In The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, in Child ballad # 42 Clerck Colven (other titles Clerck Colvill or Earl Colvin) we find the same medieval ballad focused on the meeting between a knight about to marry and a fairy creature (or a jealous lover)
The ballad begins with a quarrel between boyfriends: the future bride beseeches him not to visit his lover, a washerwoman, just on the eve of their wedding!
The knight denies any sexual involvement (normal administration!) but he is anxious to meet his lover again.
For a comparison between the versions A, B, C see the analysis by Christian Souchon (here)
They have an obvious sexual relationship (in the coded language of the time), but then the man complains about his headache, she gives him a strip of fabric (poisoned) and announces his imminent death (or poisoning him by giving him one last kiss). The woman is clearly a water nymph and in fact as soon as the young man draws his sword to take revenge, she turns into a fish and dives into the water.
Frankie Armstrong from Till the Grass o’ergrew the corn 2006, ♪
The melody is an arrangement by Frankie from the one heard by Mrs. Brown from Falkirk, Stirling County.
Kate Fletcher & Corwen Broch from Fishe or Fowle 2017, ♪
“One of many ballads from across Europe in which a man is doomed to death by his Other-Worldly lover.
We have used the words of Child 42 version B and the only existing melody for them from Mrs Brown (Anna Gordon) of Falkland. The transcribed melody has given rise to endless debate about how the words should fit to the refrain line of the music. We have chosen to sidestep the argument and sing the verses as given omitting the problematic line of melody.”
Clerk Colven (1) and his gay (2) lady
Were walking in yon garden green,
A belt (3) around her middle so small
Which cost Clerk Colven crowns fifteen.
“O harken to me, my lord,” she says
“O, harken well to what I do say:
If you go to the walls of Stream (4),
Be sure you touch no well fair’d maid.”
“O, hold your tongue,” Clerk Colven said,
“And do not vex me with your din.
I never saw a fair woman
But with her body I could sin.” (5)
He’s mounted on his berry-brown steed
And merrily merrily rode he on,
Until he came to the walls of Stream,
And there he spied the mermaiden (6).
“You wash, you wash you mermaiden”,
“O, I will wash your sark of the silk (7).
It’s all for you, my gentle knight,
My skin is whiter than the milk(8).”
He’s taken her by the milk white hand
And likewise by the grass-green sleeve,
he’s laid her down all on the grass,
Nor of his lady need he ask leave (9).
“Alas! Alas!” says Clerk Colven,
“For oh so sore is grown my head.”
Merrily laughed the mermaiden,
“Aye, even on, till you be dead.”
“But you pull out your little pen-knife,
And from my sark you shear a gore,
And bind it round your lovely head,
And you shall feel the pain no more.”
So he’s took out his little pen-knife,
And from her sark he sheared a gore,
He’s bound it round his lovely head;
But the pain it grew ten-times more.
“Alas! Alas!” cries Clerk Colven,
“For now so sore is grown my head.”
Merrily laughed the mermaiden,
“’twill I be away and you’ll be dead.”
So he’s pulled out his trusty sword,
And thought with it to spill her blood;
But she’s turned to a fish again
And merrily sprang into the flood.
He’s mounted on his berry-brown steed,
And drear and dowie rode he home,
Until he’s come to his lady’s bower
And heavily he’s lighted down.
“O, mother, mother, make my bed,
O, gentle lady, lay me down(10);
O brother, brother, unbend my bow(11),
It’ll ne’er be bent by me again.”
His mother she has made his bed,
His gentle lady laid him down,
His brother he unbent his bow,
It ne’er was bent by him again.
1) according to the Danish folklorist Svend Grundtvig the name Colven is a corruption of Olafur in “Olvill” from the Faroese language (the Norse has long been spoken in the islands of Scotland). Also Clerck is a mispronunciation of Herr for Lord, in the stanza V the siren calls him “gentle knight”
2) as Giordano Dall’Armellina observes, the lady in other versions is defined lusty, that is greedy and ultimately possessive.
3) the belt is clearly a love token, it was customary, in fact, to exchange the promise of engagement, giving a “trinket” to the lady, not necessarily a diamond ring as we use today, but a hair clip or belt (obviously not less expensive)
4) in version B it is “Wells of Slane” misunderstood as “Wall of Stream” in version A; it could refer to the “Loch o ‘Strom” on the Mainland the largest of the Shetland Islands. The sacred well is generally a cleft in the earth in which the magical and healing water flows from the mother goddess’s womb, but if the spirit of the place is not placated it becomes deadly water. But here it represents the erotic energy that attracts the knight
5) translated into simple words: “do you think I’m the kind of man who goes to bed with every woman he meets?”
6) mermaiden is the siren, but he could be a nymph or an undine, the term with which the magical creatures of the inner waters are classified (see more). In Scotland and especially in the islands it is identified with a selkie
7) the beautiful girl is depicted as a washerwoman washing clothes by beating them on a marble stone (variant C and D). The image recalls the girl of the ford of the Irish tradition that is a harbinger of imminent death (banshee)
8) it is known that a snow skin was a fundamental requirement for the sexual excitement of the medieval knight
9) the whole stanza is a coded language to say that they have had a sexual intercourse
10) death in this case is not concealed and even the girlfriend immediately learns the news
11) in other versions says “O brother, take my sword and spear” to indicate that he will be buried with the warrior’s set as it was the custom in burials for people of rank in ancient European civilizations.
Published in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs it is the D version collected by George Gardiner in 1906 from the voice of Henry Stansbridge of Lyndhurst, Hampshire. The version, however, is very corrupt and diversified compared to the ballad of Norse origins.
It is the version on which American variants are modeled, almost transformed into a murder ballad.
Sam Lee The Ballad of George Collins from ‘Ground of its own’ 2012 (winner of the Barclaycard Mercury Prize 2012 see more) : amazing video clip
Shirley Collins from The Sweet Primroses 1967Alan Moores in a folk-country arrangement by Spud Gravely version (in Ballads and Song of the Blue Ridge Mountains) also known as George Allen
| Sam Lee Version ( da qui)
George Collins walked out one may
morning, when may was all in bloom
and who should he see but a fair pretty maid, washing her white marble stone (1)
She whooped she hollered she called so loud,
she waved her lilly white hand
“Come hither to me George Collins -cried she- for your life it won’t last you long”
He put his foot on the broad water side,
across the river sprung he,
he gripped his hands round her middle (2) so small and he kissed her red ruby lips (3)
Then he road home to his father’s old house, loudly knocked with the ring
“arise, arise my father- he cried-
rise and please let me in”
“Oh arise, arise dear mother -he cried-
rise and make up my bed”
“arise, arise dear sister -he cried-
get a napkin (4) to tie round my head.
For if I should die tonight
As I suppose I shall
Please bury me under that marble stone
That lies in fair Ellender’s hall(5)”
Fair Ellender sat in her hall
weaving her silk so fine
who should she see but the finest corpse(6) that ever her eyes shone on
Fair Ellender called unto her head maid
‘Whose corpse is this so fine?’
she made her reply “George Collins is corpse an old true lover of mine”
“Oh put him down my brave little boys
and open his coffin so wide
but I may kiss his red ruby lips
ten thousand times he has kissed mine”
This news been carried to fair London town
And wrote on London gate(7),
“six pretty maids died all in one night
‘twas all for George Collins’ sake”
1) It is the stone on which the washerwoman beats and rubs her clothes. Another “marble stone” returns cited in the VI stanza, the marble slab in the hall or hill of Ellender
2) in the modest language of ballads it indicates a sexual relationship. Despite the jealous lover threatened him with death, George kisses her and embraces her: he probably does not consider her a danger
3) it is the deadly kiss of the nymph, (or the kiss of the plague) the woman is never described as a supernatural creature
4) the poisoned cloth that we saw in version A and B of Clerck Colven still comes back to wrap the sufferer’s head, but this time it’s a normal bandage
5) elsewhere written as hill. George is in his father’s house announcing his imminent death and asking to be buried in Ellender’s property. Shirley Collins sings
“Bury me by the marble stone
That’s against Lady Eleanor’s hall.”
6) 6) the coffin was brought into the house of the lady who asked to remove the lid so that she could still kiss the lips of her lover. The sentence is a bit to be interpreted, it is the lady-in-waiting (or the housekeeper) to ask who is the corpse in the coffin. And it is Ellender who answers that he was her lover.
7) The final stanza seems to be a nineteenth-century addition in an ironic key, the six women died because of the venereal disease of George