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The Unquiet Grave / Cold Blows the Wind

[ Roud 51 ; Child 78 ; Ballad Index C078 ; VWML CJS2/9/227 , CJS2/9/205 , GG/1/10/620 ; Bodleian Roud 51 ; Wiltshire Roud 51 ; trad.]

A.L. Lloyd sang The Unquiet Grave in 1956 on his and Ewan MacColl's Riverside album of Child ballads, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads Volume I. Editor Kenneth G. Goldstein wrote in the album's booklet:

Aside from its exquisite poetry and music, this ballad is notable for its exhibition of the universal popular belief that excessive grief on the part of mourners disturbs the peace of the dead.

It is possible that this is only a fragment of a once popular longer ballad. In the form we have it today, no text has been reported earlier than the 19th century. The ballad is little known in Scotland and is quite rare in America. It is still current in England, however.

The text and tune sung by A.L. Lloyd were collected by Cecil Sharp from William Spearing of Ile Bruers, Somerset, excepting the last two stanzas, which were from Mrs. William Ree of Hambridge, Somerset.

See Child (78), Volume II, p. 78ff; Coffin, p.82; Dean-Smith, p.113.

Shirley Collins recorded this ballad in 1959 for her second LP, False True Lovers, a second time for her Collector EP English Songs Vol. 1, and a third time in 1967 for her album The Power of the True Love Knot. She commented in the first album's notes:

From Cecil Sharp's English Folk Songs. This is one of the classic pieces of English folk song literature. From one point of view it is a feminine fantasy or a wish, perhaps for the death of a lover, perhaps for a way of arranging a night visit by the lover, perhaps for a way of showing how strong her love is, perhaps of a feeling of guilt. Certainly, it is a ghost story designed to delight the imagination of young women. Finally, it shows the survival of ancient and widely distributed primitive beliefs about the treatment of the dead.

The rowdy Irish wake is the only one example of the common folk custom of a gathering in which ceremonial banqueting and games were indulged in to show honour to the dead person. The shade was given a great send-off to the other world. Sometimes guns were fired to send him skittering away in fear. Sometimes a special door was cut in the side of the wall so that the coffin could be taken out by that route; and then this hole was walled up so that the ghost could not find his way back into the house again.

In Scotland and Ireland it was believed that excessive grief prevented the dead from resting; that the tears shed by the mourners pierced holes in the corpse. In Persia they held that the tears shed by humanity for their dead flowed into a river in which the souls floated and drowned. Similar beliefs were held by the Greeks and Romans, and from mediaeval times throughout Germany and Scandinavia.

Sharp says that in England a belief was current that if a girl was betrothed to a man, she was pledged to him if he died, and was bound to follow him to the spirit world unless she solved certain riddles, or performed certain tasks, such as fetching water from a desert, blood from a stone, milk from the breast of a virgin…

and in the The Power of the True Love Knot album notes:

This song is a tender and magical expression of an ancient community belief: a very proper belief that when the mourning of a lover's death started to drain life from the living, love was being misused. Tears flowed into the Styx, and the river swelled and became impassable, so the dead come back and warn the quick. On this track and elsewhere I play an instrument made for me by John Bailey, which is a dulcimer with a five-string banjo neck.

Derek Sarjeant sang The Unquiet Grave on his 1962 EP Folk Songs Sung By Derek Sarjeant and as Cold Blows the Wind on his 1970 album Derek Sarjeant Sings English Folk.

The Ian Campbell Folk Group with Dave Swarbrick sang The Unquiet Grave in 1963 on their album This Is the Ian Campbell Folk Group. This track was included in 2005 on their anthology The Times They Are A-Changin'.

Alex Campbell sang The Unquiet Grave in 1966 on his album Yours Aye, Alex; this track was included in 1966 on his compilation CD Been on the Road So Long.

Sandy and Caroline Paton sang The Unquiet Grave in 1966 on their Folk-Legacy album Folksongs and Ballads.

Hedy West sang another American version of The Unquiet Grave in 1967 on her Topic album Ballads. Her (or A.L. Lloyd's) sleeve notes commented:

There's widespread and ancient belief that excessive grieving over the dead disturbs their rest. The Greeks and Romans thought so, and the idea is as common in the Far East as in Western Europe. In Ireland as in Roumania it was thought that inordinate tears would burn a hole in the corpse, and in several ballads the dead complain that they cannot sleep because the tears of the living have wet their winding sheet. This ballad, of a restless ghost who confronts and reproaches the mourner, is probably a fragment broken off some longer, more complicated narrative. Though it's been relatively common in England till recent times, it seems very rare in America, and has turned up only in a scattered handful of versions from Newfoundland, Virginia and North Carolina (which is where the present version comes from, collected by the indefatigable Frank C. Brown).

Jon Raven sang The Unquiet Grave in 1968 on the Broadside album The Halliard : Jon Raven.

Dave & Toni Arthur sang this ballad as Cold Blows the Winter's Wind in 1969 on their Topic album The Lark in the Morning. The sleeve notes commented:

The ballad, usually called The Unquiet Grave, concerns a person who feels bound to sit and mourn by his (sometimes, her) lover's grave for a period of time. In nearly all versions, the corpse complains of being disturbed, illustrating the ancient belief that excessive grief interferes with the peace of the dead. In archaic folklore, a constant concern, when faced with a death, is to try to ensure that the corpse makes a pleasant and reassured transit from the land of the living to the world of the dead. Otherwise the dead may return, uneasy and vengeful, to plague the living. Hence for instance the jollification at Irish wakes, intended to cheer and embolden the dead. Singers have ended our ballad in various ways, sometimes heartbroken and disconsolate, sometimes more or less lightheartedly as: “But since I have lost my own true love, I must get another in time.” Our tune is from Fred Hamer's collection Garners Gay. The words are from Alfred Williams's Folk-Songs of the Upper Thames.

Frankie Armstrong sang The Unquiet Grave in 1971 on her Topic album Lovely on the Water. A.L. Lloyd commented in the sleeve notes:

A woman laments long over the grave of her sweetheart, till he speaks from the grave and reproaches her for disturbing his rest. Usually in the ballads the setting and the characters are named, but here we know neither the who nor the where, and the supernatural climate is further charged with mystery on that account. The tale is old, like the belief that too much grief disturbs the dead, though to this day, in Eastern Europe, some peasants believe that mourner's tears make an unhealing burn if they chance to light on a corpse. In some versions the dead person threatens to tear the living one to pieces (the favourite revenge of ghosts!) unless absolute fidelity can be sworn to. But Frankie's version is milder, more consolatory, as fits her gentle character. By and large, the tune she uses is one recorded by Vaughan Williams at Dilwyn, Herefordshire.

George Dunn sang Cold Blows the Wind to Bill Leader in December 1971. This recording was released in 1973 on his eponymous Leader album George Dunn. Another recording made by Roy Palmer on July 14, 1971 was included in 2002 on Dunn's Musical Tradition anthology Chainmaker. Roy Palmer and Rod Stradling commented in the accompanying booklet:

“If yo were troubled about the dead after they'd gone, yo'd give the dead no rest” : so George Dunn explained the song, which came from his father. The reference in verses 4 and 5 to fetching a ‘note from a dungeon so deep’—rather than the more conventional ‘nut’ of other versions—is curious, since the broadside version issued by William Pratt of Birmingham between 1845 and 1861 has the same peculiarity. It also has ‘rest’ (verse 3), where the rhyme requires ‘repose’. […] These are trifles.

George's singing is at its most majestic in this ballad known to Child as The Unquiet Grave. Surprisingly, no version antedates the nineteenth century, but it is just possible that a moralising carol of the late fifteenth century, beginning “There blows a cold wynd todaye, todaye”, could have been based on Cold Blows the Wind—so says B H Bronson in The Singing Tradition of Child's Popular Ballads (Princeton, New Jersey, 1976), p.203..

Equally surprisingly, despite its popularity and Roud's 115 instances—mostly English—there appears to have only ever been one sound recording made of a traditional singer—George Dunn. What is more, George seems to be the only British source since Sharp's 1921 collections from Kathleen Williams and Thomas Taylor (in Gloucestershire and Herefordshire respectively).

Union Folk sang The Unquiet Grave on their 1971 Traditional Sound album Waiting for a Train.

John Kirkpatrick and Sue Harris sang this ballad as Cold Blows the Wind in 1976 on their Topic LP Among the Many Attractions at the Show Will Be a Really High Class Band and John Kirkpatrick did it again in 2007 on his Fledg'ling CD Make No Bones. He commented in the latter album's sleeve notes:

When I moved to Shropshire in 1973 and started looking at the local folk music, the singing of May Bradley was a glorious revelation. I never saw her in the flesh, but Fred Hamer's recordings of her in Ludlow during the 1960s proved to be a real treasure chest of wonderful songs wonderfully sung. She was the daughter of Ester Smith, a gypsy singer that Vaughan Williams had collected from in Herefordshire at the beginning of the century, and had some of her mother's songs as well as plenty of others. This is her tune for what is sometimes known as The Unquiet Grave—Child Ballad no. 78. I've sung this before in a past life, but in revisiting the song I have added a few lines from other versions to fill out the sense of the words.

Two books of the songs Fred Hamer collected were published by EFDS Publications Ltd., and you can see this in the first one from 1967, Garners Gay. Or a much better option is to hear [May Bradley] singing it herself on the EFDSS LP Garners Gay issued in 1971, EFDSS LP 1006.

May Bradley's version can also be found on her Musical Traditions anthology Sweet Swansea (2010).

Brian Peters sang The Unquiet Grave on his 1989 Harbourtown album Fools of Fortune. He commented in his sleeve notes:

The Unquiet Grave is based on the belief that excessive mourning prevents the dead from resting; the song appears in Richards and Stubbs' The English Folksinger, though I first heard it from Gill McKay.

Jo Freya sang The Unquiet Grave in 1992 on her CD Traditional Songs of England.

Sandra Kerr sang The Unquiet Grave in 1970 on the Argo Voices anthology series, Second Book, Record One (Argo DA96). Her daughter Nancy sang it in 1993 on the CD Eliza Carthy & Nancy Kerr. She referred in her sleeve notes to Evelin Wells' The Ballad Tree, and to her mother singing this version on Voices.

Louis Killen learnt The Unquiet Grave from Brian Ballinger and sang in on his 1993 CD A Bonny Bunch.

Steeleye Span sang One True Love in 1998 on their CD Horkstow Grange, and they recorded The Unquiet Grave in 2009 for their CD Cogs Wheels and Lovers. Tim Harries commented in the former album's notes:

The sources for [One True Love] are The Unquiet Grave, (spooky old English song), Lovely Joan, and a small fragment of Lowlands of Holland. The inspiration came largely from Borrowed Time by Paul Monette, a book you may be familiar with.

Kate Rusby couldn't let the dead sleep on her 1999 CD Sleepless. She returned to this ballad in 2012 on her anniversary album Twenty.

Tom and Barbara Brown sang The Unquiet Grave in 2000 on their WildGoose CD of “songs with a West Country flavour”, Where Umber Flows. Tom Brown commented in the liner notes:

One of the classic ballads—Child N8 78 for those to whom it's important. This is a collated version of two tunes that crept up on Barbara when I was ‘messing about’ on the guitar. A warning about the power of love—and absolutely overflowing with folk-lore: plants, riddles, ghost ,revenant, excessive grieve, but above all it's the images the song creates that are so extraordinary.

Isambarde sang The Unquiet Grave in 2004 on their CD Brunel's Kingdom.

Lau sang Unquiet Grave on their 2007 CD Lightweights & Gentlemen.

Paul and Liz Davenport sang The Unquiet Grave in 2008 on their Hallamshire Traditions CD Songbooks.

Like John Kirkpatrick, Jon Boden learned Cold Blows the Wind from the singing of May Bradley. He sang it with Bellowhead in 2010 on their CD Hedonism, and he sang it unaccompanied as the December 29, 2010 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. This video is from Bellowhead's farewell tour:

Rob Williams sang The Unquiet Grave on his 2012 CD Outstanding Natural Beauty of songs collected in Spring 1905 from Jane Gulliford of Combe Florey, Quantock Hills, by the brothers Henry and Robert Hammond.

The Askew Sisters sang The Unquiet Grave in 2014 on their RootBeat CD In the Air or the Earth. They noted:

[…] The Unquiet Grave is a similar story of loss, but this time between a girl and her lover. We were struck with the beautiful melody collected by Cecil Sharp from Lucy White of Hambridge, Somerset, in August 1904, and have added some additional text from other sources. It's an old folkloristic belief that prolonged grief can disturb the dead and mourning for more than a year might bring back their ghost. Somehow this song manages to intertwine that idea with both the Christian belief that you are called away by God and the certainty that all things must decay and die.

This video shows the Askew Sisters at Twick Folk Club, Twickenham, Middlesex, on September 21, 2014:

Sam Kelly sang The Unquiet Grave in 2015 on his EP Spokes.

Rachel Newton sang The Unquiet Grave on The Furrow Collective's 2015 EP Blow Out the Moon. She commented in the album's notes:

I took the words for the well known ballad The Unquiet Grave from Child no. 78a; and the melody I use is based on a version I learned from the singing of Shirley Collins.

Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage sang The Unquiet Grave in 2016 on their CD Before the Sun.

Siobhan Miller sang The Unquiet Grave on her 2017 album Strata.

Lyrics

George Dunn sings Cold Blows the Wind A.L. Lloyd sings The Unquiet Grave

Cold blows the wind over my true love,
Cold blow the drops of rain.
I never, never had but one true love,
In the greenwood he was slain.

“Cold blows the wind to my true love,
And gentle drops the rain,
I never had but one true love
And in Greenwood she is lain.

But I'll do as much for my true love
As any young lass can do
I'll sit and I'll weep right o'er his grave
For a twelve month and one day.

“I'll do as much for my true love
As any young man may,
I'll sit and weep all on her grave
For a twelve month and a day.”

When a twelve month and one day had passed
This young man he arose,
And said, “What brings you here by my grave side,
And I can take no rest?”

When the twelve month and one day was o'er,
Her ghost begun for to speak,
“Why sit you here all on my grave
And will not let me sleep?”

“Go fetch me a note from the dungeon so deep
Fetch water from a stone
Or milk white out of a fair maid's breast
When a fair maid never had none.”

“How can I fetch a note from the dungeon so deep
Or water from a stone
Or milk white out of a fair maid's breast
When a fair maid never had none?”

“Give me a kiss from your clay-cold lips
One kiss is all I crave
Give me a kiss from your clay-cold lips
And return back to your grave.”

“There's one thing more I want, sweetheart,
And one thing more I crave,
And that's a kiss from your lily-white lips
And then I'll go from your grave.”

“If you have a kiss from my clay-cold lips
My breath's so earthly strong
If you have a kiss from my clay-cold lips
Your days will not be long.”

“My lips are cold as clay, sweetheart,
My breath smells heavy and strong,
And if you kiss my lily-white lips,
Your time would not be long.”

“Don't you remember the garden gate,
Where you and I used to wait,
The piercing look that then you gave,
But now I am hurled into my grave.”

Shirley Collins sings The Unquiet GraveNancy Kerr sings The Unquiet Grave

“Cold blows the wind tonight, true love,
Cold are the drops of rain,
I only had but one true love
And in Greenwood he lies slain.

“The wind doth blow today, my love,
And a few small drops of rain;
I never had but one true love
And in Greenwood he is lain.

“I'll do as much for my true love
As any young girl may,
I'll sit and mourn all by his grave
For a twelve-month and a day.”

“I'll do as much for my true love
As any young girl may,
I'll sit and mourn all on his grave
For twelve months and a day.”

Now the twelve-month and a day being gone,
The ghost began to greet:
“Your salten tears they trickle down
They wet my winding sheet.”

The twelve months and a day being done,
The dead began to speak:
“Oh, who sits weeping on my grave
And will not let me sleep?”

“It's I, my love, sits by your grave
And will not let you sleep.
For I crave one kiss from your clay-cold lips
And that is all I seek.”

“'Tis I, your love sits on your grave
And will not let you sleep.
For I crave one kiss of your clay-cold lips
And that is all I seek.”

“But lily, lily are my lips,
My breath comes earthy strong.
If you have one kiss from my clay-cold lips,
Your time will not be long.”

“Your breath is as the roses sweet,
Mine as the sulphur strong.
And if you get one kiss from my lips,
Your time will not be long.“

“'Twas down in yonder garden green,
Love, where we used to walk.
And the fairest flower that e'er was seen
Has withered to the stalk.”

“'Tis down in yonder garden green,
Love, where we used to walk.
The finest flower that e'er was seen
Is withered to a stalk.”

“The stalk is withered dry, true love,
So must our hearts decay.
Then rest yourself content, my dear,
Till God calls you away,
Till God calls you away.”

“The stalk is withered and dry, sweetheart,
And the flower will never return.
And since I lost my own true love
What can I do but mourn?”

“Mourn not for me, my own true love,
Mourn not for me I pray.
For I must leave you and all the world
And go into my grave.”

Bellowhead sings Cold Blows the Wind Steeleye Span sing One True Love

“Cold blows the wind over my true love,
Cold blows the drops of rain,
I never had but one true love
And in Greenwood he lies slain.

“I'll do as much for my true love
As any young girl may,
I'll sit and weep down by his grave
For twelve months and a day.”

But when twelve months they were up and gone
This young man he arose:
“What makes you sit by my grave and weep?
I can't take my repose!”

“One kiss, one kiss from you lily-white lips,
One kiss is all I crave.
One kiss, one kiss from you lily-white lips,
Then return back to your grave.”

“These lips they are as cold as clay,
My breath is heavy and strong.
if you were to kiss these lily-white lips
Your life would not be long.

“Oh, don't you remember the garden grove,
Where once we used to walk?
Go pick the finest flower of them all,
It will wither to a stalk.

“Go fetch me a flower from the dungeon deep,
Bring water from a stone.
Bring white milk from a virgin's breast
That baby never bore none.”

“Go dig me a grave both wide and deep,
Dig it as quick as you may.
That I may lay down and take a long sleep
For twelve months and a day.”

Cold blows the wind o'er my true love,
Cold blows the drops of rain,
I never had but one true love
And never will again.

I'll do as much for my true love
As any lover may,
I'll sit and weep down by his grave
A twelve-month in one day.

One kiss, one kiss from your sweet lips,
One kiss is all I grave.
One kiss, one kiss from your sweet lips,
And sink down in your grave.

And your lips, they are not sweet my love
Your kiss is cold as clay,
My time be long, my time be short,
Tomorrow or today.

And down beyond the garden wall,
Where we both used to walk,
Are finest flowers that ever grew
All withered to a stalk.

(repeat first verse)

Rob Williams sings The Unquiet Grave

How cold the wind doth blow, sweetheart, fast falls the drops of rain,
𝄆 I never had but one sweetheart and in green wood he lies slain. 𝄇

I'll do as much for my sweetheart as any poor girl may.
𝄆 I'll sit and mourn all on his grave for a twelvemonth and one day. 𝄇

The twelvemonth and one day was up, this ghost began to speak,
𝄆 “Why sit you here all on my grave and will not let me sleep?” 𝄇

There is one thing more I want, sweetheart, and that pray let me have,
𝄆 It's one more kiss from your lily­white lips and I'll go from your grave. 𝄇

“My lips is cold as clay, sweetheart, my breath is quite a­gone,
𝄆 And if you should kiss my cold clay lips, your time will not be long.” 𝄇

Let my time be long or short, sweetheart, ay! then today or tomorrow,
𝄆 I'll leave this world and all behind, nor leave it not in sorrow. 𝄇

O! Don't you see the fire, sweetheart, where you and I have walked,
𝄆 The finest flowers that ever grew there are withered to the stalk. 𝄇

Are withered to the stalk, my love, and so must you and I,*
𝄆 For the dearest friends on earth must part and so must you and I. 𝄇

Acknowledgements and Links

Transcribed from the singing of Nancy Kerr by Kira White.

See also Jon Wilks' Folk from the Attic blog The Unquiet Grave (Andover version).