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The Daemon Lover or The House Carpenter

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A prolific theme in the European traditional ballad that has its roots in the Middle Ages is the so-called “girl on the beach”: in the British ballad “Demon Lover” (Child # 243) best known in the American versions entitled “The House Carpenter” the seducer is the Devil.

Titles: The Daemon Lover, James Harris, House Carpenter, Ship’s Carpenter, The Carpenter’s Wife, Said an Old True Love, The Salt, Salt Sea, The Sea Captain, A Warning for Married Women, the Banks of the Sweet Viledee

The ballad attributed to Laurence Price, was published in a broadside in 1657 entitled “James Harris (The Daemon Lover)” and with a subtitle that is all a program “A Warning for Married Women, being an example of Mrs Jane Reynolds (a West-country woman), born near Plymouth, who, having plighted her troth to a Seaman, was afterwards married to a Carpenter, and at last carried away by a Spirit, the manner how shall be be presently recited. “(To a West- country tune called The Fair Maid of Bristol, Bateman, or John True.)

The 32-verse ballad has James Harris and Jane Renalds as its protagonists and deals with the supernatural theme: the two lovers exchange their marriage vows in secret, immediately after (i.e. the wedding day in public) James joins the navy and disappears without giving any news. Jane waits for him three years then receives the news of James’s death, lets a year of mourning pass, marries a good man and becomes a mother. After seven years, the specter of James returns and convinces the woman to abandon her children and husband to go with him to sea. The woman follows him and there is no news of her, the husband goes mad with pain and hangs himself.
In the first version of the ballad the moral judgment on the woman is as suspended, but she is a mother who chooses to abandon her child for the love of a man and therefore not really a model of virtue: her gesture leads to despair the husband and the child becomes any foundling predestined to a bad end.

Vermon Hill, 1912

The ghost-demon returns after seven years to claim the woman’s love, accusing her of having broken their engagement. According to the English laws in force in 700 a mutual wedding vow had the value of an oath valid in the eyes of God, the rest were only “technical details”; therefore breaking the engagement and marrying another was tantamount to staining oneself with a serious sin. (see wedding in history). The revenant who returns to take away the woman “puts things back in place” acting by divine will, however the woman is also the carpenter’s wife and she ‘ll sink with the ship.


In French, the word revenant retains a double meaning, the primary one being of “soul returning from the other world under a physical appearance”, the other being “ghost” “apparition of a dead man”. They therefore have a dual nature and present themselves as corporeal entities (with the same appearance they had in life or even of some animal or in the form of skeletons) or incorporeal as ghosts.
In European folklore the revenants are souls who maintain their material form, personality and feelings from their live. It is a material conception of the souls of the dead that manifests itself in the funeral beliefs and customs of much of Europe. Revenants are mostly souls in pain, including those who have died of violent or accidental death (murdered, drowned …) or recalled by the affection of the living who mourn them too much. In some traditions, however, the revenants are damned souls such as vampires and the undead or hellish and demonic hosts.

In the ballad it is therefore assumed that the woman was not a happy mother and wife as expected and indeed all her tears forced her old boyfriend to return to her ..
The popular versions are really many, reducing the stanzas, they focus only on some details, however a big distinction is evident: the ballads from Europe are based on the supernatural element, the American ones do not .


The american versions, that lost their otherworldly element, were almost incomprehensible or better they had received a new morality, as Alan Lomax points out, the Calvinist one, for which the woman who refused an imposed or unhappy marriage was guilty of rebellion before society . The novel “The scarlet letter” by Nathaniel Hawthorne reminds me of the same cultural climate, also there the first husband (taken prisoner of the Indians and given for dead) returns to the “civilized” world to torment the adulteress .. in fact this is a warning ballad aimed at married women rather than maidens.


A.L. Lloyd in the cover notes in the English and Scottish Folk Ballads album (1964) writes: “rive A.L. Lloyd nelle note di copertina nell’album English and Scottish Folk Ballads (1964) “Though very rarely met with nowadays, it was formerly well-known in Scotland as well as in England. For instance, Walter Scott included a good version in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1812 edn.). Generally the Scottish texts are better than the English ones, none of which tell the full story (we have filled out our version by borrowing some stanzas from Scottish sets of the ballad), but none of the Scottish tunes for it are as good those found in the South and West of England. Our present tune was noted by H. E. D. Hammond from Mrs Russell of Upway, near Dorchester, Dorset, in 1907. Cecil Sharp considered it “one of the finest Dorian airs” he had seen. “

A.L. Lloyd from English & Scottish Folk Ballads  2006

This version is focused on the two lovers

 A.L. Lloyd version
“Well met, well met, my own true love,
Long time (1) I have been absent from thee.
I am lately come from the salt sea
And it’s all for the sake, my love, of thee.”
“I have three ships all on the sea
And by one of them
has brought me to land.
I’ve four and twenty seamen on board
And you shall have music
at your command.”
She says, “I am now wed
to a ship’s carpenter,
To a ship carpenter I am bound.
And I wouldn’t leave
my husband dear
For twice the sum of ten hundred pound.”
“Well I might have a king’s daughter,
And fain she would have married me.
But I forsook her crown of gold
And it was all for the sake,
my love, of thee.”
“So I pray you leave
your husband, dear,
And sail away with me.
And I’ll take you where
the white lilies grow (2)
All on the banks of Italy (3)”
“And this ship
wherein my love shall sail
Is wondrous to behold.
The sails shall be of shining silk
And the mast shall be of red beaten gold.”
So she dressed herself in her gay clothing
Most glorious to behold,
And as she trod the salt water’s side
Oh she shone like glittering gold.
They hadn’t sailed a day and a day
And a day but barely three,
She cast herself down on the deck
And she wept and wailed
most bitterly.
“Oh hold your tongue,
my dearest dear,
Let all your sorrows be.
I’ll take you where the white lilies grow 
All on the bottom of the sea.”
And as she turned herself roundabout,
So tall and tall he seemed to be,
Until the tops of that gallant ship
No taller were than he.
And he struck the topmast
with his hand,
The main mast with his knee,
And he broke that shining ship in two
And he dashed it into the bottom of the sea.
1) an unspecified time, but in the folk ballads the period is implicit because conventionally it has a duration of 7 years; after such a long period the woman could be considered morally justified in taking a husband
2) the listener is already advised that the ballad will have a tragic ending in fact the lilies in the ballads mean death
3) it is interesting to note that Italy is considered the land of sin or at least considered a distant and exotic place


Pubblicato da Cattia Salto

Amministratore e folklorista di Terre Celtiche Blog. Ha iniziato a divulgare i suoi studi e ricerche sulla musica, le danze e le tradizioni d'Europa nel web, dapprima in maniera sporadica e poi sempre più sistematicamente sul finire del anni 90 tramite il sito dell'associazione L'ontano []

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