.

“But she shall die and turn to clay,
And you shall wed another maid.”

“Another maid I’ll never wed,
Another maid I’ll not bring home”

But sighing says that weary man,
“I wish my life were at an end.”

Then out spoke the Billy Blind
And ay he’s spoken in good time,

“Go you to the market place,
And there to buy a loaf of wax,

“Then shape your child out of this wax
And for its eyes, two eyes of glass

“And bid her come to its christening day
 

 
And listen well to what she’ll say.”

“Oh who has loosed the nine witch knots
That were among that lady’s locks?

“Who’s taken down the combs of care
That hung among that lady’s hair?

“Who’s taken down the bush o’ wood bine,
That hung between her bower and mine?

“And who has killed the master kid
That ran beneath that lady’s bed?

“And who has loosened her left foot shoe
And let that lady lighter be?”

O Willie’s loosened the nine witch knots,
That were among his lady’s locks;

He’s taken down the combs of care,
That hung among his lady’s hair;

He’s taken down the bush o’ wood bine,
That hung between her bower and thine;

And Willie’s killed the master kid,
That ran beneath his lady’s bed;

And he has loosened her left foot shoe
And let this lady lighter be:

And now they’ve gotten a bonny son,
And much grace be him upon.

A note on the Billy Blind – I’m aware of two interpretations: either that he was a servant in the house, it being considered good fortune to keep a non working servant with a disability due to their supposed supernatural abilities; or that he was a household spirit.

The authenticity of Anna Brown’s melody poses a few problems – as her father explained, Anna’s nephew cannot be considered reliable in his notation of her singing and, in the case of this ballad, the given tune is really a fragment. Ray Fisher paired the ballad with the melody of a Breton drinking song, Son Ar Chistr or The Song of Cider. The origins to this tune were noted by Martin Carthy on his 1976 recording on the album Crown of Horn: ‘I was informed by a young Breton that the tune was written in 1930 by a piper who became a tramp on the streets of Paris.’ Her wonderful version has created a tradition continued by several artists, amongst which are Martin Carthy, Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer, Jon Boden, Rachel Sumner, Simon Jackson, The Owl Service, Rubus, Melissa Kacalanos. In addition, in 2011 Lady Maisery recorded Willie’s Lady on their album Weave and Spin, the text being edited by Hazel Askew to her original melody.

I endeavoured to keep my edit of the text close to Anna Brown’s, making adjustments to help the non Scottish listener understand the story, and to keep the lines a little more consistent in their length. Although I adore the Son Ar Chistr melody, considerable editing of the text is necessary to fit the words to it. Ray Fisher added, omitted and repeated parts of the ballad in a way that I feel makes it her own wonderful interpretation, and Martin Carthy likewise took this further in creating a more anglicised version. Knowing the source and having a keen interest in historical performance I prefer to take a different approach – but let me stress that I think these interpretations are both artistically brilliant and true to the spirit of the ballad.

Adolf Iwar Arwidsson’s three volume collection of Swedish songs, Svenska Fornsånger, compiled in the 1830-40s contains two versions of Liten Kerstins Förtrollning (Little Kerstin’s Enchantment). Ian Cumpstey who has made a wonderful book of singable translations of Swedish Medieval Ballads and many other Scandinavian songs and stories kindly helped me find them. The words can be seen here, and the two melodies here and here. The Swedish story is remarkably similar, down to the detail of wax children surprising the mother into giving away how to break the spell. Here it is Peter’s sister who helps the couple, rather than the Billy Blind.

Both Swedish versions of Liten Kerstins Förtrollning are in couplets with a refrain on the second and fourth lines repeated in each verse, a common structure in Scandinavian ballads. Whittingham Fair and Two Sisters (also one of Anna Brown’s ballads) demonstrate British examples:

Are you going to Whittingham Fair?
   Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to one who lived there
   For once she was a true love of mine

There  were twa sisters sat in a bow’r,
   Binnorie, O Binnorie;
There cam a knight to be their wooer,
   By the bonny mill dams of Binnorie

It’s quite likely that Willie’s Lady was sung similarly, however we have no record of the refrain. I wanted to try the Swedish melodies with Willie’s Lady however neither felt right to me, partly due to the lack of a refrain and I didn’t want to double the length of the ballad by inventing one.

Another option would be to borrow a melody from a different ballad, but in this case I chose to write my own. In the process of writing I first looked at the structure of the story, which can be broken into 10 parts:

1 Back story (4)
2 Offers gift: cup (3)
3 Mother rejects offer (4)
4 Offers gift: horse (5)
5 Mother rejects offer (4)
6 Offers gift: girdle (4)
7 Mother rejects offer (4)
8 Billy Blind (4)
9 Mother gives away remedy (5)
10 Willie lifts curse and has son (6)

The numbers in brackets refer to the quantity of couplets in each section and it is the irregularity of these numbers that has led singers to edit the text. A melody that repeats for each couplet (or four line couplet plus refrain) would solve this problem however there is a danger that 44 verses of a short repeated melody could become monotonous for the listener. The performance context is key to the question of this monotony – for example a refrain provides an opportunity for audience participation, and if the ballad is sung in a work context the length and regularity may be desirable.

In creating my version I wrote a melody that has flexible elements within it that can be tailored to the length of each section. This allows the melody to bring out the structure of the story e.g. each time the mother speaks the B part of the melody begins. This simple melody can also be varied/ornamented during performance.

Here are the elements of the A part of the melody:

And how they can be simply adapted with repetition to 5 couplets:

Here are the elements of the B part of the melody:

And how they can be adapted to 5 couplets:

My work on this ballad is definitely one in progress, and one I’ll explore further with my group Wilde Roses. I’d be really delighted to have your input and opinions, either as a listener, singer or scholar. And this blog will be revised as more details of this fascinating ballad present themselves.

Willie’s Lady
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One thought on “Willie’s Lady

  • 4 March 2021 at 8:51 pm
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    I cannot help you with your impressive work you do on this song, but I just have to compliment you for the work you’ve already done. Thanks for explaining the choices you’ve made in editing the text and arranging the melody. I also share your opinion in staying close to the historical performance, among other things as a tribute to the original performers.
    It’s very impressive what you do and I do hope that this ballad will appear on the next Wild Roses CD!

    Reply

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