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> Steeleye Span > Songs > Betsy Bell and Mary Gray

Betsy Bell and Mary Gray

[ Roud 237 ; Child 201 ; G/D 6:1257 ; Ballad Index C201 ; trad.]

Ewan MacColl sang Bessie Bell and Mary Gray in 1956 on A.L. Lloyd's and his Riverside anthology The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (The Child Ballads) Volume IV.

The Elliotts of Birtley sang Nancy Grey and Betsy Gray, recorded in 1961 by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, on their eponymous Folkways album The Elliotts of Birtley: A Musical Portrait of a Durham Mining Family. The liner notes commented:

According to popular tradition, the two young women whose name form the title of this ballad, built a hut in the countryside outside Perth in a vain bid to cheat the plague of 1645. The ballad, popularised in the 19th century by broadside texts, was known as far back as the end of the 17th century. Alan Ramsey made a drawing-room adaption of the ballad, retaining the opening stanza. A nursery rhyme version of the song exists.

The ‘rashes’ (rushes) of the early Scots version has been changed into ‘ashes’ in the stanza sung by Reece Elliott and the girls' named have been altered.

Martin Carthy and Maddy Prior sang Betsy Bell and Mary Gray on his 1972 album Shearwater; it was re-released on the compilations by Steeleye Span & Co, Individually and Collectively and Time Span. Martin Carthy wrote in the original album's sleeve notes:

The Great Plague struck the Perth area in which Betsy Bell and Mary Gray are supposed to have lived twenty years before it did the same in the south. According to the tradition surrounding the song, one was on a visit to the other at the time of the outbreak, and in order to avoid it they built themselves a bower about three quarters of a mile from Lednock House, on the side of Brauchieburn. Eventually they caught it from a young man who was said to be in love with them both, who used to bring them provisions, and were buried in Dranochhaugh by the River Almond. A stone slab erected on the grave in 1781 had disappeared under a mound of stones put there by various pilgrims by the end of the 19th century, but is, in all probability, still there.

Compare this to Lal and Norma Waterson and Lal's daughter Maria Knight's Betsy Belle on their album A True Hearted Girl. Bob Hudson notes:

As sung by Norma and Lal Waterson, this is a cropped version of Child Ballad No. 201. It is the story of two Scottish women who, to protect themselves from the plague of 1645, isolate themselves in a remote bower. Unfortunately, a young suitor, who has taken a fancy to both women, seems to have infected them - fatally - with the plague in spite of their precautions. The first verse of the original ballad seems to be an authentic fragment, the remainder being the work of Scottish poet Allan Ramsay (1686-1758). A text very close to the one sung here can be found in James Kinsley's Oxford Book of Ballads, No. 128.

Maddy Prior recorded Betsy Bell and Mary Gray again in 1989 with Steeleye Span for their album Tempted and Tried. A 1986 Eastbourne live version from Steeleye's “Back in Line” tour appears on the Steeleye Span / Maddy Prior sampler A Rare Collection 1972-1996. Another live recording, from the Maddy Prior, Family & Friends Christmas tour of 1999, was released on the CD Ballads and Candles. And yet another Steeleye Span performance was recorded live at the Southampton Civic Hall on May 15, 2004 and released on The Official Bootleg.

The Demon Barbers learned Betsy Bell and Mary Gray from Martin Carthy's album and recorded in 2008 for their CD +24db.

Sue Brown and Lorraine Irwing sang Betsy Bell and Mary Gray in 2012 on their RootBeat CD The 13th Bedroom.

Lyrics

Martin Carthy and Maddy Prior sing
Betsy Bell and Mary Gray
Lal & Norma Waterson sing
Betsy Belle

Betsy Bell and Mary Gray
They were bonny lasses
They built them a bower on yon burnside
They theeked it all o'er wi' rushes

Betsy Belle and Mary Gray
They were bonny lasses
Built a bower on yon burn side
And covered it all wi' rushes

Betsy kept the garden gate
Mary kept the pantry
Betsy always had to wait
While Mary she had plenty

Betsy Belle and Mary Gray
They were bonny lasses
Built a bower on yon burn side
And covered it all wi' rushes

They theeked it all o'er wi' rushes green
They theeked it all o'er wi' heather
The plague come from the borough town
And slew them both together

They covered it all wi' rushes green
They covered it all wi' heather
The plague came from the borough town
Buried them both together.

They would not have their shoes of red
Nor would they have them yellow
But they would have their shoes of green
To ride through the streets of Yarrow

They thought to lie all in the churchyard
Among their noble kin
But they were laid in Stronach Hall
All out beneath the sun

(Repeat first verse)

(Repeat first verse)

Martin Carthy and Maddy Prior sing
Betsy Bell and Mary Gray
Maddy Prior with Steeleye Span sings
Betsy Bell and Mary Gray

Betsy Bell and Mary Gray,
They were bonny lasses.
They built them a bower on yon burnside,
They theeked it all o'er wi' rashes.

Betsy Bell and Mary Gray,
They were bonny lasses.
They bigget a bower on yon burnside,
And theekit it o'er wi' rashes.

They theeked it all o'er wi' rashes green,
They theeked it all o'er wi' heather.
The plague came from the burrows-town,
And it slew them both together.

They theekit it o'er wi' rashes green,
They theekit it o'er wi' heather.
But the plague came from the burrows-town,
And it slew them baith thegither.

They would not have their shoes of red
Nor would they have them yellow.
But they would have their shoes of green
To ride through the streets of Yarrow.

They would not have their shoes of red
Nor would they have them yellow.
But they would have their shoes of green
To ride through the streets of Yarrow.

They thought to lie all in the church yard,
Among their noble kin.
But they were laid in Stronach Hall,
All art beneath the sun.

They thought to lye in Methren Kirk yard,
Among their noble kin.
But they maun lye in Stronach haugh,
All art beneath the sun.

(Repeat first verse)

(Repeat first verse)

Acknowledgements and Links

Thanks to Greer Gilman for the transcription, to Patrick Montague for correcting the lyrics and to Bob Hudson for the note.

More explanations of this ballad's background can be found at Henry's Songbook. And there is a discussion of this song at the Mudcat Café thread Origin: Betsy Bell and Mary Grey (Child #201).