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The Cruel Mother / Greenwood Sidey / The Lady of York

[ Roud 9 ; Child 20 ; G/D 2:193 ; TYG 73 ; Ballad Index C020 ; MusTrad DB06 , DB22 ; VWML CJS2/9/1333 , CJS2/9/2371 , AW/6/213 ; Bodleian Roud 9 ; Wiltshire 94 ; Mudcat 17087 ; trad.]

Norman Buchan and Peter Hall: The Scottish Folksinger Nick Dow: Southern Songster David Herd: Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs, Heroic Ballads, etc., Second Volume Alexander Keith: Last Leaves of Traditional Ballads and Ballad Airs, James Kinsley: The Oxford Book of Ballads Ewan MacColl: Folk Songs and Ballads of Scotland John Jacob Niles: The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles John Ord: Bothy Songs and Ballads Roy Palmer: Everyman's Book of British Ballads Songs of the Midlands Frank Purslow: Marrow Bones Steve Roud, Julia Bishop: The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs Cecil J. Sharp: One Hundred English Folksongs Ken Stubbs: The Life of a Man Ralph Vaughan Williams and A.L. Lloyd: The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs Mike Yates: Traveller's Joy

Cecilia Costello sang The Cruel Mother on 16 January 1954 in Birmingham to Maria Slocombe. This BBC recording was included in 1975 on her eponymous Leader album, Cecilia Costello and in 2014 on her Musical Traditions anthology Old Fashioned Songs. Rod Stradling commented in the accompanying booklet:

This ballad is full of ancient beliefs, and seems to be of Scottish origin; it first appeared in Herd, Ancient & Modern Scottish Songs, dated 1776. It has been collected all over Britain and North America, though only four singers are recorded as having known it in Ireland—and none of them were from Co Roscommon. Child knew of 16 versions, Bronson 56 and Roud 325. Mrs Costello learned her version—as she did many of her songs—from her father, when she was a child.

Thomas Moran of Mohill, Co Leitrim, sang The Cruel Mother to Seamus Ennis in December 1954. This BBC recording 22035 was included on the anthology The Child Ballads 1 (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 4; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1968). On the extended 2000 CD reissue on Rounder Records is a composite of verses from Duncan Burke from Perth, Cecilia Costello, and Thomas Moran.

Ewan MacColl sang The Cruel Mother, in 1956 on his and A.L. Lloyd's Riverside album The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Volume IV. This and 28 other ballads from this series were reissued in 2009 on MacColl's Topic CD Ballads: Murder·Intrigue·Love·Discord. Kenneth S. Goldstein commented in the album's notes:

Ballad tales of infanticide almost identical to The Cruel Mother have been collected in Denmark and Germany, though no conclusion has been drawn from these data concerning the possible origin of the British ballad in either of those countries. Most of Child's texts were from Scotland and the ballad has remained alive in tradition there to this day. It is also known in England and has been collected frequently in America.

Child believed the ballad ending, in which the mother's fate in hell and other penance is predicted, was borrowed from The Maid and the Palmer (Child 21); Gavin Greig, noting the frequency with which this theme appeared in Scottish versions, and aware that The Maid and the Palmer was little known in Scotland, believed the ending to be an integral part of the ballad, though it did not appear in earlier versions. This ending still persists, for the version sung by MacColl (and containing this ending) was recently learned by him from Margaret Logan of Corsham, Wiltshire.

The Cruel Mother can be found in Vaughan William's and A.L. Lloyd's Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. A.L. Lloyd, accompanied by Alf Edwards on concertina, sang it in 1964 on his and Ewan MacColl's Topic album English and Scottish Folk Ballads. He commented in quite a long essay:

The ballad seems to be old, for it is full of primitive folklore notions such as the knife from which blood can never be washed (the instance of Lady Macbeth comes to mind). Also primitive is the idea that the dead who have not undergone the ceremony that initiates them fully into the world of the living (in this case, christening) can never be properly received and incorporated into the world of the dead, but must return to plague the living. Some scholars think The Cruel Mother may have been brought to England by invading Norsemen, since practically the same story occurs in Danish balladry (...). Verse by verse, the Danish sets of the ballad so closely resemble the English that it seems unlikely that the importation took place so long ago. More probably, it is a case of an ancient folk tale being turned into a lyrical ballad, perhaps within the last four hundred years, and spreading in various parts of Europe, possibly with the help of printed versions all deriving from a single original (whether that original was English or Danish or in some other language, our present researchers do not tell us).

The terrible story has had a particular fascination for children and the ballad became a game-song. A folklorist saw the game being played in a Lancashire orphanage in 1915. The children called it The Lady Drest in Green.

There was a lady drest in green,
Fair a lair a lido,
There was a lady drest in green,
Down by the greenwood side, o

The song describes how the lady kills her baby with a pen-knife, tries to wash off the blood, goes home to lie down, is aroused by three “bobbies” at the door, who extract a confession from her and rush her off to prison, and “That was the end of Mrs. Green”. It is a ring game. Two children in the middle impersonate Mrs. Green and the baby, following the action of the song. The children in the ring dance round, singing the refrains, until the “bobbies” rush in and seize the mother, when the ring breaks up. In his London Street Games (1931 ed.), Norman Douglas prints a corrupt version current in East and South-East London during the First World War. The ballad has remained a great favourite and is still to be heard from country singers all over the British Isles and in America (where sometimes the event is given a railway setting, “down by the old Greenwood Siding”). The Dorian (Re mode) tune we use was obtained by H.E.D. Hammond from Mrs. Bowring of Cerne Abbas, Dorset.

Shirley Collins recorded The Cruel Mother twice, first for her 1960 album False True Lovers and the second time in 1967 for The Sweet Primeroses (reissued on Fountain of Snow). She noted on the second album:

This cautionary ballad has everything, including one of the greatest of tunes. Ewan MacColl taught it to me when I was twenty. A flat, documentary opening, reporting a private act by conscience-torn young girl. Then the confrontation of the young mother by the ghosts of her murdered twin babies, and her damnation. The refrain has the quality of an incantation, raising one wretched human being to an archetype of remorse.

Lucy Stewart sang Down By the Greenwood Sidie O on her 1961 Folkways album Traditional Singer from Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Kenneth S. Goldtein noted:

Ballad tales of infanticide almost identical to The Cruel Mother have been collected in Denmark and Germany, though no conclusions have been drawn concerning the possible origin of the British ballad in either of those countries.

Most of Child's texts were from Scotland and the ballad has remained alive in tradition there to this day. The ballad is also known in England and has been collected frequently in America.

Lucy's text, very graphic in its presentation of the ballad tale, is especially interesting in two respects. The opening verse has been borrowed from an old bawdy ballad known to Robert Burns as Logan Braes [Roud 6843; G/D 6:1122]. It is an admirable beginning for a ballad of birth and infanticide resulting from an illicit relationship. Few other texts have the children murdered by being choked with a ribbon. The great majority of versions have the children stabbed to death by their mother.

Robin Hall sang The Cruel Mother in 1960 on his collector album Last Leaves of Traditional Ballads. The sleeve notes commented:

This ballad tells how a king's daughter, pregnant by one of her father's servants, took the lives of her newborn twins rather than suffer the rage of the king. Later she sees two bonnie young boys playing outside the castle wall. They are the ghosts of her murdered babies come to pass judgement on her. Together with this powerful story, we have in this version a tune of great beauty.

Vicki Whelan sang There Was a Lady Dressed in Green in 1964 to Mike Yates at her home in Manchester. This recording was included in 2001 on the Musical Traditions anthology of songs and music from the Mike Yates collection, Up in the North and Down in the South. He noted:

This is a children's version of the ballad The Cruel Mother, which, at one time, must have been an extremely popular ballad—Roud has 253 examples, but only 39 are from England and there have been only two other recordings; Ben Baxter of Southrepps, Norfolk, and Mrs Cecilia Costello of Birmingham, were both collected in the fifties. This latter and recordings by Duncan Burke and Thomas Moran can be heard on Rounder 1775, and the recent one by Jock Duncan on Springthyme SPRCD 1039. Professor Child cited many European variants and Anne Gilchrist gives examples of the conversion of the ballad into a children's singing game (Journal of the Folk Song Society iii, p.8) including one from Lancashire, 1915—which is where Vicki learned this as a child, from her mother in Salford.

Ian Campbell sang The Cruel Mither in 1965 on the Campbell Family's Topic album The Singing Campbells. Peter A. Hall and Arthur Argo noted:

Gavin Greig collected five versions of this ballad in Aberdeenshire, all to plainer tunes than that sung here. Ian’s tune, in fact, comes from Ewan MacColl’s aunt, Margaret Logan, a native of Perthshire. The texts of some of the first collected Scottish sets, notably in Herd’s Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs and Johnson’s The Scots Musical Museum, suggest pre-Christian origins for the ballad. This interesting version, too, gives us much of the powerful pagan mysticism.

Hedy West sang The Cruel Mother in 1967 on her Topic album Ballads. She noted:

This ballad was already circulating as a printed broadside before the end of the seventeenth century, but chances are it was an old song by then. It is related to another song concerning a legend of Mary Magdalene who was supposed to have borne three children—one by her father, one by her brother, one by the parish priest—and murdered them all. Jesus imposes on her a number of penances, and when they have been suffered, a place is prepared for her in heaven. Whether the Christian ballad is a re-working of The Cruel Mother, or The Cruel Mother is a secularisation of the Magdalene legend, would be hard to say. In its Christian form, the ballad is known all the way from Finland to Catalonia, by way of Czechoslovakia. In its ‘Cruel Mother’ form it’s not nearly so widespread. The Cruel Mother is thought to have come to America with the first wave of British migrants before 1650. The version here was collected by Cecil Sharp in North Carolina in 1918 [VWML CJS2/9/2371] .

Dave and Toni Arthur sang The Cruel Mother in 1970 on their Trailer album Hearken to the Witches Rune.

Martin Carthy sang Cruel Mother on his 1971 album Landfall. He commented in the record's sleeve notes:

The Cruel Mother comes from the singing of Lucy Stewart as collected by the American folklorist Kenneth Goldstein. Apparently many people quite close to her had no idea that she was a singer until he came along, but with him to coax her, she gradually unbent, and came out with many many songs, a lot of them really fine versions of the ballads.

Frankie Armstrong sang The Cruel Mother in 1972 on her Topic album Lovely on the Water. A.L. Lloyd noted:

A hard and eerie international tale. Unmarried Mother Slays Unwanted Babe; but there’s more to it than a banal Sunday newspaper account. In most versions, the lady has triplets, kills them all, and binds them with her headscarf, her belt, her garters, to prevent the little ghosts from walking, but back they come (primitive people believe the spirits of infants that die under three years are specially malicious) to condemn her. A nightmare touch is provided by the bloodstains on the murder weapon that cannot be washed away. Lady Macbeth would have appreciated that bit. Children used this ballad as a ring-game, sung and danced with a gay lilt, two in the middle as mother and baby, three other children as avengers who chase the mother in and out of the circle. Annie Gilchrist noted a version in the Southport Orphanage in 1915 [VWML AGG/1/18/1/39] . Child psychiatrists, forward, please.

Dave Burland sang The Cruel Mother in 1972 on his eponymous Trailer album, Dave Burland, and in 1975 on his album Songs and Buttered Haycocks. He noted on the first album:

A composite version of this ballad; the words are ones which I have sung on and off for some years, the tune is from the ballad Bonnie Annie from Gavin Greig's Last Leaves of Traditional Ballads and Ballad Airs.

Tom Gilfellon sang The Cruel Mother in 1972 on his Topic album Loving Mad Tom. He noted:

Gavin Greig's Last Leaves of Traditional Ballads and Ballad Airs provided the basic source, many years ago, of this fine song. English variants of the ballad don't seem to be quite as explicit as to the nature of the punishment to be endured by the unfortunate mother.

Linda Adams sang The Sun Shines Fair on Carlisle Wall in 1975 on her and Paul Adams' Sweet Folk and Country album of songs and ballads of Cumbria, Far Over the Fell, and she sang The Sun Shines Fair on the 1997 Fellside anthology Ballads where Paul Adams noted:

This is an intriguing version of a very ancient ballad. The theme of infanticide is rare in itself in ballads, but apart from that, it is the standard story of a pregnancy by someone of the wrong class. Usually it has a “Down by the Greenwood Sidy-O” refrain, but this version locates it in the Border city of Carlisle. Linda learnt it from her English teacher and singer, Ann Dickens. A version is printed in [Sydney Gilpin's] Songs and Ballads of Cumberland [1866, pp. 497-98]. Paul Adams added a first verse from another version to help put the story in context. A number of folklore elements have disappeared from this version, e.g. the colour green, the oak tree, etc. The song, like one or two other ballads, has been found in the form of a children's game song.

Lizzie Higgins sang The Cruel Mother in 1975 on her Topic album Up and Awa' Wi' the Laverock. This track was also included in 1998 on the Topic anthology O'er His Grave the Grass Grew Green (The Voice of the People Volume 3). Peter Hall noted:

The versions of this song may be divided into two distinct types: those in which the final punishment is described extensively in a series of verses (probably borrowed from The Maid and the Palmer, Child 21) and others stating the retribution simply in a single verse. The present set is of the latter type and concentrates concisely on the central events, dropping the usual introductory verses. It is related to the version sent to Kinloch early in the 19th century by the Beattie family of Stonehaven, suggesting a regional continuity of over 150 years. The air appears as a published bagpipe tune Greenwoodside, that title taken from the refrain of the ballad. It was passed to Lizzie by her father, who learned it from his mother, and it may well have been in the repertoire of her father, the piper, Donald Stewart.

Silly Wizard sang Carlisle Wall in 1976 on their eponymous Transatlantic album, Silly Wizard.

Archie Fisher sang Fine Flowers in the Valley in 1977 in Jean Redpath's BBC television series Ballad Folk.

Alison McMorland sang The Cruel Mother in 1977 on her Tangent album Belt wi' Colours Three. Hamish Henderson noted:

Lucy Stewart was source-singer of this powerful version of an international ballad which has crossed many language frontiers and has driven a shaft deep down into human consciousness. Lucy’s opening stanza which is borrowed from an unrelated bawdy song, establishes the fact of seduction. And (as Alison points out in a letter) the unusual lines—

Right wantly has she gane home
That nane might meddle with her fair fame,

pinpoint the fear of an unmarried mother that she will be the victim of the community’s malicious gossip. These touches add enormously to the impact made by this particular version. Alison adds: “Whenever people say to me that folksongs are archaic and have no relevance to today’s way of life, I think of The Cruel Mother.”

It is not without significance that the ballad has been recorded, in both Scotland and Ireland, as a vehicle for children’s ring games. This track and the following, were recorded at an enjoyable evening at the Edinburgh Folk Club.

Pete and Chris Coe recorded The Cruel Mother in 1979 for their album Game of All Fours. According to their album sleeve notes, it “is based on the version sung by Mrs Cecilia Costello who lived in Aston, Birmingham.”

Lisa Null sang The Cruel Mother in 1980 on her and Bill Shute's album American Primitive. She noted:

The Cruel Mother, Child #20, is a gut-level nightmare for any unmarried woman. Pregnant by her father’s clerk, the lady in question murders her twin babies and goes home as if nothing has happened. The ghosts of her babies return to taunt her and to expose the dark underside of her maternal sentiments. I found this version in Bertrand Bronson’s The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959). While not the most beautiful version, the monotony of its tune and childish little refrain give it the macabre feel of a nursery rhyme gone berserk.

The Clutha sang The Cruel Mither live at Lowell House, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA on 3 October 1981. A recording of this concert was released in 2019 on their CD Live from Harvard.

Jim Eldon sang The Lady of York on his 1984 album I Wish There Was No Prisons. He noted:

Sung for James Smart by Elizabeth Wharton and her brothers, Shropshire gypsies, 13 July 1885 (Shropshire Folk Lore, Charlotte S. Burne [VWML RoudFS/S202438] ).

Steve Turner sang Down by the Greenwood Side in 1982 on his Fellside album Jigging One Now. He noted:

This Appalachian version of The Cruel Mother comes from The Ballad Tree collection. I learned it from Mick Bramwich of Birmingham.

Heather Heywood sang The Cruel Mither in 1987 on her Greentrax album Some Kind of Love. She noted:

An old ballad but with plenty of relevance to today. I sang this years ago and recently sang it again and the desperation felt by the mother in the song suddenly hit me. A love affair which wasn't convenient resulted in twins which she killed at birth ‘thinking tae gang a maiden hame…’ She then lives the torment of seeing children at play and thinking what might have been. Things don't change much over the years, although nowadays perhaps a similar act of convenience wouldn't provoke a ballad.

I can't remember where I learnt this song from, it just seems to have appeared.

Steeleye Span recorded another version of this song “...before birth control, before the Social Services, before tranquillisers...” (from the album's sleeve notes) for their 1989 album Tempted and Tried, and Maddy Prior sang it on her 1997 album Flesh and Blood.

Elizabeth Stewart sang The Cruel Mither on her 1992 cassette 'Atween You an' Me; this track was included in 2004 on her Elphinstone Institute anthology Binnorie. She also sang it during the Fife Traditional Singing Festival, Collessie, Fife in May 2005, which was recorded and released in the following year on the festival anthology For Friendship and for Harmony (Old Songs & Bothy Ballads Volume 2). Thomas A. McKean noted in the Elphinstone album's booklet:

The opening verse seems in its natural place here, though it is classified as a separate song in Greig-Duncan (Logan's Braes, no. 1122). Kenneth Goldstein noted that it is an ideally evocative introduction to a story of illicit sex and infanticide (Lucy Stewart, notes). One wonders if Traveller singers in Greig’s own village of New Deer, only a few miles from Fetterangus, might well have had a similar variant. This uncompromising ballad is found all over the English-speaking world and one can only imagine the social context which may have led a woman to take this most incomprehensibly drastic of steps. Versions often finish with extensive details of the mother's supernatural punishment in various levels of purgatory—‘seven years a-ringing the bell’, ‘seven years a-burning in Hell’, and the like—verses shared with Child 21, The Maid and the Palmer, Child maintained that The Cruel Mother borrowed these verses from the latter song, but Greig points out that The Maid was not to be found in the North-East, nor hardly in Scotland as a whole, for that matter. David Buchan has written on the connections in The Maid, the Palmer, and the Cruel Mother, Malahat Review, 3 (1967), 98-107.

Jock Duncan sang The Cruel Mother in 1996 on his Springthyme album Ye Shine Whar Ye Stan!. Peter Shepheard noted:

Jock learned this ancient supernatural ballad from George Kidd, farm grieve at a neighbouring farm back in around 1935 when Jock was 10 or 12 years old—and he never heard the song from anyone else. The ballad is number 20 in F.J. Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads and Greig-Duncan has three tunes and four fairly full texts from the North East (Last Leaves & GD 193). The ballad is still in the living tradition in England and in North America and Bronson has 47 versions, texts and tunes, in his The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads. But to find a new version in the 1990s as full as Jock’s is remarkable—and sung with such style and authority.

Jock: “I used tae visit him quite a lot, Geordie. He wis grieve in the 30s at North Faddenhill—we were South Faddenhill. Fen he retired he bought a wee croftie away in the hill o Auchmunziel at New Deer and there he scuttered aboot, rearin a calf, and keepin a hen or two. Geordie used tae sing that song tae me even fen he wis retired. It wis one o his favourites. It wis in the 50s the last I saw o Geordie.”

Jock’s version is unique in many ways but is perhaps most similar to the North East version collected by Peter Buchan in the early 1800s (Buchan: ‘Ballads of the North of Scotland’ 2:217 / Child 20 version I). This includes the use of flower and plant symbolism in the chorus: the rose being the flower of passion and the lindie—the linden or lime tree, having significance as a holy tree giving protection against evil somewhat akin to the Rowan.

Norman Kennedy sang The Cruel Mother at live concerts in Aberdeen in 1996 that were recorded by Tom Spiers and released in 2002 on his Tradition Bearers album Live in Scotland. He noted:

Most of the big ballads, like this one, I got from Jeannie [Robertson]. They were great company to me during the long hours I used to work at the big old handlooms, or treading back and forth, spinning yarn on the walking wheel.

Sue Brown and Lorraine Irwing sang Fine Flowers in the Valley in 1997 on their WildGoose album Call & Cry. They noted:

A version of The Cruel Mother, a ballad well known in the English and Scottish traditions and in Denmark.

Kate Burke and Ruth Hazleton sang The Cruel Mother on their 1998 album The Bee-Loud Glade.

Scalene sang The Cruel Mother in 1999 on their eponymous Fellside album Scalene. Sandra Kerr noted:

Bronson gives forty-seven versions of this immensely widespread ballad, but this one is not amongst them. We know it to be American and that children over the centuries have transformed the original into street songs or clapping games, with bloodthirsty relish—the oral tradition meets the video nasty? (Old Mother Leigh and Down by the River Silem are other variants and both big favourites in the playground.) Nancy was sung to sleep with it. Not an ideal lullaby.

Nancy Kerr returned to The Cruel Mother in 2015 on Simpson·Cutting·Kerr's Topic album Murmurs where she noted:

A relentlessly re-told tragedy, this set of words to Child ballad 20 were new to me, though I've sung and heard other versions since childhood. I loved the symbolic presence of the various trees and the summations of grief, and decided to set it to a fittingly dark, relentless 5/4 melody.

Elspeth Cowie sang Cruel Mither on her 2000 album Naked Voice. She noted:

There are many versions of this gruesome tale. I sing it to the pipe tune The Greenwoodside.

Moira Craig sang The Cruel Mother on her 2000 album On ae Bonny Day. She noted:

Infanticide and illegitimacy have been recurrent themes in many European ballads. This version is from the Greig Duncan collection. She kills the babies to conceal the fact that she is no longer a virgin and of marriageable material. However, her conscience plays tricks on her and she awaits her fate.

Maureen Jelks sang The Cruel Mother in 2000 on her CD Eence Upon a Time. She noted:

I had heard this song many times, but it was not until I heard Jock Duncan sing it that I felt moved to learn it. This ballad is to be found in many collections, Greig, Child, etc. It is a story of ghosts and infanticide.

Emily Smith sang The Cruel Mother in 2002 on her Foot Stompin' album A Day Like Today. She noted:

One of the big ballads of the Scots singing tradition. This version of the tragic tale comes from the singing of Lucy Stewart, a member of one of Scotland’s most famous travelling families; the Stewarts of Fetterangus.

June Tabor sang The Cruel Mother in 2003 on her album An Echo of Hooves. According to the album's sleeve notes, the tune was collected by Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles from James Chisholm of Nellysford, Virginia in 1918, and the words were collated from other Appalachian versions also collected by the two.

Katherine Campbell sang Rose o Malindie (from the in-verse refrain “Hey for the rose o Malindie O”) in 2004 on her Springthyme album The Songs of Amelia and Jane Harris, which is a companion to the book The Song Repertoire of Amelia and Jane Harris, edited by Emily Lyle.

Ed Rennie sang The Cruel Mother in 2004 on his Fellside CD Narrative. He noted:

Based on a version by Shirley Collins who in turn had the song from Ewan MacColl. Unlike many variants of this story, a possible explanation is offered for why the Parson's Daughter acted so: “… thinking a maiden to return home.” Possibly in reaction to her betrayal and abandonment, post natal depression, social pressure. Whatever the reason, her shame and guilt from the deed are palpable in all versions and clearly the story struck a deep chord with generations of singers, judging by how many variants there are.

Jon Loomes sang Fine Flowers in the Valley in 2005 on his Fellside CD Fearful Symmetry. He noted:

Bronson again, Child Ballads 20 and 21 collide in a thick fog. (Does this make it Bronson pickle?) There are no apes in this version, which is frankly a little disappointing. If I were going to spend seven years in hell, I'd expect there to be apes, of Chimpanzees at the very least.

This is for my Mum, who as far as I know, didn't stab me at birth, although some would say she should have done.

Alasdair Roberts sang The Cruel Mother on his 2005 CD No Earthly Man. He noted:

The melody and refrain of this version of the ancient infanticide ballad are adapted fro m the singing of Andy Stewart on the self-titled 1976 LP by the Scottish group Silly Wizard, where it is called Carlisle Wall. The lyric here is mostly a composite of three sources—that version, a version recorded in 1975 by the Aberdeen-born singer Lizzie Higgins, and, particularly in regard to the final dialogue section, an English version by Shirley Collins on her 1967 Topic Records LP The Sweet Primeroses.

Paul and Liz Davenport sang Under the Leaves in 2006 ans the title track of their Hallamshire Traditions album Under the Leaves. They noted:

The Cruel Mother is, on the face of it, one of the most gruelling of the ballad themes. One common refrain in this family of songs, ‘All alone, a lonely-o’ indicates the desperation of this unmarried mother. This version started life as a lyric written by our eldest son, Gavin. The song is about the injustices faced by young women in earlier times when pregnancy was considered to be the woman's fault and the man's part was virtually ignored.

Stanley Robertson sang She's Leaned Her Back on his 2006 Elphinstone Institute CD Rum Scum Scoosh!.

Chris Foster sang The Cruel Mother on his 2008 CD Outsiders. He noted:

I have always been struck by the archetypal power of this ballad, which has appeared in many guises from the blood-curdlingly tragic to the comic. However, I was always put off singing the song by the lack of sympathy for the mother, who is after all in a dreadful situation herself.

During the 1970s I was lucky to hear the great Aberdeenshire singer Lizzie Higgins on several occasions. A few years ago I heard Vic Smith, who runs the excellent Royal Oak Folk Club in Lewes, Sussex, singing a wonderful version of the song which he learned from Lizzie. I then realised that here was an altogether more ambiguous take on the story and I built this version from that starting point.

Kerfuffle learned this ballad from the singing of Chris Coe and recorded it in 2008 as Down by the Greenwood Side for their fourth CD, To the Ground. This video shows Kerfuffle singing Down by the Greenwood Side at The Otley Black Sheep Folk Festival 2008:

Brian Peters sang All Alone and Lonely on his 2008 CD Songs of Trial and Triumph. He noted:

I came across this in the regular ‘Ballad Series’ in The Living Tradition magazine, was struck by the beauty and irregular timing of the melody as sung to Cecil Sharp by a Mrs Woodberry [VWML CJS2/9/1333] , and added several verses from other sources. Despite FJC's preferred title, The Cruel Mother, and the infernal punishments in the final verses, I see this essentially as a tragedy of desperation rather than a simple case of wickedness.

Rubus sang this as Greenwood Sidey in 2008 on their CD Nine Witch Knots. Emily Portman noted:

A revenant ballad of the darkest kind in which a mother is visited by the ghosts of her children. My source for this version of The Cruel Mother is Birmingham singer Cecilia Costello, who recounted how her father would sit her on his knee and say “now don’t you do what this cruel mother did”. It seems this song has long acted as a moral tale, first emerging in print in the seventeenth century, at the same time as the crime of infanticide became registered as an offence separate from homicide. Disturbingly, Vic Gammon tells us that “more people (overwhelmingly women) were executed for infanticide than for witchcraft in this period” (see Vic’s book Desire, Drink and Death in English Folk and Vernacular Song, 1600-1900). At a time when female worth and virginity were so intertwined and postnatal depression was unheard of, is it surprising that infanticide was running rife when this song emerged? Rather than damning the protagonist as a cruel mother I think of her as a desperate woman caught in the trappings of a time when illegitimate pregnancy could result in being outcast from family and society. The final descriptive verses of the lady’s transformations appear to describe the penance she must serve via metamorphosis.

Chris Wood sang The Lady of York on his 2008 CD Trespasser. He noted:

Most people refer to the song as The Cruel Mother. I just don't buy it. Thank you to Lauren McCormick from whom I learnt this song.

Bella Hardy sang Cruel Mother in 2009 on her CD In the Shadow of Mountains.

Maz O'Connor sang The Cruel Mother as one of the Young Folk Awards finalists on the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards 2009 CD.

Jon Boden sang The Cruel Mother as the 6 July 2010 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day.

The Unusual Suspects sang Fine Floo'ers on their 2010 live CD Big Like This that was recorded in the same year at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.

Bryony Griffith sang The Lady of York on her and Will Hampson's 2011 CD Lady Diamond. They learned it from the singing of Jim Eldon on the Yorkshire Garland website.

German trio More Maids sang Fine Flowers in the Valley in 2011 on their CD III. They noted:

There are many very old traditional songs on the shocking subject of child murder. It seems that these tragedies have always been part of womankind and in this song of Scottish origin, a mother who murders her newborn baby later encounters the baby's ghost.

The Owl Service sang Cruel Mother on their 2011 album The Pattern Beneath the Plough.

Steve Roud printed The Cruel Mother in 2012 in The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. Lucy Ward sang it a year later on the accompanying Fellside CD The Liberty to Choose.

Kim Lowings & the Greenwood sang The Cruel Mother on their 2013 EP Deepest, Darkest Night.

Hannah Sanders sang The Cruel Mother in 2013 on her download EP Warning Bells. She noted:

Here is another Child Ballad (20), and a supernatural murder ballad. I have sung several versions of this song for 20 years and have come to understand it with deeper resonance now I am a mother. Its stark treatment of a difficult subject (infanticide) is inscribed upon the back drop of a mother in distress, an early recognition of PPD perhaps. All in all a powerful song that is both fascinating and terrible to sing and to listen to.

Fiona Hunter sang The Cruel Mother in 2014 on her eponymous CD Fiona Hunter. She noted:

The Cruel Mother is a particularly grim tale. It was one of the first ballads taught to me by Alison McMorland. Alison is a wonderful traditional singer. I studied under her during my time at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland).

The song tells the story of a young mother who kills her newborn twins and hides their bodies in the woods. She is later visited by their ghosts. The spirits tell her that they are in heaven but for the terrible deed she has done she will face the fierce fires of hell.

Nick Wyke & Becki Driscoll sang The Cruel Mother in 2014 on their WildGoose CD A Handful of Sky. They commented in their liner notes:

This version of The Cruel Mother comes from Sydling St Nicholas in Dorset. Sung by Mrs. Case, it was collected by Hammond and Gardiner and published in Marrowbones in 1965.

Anna & Elizabeth sang Greenwood Sidey in 2015 on their eponymous album Anna & Elizabeth. They noted:

From Addie Graham, and the many generations who thought this story was important to remember.

Jenny Sturgeon sang Greenwood Side on her 2015 EP Source to Sea.

Gillian Frame sang Fine Flooers in the Valley in her 2016 CD Pendulum.

Alice Jones sang The Cruel Mother in 2016 on her CD Poor Strange Girl. She noted:

The theme of this song is one that is surprisingly common in folk music. There is no explanation as to what causes the lady in this tale to commit such a horrific act but one can imagine she must have found herself in a somewhat desperate situation. This version of the ballad has been heavily adapted with the words coming from a number of different sources.

Andy Turner sang The Cruel Mother as the 4 February 2017 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week. His very concise version was collected by Cecil Sharp from Mrs Eliza Woodberry of Ash Priors in Somerset. Sharp included it in his Folk Songs from Somerset, Series 4, and Maud Karpeles printed it in her 2-volume collection, The Crystal Spring, from which Andy learned the song.

Rosie Hood and Emily Portman sang The Cruel Mother in 2017 on Rosie's RootBeat CD The Beautiful & the Actual. She noted:

Collected from Mary Bond, Quenington, by Alfred Williams [VWML AW/6/213] , published in Folk Songs of the Upper Thames, 1923. Williams described this song as a ‘fragment’ and I wrote the first two verses based on other versions of this song. This is a particularly damning version with no hint of empathy towards the mother.

This video shows Rosie at Moira Furnace Folk Festival 2016:

And Jon Wilks talked with Rosie Hood about The Cruel Mother in October 2020 in Episode 13 of his Old Songs Podcast.

Lori Watson sang Fine Floors in the Valley as on of her 2017 monthly digital singles and on her resulting 2018 CD Yarrow Acoustic Sessions. She noted:

The fifth monthly Yarrow Acoustic Sessions single is a beautiful version of the traditional song shared with me by Anne Neilson. Anne’s interpretation of traditional song, the way she develops a personal connection with songs, stories, people, perspectives has been an important inspiration to me over the years.

Birth, death, vulnerability, violence, deep sorrow, bitterness: a newborn baby is murdered and buried, the mother is tormented. This is a Scottish variant of The Cruel Mother (Child 20). But we as humanity are responsible for this. There are several versions of the story; some published in broadsides in the late 1700s and more taking place today. The chorus lines gain weight through each verse of the song as the tragedy of the child and the mother’s situation sink in. The melody is one of the most beautiful I have ever heard.

This arrangement was created with Fiona Black. If you haven’t already, you can hear her playing with the Outside Track and various other collaborations. She writes brilliant tunes too.

Landless learned All Around the Loney-O from Mary Delaney and sang it on their 2018 CD Bleaching Bones.

Rachel Newton sang Down by the Greenwood Side on the Furrow Collective's 2018 album Fathoms. They noted:

Rachel found this version of the Cruel Mother ballad in the book Traveller's Joy. It was sung by Danny Brazil in Gloucester in 1978.

Lucy Ward sang Mari Fach, with her own lyrics inspired by The Cruel Mother, on her 2018 album Pretty Warnings.

Jacqui McShee sang The Bonny Greenwoodside on the 2019 Fledg'ling archive CD An Evening with John Renbourn + Jacqui McShee. No recording date or venue is given for this live performance, but it must have been years ago before John Renbourn's death in 2015.

Young Scots singer Rose Byers learned Cruel Mother from Fiona Hunter, and sang it at home in March 2020:

A Different Thread sang Cruel Mother on their 2020 EP Some Distant Shore.

Fay Hield sang Cruel Mother in 2020 on her Topic album Wrackline. She noted:

Often harsh in its treatment of the mother, this version shifts to envelop her with sympathy for her situation. Forgiveness comes from her ghostly babies even though she may not feel able to forgive herself.

Lyrics

Sidney Gilpin's The Sun Shines Fair on Carlisle Wall

She lean'd her head against a thorn,
    The sun shines fair on Carlisle wa';
And there she has her young babe born,
    And the lyon shall be lord of a'.

“Smile no sae sweet, my bonnie-babe,
An ye smile sae sweet ye'll smile me dead.”

She's howket a grave by the light o' the moon,
And there she's buried her sweet babe in.

As she was going to the church
She saw a sweet babe in the porch.

“O bonnie babe, an ye were mine,
I'd clead you in silk and sabelline.”

“O mother mine, when I was thine,
To me ye were na half sae kind.

“But now I'm in the heavens hie,
And ye have the pains o' hell to dree.”

Cecilia Costello sang The Cruel Mother

There was a lady that lived in York
    All alone and aloney-o
She proved a child be her own father's clerk
    Down by a greenwood sidey-o

As she was a-walking down her father's lawn
She thought three times that her back would be broke

As she was a-walking down her father's lawn
She said, “Honourable Mary pity me.”

As she was a-walking down her father's lawn
There her three fine sons they were born

She pulled out her long penknife
And there she took away their three lives

Years went by and one summer's morn
She saw three boys, they were playing bat and ball

“Oh my fine boys if you were mine
Sure I'd dress you up in silk so fine.”

“Oh mother dear when we were yours
You did not dress us in silk so fine.”

“You pulled out your long penknife
And there you took away our three lives.”

“Oh my fine boys what will become of me
You'll be seven long years a bird in a tree.”

“You'll be seven years more a tongue in a bell
And you'll be seven long years a porter in hell.”

Ewan MacColl sings The Cruel Mother

A minister's dochter in the North,
    Hey, the rose and the linsie, O.
She's fa'en in love w i’ her faither's clerk,
    Doon by the greenwood sidie, O.

She's coorted him a year and a day.
Till her the young man did betray.

She leaned her back against a tree.
And then the tear did blind her e'e.

She leaned her back against a thorn.
And there twa bonnie boys has she born.

She's ta'en the napkin frae her neck.
And made tae them a winding sheet.

She's ta'en oot her little penknife.
And she has twined them o' their life.

She's laid them 'neath a marble stane,
Thinking to gang a maiden hame.

She's looked ower her faither's wa',
And she's seen they twa bonnie boys at the ba'.

“O bonnie bairns, gin ye were mine,
I would dress ye in the silk sae fine.”

“O cruel mither, when we were thine.
We didna see ocht o' the silk sae fine.”

“O bonnie bairns, come tell toe me.
What kind o' a deith I'll hae to dee?”

“Sieven year a fish-in the flood,
Sieven year a bird in the wood.

“Sieven year a tongue to the warnin' bell,
Seven year in the caves o' hell.”

“Welcome, welcome, fish in the flood.
Welcome, welcome, bird in the wood.

“Welcome tongue o' the warning bell.
But God keep me frae the flames o' Hell.”

Shirley Collins sings The Cruel Mother

A minister's daughter in the north
    Hey the rose and the lindsay-o,
She's fallen in love with her father's clerk,
    Down by the greenwood side-i-o.

He courted her for a year and a day,
Till her the young man did betray.

She leaned her back up against a tree
And there the tear did blind her eye.

She leaned her back up against a thorn
And that her bonny boys she has born.

She's taken out her little pen-knife
And she has twined them of their life.

She laid them beneath some marble stone
Thinking to go a maiden home.

As she looked over her father's wall
She saw her two bonny boys playing ball.

“Oh bonny boys, if you were mine
I would dress you in silk so fine.”

“Oh cruel mother, when we were thine
We didn't see aught of your silk so fine.”

“Oh bonny boys, come tell to me
What sort of death I'll have to die?”

“Seven years as a fish in the flood,
And seven years a bird in the wood.”

“Seven years a tongue in the warning bell,
And seven years in the flames of hell.”

“Welcome, welcome, fish in the flood,
And welcome, welcome, bird in the wood.”

“Welcome, tongue to the warning bell,
But God keep me from the flames of hell.”

Lucy Stewart sings Down By the Greenwood Sidie O

Oh it's Logan's wids, aye, an' Logan's braes,
Whaur I helped my bonnie lassie on wi' her claithes,
First her hose an' then her sheen,
She gar me the slip when I was deen.

She laid her heid against a thorn
An' twa bonnie bairnies she has borne
An' twa bonnie bairnies she has borne
Doon by the greenwood sidie-o.

She dug a hole beneath a tree
An' she's buried them whaur nane might see,
An' she's buried them whaur nane might see,
Doon by the greenwood sidie-o.

Oh right wanly has she gaen hame,
That nane might middle wi' her fair fame,
That Dane might middle wi' her fair fame,
Doon by the greenwood sidie-o.

For days an' weeks she was pale an' wan,
But what ailed her there's neen might ken,
But what ailed her there's neen might ken,
Doon by the greenwood sidie-o.

As she lookit ower the castle wa',
She saw twa bonnie bairnies playin' at the ba',
She saw twa bonnie bairnies playin' at the ba',
Doon by the greenwood sidie-o.

Oh, bonnie bairnies gin ye were mine
Ye would get the white coo milk and wine
Ye would get the white coo milk and wine
Doon by the greenwood sidie-o.

Oh cruel mother when we were thine
Ye didna gie us the white coo milk and wine,
Ye didna gie us the white coo milk and wine,
Doon by the greenwood sidie-o.

But you took the ribbon frae off your hair
An' you chokit us though we grat sair,
An' ye chokit us though we grat sair,
Doon by the greenwood sidie-o.

An' we two in heaven do dwell
While ye mon dreg the fierce fires o' hell,
While ye mon dreg the fierce fires o' hell,
Doon by the greenwood sidie-o.

A.L. Lloyd sings The Cruel Mother

She leaned herself against a thorn
    All alone and so lonely,
And there she had two pretty babies born,
    And it's down by the greenwood side-o.

And she took off her ribbon belt,
And there she bound them hand and leg.

“Smile not so sweet, by bonny babes,
If you smile so sweet, you'll smile me dead.”

She had a pen-knife long and sharp,
And she pressed it through their tender heart.

She digged a grave beyond the sun,
And there she's buried the sweet babes in.

She stuck her pen-knife on the green,
And the more she rubbed, more blood was seen.

She threw the pen-knife far away,
And the further the threw the nearer it came.

As she was going by the church,
She seen two pretty babies in the porch.

As she came to her father's hall,
She seen two pretty babes playing at ball.

“Oh babes, oh babes, if you were mine,
I'd dress you up in the scarlet fine.”

“Oh mother, oh mother, we once were thine,
You didn't dress us in scarlet fine.”

“You took a pen-knife long and sharp,
And pressed it through our tender heart.”

“You dug a grave beyond the sun,
And buried us under a marble stone.”

“Oh babes, oh babes, what have I to do,
For the cruel thing that I did to you?”

“Seven long years a bird in the wood,
And seven long years a fish in the flood.”

“Seven long years a warning bell,
And seven long years in the deeps of hell.”

Vicki Whelan sang There Was a Lady Dressed in Green

There was a lady dressed in green
    Airy-airy aye do
There was a lady dressed in green
    Down by the river side-o

She had a baby in her arms

She had a penknife in her hand

She stuck it in her baby's heart

There came two policemen knocking at the door

“Where were you, Mrs Green, last night?”

“Then off to prison you must go.”

Martin Carthy sings Cruel Mother

She's laid down all below a thorn
𝄆 And two bonnie babies she has born, 𝄇
    Down by the greenwood side-e-o

And she's pulled the ribbons from off her hair
𝄆 And she's choked them though they cried for air. 𝄇

And she's dug a hole all beneath the tree
𝄆 And she's buried them where none might see. 𝄇

O right wanly as she'd gone home
𝄆 That none might meddle wi' her fair fame. 𝄇

For weeks and months she was wan and pale
And what ailed her there was no man could tell,
But what ailed her there's no man could tell.

Now as she looked o'er yon castle wall
𝄆 She spied two bonny babies playing at the ball. 𝄇

“Oh bonny babies if you were mine
𝄆 I would feed you on the white cow's milk and wine” 𝄇

“Oh cruel mother when we were thine,
𝄆 Oh, we got none of your white cow's milk and wine.” 𝄇

“But you pulled the ribbons from off your hair
𝄆 And you choked us though we cried for air.” 𝄇

“And we now two in heaven do dwell
𝄆 Whilst ye must drag out the fierce fires of hell.” 𝄇

Danny Brazil sings Down by the Greenwood Side

As she was a-walking her father’s walk, i-o,
As she was a-walking her father’s walk,
She saw two pretty babies playing the ball.
Lay me down, me dilly, dilly downward,
Down by the greenwood side, o.

She said, “Pretty babes, if you was mine, i-o,”
She said, “Pretty babes, if you was mine,
I’d dress you in such silken fine.”
Lay me down, me dilly, dilly downward,
Down by the greenwood side, o.

They said, “Dear mother, when we was yours, i-o,
You took a penknife long and sharp
And pierced we two pretty babes to the heart.”
Lay me down, me dilly, dilly downward,
Down by the greenwood side, o.

She washed the penknife in the stream, i-o,
She washed the penknife in the stream;
The more she washed it the blood stained in.
Lay me down, me dilly, dilly downwards,
Down by the greenwood side, o.

She leant her back up against the oak, i-o,
She leant her back up against the oak,
First it bent and then it broke.
Lay me down, me dilly, dilly downwards,
Down by the greenwood side, o.

Steeleye Span's The Cruel Mother

There was a lady lived in York,
She stabbed her baby to the heart.
She drew a scarf from off her head,
She bound the baby's hands and legs.

She drew a knife long and sharp,
She stabbed the baby to the heart.
She wiped the knife upon the grass,
The more she wiped, the blood ran fast.

As she was going to her father's hall,
She saw three children playing at ball.
One in silk, the other in satin,
The other was naked as ever was born.

“Oh, dear child, if you were mine,
I'd dress you in silk and satins so fine.”
“Mother dear, I once was thine,
You never would dress me, coarse or fine.”

“Mother, mother, for your sins
Heaven you shall not enter.
There is fire beyond Hell's gate
And there you'll burn forever.”

Jock Duncan sings The Cruel Mother

A maiden was coorted seiven years an a day,
    Hey tae the rose and the lindie O,
Until her beau did her betray,
    Doun by the greenwood sidey O.

She leaned her back against a wa,
And bore him bonnie bairnies twa.

Then she took oot a wicked knife,
And dang awa their precious life.

Oh she beeried them ʼneath a marble stane,
And then went hame a maiden again.

Ae nicht she looked ower her castle wa,
And saw twa bonnie boys at the ba.

“Oh bonnie bairnies gin ye were mine,
I wad feed ye on fine cakes an wine.

“And Iʼd lat ye drink the ferra cooʼs milk,
And dress ye in fine satin an silk.”

“Oh cruel, cruel mither when we were thine,
We didna feed on cakes an wine.

“Nor did we drink on the ferra cooʼs milk,
Nor did we dress in satin an silk.

“For you took oot a wicked knife,
And you dang awa oor precious life.”

“Oh bonnie bairnies yeʼll tell tae me,
Fit kin o pain for ye I mith dree.”

Elspeth Cowie sings Cruel Mither

She's leaned her back against an oak
    All alone and alonie o
She's pushed an’ she's pushed till her back's near broke
    Doon by the bonnie greenwoodsidie o

She's leaned her head against a thorn
The two bonniest babes that ever were born

She's gone back tae her father's castle ha’
She was the sma'est maid o' them a’

As she looked over her father's castle wall
She saw two babes playin' wi' their ball

O dear babes, gin ye were mine
I'd gie ye bread an' I'd gie ye wine

A cruel mither when we were thine
Around our necks you pulled the twine

We are in a heaven so fine
And in Hell’s fire you will burn

Emily Smith sings The Cruel Mother

In Logan’s woods, aye in Logan’s braes
I helped ma bonnie lassie on wi’ her claithes
First her hoes and then her shune
She gart me the slip when she was done

She’s leaned her back against a thorn
And there she has twa bonnie babes born
There she has twa bonnie babes born
Doon by the greenwood sidie o

She’s dug a hole baith lang and deep
And buried them where nane might see
She’s buried them where nane might see
Doon by the greenwood sidie o

She’s ta’en a ribbon frae aff her hair
An’ she’s chokit them though they grat sair
She’s chokit them though they grat sair
Doon by the greenwood sidie o

Richt wanley has she gaed hame
Sae nane might meddle wi’ her fair fame
Sae nane might meddle wi’ her fair fame
Doon by the greenwood sidie o

For days an’ weeks she was pale an’ wan
What she thoucht o’ there’s nane could tell
What she thoucht o’ there’s nane could tell
Doon by the greenwood sidie o

As she was lookin’ o’er yon castle wa'
She saw twa bonnie bairnies playin’ at a ba’
She saw twa bonnie bairnies playin at a ba’
Doon by the greenwood sidie o

Oh bairns, bairns, gin ye were mine
I’d gie ye coo’s milk, I’d gie ye reid wine
I’d gie ye coo’s milk and reid wine
Doon by the greenwood sidie o

Oh mother, mother we once were thine
Ye didna gie us coo’s milk or reid wine
Ye didna gie us coo’s milk or reid wine
Doon by the greenwood sidie o

You took a ribbon frae aff yer hair
An’ ye chokit us though we grat sair
Ye chokit us though we grat sair
Doon by the greenwood sidie o

Oh bairns, bairns come tell me true
What the future holds for you
What the future holds for you
Doon by the greenwood sidie o

Oh mother, cruel mother we ken richt weel
Tis we in heaven, in heaven must dwell
While ye maun dreg the fierce fires o’ hell
Doon by the greenwood sidie o

June Tabor sings The Cruel Mother

There was a lady near the town,
    Low so low and so lonely,
She walked all night and all around,
    Down in the greenwoods of ivy.

She's leaned her back against a thorn;
Two little babies she has borne.

She took a rope so long and neat,
She tied them down both hand and feet.

She took a knife so keen and sharp,
She pierced it through each tender heart.

She buried them under the marble stone,
Then she turned and went on home.

As she walked out one moonlit night,
She saw two babes all dressed in white.

“Oh babes, oh babes, if you were mine,
I'd dress you up in silks so fine.”

“Oh mother, oh mother, when we were yours,
You dressed us in our own hearts' blood.”

“You wiped your pen-knife on your shoe,
The more you wiped the bloodier it grew.”

“You buried us under the marble stone,
You turned and went a maiden home.”

“Babes, oh babes, come tell me true,
What death must I die for you?”

“For seven years you shall ring the bell,
For seven years you shall wait in hell.”

Stanley Robertson sings She's Leaned Her Back

She's leaned her back against an ake,
    All alone an aloney-o,
She's pushed an pushed until her back did break,
    Doon by the bonnie greenwood sidey-o.

She's leaned her back against a thorn
Twa bonnie bairnies has she born

An she has howkit oot a graue
An she has placed her new-born babes

An she's gaed back tae her father's castle ha
She was the fairest o them a

An she's lookit ower the high castle wa
She sa twa bairnies play in wi a ba

Oh, bonnie bairnies, wert thou mine
I'd cled ye in the silk sae fine

Bonnie bairnies, wert thou mine
I'd gie ye breid an I'd gie ye wine

Oh, cruel mither, when we were thine
Aroon oor necks she pu'd a twine

But noo we are in the heaven sic high
An in hell's fire ye will surely die

Chris Foster sings The Cruel Mother

There was a lady, a lady in York
    All alone and aloney-o
She fell a-courting her own father's clerk
    Down by the greenwood sidey-o

She loved him long and many a day
’Til big with child she had to run away

She’s gone into the wild wilderness
Great was her sadness and distress

She’s leaned her back against an oak
She’s pushed and she’s pushed ’till it very nearly broke

She’s laid her head against a thorn
Two bonniest babies ever were born

She’s got nothing to wrap them in
Nothing but her apron and that was very thin

She’s taken out her little penknife
And she’s parted them from their sweet lives

Then she has taken a length of twine
And together their bodies she did bind

Then she has dug a hole in the ground
And there she’s laid her bonnie babies down

She’s gone back to her father’s castle hall
She was the smallest maid among ’em all

She’s looked over her father’s castle wall
Saw two bonnie babies playing with a ball

One was dressed in the scarlet so fine
The other one was naked just as she was born

“Oh dear babies, if you were mine
I would give you bread and I would give you wine”

“Oh dear Mother, when we were thine
You never treated us so very kind”

“Oh dear babies if you were mine
I’d dress you up in the silk and satin fine”

“Oh dear Mother, when we were thine
Around our bodies you bound the twine”

“O bonnie babes can you tell to me
What sort of death for you I must die?”

“Yes cruel mother we will tell to thee
what sort of death for us you must die”

“Seven years you’ll be an eel writhing in the flood
And seven years a bird a whistling in the wood”

“Seven years you’ll be a fish finning through the tide
And seven years a snake on your belly you must slide”

“Now we are going to the heavens so high
But in the hell fires you will die.”

Bryony Griffith sings The Lady of York

There was a lady, a lady of York,
    Ri-fol-i-diddle-i-gee-o.
And she fell a-courting in her father’s park,
    Down by the greenwood side-o.

She has leaned her back up against a thorn,
And there she has had two pretty babies born.

But she had nothing for to lap them in,
But she had a penknife sharp and keen.

And she didn’t care how much it hurt,
There she had stabbed them right through the heart.

She has wiped her penknife o'er in the sludge,
But the more she has wiped the more blood has flowed.

Now as she was a-walking in her own father’s park,
She espied two pretty babies playing at a ball.

“Pretty bairns, pretty bairns, if’n you were mine,
I’d wrap you up in silks so fine.”

“Dear mother, dear mother, when we were thine,
You didn’t have the time to wrap us up fine.

But now we’re away to the heavens so high,
And you, you will go to the bad when you die.”

Gillian Frame sings Fine Flooers in the Valley

She lay doon below a thorn
    Fine flooers in the valley
And there she has her sweet babe born
    And the green leaves they grow rarely

Smile nae sae sweet, my ain bonnie babe
Ye smile sae sweet, ye'll smile me deid

She's taen out her wee penknife
And twined the sweet babe o' its life

She's howket a grave by the light o' the moon
And there she's buried her sweet babe in

As she was going to the church
She spied a bonnie babe in the porch

O sweet babe and thou were mine
It's I'd clad thee in the silk so fine

O mother dear, when I was thine
You did na prove to me sae kind

Rosie Hood sings The Cruel Mother

There was a lady in our town
    Jenny poor gentle Rosemary
She courted a man til her apron grew round
    When the dew lies under the mulberry tree

She leaned her back against a thorn
And there two little babies were born.

She laid these babies across her lap,
She swore they should never suck milk nor pap.

She tore their little dresses apart,
She stabbed the babies to the heart.

She bore her babies to the brook,
She vowed she would bury them down in the deep.

She let her penknife into the brook,
She thought that the blood had never forsook.

She went to the brook to wash her hands,
The more that the washed the more it came on.

“Oh babes, oh babes, when you were mine
Your were dressed in silks and satins so fine.”

“Oh mother, oh mother, when we were thine
We never were dressed in silks to fine.

“Oh heaven it is a sweet pretty place
It's where thy body shall never take ease.

“Oh hell it is a fiery place
It's where thy body shall burn in a blaze.”

Lori Watson sings Fine Floors in the Valley

She sat doon alow a thorn
    Fine floors in the valley
An there she has her sweet babe borne
    An the green leaves they grow rarely

Smile nae sae sweet, ma bonnie babe
An ye smile sae sweet, ye'll smile me deid

She's ta'en oot her little penknife
An twinned the sweet babe o its life

She's howket a grave by the light o the moon
An there she's buried her sweet babe in

As she was gaun tae the kirk
She saw a bonnie bairn playin in the dirt

O bonnie bairn, an thou wert mine
I wad cleeth thee in silk sae fine

O mither dear, when I was thine
You didna prove tae me sae kind

Rachel Newton sings Down by the Greenwood Side

As she was walking her father’s walk, i-o,
As she was walking her father’s walk,
She saw two pretty babes playing the ball.
Lay me down, me dilly, dilly downward,
Down by the greenwood side, o.

She said, “Pretty babes, if you was mine, i-o,”
She said, “Pretty babes, if you was mine,
I’d dress you in such silken fine.”
Lay me down, me dilly, dilly downward,
Down by the greenwood side, o.

They said, “Dear mother, when we was yours, i-o,
You took a penknife long and sharp
And pierced we two pretty babes through the heart.”
Lay me down, me dilly, dilly downward,
Down by the greenwood side, o.

She washed the penknife in the stream, i-o,
She washed the penknife in the stream;
The more she washed it the blood stained in.
Lay me down, me dilly, dilly downwards,
Down by the greenwood side, o.

She leant her back up against an oak, i-o,
She leant her back up against an oak,
First it bent and then it broke.
Lay me down, me dilly, dilly downwards,
Down by the greenwood side, o.

Fay Hield sings Cruel Mother

She leaned her back against an oak,
First it bent and then it broke.
She leaned her back against a thorn
And there she has two bonny babes born.

“Smile not, smile not my bonny babes,
Smile not so sweet you’ll smile me to my grave.”
She took a knife both long and sharp
And pressed it to their tender hearts.

Chorus (after each verse):
And the streams they flow so clear.

She pulled her gown up o’er her head,
She wrapped them fine as they lay dead.
She dug a grave beyond the sun
And buried them deep neath marble stone.

She walked the woods on a moonlit night,
She saw two babes all dressed in white.
She walked the halls both wan and pale,
“What ailed our lady, there’s no man could tell?”

“Oh babes, oh babes if you were mine
I'd dress you up in silks so fine,
I’d lay you soft in beds of down
And watch you noon, falling dusk and dawn.

“Oh bonny babes come tell me true
What death I’ll die for the sake of you?”
“Oh mother dear don’t torment thee
Thy sin is lesser than the loss of we.”

“Oh welcome welcome to be fowl in the wood,
It’s welcome welcome, fish all in the flood.
I long to be the tongue of a warning bell
But Heaven keep me from the gates of Hell,
Oh bonny babes save me from the flames of Hell.”