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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 ; Child 95 ; G/D 2:248 ; Ballad Index C095 ; trad.]

This 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 commented in the album notes:

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 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.

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).

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?

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

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 October 1, 2010 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. And Spiers & Boden re-recorded it in 2010/11 for their CD The Works.

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.

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 chantefable 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.

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

Lyrics

A.L. Lloyd sings The Prickly Bush The Watersons sing The Prickle-Holly 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.”

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

“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.”

“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.”

“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 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.

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 brother; then his sweetheart, who responds:]

[Repeat for his mother and sister; 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.”

“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 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.

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 Spiers & Boden sing Prickle-Eye Bush

Chorus:
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.

Chorus:
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.

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

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

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

Chorus

Chorus

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

[Repeat for his mother; then his own true love 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.”

“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.”

Chorus

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 and the Mudcat Café discussion Recordings: 'Hangman' (Child 95).

Thanks to Greer Gilman for the Watersons' transcription.