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The Grey Cock / The Lover's Ghost

[ Roud 179 ; Child 248 ; Ballad Index C248 ; trad.]

This is a supernatural version of the night-visiting ballad The Grey Cock (Child 248). Cecilia Costello sang it on November 30, 1951 in Birmingham in a recording made by Maria Slocombe and Patrick Shuldham-Shaw for the BBC. It was included as The Grey Cock in Ralph Vaughan Williams and A.L. Lloyd's The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. Her recording was included as The Grey Cock on the anthology The Child Ballads 2 (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 5; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1968) and in 1975 as The Lover's Ghost on her eponymous album on the Leader label, Cecilia Costello. Roy Palmer commented in the album's booklet:

This ballad (Child 248) is variously called The Lover's Ghost, Willie's Ghost and The Grey Cock. Mrs. Costello seems to prefer the last, which she sometimes abbreviates to The Cock.

The ballad was circulating in England as early as the seventeenth century, but no version as fine as Mrs. Costello's has been collected. She believes that the ghostly lover was a soldier, and that the visit to his lady took place while his corporeal body lay mortally wounded on the battlefield. The cock's summon to the ghost to return indicated that the death of the soldier was to take place.

But Malcolm Douglas noted in the Mudcat Café thread Child's 'Grey Cock':

You have to understand that some theorists had very much wanted The Grey Cock to be a supernatural ballad “rationalised” by transmission, and this example was seized on as a sort of “missing link” that proved the theory. Eagerness may have blinded many to the fact that, as Shields later showed, the supernatural sections of Mrs. Costello's song are borrowed from an unrelated 19th century Irish broadside, Willy O (itself a re-working of Sweet William's Ghost).

A.L. Lloyd sang The Lover's Ghost on his and Ewan MacColl's Riverside anthology, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (The Child Ballads) Volume IV. As all of his songs from this series it was reissued in 2011 on his Fellside CD Bramble Briars and Beams of the Sun. He also recorded this song as The Grey Cock in 1960 for his Collector album A Selection from the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. Again, his words were very similar to Cecilia Costello's but this time he left out the second-to-last verse. All tracks on this LP it were reissued in 2003 on his Fellside CD England & Her Traditional Songs. Lloyd wrote in the album's sleeve notes:

In folk song, when a cock crows, it's usually a sign that lovers are to be untimely parted or that ghosts are about. In this ballad it means both, for the lover is himself a revenant spirit. The cock in the song is a descendant of the legendary fowls of Oriental folklore, with feathers of gold, diamond beaks and ruby legs. Indeed, the whole ballad may be based on a tale that spread from the East, through Byzantium, as far as Ireland. This rare and well-kept song was recorded in Birmingham, of all places, in 1951. The singer was Mrs. Cecilia Costello; the collectors, Miss Marie Slocombe and Patrick Shuldham-Shaw.

Ewan MacColl Lowe sang The Grey Cock in 1966 on his Topic album The Manchester Angel. This track was also included in 1993 on his Topic CD The Real MacColl. The original album's liner notes commented, contrary to Malcolm Douglas above:

The theme of two lovers being interrupted at their devotions by the premature crowing of a cock is found in a number of English and Scots love songs. Much less common is the supernatural ballad from which they probably derive. Only a single text of The Grey Cock appears in the Child collection and that is an unsatisfactory one. lt wasn’t until 1951 that a version in which all the supernatural elements were still intact was collected in England and then it was from a Birmingham woman of Irish descent, Mrs. Cecilia Costello.

Chris Foster sang The Grey Cock in 1979 on his Topic album All Things in Common.

Jez Lowe sang The Grey Cock, with Linda Adams singing harmony vocals, on the 1986 Fellside anthology A Selection from The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. This track was also included in 1992 on his compilation CD Backshift. The original record's sleeve notes commented:

From Mrs Cecilia Costello, Birmingham, recorded in 1951 by Marie Slocombe and Patrick Shuldham-Shaw. A number of lyrical folk songs present the situation of two lovers disturbed by the early crowing of a cock. Perhaps the origins of these songs is found in the supernatural ballad of the lover returned from the dead. Its themes echo ancient folklore notions that have spread from the Orient, through the Balkans, as far west as Ireland. (Mrs Costello was of Irish descent.) The song appears as no. 248 in Child's collection.

And Eliza Carthy sang The Grey Cock in 1994 on Waterson:Carthy's eponymous debut album, Waterson:Carthy. Martin Carthy commented in the sleeve notes:

Having decided to sing The Grey Cock again after quite a long time, I accidentally practised it in Eliza's hearing. She promptly announced that the song was, in fact, hers and, after another hearing-and-a-bit, she knew the whole thing. So that was that. Ho hum. The song comes from a recording made in the 1960s of Mrs Cecilia Costello, an Irish woman domiciling in Birmingham, who was featured on her own fine album produced by Bill Leader in the early 1970s. That the song turned up when and where it did was exciting given that it's a pretty rare piece. Maybe it's an indication that it's a trifle early to be counting this music out.

Eliza Carthy recorded this song again in 2005 with Salsa Celtica as Grey Gallito for their 2006 CD El Camino (The Road). The verses are nearly identical to the lyrics shown below with an additional chorus after verses five, seven and eight:

No le cantes, ahora gallito (Don't sing to him, not yet, cockerel)
No le cantes, ahora, no (Don't sing to him yet)

Martyn Wyndham-Read sang The Lover's Ghost in 1997 on the Fellside anthology Ballads. Paul Adams commented in the liner notes:

Martyn learned this song from A.L. Lloyd. The most famous version (and Lloyd's source) was the one collected from Cecilia Costello in Birmingham in 1951. Mrs Costello was of Irish descent. The theme of the lover returning from the dead and having to return at dawn—when the cock crows—is a very ancient folklore theme which as Lloyd states in the The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs “has spread from the Orient, through the Balkans as far west as Ireland.”

Martin Simpson sang The Lover's Ghost in 2001 on his Topic CD The Bramble Briar. He commented in his sleeve notes:

The Lover's Ghost was sung by Mrs Cecilia Costello who was recorded in Birmingham in 1951. It was also published in the Penguin Book. Again, I absorbed it through my ears sometime in the 1960s, whether at a concert, folk club, festival or record, I don't recall. I am delighted to have Martin Carthy accompany me on this, with his inimitable musicality.

Hazel Askew sang The Lover's Ghost unaccompanied in 2007 on the Askew Sisters' WildGoose CD All in a Garden Green. She commented in their liner notes:

Also known as The Grey Cock, this haunting ballad was collected from the singing of Cecilia Costello in 1951. It's one of my favourite songs and is full of interesting ideas from ancient folklore. References to travelling “without a stumble” and to “kneeling on a stone” follows the idea that someone returning from the dead must not fall on or touch the ground. The cockerel referred to is a mythical creature that guards the gates to the afterworld, and Mary tries to bribe it by making an offering out of “beaten gold” and “silver grey”. The idea that the dead can only travel between the two worlds in the gap between night and day, can be found in ancient folklore across the world.

Mick Ryan and Paul Downes sang The Lover's Ghost in 2013 on their WildGoose CD When Every Song Was New.

See also this song's variants:

Lyrics

Cecilia Costello sings The Lover's Ghost Waterson:Carthy sing The Grey Cock

“I must be going, no longer staying,
The burning Thames I have to cross.
Oh, I must be guided without a stumble
Into the arms of my dear lass.”

“I must be going, no longer staying,
The burning Thames I have to cross.
I will be guided without a stumble
Into the arms I love the best.”

When he came to his true love's window
He knelt down gently on a stone,
And it's through a pane he whispered slowly:
“My dear girl, are you alone?”

And when he came to his true love's window
He knelt down gently all on a stone,
And it's through the pane he has whispered slowly,
“My darling dear, do you lie alone?”

She rose her head from her down-soft pillow,
And snowy were her milk-white breasts,
Saying: “Who's there, who's there at my bedroom window,
Disturbing me from my long night's rest?”

She's raised her head from her down-soft pillow,
And snowy were her milk-white breasts,
Saying: “Who's there, who's there at my bedroom window,
Disturbing me from my long night's rest?”

“Oh, I'm your lover, don't discover *,
I pray you rise, love, and let me in,
For I am fatigued out of my long night's journey,
Besides, I'm wet into the skin.”

“Tis I, your love, but don't discover,
I pray you rise and let me in,
For I am fatigued from my long night's journey,
Besides, I am wet unto my skin.”

Now this young girl rose and put on her clothing.
Till she quickly let her own true love in.
Oh they kissed, shook hands and embraced together,
Till that long night was near an end.

So this young girl rose and put on her clothing,
So swift she's let her true love in.
And it's there they kissed and embraced each other
Through that long night they lay as one.

“Willie dear, O dearest Willie,
Where is that colour you'd some time ago?”
“O Mary dear, the cold clay has changed me,
I am but the ghost of your Willie O.”

Then it's: “Willy dear, O dearest Willy,
Where's your colour you'd some time ago?”
“O Mary dear, the clay has changed me
And I'm but the ghost of your Willy O.”

“Then O cock, O cock, O handsome cockerel,
I pray you not crow until it's day.
For your wings I'll make of the very first beaten gold,
And your comb I'll make of the silver ray.”

“Then it's cock, O cock, O handsome cockerel,
I pray you not crow before it is day,
And your wings I'll make of the very first beaten gold,
Your comb I will make of the silver grey.”

But the cock it crew and it crew so fully.
It crew three hours before it was day.
And before it was day my love had to go away,
Not by the light of the moon nor the light of day.

But the cock he crew and he crew so fully,
He crew three hours before it was day,
And before twas day my love had to leave me,
Not by light of the moon nor light of the sun.

When she saw her love disappearing
The tears down her pale cheeks in streams did flow.
He said, “Weep no more for me, dear Mary,
I am no more your Willie O.”

Then it's “Willie dear, O dearest Willie,
Whenever shall I see you again?”
“When the fish they fly, love, and the sea runs dry, love,
And the rocks they melt in the heat of the sun.”

“So Willy dear, O dearest Willy,
When shall I see you again?”
“When the fishes fly, love, and the sea runs dry, love,
And the rocks they melt in the heat of the sun”

* Perhaps the phrase should be: “but I can't uncover” (can't reveal myself). [note in the Penguin Book]

Links

See also the Mudcat Café thread Child's 'Grey Cock'.