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The Laily Worm and the Mackerel of the Sea

[ Roud 3968 ; Child 36 ; Ballad Index C036 ; trad.]

Roger Nicholson sang The Laily Worm and the Mackerel of the Sea in 1972 on his Trailer album Nonesuch for Dulcimer.

Jim and Lynette Eldon sang The Laidly Worm in 1997 on their eponymous CD Jim & Lynnette Eldon.

Craig, Morgan, Robson sang The Laily Worm on their 2005 album Peppers & Tomatoes. This track was also included in 2007 on the WildGoose anthology Songs of Witchcraft and Magic. The latter album's booklet commented:

This song has a number of elements in common with Alison Cross, although the general tone is very different. Interestingly, the witch here is the wicked stepmother who appears in folktales like Snow White and Cinderella.

As in Alison Cross, the young man is transformed into a serpent, but his sister is turned into a mackerel. This reference to a mackerel as a magical fish is unusual, although it is tempting to see a connection with the salmon, a symbol of wisdom in Celtic mythology. Both are fast-swimming and very beautiful silver fish. Silver (associated with the moon) is an important feature of this song.

Also important are the magical numbers three and seven. Three is linked with the phases of the moon (waxing, full and waning), and with time (past, present and future). There are trinities of gods in many religious systems. Seven may represent the sun, the moon and the five planets (those known before the invention of the telescope), as astrology has always played an important part in magic.

James Raynard sang The Loathsome Worm and the Mackerel of the Sea in 2005 too on his One Little Indian album Strange Histories. This track was also included in 2006 on the Sheffield anthology Forged in Sheffield. He commented in his liner notes:

As far as I know the text in Child is the only collected version of The Loathsome (or Laily) Worm and the Mackerel of the Sea, and there are bits missing in that. It's probably part of some older and larger story or song. When a knight returns home from long battles abroad, he's in for a big surprise. He is understandably shocked and outraged when he learns that in his absence his wife has transformed his children, her stepchildren, into a fish and a giant man-eating serpent. I needed to write some extra material of my own to patch a few holes in the narrative. The tune is An Italian Rant again from John Playford's Dancing Master.

Kate Fletcher sang The Laily Worm and the Machrel of the Sea on her and Corwen Broch's 2017 CD Fishe or Fowle. They commented in their liner notes:

This ballad (Child #36) has no known tune so we have borrowed one from a Danish magical transformation ballad called Nattergalen (Nightingale) The tune was collected by Evald Tang Kristensen in 1907 from a clogmaker called Christen Sørensen Thomaskjær. We omitted the last grim verse which tells us the stepmother is burnt at the stake in a fire of gorse and hawthorn.

Lyrics

Craig, Morgan, Robson sing The Laily Worm

“Oh I was scarcely seven year old
When my mother she did die;
And my father married the worst woman
That lived twixt the land and the sky.

“For she's turned me into the laily worm,
That lies at the foot of the tree,
And my sister Maisry she has turned
To the mackerel of the sea.

“And every Saturday at noon
The mackerel comes to me,
And she does takes my laily head
And lays it on her knee.

“Yes, she does takes my laily head
And lays it on her knee,
And combs it with a silver comb
And washes it in the sea.”

“Sing on, sing on, you laily worm,
That song you sang to me!”
“Oh, I ne'er before could sing that song
Till I would it sing to thee.

“For seven brave knights have I slain here,
Since I lay at the foot of the tree,
An if you were not my own father,
The eight one you should be.”

And he has sent for his gay lady
As fast as send could he,
Saying, “Where is my son that you sent from me,
And my daughter, Lady Maisry?”

“Oh your son is at the king's high court,
Serving for meat and fee,
And your daughter is at the queen's high court,
A maiden sweet and free.”

“Oh you lie, you lie, you ill woman!
So loud you lie!” said he,
“For my son he is the laily worm
That lies at the foot of the tree!

“Oh you lie, you lie, you ill woman!
So loud you lie!” said he,
“For my daughter Maisry you have turned
To the mackerel of the sea!”

Then she took up a silver wand
And struck him three times three,
And that worm became the bravest knight
That e'er your eyes did see.

And she took up a silver horn
And blew it over the sea,
And all the fish came to her,
Save the proud mackerel of the sea.

Then up and spoke the proud mackerel,
The mackerel of the sea,
“You've changed me once from my own shape—
Now no more I'll be changed by thee!”

Then this lord he has sent to the merry greenwood
For hawthorn and for whin,
And they have built a good bonfire
To burn his lady in.

Links

See also the Mudcat Café thread Laily Worm and the Machrel of the Sea.