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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 ; VWML CJS2/9/1333 , AW/6/213 ; Bodleian Roud 9 ; Wiltshire 94 ; trad.]

Cecilia Costello sang The Cruel Mother on January 16, 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.

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 commented in the latter album's sleeve notes:

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.

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.

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.”

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 album Tempted and Tried; and Maddy Prior for her album Flesh and Blood.

Linda Adams sang The Sun Shines Fair on the 1997 Fellside anthology Ballads. Paul Adams commented in the album's notes:

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 Songs and Ballads of Cumberland. 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.

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

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.

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.

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 commented:

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.

Rubies sang this as Greenwood Sidey in 2008 on their CD Nine Witch Knots. Emily Portman commented in their liner notes:

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.

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

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

Bryony Griffith sang this song as 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.

Steve Roud included 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: A Selection of Songs from The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs.

Fiona Hunter sang The Cruel Mother on her eponymous 2014 CD Fiona Hunter. She commented in her liner notes:

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.

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

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

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 February 4, 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 sang The Cruel Mother on her 2017 RootBeat CD The Beautiful & the Actual. She commented in her liner notes:

Collected from Mary Bond, Quenington, by Alfred Williams, 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:


A.L. Lloyd sings The Cruel MotherShirley 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 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 leaned her back up against a thorn
And that her bonny boys she has born.

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

“Oh bonny boys, if you were mine
I would dress you in silk so 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 cruel mother, when we were thine
We didn't see aught of your silk so fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

“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.”

Martin Carthy sings Cruel MotherJune 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 laid down all below a thorn
𝄆 And two bonnie babies she has born, 𝄇
- Down by the greenwood side-e-o

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.

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

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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?”

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

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

Steeleye Span's The Cruel Mother Bryony Griffith sings The Lady of York

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

“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.”

“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.

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

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

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.”


Transcribed from Martin Carthy's singing by Garry Gillard. Thanks to Patrick Montague for correcting the Steeleye Span lyrics.