The Shaking Of The Sheets: a macabre dance

Leggi in italiano

Clusone, Bergamo (Italy): fresco of the Shaking of the Sheet

In the Middle Ages to exorcise the fear of death, they danced with her, the living and the keletons are depicted all in a row in an endless farandola to leave life at dance step.
The most widespread theme in the early Middle Ages, however, was the Universal Judgment, a Memento Mori (As I am, you will be) that passed to the theme of the “Triumph of Death” as Danse Macabre. In the Danse Macabre all the social categories of the time are represented, starting with the powerful and the rich bourgeois and then gradually the artisans, the peasants and the poor.
With death crowned to direct the great ball and its attendants to throw the darts (or to shoot with the rifle as in the fresco of Clusone) or to play some musical instruments. Perhaps a sort of social satire, but it was rather a reflection on vanitas (of power and wealth)

Corvus Corax “Saltatio Mortis A.D.Mm” from “Mille anni passi sunt“, 2000

Angelo Branduardi  “Ballo in fa diesis minore” from “La pulce d’acqua” 1997: if the text follows the motif of the medieval macabre dance, the music is instead a medieval tune reported by Giorgio Mainerio in his “Il primo libro dei balli accomodati per cantar et sonar d’ogni sorte de instromenti ” (1578) and it was more properly a “rain dance” here
Guest of the album, the Sardinian musician Luigi Lai, virtuoso of the “launeddas“, very ancient wind instrument (here).

Sono io la Morte, e porto corona
Io son di tutti voi signora e padrona
E così sono crudele,
così forte sono e dura
Che non mi fermeranno le tue mura
Sono io la Morte, e porto corona
Io son di tutti voi signora e padrona
E davanti alla mia falce
il capo tu dovrai chinare
E dell’oscura morte al passo andare
III (2)
Sei l’ospite d’onore del ballo che per te suoniamo
Posa la falce e danza tondo a tondo
Il giro di una danza e poi un altro ancora
E tu del tempo non sei più signora
English translation *
I am Death and wear a crown,
I am for all of you lady and mistress
and I am so cruel,
so strong and harsh
that your walls won’t stop me.
I am Death and wear a crown,
I am for all of you lady and mistress
and in front of my scythe
you’ll have to bow your head
and walk to the gloomy Death’s pace.
You are the guest of honor
at the dance we are playing for you,
put your scythe down and dance round and round
a round of dancing and then one more,
and you’ll be no longer the lady of time.

from here
1) The text partly reproduces the inscription frescoed in the macabre dance of the Pinzolo Cemetery in Val Redena
Io sont la Morte che porto corona
Sonte Signora de ognia persona
At cossi son fiera forte et dura
Che trapaso le porte et ultra le mura
Et son quela che fa tremare el mondo
Revolgendo una falze atondo atondo
Ovvio taco col mio strale
Sapienza, beleza forteza niente vale
2) men invite Death to dance so that he forget about his mission

Thomas Rowlandson – The English Dance of Death, 1815-1816


“Shaking of the Sheets” was published in 1568 in “Popular Music of the Old Time” (Chappell) (cf). In the English Dancing Master, Playford transcribed the melody, let’s hear it performed by the Baltimore Consort

The song, however, re-proposed in a folk-rock key by the Steeleye Span follows some sixteenth-century stanzas but the music was composed by Robert “Bob” Johnson and mixed with a country dance titled Black Joke (Joack) from the village of Adderbury in Oxfordshire. Black Joak was transcribed by Cecil Sharp from the bearer John Mason of Stow-on-the-Wold, a traditional melody of the Morris Dance with the sticks of the same name.

Lester Bailey

Steeleye Span (Robert “Bob” Johnson voice) from “Tempted and Tried” 1989

Faran Flad live 

Dance, dance the shaking of the sheets,
Dance, dance when you hear the piper playing,
Everyone must dance
The Shaking of the Sheets with me.
Bring away the beggar,
bring away the king,
And every man in his degree.
Bring away the oldest
and the youngest thing,
Come to death and follow me.
Bring away the merchant
who made his money in France,
And the crafty banker too,
When you hear the piper,
you and I must dance
The dance that everyone must do.
I’ll find you in the courtrooms,
I’ll find you in the schools,
When you hear the piper play.
I’ll take away the wise men,
I’ll take away the fools
And bring their bodies all to clay.
All the politicians of high and low degree,
Lords and ladies, great and small.
Don’t think that you’ll escape
and need not dance with me,
I’ll make you come when I do call.
[Chorus X 2]
It may be in the day, it may be in the night,
Prepare yourselves to dance and pray.
That when the piper plays
“The Shaking of the Sheets”
You may to Heaven dance the way.


The spread of so many depictions of macabre dances on the walls of all Europe is traced back to the passage of the great plague of 1348 which decimated the populations without knowing boundaries. Never before had Europe known such a pestilence, though devastated by war and famine: entire villages disappeared and the fields filled with weeds because there was no one left to cultivate them. The chroniclers of the time wrote “A third of the world died”.
On the other hand, a “street” liturgical drama functional to preaching and perhaps related to the “Dance of the Maccabees” (chorea machabaeorum) in which the participants danced holding hands was already widespread at the level of the Sacred Drama (Morality Play). and they were taken away one by one by disturbing characters wrapped in a sheet.

Ad mortem festinamus

oratorio dei Disciplini, Clusone (Bergamo, Italy)


La farandola is a medieval dance with a single basic step (mostly skipped), in which the row leader chooses the changes of direction, he makes and undoes just like the Norns with the thread of destiny. And therefore the farandola is the ritual dance in the celebrations of Samahin because it is the dance of death: everyone must travel the same path abandoning themselves to the will of those who lead the dance, to symbolize chained humanity that can only follow the path traced, and however a sort of collective journey through the experiences of life, towards its mysterious center. The farandola is probably the oldest dance so tied to the primitive agrarian rites: it is the dance of the labyrinth with its snail and snake figures, the dance around the fire, the sacred center of village life. Thus the labyrinth always has an exit and the dance is a dance of death and rebirth to symbolize the concept of eternal return.

Tomba delle Danzatrici, Ruvo di Puglia (Bari – Italy), V sec. a.C. – Napoli, Museo Archeologico Nazionale

The farandola is probably the oldest dance in the world dedicated to the Lady of the Labyrinth which we find in the Minoan culture of 1400 BC, a dance connected to the mysteries of fertility and described by Homer in the shield of Achilles.

carola-medioevoIn the figure (from the fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti- Palazzo del Buonconsiglio, Siena – Italy) the two women leaders raised their arms in an arc to let pass below the rest of the chain (which was already drawing a sinuous serpentine movement), just a tambourine and the voice to cadence the rhythm and from the lightness with which the dancers move it would seem that they dance on tiptoe without lean their heel.

The dance has kept its legacy in Provence as the traditional dance par excellence (for every occasion).

Su ballo tondo- from Sardigna (Italy)

Ad Mortem Festinamus


“What women really want” /“King Henry”

The centuries go by, but the big questions and the answers are still the same, so in the film directed by Nancy Meyers “What Women Want” (2000) it is revisited in a contemporary key the story of the medieval ballad  entitled “King Henry“.
[Passano i secoli ma le grandi domande e le risposte restano sempre le stesse, così nel film diretto da Nancy Meyers “What Women Want” (in italiano “Quello che le donne vogliono”) (2000) si rivisita in chiave contemporanea la storia della ballata medievale intitolata “King Henry”:]

This ballad to ask the question and give the answer, however, recalls the language of the fairy tale and so re-elaborates the story of “Beauty and the Beast“: it is King Henry who agrees to sleep next to a monstrous woman and she will transform in a beautiful lady.
In the ballad the magic is accomplished because the man submits completely to the will of a woman, and here is the answer to the question
“What do women want?”
-The power on men!
[La ballata medievale per porre la domanda e darsi la risposta ricorre tuttavia al linguaggio della fiaba e così rielabora al femminile la storia di “Bella e la Bestia”: è re Enrico ad accettare di dormire accanto ad una donna dall’aspetto mostruoso che si trasformerà in una bellissima fanciulla.
Nella ballata la magia si compie perchè l’uomo si sottomette completamente al volere della donna, ed ecco la risposta alla domanda
“Cosa vogliono le donne? “
Il potere sugli uomini!]
A similar story can be found in the scandinavian saga of Hrólfr Kraki and in the Celtic tale of Diarmuid and the daughter of the King of the Otherworld, while in The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle the narration depicts a typically courteous and arturian context. Later also Chaucer claims the story in his novel “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” (Canterbury’s Tale)
[Un racconto analogo lo ritroviamo nella saga norrena di Hrólfr Kraki e nel racconto celtico di Diarmuid e la figlia del Re di Altrove, mentre nelle Nozze di Messer Galvano e Madamigella Raganella (The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle) la narrazione si cala in un contesto tipicamente cortese e arturiano. Più tardi anche Chaucer inserisce la storia nella sua novella “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”]

The Wedding of Sir Gawain and Dame Ragnelle
[Messer Galvano e Madamigella Raganella]

King Arthur, chaising a deer, encounters Sir Gromer heavily armed and angry with him because he dared to give the lands belonging to his family to Sir Gawain. Instead of killing Arthur, Gromer subjects him with an enigma “What is the most desired thing for all women?” Arthur will have a year to find the answer and saving his own life.
[Artù nell’inseguire un grosso cervo s’imbatte in Messer Gromer armato di tutto punto e arrabbiato con il re perchè aveva avuto l’ardire di donare le terre appartenute alla sua famiglia a Messer Galvano. Gromer  invece di uccidere  Artù gli sottopone un enigma “Qual’è la cosa più desiderata da tutte le donne?” Artù avrà tempo un anno per trovare la risposta e avere salva la vita.]
The year passes and Arthur has many answers but none seems the right one, when he meets Dame Ragnelle, a woman horribly ugly and deformed, willing to solve the enigma only in exchange for the wedding with Sir Gawain, the most beautiful knight of the Realm.
[Passa l’anno e Artù ha tante risposte ma nessuna gli sembra quella giusta quando incontra Madamigella Raganella, una donna orribilmente brutta e deforme, disposta a risolvere l’enigma solo in cambio delle nozze con Messer Galvano, il più bel cavaliere del Reame.]
Gawain agrees to marry Ragnelle and all the courtiers are horrified by the ugliness and the voracity of the bride during the banquet. When it comes time to go to bed Ragnelle asks for a kiss and as soon as they kiss, the loathly dame turns into the most beautiful lady. Perplexed and dazed Sir Gawain asks her “Who are you?” and the lady answers “I am your loving bride”  But this isn’t over: Ragnelle explains she is the victim of a spell and she can keep her beautyful appearance only for half a day, it is up to her husband to decide if he prefers her beauty at night (in his bed) or her beauty during the day (for the all court ). And Gawain answers “You decide” and breaks the spell forever.
[Galvano accetta di sposarsi con Raganella e alle nozze sfarzose partecipa tutta la corte. Tutti inorridirono davanti alla sua bruttezza e alla voracità della sposina durante il banchetto. Arrivato il momento di andare a letto Raganella chiede un bacio e non appena si baciano la megera più brutta si trasforma nella più bella delle belle.  Perplesso e frastornato Galvano chiede “Chi siete” e la fanciulla risponde “Sono la vostra amorevole sposa”. Ma non finisce qui: Raganella spiega che essendo vittima di un incantesimo può mantenere il suo aspetto solo per metà giornata, spetta al marito decidere se la preferisce bella di notte (nel suo letto) o bella di giorno (davanti a tutta la corte). Ed ecco Galvano che risponde “Decidi tu” e spezza per sempre il maleficio.]

The answer to the riddle that only Ragnelle (that is, the woman made grotesque by the fear of men) knows: it is the women autonomy or the sovereignty of their lives. But since the male and female principles are interrelated, they depend on each other, so Ragnelle’s self-determination depends on Ragnelle’s relationship with Gawain.
As we can see the answer is not exactly the same as before, the autonomy and self-determination of the women does not necessarily mean that they have power over men, not as the patriarchal society has exercised male power over women.
[La risposta all’enigma che solo Raganella  (cioè la donna resa grottesca dalla paura degli uomini) conosce è: l’autonomia o la sovranità della propria vita. Ma poichè il principio maschile e quello femminile sono correlati tra loro, dipendono uno dall’altro, così l’autodeterminazione di Raganella dipende dal rapporto di Raganella con Galvano.
Come si vede la risposta non è esattamente la stessa data in precedenza, l’autonomia e l’autodeterminazione della danna non vuol dire necessariamente avere il potere sugli uomini, non come fino ad ora la società patriarcale ha esercitato il potere sulle donne.]

King Henry

Child #32

Professor Child reports only one version of this ballad from a late eighteenth-century transcription (Jamieson-Brown MS) classifying it to the number 32; it follows a Celtic tale collected by John Francis Campbell in “Popular Tales of the West Highlands” titled “The Daughter Of King Under-Waves “: story goes that at the time of the Fianna a wild woman went on a winter’s night to ask the most talented warriors to welcome her in their bed, but both Finn and Oisin cast out her, only Diarmuid welcomed her , first next to the fire and then allowing her to get under the covers with him. The woman turned out to be a beautiful girl who gave him a sumptuous palace stocked with servants and every good. It is obviously a fairy creature and the story goes on with the return to Otherword kingdom of the beautiful girl, her illness and her healing always because of Diarmuid who, however, will lose at the same time the love he felt for the fairy. (see)
[Il professor Child riporta una sola versione di questa ballata da una trascrizione tardo settecentesca (JamiesonBrown MS) classificandola al numero 32,  la quale ricalca un racconto celtico collezionato da John Francis Campbell in “Popular Tales of the West Highlands” dal titolo “The Daughter Of King Under-Waves”: si narra che ai tempi dei Fianna una donna  selvaggia andasse in una notte d’inverno a chiedere ai più valenti guerrieri di accoglierla nel loro giaciglio, eppure sia Finn che Oisin la scacciarono, solo Diarmuid l’accolse, prima facendole spazio accanto al fuoco e poi permettendole di entrare sotto le coperte con lui. La donna si rivelò essere una bellissima fanciulla che gli dona un sontuoso palazzo rifornito di servi e di ogni bene. Si tratta ovviamente di una creatura fatata e la storia prosegue con il ritorno ad Altrove della bella fanciulla, la sua malattia e la guarigione sempre a causa di  Diarmuid il quale però perderà nel contempo l’amore che sentiva per la fata. (vedi storia)]

So the ballad at first describes King Henry hunting in the woods and then feasting in his castle, when a ugly shrew comes in demanding to be fed with his hounds, his goshawk and his faithful horse; then she claims to sleep with Henry in his bed! Henry fulfils all her requests witout avoid that “kiss” (clearly in the dark of the night they did not just go to sleep) but in the morning the sun bathes the room and Henry, in his bed, sees a beautiful lady.
[Così la ballata descrive prima re Enrico che è andato a caccia nel bosco, poi riunito con la sua corte a banchettare quando irrompe nella sala una orribile megera, brutta come la fame, che esige di essere sfamata con gli animali da caccia nonchè animali d’affezione di un cavaliere (i suoi segugi, l’astore e il fedele cavallo) e pretende di dormire nel letto di Enrico con lui sdraiato al suo fianco, Enrico soddisfa tutte le richieste della dama arrivando anche al fatidico bacio (chiaramente nel buio della notte non si sono limitati a dormire) ma al mattino il sole inonda la stanza e al suo fianco nel letto Enrico vede una bellissima fanciulla.]

If on the one hand the ballad fits into the group of fairy encounters (with a troll or witch as in Her Mannelig) it is undeniable its connection with the Captain Wedderburn’s courtship: the woman subjects her knight to a series of impossible requests / tasks that are in fact some riddles to be solved.
[Se da una parte la ballata s’inserisce nel gruppo degli incontri fatati (con una trolla o strega come in Her Mannelig) è innegabile il suo collegamento con la Captain Wedderburn’s courtship: la donna sottopone il suo cavaliere a una serie di richieste/compiti impossibili che si trattano in realtà di enigmi da risolvere.]

The ballad has known a certain disclosure in the folk revival circuits with the version of Steeleye Span
[La ballata ha conosciuto una certa divulgazione nei circuiti del folk revival con la versione degli Steeleye Span]

Steeleye Span in Below the Salt 1972 (which recorded it again in 2002 on the occasion of their reunion tour) [che la registrano ancora nel 2002 in occasione del loro tour di reunion]

Martin Carthy, a former member of the Steeleye Span, also took up the ballad a few years later, but combined it with a melody (Bonaparte’s Retreat) which he thought was best matched with the verses
[Martin Carthy ex membro degli Steeleye Span ha ripreso anch’egli la ballata qualche anno più tardi abbinandola però a una melodia (Bonaparte’s Retreat) che secondo lui meglio si abbinava ai versi]

Let’s listen in a version of the Cloudstreet (2002)
[Ascoltiamola in una versione dei Cloudstreet
  del 2002 ]

Heather Alexander

The Furrow Collective in At Our Next Meeting 2014

Emily Portman commented in their sleeve notes: “A tale of bewitchment and metamorphosis with a moral to men that appearances can be deceptive and they shall reap great rewards if they give women what they want! I came across King Henry in Bronson’s The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads and, feeling like the first person to unearth such a gem in hundreds of years, I set about collating my own text, adapting the melody from Mrs Brown of Aberdeenshire.”
[Emily Portman ha commentato nelle note di copertina: “Una storia di incantesimi e metamorfosi con una morale per gli uomini che le apparenze possono essere ingannevoli e raccoglieranno grandi ricompense se daranno alle donne quello che vogliono! Ho conosciuto King Henry in The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads di Bronson e, sentendomi come se fossi la prima persona a portare alla luce una simile gemma dopo centinaia di anni, ho iniziato a mettere insieme il mio testo, adattando la melodia della signora Brown di Aberdeenshire. “]

Let never a man a-wooing (1) wend
That lacks these virtues three:
A routh of gold, an open heart,
A cup of charity.
King Henry’s taken him (2) to his hall
For to make burly cheer,
When loud the wind was heard to sound
An earthquake rocked the floor.
And darkness covered all the hall
Where they sat at their meat.
The greyhounds, yowling, left their food
And crept to Henry’s feet.
And louder howled the rising wind,
Burst the fastened door.
In there came a grisly ghost (3),
Stood stamping on the floor.
Her hair was hanging at her heels,
Streaming with the rain.
She said, “It has been seven long years
Since I felt fires flame.”
Her teeth were like the tether stakes (4),
Hideous was her form (5).
He’s thrown to her his mantle,
Saying, “Lady, come into the warm.”
“Some meat, some meat, King Henry,
Some meat you give to me!”
“Oh, what meat’s in this house, Lady,
That I can give to thee?”
“Oh, you can kill your good greyhounds
And bring them here to me!”
Oh, when he slew his good greyhounds
How his heart was sore.
She ate them up, both skin and bone,
Left nothing but hide and hair.
“More meat, more meat, King Henry,
More meat you give to me!”
“Oh, what meat’s in this house, Lady,
That I can give to thee?”
“Oh, you can kill your gay goshawk
And bring it here to me!”
Oh, when he slew his gay goshawk
How his heart was sore.
She ate it up, both skin and bone,
Left nothing but feathers there.
“More meat, more meat, King Henry,
More meat you give to me!”
“Oh, what meat’s in this house, Lady,
That I can give to thee?”
“Oh, you can kill your berry-brown steed
And bring it here to me!”
Oh, when he slew his berry-brown steed
How his heart was sore.
She ate it up, both skin and bone,
Left nothing but hide and hair.
“Now a drink, a drink, King Henry,
A drink you give to me!”
“Oh, what drink’s in this house, Lady,
That I can give to thee?”
“Oh, sew you up your horse’s hide
And bring a drink to me!”
So he sewed up the bloody hide,
A wine he has put in.
She drank it up all in one sip,
Ne’er a drop left in the skin.
“Now a bed, a bed, King Henry,
Now make for me a bed!
Pull from the heather so green
And over with your mantle spread.”
So he has pulled of the heather green,
Made for her a bed,
He’s taken his mantle gold,
And over he has spread.
“Now take off your clothes, King Henry,
And lie down by my side!”
“That I forbid,” King Henry said,
“That ever the like betide!
That ever a fiend from out of hell
Should lie down by my side!”
But as he spoke a bloody tear
Trickled from her eye,
Softer grew King Henry’s heart
And down he went with her side.
When night was gone and day was come
And the sun shone through the hall,
The fairest lady that ever was seen
Lay between him and the wall (6).
“Oh well is me,” says Henry,
How long will this vision last? (7)”
And up and spoke the lady fair,
“Till all your days are past.”
“For I was witched to a ghastly shape
By my step-mother’s skill
Till I should meet with a corteous knight
That gave me all I will.”
“And I’ve met many’s the gentle man
That’s given me such fill,
But never before with such a man
Who’s given me all I will.”

Traduzione italiano Cattia Salto
Che mai uomo vi corteggi
Che manchi di queste tre virtù:
Profusione d’oro, buon cuore,
Abbondanza di compassione.
Re Enrico lo portò nel suo castello
Per fare una gran baldoria
Mentre forte ululava il vento
E il terremoto squassava il pavimento
E l’oscurità copriva la sala
Dove si sedevano per il banchetto
I levrieri, mugolando, lasciarono gli avanzi
E strisciarono ai piedi di Enrico.
E più forte ululò la raffica del vento
Rompendo la porta chiusa.
Entrò un’anima dannata
Stava impalata sul pavimento
I capelli lunghi fino ai piedi
Gocciolavano di pioggia
e disse “Sono passati sette lunghi anni
Da quando sento il fuoco delle fiamme”
I suoi denti come rastrelliere
Orribile di forma.
Egli la coprì con il mantello
Dicendo “Madama venite dentro al caldo”
“Della carne, della carne, Re Enrico
Datemi da mangiare carne!”
“Oh quale carne in questa casa, madama,
Vi posso dare?”
“Potete uccidere i vostri buon levrieri
E portarli qui da me”
Oh quando lui uccise i suoi buon levrieri
Aveva il cuore addolorato.
Lei se li divorò, con la pelle e le ossa,
lasciando solo pelle e peli.
“Altra carne, altra carne, Re Enrico
Datemi altra carne da mangiare!”
“Oh quale carne in questa casa, madama,
vi posso dare?”
“Potete uccidere il vostro bell’astore
E portatelo qui da me”
Oh quando lui uccise il suo bell’astore
Aveva il cuore addolorato.
Lei se lo divorò, con la pelle e le ossa,
lasciando solo le penne.
“Altra carne, altra carne, Re Enrico
Datemi altra carne da mangiare!”
“Oh quale carne in questa casa, madama,
Vi posso dare?”
“Potete uccidere il vostro destriero morello
E portatelo qui da me”
Oh quando lui uccise il suo destriero morello
Aveva il cuore addolorato.
Lei se lo divorò, con la pelle e le ossa,
lasciando solo pelle e criniera.
“Ed ora da bere, da bere, Re Enrico,
datemi da bere!”
“Oh che bevanda in questa casa, Madama
Posso offrirvi?”
“Oh cucite la pelle del vostro cavallo
e portatemi da bere”
“Così egli cucì la pelle insanguinando
Il vino che ci mise dentro.
Lei lo bevve tutto in un sorso,
E nemmeno una goccia lasciò sulla pelle.
“Ora il letto, il letto, Re Enrico,
Ora preparate per me il letto”
Prendete dell’erica verde
E stendete il vostro mantello”
Così lui raccolse la verde erica
e le fece il letto,
Prese il suo mantello dorato
E sopra lo stese.
“Ora toglietevi i vestiti, Re Enrico
e coricatevi al mio fianco!”
“Questo lo proibisco -Re Enrico disse
“Che mai accada una cosa simile!
Che mai un demone dell’Inferno
Potrà giacermi accanto!”
Ma mentre lui parlava una lacrima di sangue
Spuntò dagli occhi di lei
Si addolcì il cuore di Re Enrico
E accanto a lei si stese
Passò la notte e venne il giorno
E il sole brillò nella stanza
La donna più bella mai vista
Giaceva tra lui e il muro.
“Oh beato me – Enrico dice-
Per quanto durerà questa visione?”
E così parlò la bella dama
“Finchè tutti i tuoi giorni saranno trascorsi
Perchè fui stregata in forma spaventosa
Dall’arte della mia matrigna
Fino a quando non avessi incontrato un cavaliere cortese
Che mi avrebbe dato tutto ciò che voglio.
E ho conosciuto più di un gentiluomo
Che mi ha dato della soddisfazione,
Ma mai prima d’ora un uomo simile
Che mi ha dato tutto ciò che voglio”

1) the first stanza puts the ballad inside the warning song and warns us that the following is a love courtship, a teaching on marital relations [la prima strofa colloca la ballata all’interno delle warning song e ci avvisa che cioè che segue è una schermaglia amorosa, un insegnamento sui rapporti coniugali]
2) probable mistake: the king was first hunting so him is the prey for the banquet; in reality, the game just killed usually was not consumed immediately, but left to hang in the cool place for a week [probabile refuso il re è stato prima a caccia e porta le prede al castello per il banchetto; in realtà la selvaggina appena uccisa non veniva consumata subito, ma lasciata frollare al fresco per una settimana]
3) here ghost means a damned soul, not exactly an incorporeal creature or a revenant and in fact in the next stanza she said “It has been seven long years
Since I felt fires flame.”
[qui s’intende un’anima dannata, non esattamente una creatura incorporea o un revenant e infatti nella strofa successiva dice che ha trascorso sette anni all’Inferno]
4) tether stake: the upright post in a stall to which a cow is fastened
5) more than describing an old one she is a wild and grotesque creature. In the Arthurian story, the name itself recalls in the features of the face a frog: low and receding forehead, large eyes and out of the orbits wide mouth without lips and toothless, stubby limbs and bent shoulders.[più che descrivere una vecchia si tratta di una creatura selvatica e grottesca. Nel racconto arturiano il nome stesso richiama nelle fattezze del viso i lineamenti di una rana, fronte bassa e sfuggente, occhi grandi e fuori dalle orbite bocca larga senza labbra e sdentata, membra tozze e spalle incurvate.]
6) in the Middle Ages the bed was an alcove in the wall more than a canopy in the middle of the room, it was the woman to sleep on the side of the wall, a sign of her submission to her husband see more [nel medioevo il letto era un alcova nel muro più che un isolato baldacchino al centro della stanza, era la donna a dormire dalla parte del muro, segno della sua sottomissione al marito continua]
7) in the Arthurian story the transformation is first temporary: the lady explains that the spell of which she is the victim allows her to have her true form only half the day and leaves to Gawain the power to decide if he wants her beauty only for himself or in front of others. Gawain leaves the decision to the lady. [nel racconto arturiano la trasformazione dapprima è temporanea: la dama spiega che l’incantesimo di cui è vittima le permette di avere la sua vera forma solo per metà del tempo e lascia a Galvano il potere di decidere se la vuole bella solo per sè oppure se la vuole bella davanti agli altri. Galvano lascia la decisione alla dama.]

Herr Heinerich

Faun translated the song into German as “Herr Heinerich” for their album Buch der Balladen [Faun traducono la canzone in tedesco con il titolo “Herr Heinerich” ]

Wenn einer um eine Fraue freit
Der braucht der Dinge drei
Ein offen Herz, ein Säcklein Gold
Und hohen Mut dabei

Herr Heinrich, er reitet im tiefen Wald
Trinkt Wasser statt kühlem Wein
Wohl sieben Meilen vor der Stadt
Denkt an die Liebste sein

Er jagt den Hirsch von Berg zu Tal
Er treibt ihn vor sich her
Hart fliegt sein heller Eschenspeer
Bringt jäh das Wild zu Fall

Er trägt die Beute in sein Haus
Sein Herz ist freudenvoll
Er setzet sich zum Mahle
Es wurde finstere Nacht

Da fängt der Hund zu heulen an
Schmiegt sich an Herr Heinrichs Knie
Es tritt ein Trollweib in den Saal
Ein graues, grausiges Ding

Elf Ellen hoch ihr Riesenrumpf
Zwei Säue breit ihr Leib
„Bedecket euch, Dame“, Herr Heinrich ruft
„Nehmt meinen Mantel als Kleid“

Die Zähne wie ein Zaun im Moos
Die Nase wie ein Baum
Kein Ding auf Erden, das ihr gleicht
Es sei denn der Höllengeist

„Schafft frisches Fleisch, Herr Heinerich
Schafft frisches Fleisch herbei“
„Sagt an, wo gibt es Fleisch im Haus
Das euch willkommen sei?“
„So schlachtet euer braunes Ross
Und bringt es her zu mir“

Er schlachtete das braune Ross
Das Herz ward ihm so schwer
Sie schlang es in ihr Maul hinein
Kein Knochen blieb zurück

„Mehr Fleisch, mehr Fleisch, Herr Heinerich
Mehr Fleisch schafft mir herbei“
„Sagt an, wo gibt es Fleisch im Haus
Das euch willkommen sei?“
„So schlachtet euern guten Hund
Und bringt ihn her zu mir“

Er schlachtete den guten Hund
Das Herz ward ihm so schwer
Sie schlang ihn in ihr Maul hinein
Kein Knochen blieb zurück

„Ein Bett, ein Bett, Herr Heinerich
Ein Bett schafft mir herbei
Ein Lager weich von Heidekraut
Soll unser Brautbett sein“

Er rupft und zupft das Heidekraut
Bereitet ein Lager fein
Er breitet seinen Mantel darauf
Die Hexe legt sich hinein

„Legt ab eure Kleider, Herr Heinerich
Und legt euch mir zur Seit“
„Gott sei davor“, Herr Heinrich spricht
„Dass jemals das geschieht
Dass ich mit einem Höllengeist
Des Nachts mein Lager teil“

Die Nacht verging, der Tag war da
Die Sonne durchs Fenster sah
Die schönste Frau im ganzen Land
Lag zwischen ihm und der Wand

„Ein guter Tag“, Herr Heinrich spricht
„O dass er doch immer so blieb“
Darauf die schöne Fraue:
„Er währt bis an euer End

Gar manchen Ritter fing ich mir
Ein jeder hat versagt
Ihr seid der erste, der mit mir schlief
Die liebe lange Nacht“

English translation *
When one courts a women,
There are three things he needs
An open heart, a little sack of gold
And a lot of courage, too
Sir Heinerich rides into the depths of the forest,/Drinks water instead of cool wine
About seven miles before the town,
He thinks of his beloved
He hunts the deer from the mountain to the valley,/He goes after it
Violently flies his ash tree spear,
Suddenly bringing the game to its fall
He carries the catch to his home,
His heart is filled with joy
He sits at the table
And the somber night falls
Then the dog starts to howl
And presses against Sir Heinerich’s knee
A troll woman walks into the room,
A gray, horrible thing
Eleven cubits high is her torso,
Two sows wide is her body
“Cover yourself, Lady”, calls out Sir Heinerich/”Take my coat by way of dress”
The teeth, a moss-covered fence
The nose, a tree
Nothing on this earth ressembles her,
She must then be the ghost of hell
“Bring some fresh meat, Sir Heinerich,
Bring some fresh meat over here”
“Tell me, where in this house is there flesh
To which you’d be welcomed?”
“Then slaughter your brown steed
And bring it here to me”
He slaughtered the brown steed,
His heart became so heavy
She threw it down her throat,
And there was not even a bone left
“More meat, more meat, Sir Heinerich
Bring some more meat over here”
“Tell me, where in this house is there flesh
To which you’d be welcomed?”
“Then slaughter your good dog
And bring it here to me”
He slaughtered the good dog,
His heart became so heavy
She threw it down her throat,
And there was not even a bone left
“A bed, a bed, Sir Heinerich,
Bring me a bed over here
A soft heather bed
Should be our wedding bed”
He plucks and pulls at the heather,
Prepares a good bed
He spreads his coat over it
And the witch lies down on it
“Remove your clothes, Sir Heinerich
And lay down by my side”
“Heaven forbid”, says Sir Heinerich
“That I would ever do such a thing,
To share my bed at night
With a ghost come from hell”
The night passed by, the day was here
Through the window, the sun saw
The most beautiful woman in this country
Lying there, between the wall and him
“What a nice day”, says Sir Heinerich
“May it forever stay that way”
To which the beautiful woman answers:
“It will stay that way until your end
I found myself many knights,
But every single one has failed
You are the only one who slept with me
Throughout the entire lovely night”
Traduzione italiano Cattia Salto
Quando si corteggiano le donne
Occorrono tre cose:
Cuor sincero, un po’ d’oro
E anche molto coraggio.
Messer Enrico cavalca nel bosco più folto
Beve acqua invece di vino fresco
A circa sette miglia dalla città
Pensa alla sua innamorata
Caccia il cervo dal monte a valle
Lo insegue
Con forza vola la sua lancia di frassino
Facendo cadere di colpo la preda.
Trasporta la preda a casa
Con il cuore pieno di gioia
Si siede a tavola
E scende una notte oscura
Allora il cane inizia a ululare
E preme contro le ginocchia di Messer  Enrico/ Una trolla entra nella stanza/Una cosa grigia e orribile
Alto 11 cubiti il suo torso
Come due scrofe il suo corpo
“Copritevi Madama – grida Messer  Enrico
Prendete il mio mantello per vestirvi”
I denti, uno steccato ricoperto dal muschio
Il naso un albero
Niente sulla terra le assomigliava
Doveva essere uno spirito dell’Inferno
“Portate carne fresca, Messer  Enrico,
Portate un po’ di carne fresca qui”
“Ditemi, dove in questa casa c’è la carne
Che vi aggrada?”
“Macellate il vostro destriero morello
E portatelo qui da me”
Egli macellò il destriero morello
Con il cuore diventato pesante
Lei se lo ficcò in gola
E non ne rimase nemmeno un osso
“Altra carne, altra carne Messer  Enrico
Portate altra carne qui”
“Ditemi, dove in questa casa c’è la carne
Che vi aggrada?”
“Macellate il vostro buon cane
E portatelo qui da me”
Egli macellò il buon cane
Con il cuore diventato pesante
Lei se lo ficcò in gola
E non ne rimase nemmeno un osso
“Un letto, un letto Messer  Enrico
Portatemi un letto qui
Un soffice letto d’erica
Sarà il nostro letto nunziale”
Egli raccoglie e prende l’erica
Prepara un buon letto
Stende il suo mantello sopra
E la strega ci si sdraia dentro”
“Toglietevi i vestiti, Messer  Enrico
E coricatevi al mio fianco”
“Non voglia il cielo -dice Messer  Enrico-
“Che io faccia mai una cosa simile
Condividere il mio letto di notte
Con uno spirito venuto dall’Inferno”
La notte passò e venne il giorno
Dalla finestra il sole vide
La donna più bella del paese
Distesa lì, tra il muro e lui
“Che bella giornata -dice Messer  Enrico
Che possa restare così per sempre”
A cui la bellissima donna risponde
“Sarà così fino alla vostra fine
Mi sono ritrovata con molti cavalieri
Ma ognuno ha fallito
Voi siete il solo che ha dormito con me
Per un’intera notte d’amore”

* from here


Dark-Eyed Sailor, a reily ballad

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The song also known as “Fair Phoebe and her Dark-Eyed Sailor” originally from England, and is dated to a good approximation at the end of the nineteenth century. It is classified as a reily ballad or broken token ballad (because of the love pledge exchanged between the two lovers) on the model of a “return song” that was already the most popular in Classical times: in most of these ballads the man returns home after many years of absence at sea (war), and, not recognized by the woman, he puts her loyalty to the test. The girl, as a serious girl, refuses his courting because she has already been promised. The man so reassured, reveals himself to the woman and the two crown their love with marriage.

sailor-returnThe ballad recalls the archetypal figures of Ulysses and Penelope, when Ulysses, returned twenty years after the war (and his vicissitudes in the seas) to his Ithaca in disguise, is not recognized by his wife.

Collected in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and North America according to A.L. Lloyd all versions have a common matrix in the ballad published on a broadside printed by James Catnach (London 1813-1838) Flanders in “The New Green Mountain Songster” observes”The air to which it is almost universally sung, both in the old-country and American tradition, belongs to another ballad, “The Female Smuggler“.

Steeleye Span from “Hark! The Village Wait” (1970)

Christy Moore from Prosperus 1972

Quilty ( I, II, IV, VI, VII)

Olivia Chaney live The Mark Radcliffe Folk Sessions

As I went a walking (roved out ) one evening fair,
it being the summer(time) to take the air/I spied a female (maiden) with a sailor boy/and I stood to listen, I stood to listen/to hear what they might say.
He said “Young maiden (fair lady)
now why do you roam
all along by yonder Lee?”
She heaved a sigh and the tears they did roll, / “For my dark eyed sailor,
he ploughs the stormy seas.”
“‘Tis seven long years(1) since he left this land,
A ring he took from off his lily-white hand.(2)
One half of the ring is still here with me,
But the other’s rollin’
at the bottom of the sea.”
He said “You can drive him from your mind/for another young man you surely will find.
Love turns a sight and it soon grows cold/ Like a winter’s morning
the hills are white with snow.”
She said “I’ll never forsake my dear
Although we’re parted this many a year/ Genteel(3) he was and a rake(4) like you/ To induce a maiden
to slight the jacket blue(5).”
One half of the ring did young William show
She ran distracted in grief and woe
Sayin’ “William, William, I have gold in store(6)/ For my dark-eyed sailor
has proved his honour long”
There is a cottage by yonder Lee,
the couple live there and do agree.
So maids be true when your lover’s at sea,
For a stormy morning
brings on a sunny day.
1) Seven is a recurring number in ballads to indicate the duration of a separation. The reference to the number seven is not accidental: it is a magic or symbolic number linked to death or change. If a husband left for the war and did not return within seven years, the wife could remarry.
2) in this kind of ballads often appears an object through which the two lovers are recognized, either a gift exchanged or a ring broken in half as in this case
3) for gentle
4) A “rake” was a charming young lover of women, of songs, dedicated to gambling and alcohol, but also a lifestyle of fashion among the English nobles during the 17th century. And yet it is also a term used in a positive sense
5) wearing the blue jacket of the British sailor’s uniform
6) in other versions”I’ve lands and gold For my dark-eyed sailor so manly, true and bold


John Barleycorn must die!

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John Barleycorn (in Italian Giovanni Chicco d’Orzo) is a traditional song spread in England and Scotland, focused on this popular character, embodiment of the spirit of beer and whiskey. (see)
There are several text versions collected at different times; the oldest known is from 1460.
As often happens with the most popular ballads we talk about family in reference to a set of texts and melodies connected to each other or related.

The plot traced by Pete Wood is well documented and we refer you to his John Barleycorn revisited for the deepening: the first ballad that identifies a man as the spirit of barley is Allan-a-Maut (Allan del Malto) and it comes from Scotland .
The first ballad that bears the name John Barleycorn is instead of 1624, printed in London “A Pleasant new Ballad.To be sung evening and morn, of the bloody murder of Sir John Barleycorn” shortened in The Pleasant Ballad: as Pete Wood points out, all the elements that characterize the current version of the ballad are already present, the oath of the knights to kill John, the rain that quenches him, and the sun that warms him to give him energy, the miller who grinds him between two stones.

Originale screenprint by Paul Bommer (da qui)


spirito-granoIt is narrated the death of the King of Barley according to myths and beliefs that date back to the beginning of the peasant culture, customs that were followed in England in these forms until the early decades of the ‘900.
According to James George Frazier in “The Golden Bough“, anciently “John” was chosen among the youth of the tribe and treated like a king for a year; at the appointed time, however, he was killed, following a macabre ritual: his body was dragged across the fields so that the blood soaked the earth and fed the barley.

More recently in the Celtic peasant tradition the spirit of the wheat entered the reaper who cut the last sheaf (who symbolically killed the god) and he had to be sacrificed just as described in the song (or at least figuratively and symbolically). see more

However, the spirit of the Wheat-Barley never dies because it is reborn the following year with the new crop, its strength and its ardor are contained in the whiskey that is obtained from the distillation of barley malt!


“The Pleasant ballad” was set to the tune “Shall I Lie Beyond Thee?” on the broadside.63  This tune is quoted by a number of sources by a variety of very similar titles, including “Lie Lulling Beyond Thee” .  It is this writer’s belief from a variety of considerations, including Simpson 64 that these are one and the same tune.  There has been some confusion regarding the use of the tune “Stingo” for various members of the family.  Several publications say that John Barleycorn should be sung to this tune, (including Dixon), and some people have assumed this was the tune for “The Pleasant Ballad.”  These impressions seem to have originated from Chappell 65, who meant that “Stingo” was the tune for another member of the family “The Little Barleycorne”, a view which accords with his own comments on the version in the Roxburghe Ballads 66, with Simpson, and Baring-Gould who says ‘[Stingo] is not the air used in the broadsides nor in the west of England’ 67.  Two further tunes, “The Friar & the Nun” and “Twas when the seas were roaring”, are mentioned by Simpson.  Mas Mault has been suggested to be set to the tune “Triumph and Joy”, the original title of “Greensleeves”. 68 (Pete Wood)

In fact, as many as 45 different melodies have been used for centuries for this ballad, and Pete Wood analyzes the four most common melodies.


The 1906 version of John Stafford published by Sharp in English Folk Songs is probably the melody that comes closest to the time of James I
The Young Tradition


The Shepherd Haden version became “standard” for being included in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs.T

Traffic (Learned by Mike Waterson)

Traffic lyrics
There was three men come out of the West
Their fortunes for to try
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn(1) must die.
They ploughed, they sowed, they harrowed him in
Throwing clods all on his head
And these three men made a solemn vow
John barleycorn was Dead.
They’ve left him in the ground for a very long time
Till the rains from heaven did fall
Then little Sir John’s sprung up his head
And so amazed them all
They’ve left him in the ground till the Midsummer
Till he’s grown both pale and wan
Then little Sir John’s grown a long, long beard
And so become a man.
They hire’d men with their scythes so sharp
To cut him off at the knee.
They’ve bound him and tied him around the waist
Serving him most barb’rously
They hire’d men with their sharp pitch-forks
To prick him to the heart
But the drover he served him worse than that
For he’s bound him to the cart.
They’ve rolled him around and around the field
Till they came unto a barn
And there they made a solemn mow
Of Little Sir John Barleycorn
They’ve hire’d men with their crab-tree sticks
To strip him skin from bone
But the miller, he served him worse than that,
For he’s ground him between two stones.
Here’s Little sir John in the nut-brown bowl(2)
And brandy in the glass
But Little Sir John in the nut-brown bowl’s
Proved the stronger man at last
For the hunts man he can’t hunt the fox
Nor so loudly blow his horn
And the tinker, he can’t mend Kettles or pots
Without a little of Sir John Barleycorn.
1)  the spirit of beer and whiskey
2) The cask of walnut or oak used today to age the whiskey

Jetro Tull live

Damh The Bard from The Hills They Are Hollow


The version of Robert Pope taken by Vaughan Williams in his Folk Song Suite
version for choir and orchestra


from Shropshire
Fred Jordan live

Jean-François Millet - Buckwheat Harvest Summer 1868
Jean-François Millet – Buckwheat Harvest Summer 1868


The version published by Robert Burns in 1782, reworks the ancient folk song and becomes the basis of subsequent versions

The first 3 stanzas are similar to the standard version, apart from the three kings coming from the east to make the solemn oath to kill John Barleycorn, in fact in the English version the three men arrive from the West: to me personally the hypothesis that Burnes he wanted to point out the 3 Magi Kings … it does not seem pertinent to the deep pagan substratum of history: Christianity (or the cult of the God of Light) doesnt want to kill the King of the Wheat, unless you identify the king of the Grain with the Christ (a “blasphemous” comparison that was immediately removed from subsequent versions).

History is the detailed transformation of the grain spirit, grown strong and healthy during the summer, reaped and threshed as soon as autumn arrives, and turned into alcohol; and the much more detailed description (always compared to the standard version) of the pleasures that it provides to men, so that they can draw from the drink, intoxication and inspiration. Burns was notoriously a great connoisseur of whiskey and the last verse is right in his style!

The indicated melody is Lull [e] Me Beyond Thee; other melodies that fit the lyrics are “Stingo” (John Playford, 1650) and “Up in the Morning Early”
The version of the Tickawinda takes up part of the text by singing the stanzas I, II, III, V, VII, XV

Robert Burns
There was three kings into the east,
Three kings both great and high,
And they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn should die.
They took a  plough and plough’d him down,
Put clods upon his head,
And they hae sworn a solemn oath
John Barleycorn was dead
But the cheerful Spring came kindly on,
And show’rs began to fall;
John Barleycorn got up again,
And sore surpris’d them all
The sultry suns  of Summer came,
And he grew  thick and strong,
His head weel   arm’d wi’ pointed spears,
That no one  should him wrong.
The sober Autumn enter’d mild,
When he grew wan and pale;
His bending joints and drooping head
Show’d he began to fail.
His coulour sicken’d more and more,
He faded into age;
And then his enemies began
To show their deadly rage.
They’ve taen a weapon, long and sharp,
And cut him by the knee;
Then ty’d him fast upon a cart,
Like a rogue for forgerie(1).
They laid him down upon his back,
And cudgell’d him full sore;
They hung him up before the storm,
And turn’d him o’er and o’er.
They filled up a darksome pit
With water to the brim,
They heaved in John Barleycorn,
There let him sink or swim
They laid him out upon the floor,
To work him farther woe,
And still, as signs of life appear’d,
They toss’d him to and fro.
They wasted, o’er a scorching flame,
The marrow of his bones;
But a Miller us’d him worst of all,
For he crush’d him between two stones.
And they hae taen his very heart’s blood,
And drank it round and round;
And still the more and more they drank,
Their joy did more abound.
John Barleycorn was a hero bold,
Of noble enterprise,
For if you do but taste his blood,
‘Twill make your courage rise.
‘Twill make a man forget his woe;
‘Twill heighten all his joy:
‘Twill make the widow’s heart to sing,
Tho’ the tear were in her eye.
Then let us toast John Barleycorn,
Each man a glass in hand;
And may his great posterity
Ne’er fail in old Scotland!
1) the condemned to death were transported to the place of the gallows on a cart for the public mockery

Steeleye Span from Below the Salt 1972

I (Spoken)
There were three men
Came from the west
Their fortunes for to tell,
And the life of John Barleycorn as well.
They laid him in three furrows deep,
Laid clods upon his head,
Then these three man made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn was dead.
The let him die for a very long time
Till the rain from heaven did fall,
Then little Sir John sprang up his head
And he did amaze them all.
They let him stand till the midsummer day,
Till he looked both pale and wan.
The little Sir John he grew a long beard
And so became a man.
Fa la la la, it’s a lovely day
Fa la la la lay o
Fa la la la, it’s a lovely day
Sing fa la la la lay
They have hired men with the scythes so sharp,
To cut him off at the knee,
The rolled him and they tied him around the waist,
They served him barbarously.
They have hired men with the crab-tree sticks,
To cut him skin from bone,
And the miller has served him worse than that,
For he’s ground him between two stones.
They’ve wheeled him here,
they’ve wheeled him there,
They’ve wheeled him to a barn,
And thy have served him worse than that,
They’ve bunged him in a vat.
They have worked their will on John Barleycorn
But he lived to tell the tale,
For they pour him out of an old brown jug
And they call him home brewed ale(1).
1) The oldest drink in the world obtained from the fermentation of various cereals. The beer originally was classified out as “beer” (with hops) and “ale” (without hops) . Its processing processes start with a spontaneous fermentation of the starch (ie the sugar) that is the main component in cereals, when they come into contact with water, due to wild yeasts contained in the air. And just as in bread, female food, EARTH, WATER, AIR and FIRE combine magically to give life to a divine food that strengthens and inebriates.
The English term of homebrewing or the art of home-made beer translates into Italian with an abstruse word: domozimurgia and domozimurgo is the producer of homemade beer in which domo, is the Latin root for “home”; zimurgo is the one who practices “zimurgy”, or the science of fermentation processes. The domozimurgo is therefore the one who, within his own home, studies, applies and experiments the alchemy of fermentation. Making beer for your own consumption (including that of the inevitable friends and relatives) is absolutely legal as well as fun and relatively simple although you never stop learning through the exchange of experiences and experimentati
see more

And finally the COLLAGE of the versions of Tickawinda, Avalon Rising, John Renbourn, Lanterna Lucis Viriditatis, Xenis Emputae, Travelling Band, Louis Killen, Traffic


The Grey Silkie of Sule Skerry

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5494853578_b8a653b169Selkie / silkie / Selchie are the dialectal terms with which in Scotland and Ireland the shapeshifting creatures of sea are called; derive from selich, the Scottish archaic word for  gray seal of the oceans and the Atlantic seas: they are guardians of the sea, seal in the sea and man on earth.


The power of shapeshifters seems to be contained in their mantle (seal skin), selkies can no longer transform themselves without it and are forced to remain human. This condition is understood in a negative way, a sign of a lack or deprivation, as if the skins of Selkie there were also their soul.
Some researchers wanted to see the origin of the legend in the Finfolk, ( probably the Sami people) Scandinavian men who arrived on the islands and on the coast of Scotland aboard their leather kayaks, while gradually they were advancing at sea their canoe had absorbed water and  sank until only part of their trunk it could be seen.

Both male and female, they are described in their human form as beautiful creatures (long hair and big dark eyes, agile limbs), docile but at the same time endowed with seductive power. The legend says that to reproduce a selkie-male must be in human form and transmit his power to descendants: when his child is weaned on dry land, the selkie will return from the sea. Once when the infant mortality rate was very high, only children over the age of seventh could be considered out of danger and it was at the end of the seventh year that the selkie returned to take his child.
Selkie males were invoked by girls in search of lovers, pouring seven tears in the tide, while sailors were attracted to the female selkie who tried to take as their brides.

Selkie by Maryanne Gobble


The best known of the Orkney ballads, also known as The Gray Silkie of Sule Skerry, it tells of a selkie living on the rocky cliff of Sule. Skerry derives from the Norse “sker” which means rock in the sea .
The ballad was also collected by professor Child ( # 113).

tumblr_loialeB04U1r04h5zo1_500A young girl has a child from an unknown man who turns out to be a selkie: man on earth, seal at sea whose dwelling is the rocks of Sule. After seven years the sea creature returns to claim his son, giving him a chain of gold, and the mother lets him go.
She after some time gets married with a hunter who trades with animal skins. One day he returns home with the skins of two seals he had killed to give them to his wife: one was of an old gray seal, the other of a young seal with a golden chain around his neck! She dies, overwhelmed by the pain of this vision: her heart breaks or she chooses to follow selkie and son throwing herself into the sea to prevent the prophecy from coming true.


The enchantment of the story lies in particular in the narrative choice: the story is often described as in a nocturnal dream in which a man who claims to be silkie and father of the child, appears almost magically and, next to the cradle of the newborn as in fairy godmothers of fairy tales, he traces child’s destiny.


A first melody, which was shot in the folk revival of the 70s, it was written by the American James Waters in 1954 (popularized by Joan Baez); another melody is instead traditional and it was collected in 1938 by Otto Anderson from the voice of John Sinclair of the island of Flotta and transcribed in notation.


A funeral lament in a lullaby form.

Castelbar  (I, II, IV, V, III, VI, VII, I)

Very intense version of Steeleye Span from Cogs, Wheels and Lovers, 2009, Maddy Prior and Peter Knight

Cécile Corbel ( I, II, IV as refrain, III, V, VI)

Seriouskitchen (Nick Hennessey, Vicki Swan and Jonny Dyer ) live: magic instruments, beautiful voices, intense expressiveness

An earthly nurse (1) sits and sings,
And aye, she sings by lily wean,
“And little ken (2) I my bairn (3)’s father,
Far less the land where he dwells in.
For he came one night to her bed feet (4),/And a grumbly (5) guest, I’m sure was he,/Saying, “Here am I, thy bairn’s father,/Although I be not comely.”
He had ta’en a purse of gold/And he had placed it upon her knee/ Saying, “Give to me my little young son,/And take thee up thy nurse’s fee.”
“I am a man upon the land,
I am a silkie on the sea,
And when I’m far and far frae land,
My home it is in Sule Skerrie.”
“And it shall come to pass on a summer’s day,/When the sun shines bright on every stane,/I’ll come and fetch my little young son,/And teach him how to swim the faem.”
“Ye shall marry a gunner good/And a right fine gunner I’m sure he’ll be,/And the very first shot that e’er he shoots/Will kill both my young son and me.”
“Alas! Alas! this woeful fate!
This weary fate that’s been laid for me!”/And once or twice she sobbed and sighed/and she joint to a sun and grey silkie (6)

1) nourris = nurse
2) ken = know
3) bairn = child
4) bed fit = foot of the bed
5) grumly = strange, scary but also sad
6) or: And her tender heart did break in three

Angelo Branduardi in Il Rovo e la Rosa 2013
Lyrics: Luisa Zappa
Tune: James Waters

traditional tune


Lord Olaf (Herr Olof) and The Elves

Leggi in Italiano

 Concealed death



This medieval ballad ( from the North to the South of Europe) tells the story of a knight (Oluf, Olof or Olaf) and his meeting with a fairy creature asking him to dance (or to drink) with her: the knight refuses as he will be married in the morning, and the girl (elf or mermaid) places a curse on him (a quickly death for tomorrow).


Robert Anning Bell, La belle dame sans merci

The fairy is the fatal woman archetype, with her irresistible appeal, who kills her lover.
The real situation behind this tale is clear: a jealous woman because her lover has chosen to marry another one, kills him; in the norse version, he does not yield to the sexual charme, in the Scottish one he lets himself be tempted for the last time; but the result is always death: the man who let himself be guided by lust is entrapped and addicted by sex.


The fairy creatures love to dance and they do it in a circle holding hands and intertwining in a farandole from the unbridled rhythm. Fairies dance all moon night from dusk to dawn, but the time spent in their ring can be during seven years (or even centuries). Once you enter the circle you are forced to stay until the end of the dancing party, losing track of time and freedom. Sometimes the megalithic stones circles are considerated a Fairies Ring

Ängsälvor (Meadow Elves) Nils Blommér, 1850: we see our knight approaching the Elven Garden in the distance towards the forest

Olaf returns home, meets his mother and sends her to call his relatives and his bride. At the arrival of his bride everyone tries to hide her the evidence of the groom death by vaguely answering the perplexed questions of the future wife, until at the time of consuming the marriage on their wedding bed, the woman he finds him dead.


In a very dramatic ending both the bride and the mother of Olaf kill themselves or die for pain!
A derivation-conclusion of the story goes on in another red thread drawn for all Europe, “the poisoned testament“, in which the son on his deathbed after being poisoned by a mysterious lady, returns home to his mother and declares his last wishes.


The story is partial: Olof is the son of the King and meets the mermaid on the beach, but he accepts her magic wine and remains enchanted. The siren will certainly lead him to death.

Sjungande Danse live



Herr Olof han sadlar sin gångare grå
Så rider han sig till havsfruns gård
Herr Olof han red guldsadeln flöt
Han sjunker i havsfruns sköt
Välkommen välkommen herr Olof till mig
I femton år har jag väntat på dig
Var är du födder och var är du buren
Var haver du dina hovkläder skuren?
På konungens gård är jag födder och buren
Där haver jag mina hovkläder skuren
Där har jag fader och där har jag mor
Där har jag syster och bror.
Men var har du åker och var har du äng?
Var står uppbäddad din bruaresäng?
Var haver du din fästemö
Med henne vill leva och dö?
Där har jag åker och där har jag äng
Där står uppbäddad min bruaresäng
Där haver jag min fästemö
Med henne mig lyster att leva och dö
Men hör riddar Olof kom följ med mig in
Och drick ur min kanna det klaraste vin.
Var är du födder var är du buren
Var haver du dina hovklädder skuren
Här är jag födder och här är jag buren
Här haver jag mina hovkläder skuren
Här har jag fader och där har jag mor
Här har jag syster och bror
Men var har du åker och var har du äng?
Var står uppbäddad din bruaresäng
Var haver du din fästemö
Med henne vill leva och dö
Här har jag åker och här har jag äng
Här står uppbäddad min bruaresäng
Här haver jag min fästemö
Med dig vill jag leva med dig vill jag dö
English translation
Sir Olof has saddled his good grey mare,
And off he has ridden to the mermaid’s lair.
His saddle of gold floated high on the waves
And down sank Sir Olof to the mermaid’s embrace (1).
“O welcome, Sir Olof, and welcome to me!
Full fifteen years I have  waited for thee.
“Where were you born, and where you raised,
And where   were your courtly garments made? (2)”
“Twas in the king’s castle I was born and raised,
And it’s there that my   courtly garments were made.
“There lives my father, there lives my   mother,
And there live my sister and brother.”
“But where are your fields and where are your lands,
And where in the   world does your bridal bed stand?
“Where in the world does your true love lie,
With whom you will live and die?”
“There are my fields and there are my lands,
And there is the place   where my bridal bed stands.
“There is the place where my true love does  lie,
With whom I have sworn to live and to die.”
“Come in now, Sir Olof, sit down by me here,
And drink from my goblet of wine so clear.
“Now where were you born, and where were you raised,
And where were your courtly garments made?
“Here I was born, and here I was raised,
And here is where my courtly garments were made.
“Here lives my father,   and here lives my mother,
And here are my sister and brother.”
“But where are your fields and where are your lands,
And where in the   world does your bridal bed stand?
“Where in the world does your true love lie,
With whom you will live and   die?”
“Here are my fields and here are my lands.
Here is the place where my   bridal bed stands.
“Here is the place where my true love does lie,
With you I will live and   with you I will die.”

1) this is clearly the last love meet, in view of the upcoming marriage
2) the siren always poses the same question, just as in the inquisitorial technique typical of the secret services and the state police, the same questions are obsessively repeated until the physical and mental exhaustion of the suspect; but only after drinking the love filter Olof is completely subjected to the siren and he has forgotten his human life.

Ogham live, instrumental version

In the Swedish folk tradition we also find other melodies and text versions, see for example “Herr Olof och Älvorna”.


The Danish version follows the pattern: the knight who runs in the night is invited to dance with elves and he is hit by a curse (ie he is poisoned with a magical drink) after his refusal, he preferred death rather than being subjected to the fairy kingdom .

Valravn their version stops at the point where the fairy hits the knight to death

Ólavur ríður eftir bjørgunum fram,
– Kol og smiður við –
Fann hann upp á eitt álvarann.
– Ungir kallar, kátir kallar,
Gangiðupp á gólv,dansð lystillig!
Út kom eitt taðálvafljóð,
flættað hár á herðar dró.
”Ver vælkomin, harra Riddararós,
kom og dans og kvød fyri os”
Ungir kallar, kátir kallar,

Gangiðupp á gólv,
Ungir kallar, kátir kallar,
Gangiðupp á gólv,
dansð lystillig!

(“Eg kann ikki meira hjá álvum vera,
í morgin lati eg mítt brúdleyp gera”)
”vilt tú ikki meiri hjá álvum vera,
sjúkan skai eg titt brúdleyp gera.”
”Fyrr vil eg i morgin til moldar gå,
enn eg vil sjey vetur liggja á strá”
Hon skonkti honum í drykkjuhorn
har fór i táð eiturkorn
English translation *
Olaf rides along the mountains
with coal and smith (1)
He came upon an elven house
Young lads, happy lads, step up on the floor (2), dance merrily
Out came an elven maiden
Braided hair on shoulders lay
“Be welcome Olaf Knightrose
come to the dance and sing for us”
Young lads, happy lads,
step up on the floor
Young lads, happy lads,

step up on the floordance merrily
(“I can no longer stay with the elves
for tomorrow I will wed”)
Will you no longer stay with the elves
Sick I shall make your wedding
I would rather  be buried tomorrow
Then lie ill for seven winters (3)
She filled him a drinkinghorn
in it went a grain of poison

* from here
1) the interlayer recalls the telluric forces and the world below
2) fairy ring because of the typical dance in the circle preferred by fairies, the fairy circles are visually highlighted by a ring of mushrooms, flowers or trampled grass.
3 )seven years is the time that the rider will have to spend in the fairy world because he will no longer be able to leave the fairy ring until the dance stops (time flows differently in the fairy world)

Another title and melody from Sweden it is Elveskud (or Elverskud)

Himmerland live


Folque Dans, dans Olav Liljekrans

Olav rie til berget fram,
– Det leikar under fjøll –
dei elvekvinner gjekk i dans.
– Stig av hesten og dans –
Elvemøyi rette hand frå seg,
– Det leikar under fjøll –
kom du Olav, trø dans’ med meg.
– Stig av hesten og dans,
dans Olav Liljekrans,
stig av hesten og dans –
Danse med deg eg inkje må,
i morgo’ skó mitt bryllaup stå.
Olav, Olav, trø dans’ med meg,
eit hovud av gull så gjeve eg deg.
Eit hovud av gull det kan eg vel få,
men danse med deg eg alli må.
Olav, Olav, trø dans’ med meg,
ei silkje skjorte så gjeve eg deg.
Stig av hesten og dans,
dans Olav Liljekrans,
stig av hesten og dans –
Ei silkje skjorte det kan eg vel få,
men danse med deg eg alli må.
Høyre du Olav Liljekrans,
du stig av hesten og trø i dans’.
Stig av hesten og dans,
dans Olav Liljekrans,
stig av hesten og dans –
English translation *
Olav was riding towards the mountains
They play under the high mountains
The elven women broke into dance.
“Dismount your horse and dance”
The elf maid reached out her hand,
“Come now, Olav, dance with me”
“Dancing with you – I can not,
for tomorrow my wedding is to be held.”
Olav, Olav, come dance with me,
a “head”(1) of gold, I shall grant thee.
A “head” of gold, I wouldn’t mind having,
but dancing with you – that I’ll never do!
Olav, Olav, come dance with me,
a silken shirt so I will give you.
A silken shirt, I would gladly have,
but dancing with you – that I’ll never do!
Listen up, Olav Liljekrans,
you get off your horse, and start dancing!(2)

* from here
1) ancient unit of measurement
2) the ballad breaks in half, the modern versions in practice halve the ancient narration, leaving at the same time space for an open ending


The English version takes up the story as handed down by the Norwegian tradition.
In his essay Giordano Dall’Armellina highlights the erotic link between knight and fatal woman: “eroticism is permeated with magic, where reason loses touch with rational reality and promises magnificent gifts.”

Steeleye Span from All Around My Hat, 1975

A knight he rode his lonely way
Thinking about his wedding day (1)
As he rode through a forest near
The elf king’s daughter did appear
Out she stepped from the elfin band
Smiling she held out her hand
“Welcome Sir Knight, why such speed?
Come with me the dance to lead”
Dance, dance, follow me
Round and round the greenwood tree
Dance, dance, while you may
Tomorrow is your dying day
Dance with me, dance with me
“Listen Sir Knight come dance with me,
Spurs of gold I’ll give to thee”
“Dance neither I will give nor may
Tomorrow is my wedding day”
“Please Sir Knight come dance with me
A shirt of silk I’ll give to thee
A shirt of silk so white and fine
My mother has bleached
in the moon-beams shine”
“Please Sir Knight come dance with me
A crown of gold I’ll give to thee”
“Your crown of gold I’ll freely take
But I’ll not join your elfin wake”
“Do you refuse to dance with me
A plague of death shall follow thee”
Between his shoulders a blow she dealt, such a blow he’d never felt

1) while in the Scandinavian versions we imagine that the knight runs from his lover for a last night of passion, here and in the poetic version of Johann Gottfried von Herder a motive (or excuse) is more explicit: bring invitations to the guests for the imminent marriage

The Danish versions (Elverskud) had influence on German literature and the poet Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) translated the ballad into German with the name of Der Erlkönigs

Even Goethe was inspired by history to write a romantic ballad – taken from italian Carducci with the title “La figlia del Re degli Elfi”.

second part


The Saucy Sailor Boy

Leggi in italiano

The nineteenth-century image of sailor is rather stereotypical: Jack Tar is a drunkard and a womanizer, perhaps a slacker and troublemaker, always ready to fight.
In sea songs from the female point of view sailor is often an unfaithful liar who has a girlfriend in every port even if he has a wife and children at home. Ridiculed and rejected by some, he is instead sought by others who absolutely prefer the love of a sailor (Sailor laddie)!
Sailor is watched more often with distrust by women, as in the sea song entitled “The Saucy Sailor Boy” where a young “saucy” sailor courts a country girl: it’s a “love contrast” that fits in a long popular tradition of bucolic argument, in which a man and a woman duet with amorous skirmishes; generally woman refuses man’s proposals, to preserve her virtue or to better stimulate his desire; man, on the other hand, promises seas and mountains, as well as eternal love, riches and the certainty of a comfortable life, just to conquer the woman’s graces.
In Saucy Sailor, however, she rejects the sailor with ill grace, because his clothes still smell of tar; the music changes when sailor shows his money but it’s too late and sailor doesn’ t want  to marry her anymore!


Clothes of Poor Jack, a British sailor of the late eighteenth century, are anything but poor: he is wearing a popular variant of the knee-length trousers, a sort of very wide trouser skirt. He wears a black tall round hat, and his long hair is loose on his neck, a white shirt with a stiff collar and a red neckcloth; characteristic yellow double-breasted waistcoat with narrow vertical red stripes, and an elegant blue short jacket with a long row of white buttons; light blue socks and black shoes with a beautiful metal buckles.

Poor Jack, Charles Dibdin, 1790-1791, British Museum: he wears slops, wide knee-length pants. The hair worn long until the mid-nineteenth century were kept in order, stopping them behind the back of the neck in a tarred tail, hence the nickname Jack Tar

But sailors like all the workers and men of the people also wore long trousers which became a standard of men’s clothing after the French revolution.


Text is found in many nineteenth-century collections and broadside especially in Great Britain and America, and probably it has eighteenth-century origins (William Alexander Barret in his “English Folksong” published in 1891 believes that this song appeared in print in 1781 and he cites its great popularity among girls who work in Eastern London factories.
The Tarry Sailor from trad archives (Andrew Robbie of Strichen, Aberdeenshire)  
Quadriga consort: early-music version
Harbottle & Jonas (from Cornwall): a swing version

Steeleye Span from Below the Salt, 1972 ( I, and from III to VIII): standard version in the repertoires of singers and folk groups

Wailin Jennys 

“Come, my dearest, come, my fairest,
Come and tell unto me,
Will you pity (fancy) a poor sailor boy,
Who has just come from sea?”
“I can fancy no poor sailor:
No poor sailor for me!
For to cross the wide ocean
Is a terror to me.
You are ragged, love, you are dirty, love,/And your clothes they smell of tar./So begone, you saucy sailor boy,
So begone, you Jack Tar(1)!”
“If I’m ragged, love, if I’m dirty, love,
If my clothes they smell (much) of tar,
I have silver in my pocket, love,
And of gold a bright (great) store.”
V (2)
When she heard those words come from him, On her bended knees she fell./”To be sure, I’ll wed my sailor,
For I love him so well.”
“Do you think that I am foolish?
Do you think that I am mad?
That I’d wed with a poor country girl
Where no fortune’s to be had?
I will cross the briny ocean/Where the meadows they are green (3);
Since you have had the offer, love,
Another shall have the ring.
For I’m young, love, and I’m frolicksome, (4)
I’m good-temper’d, kind and free.
And I don’t care a straw (5), love,
What the world says (thinks)of me.

1) Jack Tar is a common English term originally used to refer to seamen of the Merchant or Royal Navy, particularly during the period of the British Empire. Seamen were known to ‘tar’ their clothes before departing on voyages, in order to make them waterproof, in the eighteenth century they were usually used to tar their long hair in a ponytail to prevent it from getting wet or that the wind ruffled it
2)  Steeleye Span :
And then when she heard him say so
On her bended knees she fell,
“I will marry my dear Henry
For I love a sailor lad so well.”
3) Steeleye Span: I will whistle and sing
4) Steeleye Span :
Oh, I am frolicsome and I am easy,
Good tempered and free,
5) or “I don’t give a single pin”


Stan Hugill in his Shantyman Bible (Shanties from the Seven Seas) tells us that The Tarry Sailor (Saucy Sailor Boy) in addition to being a forebitter song was occasionally sung during the boring hours of pumping water from the bilge when the pumps were operated by hand!  (see sea shanty)

Hulton Clint 

Come on my fair ones,
Come on my fan ones,
Come and listen unto me.
Could you fancy a boldly sailor lad
That has just come home from sea?
Could you fancy a boldly sailor lad
That has just come home from sea?
No, indeed, I’ll wed no sailor
For they smell too much of tar!
You are ruggy, you are sassy,
get you gone Jackie Tar.
I have ship on all the ocean,
I have golden great galore
All my clothes they may be all in rags,
but coin can buy me more
If I am ruggy, if I am sassy
And may by a tarry smell
I had silver in my pockets
For they knew can every tell
When she heard him that distressed
down upon her knees she fell
Saying “Ruggy dirty saylor boy
I love more than you can tell”
Do you think that I’m foolish,
Do you think that I’m mad?
That I’d wed the likes of you, Miss,
When there’s others to be had!”
No indeed I’ll cross the ocean,
And my ships shall spread her wings,
You refused me, ragged, dirty,
Not for you the wedding ring.

Scottish sailors were excellent dancers and part of their training consisted of practicing Sailor’s Hornpipe

second part


Hares on the Mountain with Sally the dear

Leggi in italiano

Cecil Sharp has collected nine different versions of the ballad “Hares on the Mountain”, a love hunt perhaps derived from “The Two Magicians
amorinoSome believe that the text was written by Samuel Lover (1797-1865) because he appears in his novel “Rory o ‘More”. But the theme of this love-hunting is antecedent and recalls an ancient initiation ritual if not a true enchantment of transformation (or concealment) fith fath.

Still popular in England, we find it more sporadically in Ireland, the United States and Canada, but in the 60s and 70s it was very popular in folk clubs, less widespread, however, the version from the male point of view.

Steeleye Span from Parcel of Rogues 1973: a sweet lullaby

Young women they’ll run
Like hares(1) on the mountains,
Young women they’ll run
Like hares on the mountains
If I were but a young man
I’d soon go a hunting,
To my right fol diddle de ro,
To my right fol diddle dee.
Young women they’ll sing
Like birds in the bushes,
If I were but a young man,
I’d go and bang those bushes.
Young women they’ll swim
Like ducks in the water,
If I were but a young man,
I’d go and swim after

1) hare, birds and duck are animals associated with the three kingdoms, the middle world (Earth), above (Heaven) and below (Sea)


The same pattern is taken up in a ballad called with the same title or “Oh Sally my dear” of which we know mainly two melodies. Here the textual part is rendered as a blow and a response between the two lovers.

Shirley Collins & Davey Graham .  Fine arrangement of Davey on guitar

Jonny Kearney & Lucy Farrell slower melody, very magical

Alt-J in Bright: The Album 2017,  indie-rock version (I, III, IV, VI)

“Oh Sally, my dear,
it’s you I’d be kissing,
Oh Sally, my dear,
it’s you I’d be kissing,”
She smiled and replied,
“you don’t know what you’re missing”.
“Oh Sally, my dear,
I wish I could wed you,
Oh Sally my dear,
I wish I could bed you”
She smiled and replied,
“then you’d say I’d misled you”.
“If all you young men
were hares on the mountain,
How many young girls
would take guns and go hunting?
If the young men could sing like blackbirds and thrushes,
How many young girls
would go beating the bushes?
If all you young men
were fish in the water,
How many young girls
would undress and dive after?”
“But the young men
are given to frisking and fooling (1),
Oh, the young men are given to frisking and fooling,
So I’ll leave them alone
and attend to my schooling”

1) to take relationships with the girls lightly, without serious intentions. In this version the ballad has become a warning song on the old adage that man is a hunter


Same ballad handed down with another title
Niamh Parsons from “Blackbirds & Thrushes” 1999

Catherine Merrigan & Marion Camastral from “Wings O’er The Wind

Seamus Ennis

If all the young ladies
were blackbirds (1) & thrushes
If all the young ladies
were blackbirds & thrushes
Then all the young men
would go beating the bushes
Rye fol de dol diddle lol iddle lye ay
If all the young ladies
were ducks on the water..
Then all the young men
would go swimming in after
If all the young ladies
were rushes a-growing..
Then all the young men would get scythes and go mowing
If the ladies were all
trout and salmon so lively
Then divil the men
would go fishing on Friday(2)
If all the young ladies
were hares on the mountain
Then men with their hounds
would be out without counting

1) In the Celtic tradition: The blackbird (druid dhubh) is associated with the goddess Rhiannon. Legend has it that the birds of Rhiannon are three blackbirds, which are perched and sing on the tree of life on the edge of the otherworldly worlds. Their song, puts the listener in a state of trance, which allows him to go to the parallel worlds. (from here) see more
2) the expression perhaps refers to the fact that in the weekend you go fishing or that on Friday you eat fish


Beltane Love Chase: The Two Magicians

Leggi in italiano

63_rackham_siegfried_grimhildeLove Chase is a typical theme of popular songs, according to the proper ways of the courting song it is the contrast between two lovers, in whice he tries to conquer her and she rejects him or banters in a comic or coarse situation
So the ballad “The Twa Magicians” is a Love Hunt in which the natural prudery of the maid teases the man, because her denial is an invitation to conquer.


The ballad originates from the north of Scotland and the first written source is in Peter Buchan’s “Ancient Ballads and Song of the North of Scotland” – 1828, later also in Child # 44 (The English and Scottish Popular Ballads by Francis James Child ). It is believed to come from the Norse tradition. The versions are numerous, as generally happens for popular ballads spread in the oral tradition, and even with different endings. In its “basic” form it is the story of a blacksmith who intends to conquer a virgin; but the girl flees, turning into various animals and even objects or elements of Nature; the man pursues her by changing form himself.
There is a written trace of the theme already in 1630 in a ballad entitled “The two kind and Lovers” – in which however the woman is to chase the man.
The ballad begins with the woman who says

if thou wilt goe, Love,
let me goe with thee
Because I cannot live,
without thy company
Be thou the Sunne,
Ile be the beames so bright,
Be thou the Moone.
Ile be the lightest night:
Be thou Aurora,
the usher of the day,
I will be the pearly dew,
upon the flowers gay.
Be thou the Rose,
thy smell I will assume,
And yeeld a sweet
odoriferous perfume

It is therefore a matter of complementary and non-opposing couples, a sort of total surrender to love on the part of the woman who declares her fidelity to man. Let us not forget that ancient ballads were also a form of moral teaching.
And yet we find buried in the text traces of initiation rituals, pearls of wisdom or druidic teachings, so the two wizards are transformed into animals associated with the three kingdoms, Nem (sky), Talam (Earth) Muir (sea) or world above, middle and below and the mystery is that of spiritual rebirth.
Other similarities are found with the ballad “Hares on the Mountain


In general, the Love Chase ends with the consensual coupling.
Today’s version of “The Two Magicians” is based on the rewriting of the text and the musical arrangement of Albert Lancaster Lloyd (1908-1982) for the album “The Bird in the Bush” (1966);

(all the verses except XV and XVI)

Celtic stone from Celtic Stone, 1983: (American folk-rock group active in the 80s and 90s), an ironic vocal interpretation, a spirited musical arrangement that happily combines acoustic guitar with the dulcimer hammer (verses from I to VII, XI, IX, XIV, X, XV, XVI, XVII)

Damh the Bard from Tales from the Crow Man, 2009. Another minstrel of the magical world in a more rock version (verses from I to VII, XI, IX, XII, X, XIV, XV, XVI,XVII, XVIII)

Jean-Luc Lenoir from “Old Celtic & Nordic Ballads” 2013 (voice Joanne McIver) 
– a lively and captivating arrangement taken from a traditional (it’s a mixer between the two melodies)
Owl Service from Wake The Vaulted Echo (2006)
Empty Hats from The Hat Came Back, 2000 the choice of speech is very effective

The lady stood at her own front door
As straight as a willow wand
And along come a lusty smith (1)
With his hammer in his hand
Saying “bide lady bide
there’s a nowhere you can hide
the lusty smith will be your love
And he will lay your pride”.
“Well may you dress, you lady fair,
All in your robes of red  (2)
Before tomorrow at this same time
I’ll have your maidenhead.”
“Away away you coal blacksmith
Would you do me this wrong?
To have me maidenhead
That I have kept so long”
I’d rather I was dead and cold
And me body in the grave
Than a lusty, dusty, coal black smith
Me maide head should have”
Then the lady she held up her hand
And swore upon the spul
She never would be the blacksmith’s love
For all of a box of gold  (3)
And the blacksmith he held up his hand/And he swore upon the mass,
“I’ll have you for my love, my girl,
For the half of that or less.”
Then she became a turtle dove
And flew up in the air
But he became an old cock pigeon
And they flew pair and pair
And she became a little duck,
A-floating in the pond,
And he became a pink-necked drake
And chased her round and round.
She turned herself into a hare  (4)
And ran all upon the plain
But he became a greyhound dog
And fetched her back again
And she became a little ewe sheep
and lay upon the common
But he became a shaggy old ram
And swiftly fell upon her.
She changed herself to a swift young mare, As dark as the night was black,
And he became a golden saddle
And clung unto her back.
And she became a little green fly,
A-flew up in the air,
And he became a hairy spider
And fetched her in his lair.
Then she became a hot griddle (5)
And he became a cake,
And every change that poor girl made
The blacksmith was her mate.
So she turned into a full-dressed ship
A-sailing on the sea
But he became a captain bold
And aboard of her went he
So the lady she turned into a cloud
Floating in the air
But he became a lightning flash
And zipped right into her
So she turned into a mulberry tree
A mulberry tree in the wood
But he came forth as the morning dew
And sprinkled her where she stood.
So the lady ran in her own bedroom
And changed into a bed,
But he became a green coverlet
And he gained her maidenhead
And was she woke, he held her so,
And still he bad her bide,
And the husky smith became her love
And that pulled down her pride.

1) in popular songs the blacksmith is considered a synonym of virility, a very gifted lover with a portentose force. Here he is also a magician armed with a hammer while the girl is a antagonist (or complementary) holds a willow wand.
One thinks of a sort of duel or challenge between two practicing wizards
2) in ancient ballads some words are codes that make the alarm bells ring out in the listener: red is the color of fairies or creatures with Magic powers. Red was also the color of the bride in antiquity and is a favorable color for fertility
3) also written as “pot of gold” and immediately it come to mind the leprechaun
4) the hare-hound couple is the first of the transformations in the Welsh myth of Taliesin’s birth. Gwion is the pursued that turns into a lunar animal, takes in itself the female principle symbol of abundance-fertility, but also creativity-intuition, becomes pure instinct, frenzy.
The dog is not only predator, but also guardian and psychopomp ‘The dog plays with many populations the function of guardian of the sacred places, guide of the man on the night of death, defender of the kingdom of the dead, overseer in all cases of the kingdom spiritual.
In particular among the Celts it was associated with the world of the Warriors. In fact, the dog was present in the Warrior initiations. Hunting, like war, was a sacred act that could be accomplished only after an initiation and a ritual preparation of divine protection. (Riccardo Taraglio from Il Vischio e la Quercia) 
see more
5) scottish pancake: a special tool to cook the Beltane bannock.The two iron griddle could be smooth or variously decorated honeycomb or floral carvings, written or geometric designs, were hinged on one side and equipped with a long handle: placed on the fire it was turned over for cooking on the other side. In the Middle Ages they had become masterpieces of forging made by master wares or refined silversmiths, and they were a traditional engagement gift. see more

Ferro da cialde, Umbria, sec. XVI


The song is reported by Cecil Sharp in One Hundred English Folksongs (1916) in the notes he says he heard it from Mr. Sparks (a blacksmith), Minehead, Somerset, in 1904.

Steeleye Span from “Now we are six”, 1974 – a funny video animation

She looked out of the window
as white as any milk
And he looked in at  the window
as black as any silk
Hello, hello, hello, hello,
you coal blacksmith

You have done me no harm
You never shall  have my maidenhead
That I have kept so long
I’d rather die a maid
Ah, but then she said
and be buried all in my grave

Than to have such a nasty,
husky, dusky, fusky, musky

Coal blacksmith,
a maiden, I will die

She became a duck,
a duck all on the stream
And he became a water dog (1)
and fetched her back again.
She became a star,
a star all in the night
And he became a thundercloud
And muffled her out of sight.
She became a rose,
a rose all in the wood
And he became a bumble bee  (2)
And kissed her where she stood.
She became a nun,
a nun all dressed in white
And he became a canting priest
And prayed for her by night.
She became a trout,
a trout all in the brook
And he became a feathered fly
And caught her with his hook.
She became a corpse,
a corpse all in the ground
And he became the cold clay
and smothered her all around (3)

1) water dog is a large swimmer retriever dog or a dog trained for swamp hunting,
2) the bumblebee is related to the bees, but does not produce honey and is much larger and stocky than the bee
3) “Which part of the word NO do not you understand?” that is, the categorical and virginal refusal of the woman to the sexual act repeatedly attempted by an ugly, dark and even stinking blacksmith. In escaping the man’ s longing she turns into duck, star, rose, nun and trout (and he in marsh dog, cloud, bumblebee, priest, fishing hook); apparently the girl prefers her death rather than undergoing a rape: this is a distorted way of interpreting the story, it is the “macho” mentality convinced that woman is not a victim but always in complicit with the violence and therefore to be condemned.
In my opinion, instead, it is the return to the earth with the fusion of the feminine principle with the male one; the two, now lost in the vortex of transformations, merge into a single embrace of dust and their death is a death-rebirth.

Beltane Fire Festival


The hunter man here is a “supernatural” figure, the blacksmith was considered in ancient times a creature endowed with magical powers, the first blacksmiths were in fact the dwarves (the black or dark elves) able to create weapons and enchanted jewels. The art of forge was an ancient knowledge that was handed down among initiates.
So in the Middle Ages the figure of the blacksmith took on negative connotations, just think of the many “forges of the devil” or “the pagan” that gave the name to a place once a forge.

Vulcan Roman God, Andrea Mantegna

By virtue of his craft, the smith is a mighty man with well-developed muscles, yet precisely because of his knowledge and power the smith is often lame or deformed: if he is a mortal his impairment is a sign that he has seen some divine secret, that is, it has seen a hidden aspect of the divinity thus it is punished forever; it is the knowledge of the secret of fire and of metals, which turn from solid to liquid and blend into alloys. In many mythologies the same gods are blacksmiths (Varuna, Odin), they are wizards and they have paid a price for their magic.
The lameness also hides another metaphor: that of the overcame test that underlies the research, be it a spiritual conquest or a healing or revenge act (a fundamental theme in the Grail cycle).

But the magicians of the ballad are two so the girl is also a shapeshifter or perhaps a shaman.


Cerridwen_EmpowermentThe theme of transformation is in Ovid’s Metamorphoses: a succession of Olympian gods who, through their lust, transform themselves into animals (but also in golden rain) and seduce beautiful mortals or nymphs.
The pursuit through the mutation of the forms recalls the chase between Cerridwen and his apprentice in the Welsh history of the the bard Taliesin birth (534-599) . A boy is escaping, having drunk the magic potion from the cauldron he was watching over; he escapes the wrath of the goddess by becoming various animals (hare, fish, bird). At the end he is a wheat grain to hide like a classic needle in a haystack, but the goddess changed into a hen eating it. From this unusual coupling is born Taliesin alias Merlin

I am a stag: of seven tines,
I am a flood: across a plain,
I am a wind: on a deep lake,
I am a tear: the Sun lets fall,
I am a hawk: above the cliff,
I am a thorn: beneath the nail,
I am a wonder: among flowers,
I am a wizard: who but I
Sets the cool head aflame with smoke?

That is, in order to become Wisdom, to Understand, one must experience the elements …

This poem by Taliesin could condense the mystery of the initiatory journey, in which Wisdom is conquered with the knowledge of the elements, which is profound experience, identification, through the penetration of their own essence, becoming the same traveler the essence of the elements.
Changing shape means experiencing everything, experiencing oneself in everything in continuous change and experiencing the encounter between the self and the other, prey and predator, not separated but inseparably linked, as in a dance.from here)


The main characteristic of the shaman is to “travel” in conditions of ecstasy in the spirit world. The techniques for doing this are essentially the ecstatic sleep (mystical trance) and the transformation of one’s spirit into an animal. As a magical practice it involves a transformation of a part of the soul into the spirit of an animal to leave the body and travel in both the sensitive and the supersensible world. Another technique is to leave your body and take possession of the body of a living animal.

In this way the shaman “rides”, that is, takes as a means to move, the bodies of animals that are also his driving spirits. In some rituals, psychoactive plants are used, or the drum beat, or the skins or the mask of the animal that you want to “ride” are worn. This practice is not free from risks: it may happen that the shaman can no longer return to his body because he forgets himself, his human being, or travels too far from the body and falls into a coma or the physical body dies because too weakened by separation.
The spirit can be captured in the afterlife or the animal can be wounded or killed on the ground level and therefore, as the soul of the shaman is captured or wounded or killed, so does his body report its consequences.

second part 


Lark in the Morning

Leggi in italiano

The irish song “The Lark in the Morning” is mainly found in the county of Fermanagh (Northern Ireland): the image is rural, portrayed by an idyllic vision of healthy and simple country life; a young farmer who plows the fields to prepare them for spring sowing, is the paradigm of youthful exaltation, its exuberance and joie de vivre, is compared to the lark as it sails flying high in the sky in the morning. Like many songs from Northern Ireland it is equally popular also in Scotland.
The point of view is masculine, with a final toast to the health of all the “plowmen” (or of the horsebacks, a task that in a large farm more generally indicated those who took care of the horses) that they have fun rolling around in the hay with some beautiful girls, and so they demonstrate their virility with the ability to reproduce.

The Plougman – Rowland Wheelwright (1870-1955)

The Dubliners

Alex Beaton with a lovely Scottish accent

The Quilty (Swedes with an Irish heart)

The lark in the morning, she rises off her nest(1)
She goes home in the evening, with the dew all on her breast
And like the jolly ploughboy, she whistles and she sings
She goes home in the evening, with the dew all on her wings
Oh, Roger the ploughboy, he is a dashing blade (2)
He goes whistling and singing, over yonder leafy shade
He met with pretty Susan,, she’s handsome I declare
She is far more enticing, then the birds all in the air
One evening coming home, from the rakes of the town
The meadows been all green, and the grass had been cut down
As I should chance to tumble, all in the new-mown hay (3)
“Oh, it’s kiss me now or never love”,  this bonnie lass did say
When twenty long weeks, they were over and were past
Her mommy chanced to notice, how she thickened round the waist
“It was the handsome ploughboy,-the maiden she did say-
For he caused for to tumble, all in the new-mown hay”
Here’s a health to y’all ploughboys wherever you may be
That likes to have a bonnie lass a sitting on his knee
With a jug of good strong porter you’ll whistle and you’ll sing
For a ploughboy is as happy as a prince or a king
1) The lark is a melodious sparrow that sings from the first days of spring and already at the first light of dawn; it is a terrestrial bird which, however, once safely in flight, rises almost vertically into the sky, launching a cascade of sounds similar to a musical crescendo.
Then, closed the wings, he lets himself fall like a dead body until he touches the ground and immediately rises again, starting to sing again . see more
2) blade= boy, term used in ancient ballads to indicate a skilled swordsman
3) The story’s backgroung is that of the season of haymaking, starting in May, when farmers went to make hay, that is to cut the tall grass, with the scythe, putting it aside as fodder for livestock and courtyard’s animals . While hay cutting was a mostly masculine task, women and children used the rake to collect grass in large piles, which were then loaded onto the cart through the use of pitchforks.. see more

George Stubbs – Haymakers 1785 (Wikimedia)

Lisa Knapp from Till April Is Dead ≈ A Garland of May 2017, from Paddy Tunney (only I, II) (Paddy Tunney The Lark in the Morning 1995  ♪), the most extensive version comes from the Sussex Copper family, but Lisa further changes some verses.

The lark in the morning she rises off her nest
And goes whistling and singing, with the dew all on her breast
Like a jolly ploughboy she whistles and she sings
she comes home in the evening with the dew all on her wings
Roger the ploughboy he is a bonny blade.
He goes whistling and singing down by yon green glade.
He met with dark-eyed Susan, she’s handsome I declare,
she’s far more enticing than the birds on the air.
This eve he was coming home, from the rakes in town
with meadows been all green and the grass just cut down
she is chanced to tumble all in the new-mown hay
“It’s loving me now or never”, this bonnie lass did say
So good luck to the ploughboys wherever they may be,
They will take a sweet maiden to sit along their knee,
Of all the gay callings
There’s no life like the ploughboy in the merry month of may



This version was collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1904 as heard by Ms. Harriet Verrall of Monk’s Gate, Horsham in Sussex, but already circulated in the nineteenth-century broadsides and then reported in Roy Palmer’s book “Folk Songs collected by Ralph Vaughan Williams”. Became into the English folk music circuit in the 60s the song was recorded in 1971 by the English folk rock group Steeleye Span with the voice of Maddy Prior.

The refrain is similar to that of the previous irish version, but here the situation is even more pastoral and almost Shakespearean with the shepherdess and the plowman who are surprised by the morning song of the lark, but with the reversed parts: he who tells her to stay in his arms, because there is still the evening dew, but she who replies that the sun is now shining and even the lark has risen in flight. The name of the peasant is Floro and derives from the Latin Fiore.

Steeleye Span from Please to See the King – 1971

Maddy Prior  from Arthur The King – 2001

“Lay still my fond shepherd and don’t you rise yet
It’s a fine dewy morning and besides, my love, it is wet.”
“Oh let it be wet my love and ever so cold
I will rise my fond Floro and away to my fold.
Oh no, my bright Floro, it is no such thing
It’s a bright sun a-shining and the lark is on the wing.”
Oh the lark in the morning she rises from her nest
And she mounts in the air with the dew on her breast
And like the pretty ploughboy she’ll whistle and sing
And at night she will return to her own nest again
When the ploughboy has done all he’s got for to do
He trips down to the meadows where the grass is all cut down.

1)plow the field but also plow a complacent girl


“Lark in the morning” is a jig mostly performed with banjo or bouzouki or mandolin or guitar, but also with pipes, whistles or flutes, fiddles ..
An anecdote reported by Peter Cooper says that two violinists had challenged one evening to see who was the best, only at dawn when they heard the song of the lark, they agreed that the sweetest music was that of the morning lark. Same story told by the piper Seamus Ennis but with the The Lark’s March tune

Moving Hearts The Lark in the Morning (Trad. Arr. Spillane, Lunny, O’Neill)

Cillian Vallely uilleann pipes with Alan Murray guitar

Peter Browne uilleann pipes in Lark’s march