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A Child Ballad Goes Eclectic

London 1968: Folk-rock group Fairport Convention are invited to Bob Dylan's British music publishers to hear some unreleased songs, in case they should want to record any of them. An unmarked vinyl record is placed onto a deck, and the needle is set to the groove …

‘And this strange, kind of mishmash of styles and drawled lyrics came out of the speakers. It sounded kind of subterranean; there was this strange cloak of weirdness covering them. We loved it all. We would have covered all the songs if we could.’ 1

Damage done. They went home with three songs for their Unhalfbricking album; one of them, ‘Percy's’ (left over from Dylan's 1963 sessions for The Times They Are A-Changin'), being the end product of a process more than three hundred years in the making. (Cue the strings and tune the banjos.)

The two sisters
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Harvard professor Francis James Child collected a canon of English-language ballads and numbered them from 1 to 305. Although he found a lot more than that in his years of research, many were variants of the same story and therefore classified by the same Child number (though not necessarily variants of the same tune).

Child ballad 10 has an interesting story. It's a murder ballad, and it gets worse.

A girl is drowned by her sister; an act that does not go unnoticed, even in 1656, when ‘The Miller and the King's Daughter’ is printed – an incarnation of the ballad Child called ‘The Twa Sisters’, aka ‘Cruel Sister’, ‘The Wind and the Rain’, ‘Minnorie’, ‘Binnorie’, or even ‘Bonnie Bows of London’ (there are at least 21 variants).

Have a timeout and listen to Pentangle's brilliant 1970 arrangement of ‘Cruel Sister’: Spotify link. (Incidentally, the chorus phrase ‘lay the bent to the bonny broom’ is from ballad 1 and may be a euphemism for fucking.) A good Norwegian adaptation by Folque, ‘Harpa’, was released in 1974.

Hey ho! the wind and the rain
Already as the seventeenth century was very new, William Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night, a comedy wherein the jester Feste does a number of songs, including one where he goes ‘With hey, ho, the wind and the rain’ every fourth line. (In unpopular culture, Ingmar Bergman's magnum opus Fanny and Alexander contains a lovely performance in Swedish by an old and sick Gunnar Björnstrand.)

But I digress. The point is that this ‘rain and wind’ business is all over the place. ‘The Wind and the Rain’ is the version of Child ballad 10 that Paul Clayton played to Bob Dylan, which got him all excited. He wrote himself a modern manslaughter ballad, named it ‘Percy's Song’ for no obvious reason, and credited Clayton and the wind and the rain for its ‘beautiful melody line’. 2

You can hear the similarities here:
George and Gerry Armstrong, ‘The Wind and the Rain’ (especially from 1.15 till the end)
Fairport Convention, ‘Percy's Song’ (especially from 6.15 and out)

And the only tune my guitar could play was, ‘The Old, Cruel Wind and the Rain’. Turn, turn, turn again, indeed. Remember those two sisters and the sororicide? The Armstrongs are on it from verse one. But the latter recording is the one you've been waiting for all article long. I'm forever indebted to Ulf for turning me on to Unhalfbricking and this Dylan ‘cover’ (his own 1963 recording went unreleased till 1985's Biograph compilation).

Arguably, it is a Dylan original as good as any. However, like this article, that is neither here nor there.

1 John Harris, ‘Unhalfbricking, Fairport Convention’, in Observer Music Monthly (Guardian News and Media 20 June 2004)
2 Matthew Zuckerman, ‘If There's an Original Thought Out There, I Could Use It Right Now: the Folk Roots of Bob Dylan’ (the Internet 1997): #14

Link: lyric and chords to ‘Percy's Song



Anders K.,  25.07.10 12:54

I've always wondered what "Lay the bent to the
bonny broom" actually means literally. After googling it,
it appears the euphemism is more commonly agreed on
than the direct meaning of the sentence.


Kjellove,  31.07.10 18:05

The ballad it's lifted from, Child #1, concerns a knight and a maiden. According to its English Wikipedia article (link), ‘A. L. Lloyd euphemistically describes this as a phrase of "physiological significance", explaining that the word "bent" means a horn. "Broom" most likely refers to the flowering shrub.’

Horn. Flower. But what is it doing in a murder ballad of two sisters (link)?

We've heard of comic relief. Perhaps this is sexual relief.


Camilla,  01.08.10 00:05

I feel very strongly that we should introduce "unpopular culture" as a common designation. Or uncommon, depending. At any rate, this is a nice article. More, please.