Friday 9 August 2013

Francesca's Bookshelf: Child Ballads - The Elfin Knight

Francesca collects old books. She loves to read, but she also loves the look, feel and smell of ancient books. She has many books in her collection, but none more loved than her ballads, songs and poetry.

Over the years she has collected many rare and valuable books. Among them is a set of ten volumes of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads by Francis James Child. The collection is commonly known as The Child Ballads, and these days when it is available it is usually printed in five volumes - two of the original volumes to each in the new edition.

Today I've picked one of my favorite ballads from the Child collection, called The Elfin Knight. We'll take a look at the ballad, and see a rendition of it by J Lenoir, and a relatively modern interpretation by Simon and Garfunkle called Scarborough Fair. It tells of two lovers setting each other impossible tasks before they can be together.

First, let's listen to J Lenoir with an interpretation which is pretty much straight from Child's collection. If you like this performance, please support the artist by buying this excellent CD.

Child collected eleven different versions of this song, and provided copious notes about each. The version I have chosen is Child's second, which he attributes to A Collection of Curious Old Ballads, etc., p. 3. Partly from an old copy in black letter, and partly from the recitation of an old lady:

The Ellfin knight sits on yon hill,
Ba, Ba, Ba, lillie ba
He blaws his horn baith loud and shrill.
And the wind hath blawn my plaid awa

He blaws it east, he blaws it west,
He blaws it where he liketh best

‘I wish that horn were in my kist
Yea, and the knight in my arm niest.’

She had no sooner these words said,
Than the knight came to her bed.

‘Thou art oer young a maid,’ quoth he,
‘Married with me that thou wouldst be.’

‘I have a sister, younger than I,
And she was married yesterday.’

‘Married with me if thou wouldst be,
A curtisie thou must do to me.

‘It's ye maun mak a sark to me,
Without any cut or seam,’ quoth he.

‘And ye maun shape it, kinfe-, sheerless,
And also sew it needle-, threedless.’

‘If that courtisie I do to thee,
Another thou must do to me.

‘I have an aiker of good ley land,
Which lyeth low by yon sea strand.

‘It's ye maun till 't wi your touting horn,
And ye maun saw 't wi the pepper corn.

‘And ye maun harrow 't wi a thorn,
And hae your wark done ere the morn.

‘And ye maun shear it wi your knife,
And no lose a stack o't for your life.

‘And ye maun stack it in a mouse hole,
And ye maun thrash it in your shoe sole.

‘And ye maun dight it in your loof,
And also sack it in your glove.

‘And thou must bring it over the sea,
Fair and clean and dry to me.

‘And when that ye have done your wark,
Come back to me, and ye'll get your sark.’

‘I'll not quit my plaid for my life;
It haps my seven bairns and my wife.’

‘My maidenhead I'll then keep still,
Let the elphin knight do what he will.

We don't find out the young lady's name, but I confess I admire her. She was no pushover.
And to finish, how better than with the wonderful Simon and Garfunkle, with their own very special version of this same ballad - Scarborough Fair:

The old ballads were passed down by word of mouth and evolved with every generation. Even today it's unusual to find two performers who perform the same ballad with the same tune and the same words. Indeed, I sing a version of this same ballad which is a hybrid of the words in Child's collection, a tune and refrain which I received via oral tradition and a unique flavour which is my own. Such is the fate of the old ballads.

Francesca is a character in An Accident of Birth by Tony Benson.

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