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The Brown Girl

[ Roud 180 ; Child 295 ; Ballad Index C295 ; Bodleian Roud 180 ; trad.]

Frankie Armstrong sang The Brown Girl in 1972 on her Topic album Lovely on the Water. A.L. Lloyd commented in the album's sleeve notes:

A proud, vengeful creature, spurned “because she was too brown”. The implication is, she wasn't fine enough, ladies had lilywhite hands, skin as fair as milk; working girls got suntanned and coarsened in the field, unfit for gentlemen. The ballad, containing echoes of Lord Thomas and Fair Eleanor, Barbara Allen, and others, doesn't seem to have been very common it its original form, more or less as Frankie sings it. But in altered shape, in which it is the man, sometimes a sailor, not the girl who is slighted and pitiless, it had wildfire success in England as The Dover Sailor, and the USA, as A Rich Irish Lady.

Steeleye Span recorded The Brown Girl in 1976 for their last album (and one of my favourites) with their “classic” line-up Tim Hart / Bob Johnson / Rick Kemp / Peter Knight / Nigel Pegrum / Maddy Prior, Rocket Cottage.

Martin Carthy sang The Brown Girl on his and Dave Swarbrick's 1992 album Skin and Bone. He commented in the record's sleeve notes:

Francis James Child wrote in his notes to The Ride in the Creel, “no-one looks for decorum in pieces of this sort, but a passage in this ballad, which need not be particularised, is brutal and shameless almost beyond example.” He didn't relish the prospect of nosey parents being treated with such a lack of respect. Noses put well out of joint—and a few other things beside.

Same in The Brown Girl, but informed by real anger. She's thrilling, desirable, wanted—in fact fine and dandy, but only up to a point. When push comes to shove, though, the fact that he blows hot and cold then hot again, fuels a fury in her that is awesome to behold. No pity for the pitiless (and why should she). The tune is from the Sharp MS and called Sweet Kitty.

Bob and Gill Berry sang The Brown Girl in 2006 on their WildGoose CD BitterSweet. They noted:

An awesome song with undertones of revenge with the scorned lover finally dancing on his grave. Gill got this song from the singing of the great ballad singer Frankie Armstrong. Interestingly when Frankie heard Gill sing it several years later she was pleased to note that Gill had extra verses in her version. Gill doesnt know where they came from! A fine example of “the folk process” at work.

Jon Boden learned The Brown Girl from the singing of Frankie Armstrong; and he sang it as the November 30, 2010 entry of his A Folk Song a Day project.

Derived from this song but with switched roles is The Sailor from Dover (Roud 180; Laws P9) as sung by e.g. A.L. Lloyd on his album A Selection from the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs.

Lyrics

Frankie Armstrong sings The Brown Girl

I am as brown as brown can be and my eyes as black as sloes,
I am as brisk as nightingale and wild as forest doe.

My love he was so high and proud, his fortune too so high,
He for another fair pretty maid left me and passed me by.

He sent to me a love-letter, he sent it from the town,
Saying no more he loved me because I was so brown.

I sent his letter back again, saying his love I valued not,
Whether he would fancy me or whether he would not.

When that six months were gone and past, were over gone and past,
Then did my love, once so bold, grow sick with love at last.

When that six months were past and gone, were over past and gone,
Then did my love, once so bold, lie on his bed and moan.

Oh, first he sent for the doctor-man, “You doctor must me cure.
The pains that now do torture me I can not long endure.”

Oh ne'er a bit the doctor-man his sufferings could relieve;
Never a one but the brown, brown girl that could his life reprieve.

Oh, then did he send from out the town, oh then he sent for me,
He sent for me, the brown, brown girl who once his wife should be.

Now you shall hear what love she had for that poor love-sick man,
How all one day, one summer’s day, she walked and never ran.

”I'll do as much for my true love as any young girl may,
I'll dance and sing all on his grave for a twelve month and a day.”

Martin Carthy sings The Brown Girl

She said, I am brown as brown can be, I have eyes like a sloe,
I'm brisk as the nightingale, wild as any doe.

Chorus (repeated after each verse):
She sang lall lall de deedle derro
Lall lall de deedle derro
Sing lerril-lie-dee

Said, my love wrote a letter, a love letter from town,
That he could not love me cause I was so brown.

I sent it back again, I valued him not,
Whether he loved me or whether he not.

Now six months being over being over and past,
He wrote another letter he was sick unto death.

There never was a doctor could his pain relieve,
Would you go to him speedy and his life redeem?

Now you'll hear the love she had for this lovesick man,
All that summer day she would walk, she'd not run.

Yes you'll hear the love she had for this lovesick man,
She was a whole summer day in the mire walking on.

When she come to his bedside where he lay so weak,
She could not for laughing stand up on her feet.

And I'll do as much for my love as any young girl may,
I'll dance upon his grave for a twelve month and a day.

Steeleye Span sing The Brown Girl

I'm as brown as brown can be, my eyes are black as sloes,
I'm as brisk as a night-time nightingale as wild as the forest doe.

My love was high and proud, a fortune by his side,
But a fairer maiden than ever I'll be he took to be his bride.

He sent me a letter of love, he sent it from the town,
He wrote to tell me that his love was lost because I was so brown.

I sent back his letter of love, in anger I wrote down:
“Your love is wasted on such as me because I am so brown.”

Chorus (after every other verse):
𝄆 I'll dance upon your grave for twelve months and a day;
I'll do as much for you as any maiden may.
I'll make you rue the very day that you were born;
I'm a bonny brown girl. 𝄇

I heard not another word more until six months passed by,
The doctor said he had a broken heart, without me he would die.

I went to his bedside, I walked and never ran,
I laughed so loud and then louder still all at this love-sick man.

“I prithee forget,” said he, “I prithee forget and forgive,
Oh, grant to me just a little space that I may be well and live.”

I'll dance upon your grave for twelve months and a day.
You'll die for betraying a bonny brown girl all on one summer's day.

Links and Acknowledgements

See also the Mudcat Café thread Who WAS the 'Brown Girl'?

Martin Carthy's version transcribed by Garry Gillard. The Steeleye Span lyrics were taken from the CD sleeve notes and slightly adapted to the actual singing of Maddy Prior. Thanks to Graham Nelson and Patrick Montague for further correcting the lyrics.