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The Maid Freed From the Gallows / The Prickly Bush / The Prickle-Holly Bush / Prickle-Eye Bush / The Golden Ball

[ Roud 144 ; Master title: The Maid Freed From the Gallows ; Child 95 ; G/D 2:248 ; Ballad Index C095 ; Highwayman at Old Songs ; VWML HAM/5/36/30 , GG/1/9/502 , CJS2/10/2559 ; GlosTrad Roud 144 ; Wiltshire 942 , 1071 ; Mudcat 62077 ; trad.]

Jean Ritchie sang The Hangman Song in 1954 on her Elektra album Kentucky Mountain Songs. She noted:

This is one of the oldest song stories, and one that has almost as many versions as Barbara Allen. In the earlier variants, the legend is of The Maid Freed From the Gallows (Child 95), existing not only in England but throughout Northern and Southern Europe and in some parts of Asia. Somewhere along the line, the victim changed from a maid to a man but the story remains the same. Our family sings it in a down-to-earth, mountain way which slights the tune and wastes no words in getting the tale told.

The Prickly Bush is a variant of The Briery Bush, or The Maid Freed From the Gallows (#95 in F.J. Child's English and Scottish Popular Ballads) with the protagonist being male. A.L. Lloyd sang The Prickly Bush in 1956 on his and Ewan MacColl's Riverside anthology The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (The Child Ballads) Volume II which was reissued in 2011 on his Fellside CD Bramble Briars and Beams of the Sun A.L. Lloyd also recorded it, accompanied by Alf Edwards playing concertina, in 1964 for his and Ewan MacColl's album English and Scottish Folk Ballads. He noted:

In the opinion of many scholars this is among the oldest, most typical and most interesting of ballads. It has turned up in countless versions in the Scandinavian and Baltic countries, in Central Europe, Hungary, Rumania and Russia, and the ballad specialist Francis J. Child considered that the best version of all is Sicilian. It has enjoyed very wide currency in the British Isles and also in the USA, where it has been described as “easily the favourite of all the traditional ballads among the Negroes.” In many versions, the story tells of a young woman captured by pirates or brigands; father, mother, brother, sister refuse to pay ransom, but the lover sets her free. In earlier forms of the ballad, the girl is condemned to die for the loss of a golden ball (or golden key, either signifying the girl's honour which, when lost, can only restored by her lover). There is a folk tale, once well-known in England, in which a stranger gives a girl a golden ball. If she loses it, she is to be hanged. While playing with the ball she does lose it. At the gallows, her kindred refuse to help, but the lover recovers the ball after terrible adventures in the house of ill-omen where it had rolled. It seems that verses from The Prickly Bush (also called The Maid Freed From the Gallows) were sung in the course of telling the story. The losing of the golden ball and the subsequent scene at the gallows used to form a children's game in Lancashire in the 19th century, again accompanied by the song. In Missouri, the song is used as part of a story of a Negro girl with a magic golden ball that will make her white. From a similar cante-fable, the admired Negro singer Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly) evolved a version that became well-known after it appeared on a commercial disc. Many layers of folklore, extending to very primitive times, may be revealed by deep study of this ancient ballad, in which, at some stage and in certain versions, the condemned person has changed sex and become a man who is freed by his girlfriend.

The form of the ballad is likewise interesting. It is frequently suggested that the ballad originated as choral dances. That is, a group formed a ring and danced round. A member of the group sang a single line or set of lines, and the rest came in with a refrain. It has been further suggested that ballads were actually created in the course of this operation, with various members of the group improvising sequences (alternated with refrain) until the ballad story was carried to a conclusion. Now, not many ballads, as we know them, show signs of this kind of communal creation. But The Prickly Bush, with its extremely simple construction, may well have come into being in such a way. Few ballads show such clear signs of a primitive dramatic structure as this one, though the major tune, collected by Lucy Broadwood in Buckinghamshire, is probably fairly modern.

A 1948 radio transcription by Lead Belly, The Gallows Pole, was possibly the version mentioned above by Lloyd. It was included in 1975 on the anthology Electric Muse: The Story of Folk into Rock.

In 1951, Peter Kennedy recorded for the BBC Walter Lucas and villagers of Sixpenny Handley, Dorset singing The Prickly Holly Bush. This was released on Alan Lomax' The Columbia World Library of Folk and Primitive Music: England.

Julia Scaddon of Chideock, Dorset, sang The Prickelly Bush (The Maid Freed From the Gallows) on the anthology The Child Ballads 1 (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 4; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1968).

Sisue Phaidie Oig from Donegal sang The Weary Gallows (The Maid Freed From the Gallows) in a recording made in 1968/9 by Hugh Shields. This was published in 1975 on the Leader album Folk Ballads from Donegal and Derry collected by Hugh Shields.

The Druids sang The Prickly Bush in 1971 on their Argo album Burnt Offering. They noted:

This song belongs to the range of “Chorus From the Gallows” songs. It was quite usual for a condemned man to buy his life, but it was often a problem for his family to raise the “Fee”. This gentleman was very lucky to have a patient executioner! Versions vary as to the number people who are possible benefactors, but it is always the faithful lover that rescues the apprehensive man from the gallows.

In 1981, The Watersons sang The Prickle-Holly Bush with Martin Carthy leading on their album Green Fields. This track was reissued in 2004 on the Watersons' 4CD anthology Mighty River of Song. A live recording from the Triplex Theatre, Borough of Manhattan Community College, New York City of 4 December 1987 was finally made available in 2001 on The Carthy Chronicles. This version has a quite unusual Watersons line-up: Lal, Norma, Mike and Martin (who is singing lead as on the original LP version) are joined by Mike's daughter Rachel. A.L. Lloyd commented in the first recording's sleeve notes:

A book could be written about this song. There's a hint of the story in Euripides' Alkestis produced in 438 BC. But of course it wasn't till many centuries later that the tale became versified and turned into a ballad. It was spread all over Europe in several forms. In Hungary, a yellow snake fastens itself to a girl's breast, and neither father, mother, sister nor brother will take it away, till up steps the bold sweetheart and does the trick. Further east, a girl is captured by pirates, and, again, her family, one by one, refuse to pay the ransom, but eventually the sweetheart pays it. So on through the ages till our own day. American blacks took to the song (Lead Belly had a good version), and after the Watts ghetto riots of 1965, a set appeared in which a young black looter appears in court to face a heavy fine or the “gallows twine.” The rescuer in this case is neither father, mother nor sweetheart but a social worker who arrives with the money just in time. As to the “prickle-holly bush” refrain, not all British versions carry it. The symbology-nutters find deep meaning in it again, something to do with somebody's loss of virginity (what, again!) but if it means anything, it is probably merely as synonym for an awkward fix. The version here, with its fine tune, was recorded by Mike Yates from Bill Whiting, of Longcot, Berks.

A version of The Prickle-Holly Bush, with words similar to The Watersons' but a completely different tune, was collected by Bob Copper in about 1954 from Fred Hewett, of Mapledurwell [pronounced 'Mapley-well'], Hants: see Chapter 16, pp. 135-140, of Songs and Southern Breezes for the details; and the appendix for the words. This recording was also included in 1998 on the Topic anthology O'er His Grave the Grass Grew Green (The Voice of the People Series Volume 3).

Nic Jones sag Prickly Bush on his 2001 anthology CD Unearthed, a collection of concert, club and studio performances recorded prior to his accident 1982.

Chris Timson and Anne Gregson sang Hangman on their 1996 WildGoose album Peaceful Harbour. They noted:

An American version of the British song Prickly Bush. We have often wondered just what the hero could have done to upset his family so much.

Steeleye Span recorded The Prickly Bush in 1996 for their album Time. The words are the usual traditional ones and the verse melody was written by Bob Johnson. The album notes comment:

This story is allegorical, the gold signifying the maiden's honour; which when lost can only be restored by one person—her lover. Gold seems from early times to have been the symbol of integrity, appearing in Danish ballads as the virgin's insignia. So too in the Scottish Ballad of Tam Lin—“I forbid you maidens all / that wear gold in your hair.”

The “prickly bush” is familiar in English and Scottish ballads as the symbol of unhappy love. The real question is—do we remember the lessons learned whilst in the prickly bush?

Jon Boden learnt Prickle-Eye Bush “around the campfire from the good people of Forest School Camps—upholders of one of the few genuine oral singing traditions left in England.” In 2003, he and John Spiers recorded it for their album Bellow and a year later with their group Bellowhead for E.P.onymous. They also performed it in 2007 Live at Shepherds Bush Empire. This video shows them at Shrewsbury Folk Festival 2008:

Jon Boden also sang Prickle-Eye Bush as the 1 October 2010 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. And Spiers & Boden re-recorded it in 2010/11 for their CD The Works.

Mary Humphreys and Anahata sang The Maid Freed From the Gallows in 2004 on their WildGoose album Floating Verses. Mary Humphreys noted:

The tune was collected by Cecil Sharp from Mr W. Major of Flamborough, East Yorkshire on 22 December 1910 [VWML CJS2/10/2559] . The text is collated from other texts collected by CJS. I love this song about a dysfunctional family, where all the relatives are coming one at a time for a grand day out to enjoy the sight of their daughter/sibling being hanged. Anahata takes great delight in playing snatches of Morris tunes between the verses that are totally in-keeping with the jolly atmosphere that is built up. Dave and Gina [Holland] help create a carnival mood with the fiddle and recorder.

In earlier centuries hanging was a public spectacle that was regarded as an entertainment, and that is exactly the picture I have in my mind's eye when singing this song.

Jim Causley sang The Pricklie Bush in 2005 both on his WildGoose album Fruits of the Earth and on the English part of the project Song Links 2: A Celebration of English Traditional Songs and Their American Variants. Tim Eriksen sang the corresponding American variant The Maid Freed From the Gallows on this album. Jim Causley noted on his album:

I learnt this classic song as a kid from one of Mum's Judy Collins LPs. I wasn't planning on recording it for this CD but one day I happened to sing it to James [Dumbelton] and he remarked what a lovely minor tune it had! To which I said “What?! It's the most major tune in the world!!” He proved me wrong with his fantastic accompaniment and Im very glad he did. This one's for my own dear family who are a lot more compassionate than the family in the song!

Rubus sang a variant song called Golden Ball in 2008 on their CD Nine Witch Knots. Emily Portman commented in their liner notes:

The Golden Ball, found in George Kinloch's The Ballad Book is a variation of The Maid Freed From the Gallows, also known as Prickle Holly Bush. In this variation, as in the cantefable of the same title found in Joseph Jacobs' More English Fairy Tales, the protagonist asks her family for her golden ball, often a symbol of lost youth. A linden tree replaces the usual gallows tree and, most striking of all, it is transformed from a tale of true love to a celebration of super-grannies; for it is non other than the grandmother who hobbles over the hills, clutching the golden ball, just in time to save her granddaughter's neck. Kinloch gave no melody or source for his text, but I imagine a formidable old woman in a rocking chair impressing her grandchildren with the hangman's marks still on her neck.

A Different Thread sang The Prickly Bush on their 2018 album On a Whim.

Ninebarrow sang Prickle-Eye Bush on their 2018 CD The Waters and the Wild. They noted:

This song is right up there with the inspirational songs which first got us into folk singing. Jon [Whitley]'s dad had a copy of the 2005 and 2006 Folk Awards box sets—both of which made their way with Jon to Cardiff University when he studied there. Doing a degree in English Literature left him with, shall we say, an ample amount of time to explore his musical influences—and many of the songs on these two albums have been on repeat in our playlists ever since! Sometimes known as The Maid Freed From the Gallows, there are countless versions and it's a well-known ballad in Scandinavia, Hungary, Romania and Russia as well as in the United States and British Isles. With so many versions out there, we've tried to do something a little bit different—although the opening half is a bit of a homage to our favourite version by Spiers & Boden.

This video shows Ninebarrow live at Costa Del Folk 2017:

Compare to this song the song Derry Gaol / The Streets of Derry (Roud 896; Laws L11) that has a similar plot.


A.L. Lloyd sings The Prickly Bush

“O hangman, hold your hand,” he cried,
“Oh, hold it for a while,
I think I see my own dear father
Coming over the yonder style.”

“O father, have you brought me gold
And will you set me free?
Or have you come to see me hung
All on this high gallows tree?”

“Oh no, I have not brought thee gold,
And I'll not set thee free,
For I am come for to see you hung,
All on that high gallows tree.”

Oh, the prickly bush, the prickly bush,
It pricked my heart full sore
And if ever I get out of that prickly bush
I'll never get in any more.

[Repeat for his mother and brother; then his sweetheart, who responds:]

“O yes, I've brought you gold,” she cried,
“And I will set you free,
For I would never see you hung
All on that old gallows tree.”

Oh, the prickly bush, the prickly bush,
It pricked my heart full sore
And now that I'm out of that prickly bush
I'll never get in any more.

The Watersons sing The Prickle-Holly Bush

“Oh, slack your horse,” cries George,
“Come slack it for a while,
For I think I see my father
Coming over yonder style.”

“Did you bring gold?
Did you bring silver to set me free?
For to keep my body from the cold gaol wall
And me neck from the high gallows tree.”

“I've no gold,
I've no silver to set you free,
But I have come for to see you hang,
Oh, hang upon the high gallows tree.”

Oh, the prickle-holly bush, it pricks, it pricks,
Oh, it pricks my heart full sore
And if ever I get out of the prickle-holly bush
I'll never get in there any more.

[Repeat for his mother and sister; then his sweetheart, who responds:]

“I've brought gold,
I've brought silver to set you free,
For I've not come for to see you hang,
Oh, hang upon the high gallows tree.”

Oh, the prickle-holly bush, it pricks, it pricks,
Oh, it pricks my heart full sore
And now that I'm out of the prickle-holly bush
I'll never get in there any more.

Steeleye Span sing The Prickly Bush

Oh, the prickly bush, the prickly bush,
It pricked my heart full sore
If ever I get out of that prickly bush
I'll never get in any more.

“Hangman, oh hangman,
Hold your rope awhile,
I think I see my father
Over yonder style.”

“Father, did you bring me me gold?
Or have you brought any fee?
For to save my body from the cold clay ground
And my neck from the gallows tree.”

“No, I didn't bring you gold
Nor have I brought any fee,
But I have come to see you hung
Upon the gallows tree.”

[Repeat for his brother and sister; then his lover who responds:]

“Yes, I brought you gold,
Yes, I brought you fee,
But I've not come for to see you hung
Upon the gallows tree.”


Spiers & Boden sing Prickle-Eye Bush

Oh, the prickle-eye bush
That pricks my heart full sore
And if ever I get out of this prickle-eye bush
Then i will never get in it any more.

“Oh hangman, stay your hand,
Stay it for a while,
For I think I see my sister
Coming over yonder stile.”

“Oh sister, have you brought me gold?
Or silver to set me free?
For to save my body from the cold, cold ground
And my neck from the gallows tree.”

“Oh no, I have not brought you gold
Or silver to set you free
For to save your body from the cold, cold ground
And your neck from the gallows tree.”


[Repeat for his mother; then his own true love who responds:]

“Oh yes, I have brought you gold
And silver to set you free,
For to save your body from the cold, cold ground
And your neck from the gallows tree.”

Oh the prickle-eye bush
That pricks my heart full sore
𝄆 Oh and now that I'm out of this prickle-eye bush
Then I never will get in it any more. 𝄇

Links and Acknowledgements

See also the Wikipedia page The Maid Freed From the Gallows.

Thanks to Greer Gilman for the Watersons' transcription.