> Folk Music > Songs > The Flyting o' Life and Daith

The Flyting o' Life and Daith

[Hamish Henderson]

Karl Dallas printed Hamish Henderson's The Flyting o' Life and Daith as the last song in his 1972 book The Cruel Wars. He commented:

[…] Less well-known than [Hendersons's Freedom Come-All-Ye], this “flyting” provides a suitable note on which to conclude this collection of songs about soldiering and war, in which death so often seems to have the last word. When it was first published in 1963, Hamish wrote:

The motif of a flyting, or argument, between Life and Death, appears in medieval German folksong, but this is the first use of it in Scots, as far as I know. The tune, which is not unlike the urlar (or “ground”) of a pibroch, is my own. “Quo life” (for “says life”) is good ballad Scots, but there's no reason why folk shouldn't sing “says life” etc, if they prefer it.

Alison McMorland sang The Flyting o' Life and Daith on her 2000 Tradition Bearers album Cloudberry Day. She also sang it on the 2003 Hamish Henderson tribute album on the Greentrax label, A' the Bairns o Adam. Geordie McIntyre commented in her album's booklet:

In his introduction to Hamish Henderson's Collected Songs and Poems (Curly Snake: Edinburgh 2000) Raymond Ross writes of this poet's central concern, i.e. ‘faith in ordinary humanity to pull through whatever the odds”. This philosophy is, surely, epitomised in this dramatic, argumentative exchange between life and death, where, ultimately, life is triumphant. This is mirrored in powerful sexual metaphor in the final verse, “…an open grave is a furrow sign, ye’ll no keep my seed frae fallin in.” In a separate note Hamish tells us, “the motif of flyting, or argument, between life and death appears in medieval German folksong but this is the first use of it in Scots as far as I know.” The song was first published in Scottish Broadsheet (1953).

Alison, taking Hamish’s original pibroch-like tune as a starting point, has created one of her own. Indeed Hamish actively encouraged Alison in this dynamic. In addition, Hamish and Alison worked together on interpretation of the text prior to Alison first recording it on Freedom Come All Ye—Songs and Poems of Hamish Henderson, Claddagh Records, Dublin 1977.

Lori Watson sang The Flytin o' Life and Daith as the August 2017 single of her ongoing project Yarrow Acoustic Sessions. She noted:

Hamish Henderson developed this song from an anonymous German poem titled Streitlied zwischen Leben und Tod (battle song between life and death) that he found just before World War II began.

Good and bad have been part of human understanding since early civilisations and giving ourselves two polarised perspectives can bring detail, articulation and understanding to the surface (Socratic dialogue in 4BC). Of course, we’re seeing the misuse of polarised perspectives just now: they can also be divisive and destructive. There’s more than good and bad to the story of us, and our experiences of life through to death. But!

Hope is powerful.

I owe a debt to two wonderful musicians and teachers for this song: Alison McMorland and Andy Hunter. Alison’s singing of The Flytin o Life an Daith has been my definitive version and my melody has grown from hers. Andy’s lessons in Scots history and the gravitas of his singing with sweeping pipe-influenced phrasing are also a part of this song for me.

Our word flyting is a relative of the Old Norse for provocation: flyta, and while we’re at it duddies is thought to be an ancestor of dude. So there ye go.

Lyrics

Streitlied zwischen Leben und Tod

[unknown author, 16th century]

So spricht das Leben: Die Welt ist mein,
Mich preisen die Blumen und Vögelein,
Ich bin der Tag und der Sonnenschein.
So spricht das Leben: Die Welt ist mein.

So spricht der Tod: Die Welt ist mein,
Dein Leuchten ist nur eitel Pracht,
Sinkt Stern und Mond in ewge Nacht.
So spricht der Tod: Die Welt ist mein.

So spricht das Leben: Die Welt ist mein,
Und machst du Särge aus Marmorstein,
Kannst doch nicht sargen die Liebe ein.
So spricht das Leben: Die Welt ist mein.

So spricht der Tod: Die Welt ist mein,
Ich habe ein großes Grab gemacht,
Ich habe die Pest und den Krieg erdacht.
So spricht der Tod: Die Welt ist mein.

So spricht das Leben: Die Welt ist mein,
Ein jegliches Grab muss ein Acker sein,
Mein ewiger Samen fällt hinein.
So spricht das Leben: Die Welt ist mein.

Lori Watson sings The Flytin o' Life and Daith

Quo Life, the warld is mine,
The flooers an trees, they're aa my ain,
I am the day an the sunshine,
Quo life the warld is mine.

Quo Daith, the warld is mine,
Yer lugs are deef, yer een are blin
Yer flooers maun dwine in ma bitter win
Quo Daith, the warld is mine.

Quo Life, the warld is mine,
I hae saft win's an healin rain
Aipples I hae an breid an wine
Quo life, the warld is mine.

Quo Daith, the warld is mine,
Whit sterts in dreid gangs doon in pain,
Bairns wantin breid are makin mane,
Quo Daith, the warld is mine.

Quo Life, the warld is mine,
Yer deidly wark, I ken it fine,
There's maet on earth for ilka wean,
Quo life, the warld is mine.

Quo Daith, the warld is mine,
Your silly sheaves crine in ma fire,
Ma worm keeks in yer barn an byre,
Quo Daith, the warld is mine.

Quo Life, the warld is mine,
Dule on yer een! Ae galliard hert
Can ban tae hell yer blackest airt
Quo Life, the warld is mine.

Quo Daith, the warld is mine.
Your rantin hert in duddies braw
He winna lows ma preeson waa,
Quo Daith, the warld is mine.

Quo Life, the warld is mine.
Though ye bigg preesons o marble stane
Hert's love ye canna preeson in,
Quo Life, the warld is mine.

Quo Daith, the warld is mine.
I hae dug a grave an dug it deep
For war an the pest will gar ye sleep,
Quo Daith, the warld is mine.

Quo Life, the warld is mine.
An open grave is a furrow syne,
Ye’ll no keep my seed fae faain in,
Quo Life, the warld is mine.