> Martin Carthy > Songs > Willie's Lady

Willie's Lady

[ Roud 220 ; Child 6 ; G/D 2:346 ; Ballad Index C006 ; Mudcat 10248 , 19892 ; trad.]

King Willie's choice of bride apparently does not meet with his mother's approval, and she puts a curse on her: although come to full term with her pregnancy, she cannot give birth. The king tries to bribe his mother with various gifts: a fine horse and a jewelled belt. However, the queen has an idea as to how to outwit the witch. Willie is to make a fake baby out of wax, with glass eyes, so that she can pretend she has successfully born a child. He then overhears his mother, in her surprise, give away the details of the curse: there were witches' knots in the queen's hair, her left shoe was tightly laced, and there was a toad, the witch's familiar, under the queen's bed. Hearing this, Willie undoes all the spells, and she is now successful in her delivery.

This song is the title track of Ray Fisher's 1982 album, Willie's Lady. She noted:

I have set this magnificent ballad to a tune of a Breton drinking song [Son Ar Chistr or The Song of Cider]. The text is based entirely on the contents in Francis James Child's massive collection, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. I have omitted, added, and ‘telescoped’ some of the verses.

For immediate understanding, the plot is as follows: Willie marries a young and beautiful girl. His mother, a witch, disapproves of the girl and curses her. The girl will never produce a child; she and the child will die in childbirth. Offers of gifts to the mother to lift the curse prove fruitless. Willie seeks and gets help from the servant, the Billy Blind. Willie follows the Billy Blind's instructions and foils his mother's scheme and eventually fathers a son.

The Billy Blind: Some Scottish households retained a non-working servant who possesses some disability, e.g. deaf, dumb, hare-lipped or blind. The belief was held that they had second-sight, wisdom, or some supernatural power to compensate for their disability. They were feared by many, mainly due to ignorance. A blind man may well develop an extra keen hearing capacity and a refined sense of touch, so the belief was reasonably well-founded. Thus, as a means of protection or insurance against evil, a household would shelter such a person. In this ballad he was blind.

A brief clarification of the curses:
The knots in the girl's hair (note the magic number, nine; 3 × 3 = powerful) symbolise the constricting elements—holding back the free-flowing birth of the child. Even today, in some parts of Scotland, during childbirth a girl's garments are loose, unbuttoned, without pins or fastenings.
The combs (kaims o' care) of care were pressed through the long, golden hair, accompanied by a curse each time, and then left in the hair to hold in the curse. The hair is a powerful vehicle for curse-making.
The master kid (a young goat) was the link between the forces of evil and the witch—the catalyst or carrier. This invariably is an animal—the witch's cat being the most widely-known example.
The woodbine is a clinging, constricting plant that holds on and winds around other plants and branches—holding in again is symbolised here.
Lastly, the left-side shoe (leften shee) again has evil influence (i.e., Latin: sinister). This was tightly knotted to strengthen the curse.
Finally, the advice from the Billy Blind to make a wax baby and invite the mother to the christening is a master stroke indeed. This results in the eventual birth of a son.

The mother really laid it on pretty heavily with the curses—any one would have done the trick! She must either have doubted her own skills or have feared the power of the love bond between her son and the girl.

Martin Carthy sang Willie's Lady on his 1976 album Crown of Horn; this recording was also included in 1993 on his anthology The Collection. A live recording from the Sunflower Folk Club, Belfast, on 20 October 1978 was published in 2011 on his CD The January Man; and he sang it Live in Whitby 1984 and at Ruskin Mill in December 2004. Martin Carthy commented in the first album's sleeve notes:

It was a particularly happy stroke of genius on Ray Fisher's part to marry the song Willie's Lady to the tune of the Breton song Son Ar Chistr (The Song of Cider), and it is with her permission that I have recorded it. I was informed by a young Breton that the tune was written in 1930 by a piper who became a tramp on the streets of Paris. The story of the song is very close to that of the birth of Hercules, although there the timing of the trickery is, if anything, even more critical.

Simon Jackson sang Willie's Lady on his 2008 CD Sailing the Ice.

This YouTube video shows Martin Carthy explaining and singing Willie's Lady at Watford Folk Club on 18 June 2010:

Rubus sang Willie's Lady in 2008 on their CD Nine Witch Knots; the CD title is a phrase from this song. Emily Portman commented in their liner notes:

A ballad about the age-old problem of jealous mother-in-laws. To make matters worse, and much more interesting in this case, this mother is also a witch (a doubly branded woman) who puts a spell on her blonde bombshell of a daughter-in-law, rendering her perpetually pregnant. Luckily Billie Blind, a magical helper who saves the day in various ballads, helps to trick the witch into revealing her spells which include nine witch knots tied in the lady's hair. Superstition once had it that all knots should be untied and animals freed to ease a difficult birth. Although the “master kid” is probably a phrase that has distorted over time, I like the image of a baby goat running around under her bed!

Willie's Lady was the first ballad I learnt and it has remained with me as a mongrel hybrid, mis-remembered from the singing of Ray Fisher who adapted the Breton melody Son Ar Chistr to fit the text, and Martin Carthy who anglicised the Scots dialect.

Jon Boden got Willie's Lady from Martin Carthy and the Australian duo Cloudstreet; he sang it as the 3 March 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day.

Lady Maisery sang Willie's Lady in 2011 on their CD Weave & Spin. They commented in their liner notes:

Our version of this ballad is based on the Scottish version from the Fraser Tytler MS, which Hazel [Askew] edited and wrote the tune for. Billy the Blind appears in lots of ballads and is a handy household sprite who often gives good advice.

This YouTube video shows Lady Maisery singing Willie's Lady at Shrewsbury Folk Festival in August 2011:

Anaïs Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer sang Willie's Lady in 2013 on their CD of Child Ballads.

The Owl Service learned Willie's Lady from Martin Carthy's album and sang it in 2016 on their CD His Pride. No Spear. No Friend..

Rachel Sumner from Boston, Mass., sang Willie's Lady on her 2019 EP The Things You Forgot.

Anna Tam wrote a long article on Willie's Lady in her blog and sang it in Episode 69 of her YouTube series “Folk from the Boat” in March 2021:

Lyrics

Ray Fisher sings Wille's Lady

O Willie's ta'en him ower the raging faem;
He's woo'd a wife and he's brocht her hame.

He's woo'd her for her lang yellow hair,
But his mother wrocht her muckle care.

And muckle dolour gar'd her dree,
For light o' bairn his lady canna be,
For light o' bairn she canna be.

And aye she lies in her bower wi' pain.
And Willie mourns his lady a' in vain,
And Willie mourns her a' in vain.

So Willie's tae his wicked mither gane,
The vilest witch o' womankind.

And says, “My lady has a bonnie cup
Wi' gowd and silver set aboot.

“This goodly gift it shall be yer ain,
Gin ye let her be lighter o' her bairn,
Gin ye let her be light o' bairn.”

“O, light o' bairn she ne'er will be,
Nor in her bower will shine sae bricht for ye,
Nor in her bower will shine for thee.

“But she will die and slowly turn tae clay,
You will wed wi' anither may.”

“O, anither may I'll never wed,
Anither may shall never share my bed;
I'd rather die,” young Willie said.

So Willie's tae his mither yet again,
That vilest witch o' womankind.

And says, “My lady has a milk-white steed,
Like o' it's no' in the lands o' Leed.

At ilka tett o' that horse's mane
Hangs fifty bonnie siller bells and ten,
Fifty siller bells and ten.

“This goodly gift it shall be yer ain,
Gin ye let her be lighter o' her bairn,
Gin ye let her be light o' bairn."

“O, light o' bairn she ne'er will be,
Nor in her bower will shine sae bricht for ye,
Nor in her bower will shine for thee.

“But she will die and slowly turn tae clay,
And you will wed wi' anither may.”

“O, anither may I'll never wed,
Anither may shall never share my bed;
I'd rather die,” young Willie said.

So Willie's tae the wise old Billy Blind,
And aye he spoke oot in good time.

He says, “Go down intae the market place,
There ye'll buy a loaf of wax.

“And shape it bairn and bairnie-like
And in its heid twa glassen e'en ye'll put,
And in its heid twa e'en ye'll put.

“And you will tae yer wicked mither gae,
Invite her tae yer son's christenin'.

“But ye must stand a wee forbye
And listen weel what yer wicked mither says,
Listen weel what she does say.”

So Willie's tae his wicked mither gane,
Invited her tae his son's christenin'.

And he did stand a wee forbye
And listened weel what his wicked mither said,
Listened weel what she did say.

“O, wha has loosened the nine and witchen knots
That were amang yon lady's locks?

“And wha has ta'en oot a' the kaims o' care
That hung amang yon lady's hair?

“And wha has killed the Master kid
That ran beneath that bonnie lady's bed,
That ran beneath that lady's bed?

“And wha has ta'en doon the bush o' woodbine
That hung atween that lady's bower and mine,
That hung atween her bower and mine?

“And wha has loos'd her left-foot shee,
So light o' bairn this lady then might be,
So light o' bairn this lady be?”

Then Willie's ta'en oot the nine and witchen knots
That were amang his lady's locks.

And Willie's ta'en oot a' the kaims o' care
That hung amang his lady's hair.

And Willie's killed the Master kid
That ran beneath his bonnie lady's bed,
That ran beneath his lady's bed.

And Willie's ta'en doon the bush o' woodbine
That hung atween his lady's bower sae fine,
Hung atween her bower sae fine.

Then Willie's loosened his lady's leften shee,
That light o' bairn she then might be.

And when and a' these things were done,
His lady's brocht forth untae him a son,
His lady's brocht forth a bonnie son.

Martin Carthy sings Willie's Lady

King Willie he's sailed over the raging foam,
He's wooed a wife and he's brought her home.

He wooed her for her long golden hair,
His mother wrought her a mighty care.

A weary spell she's laid on her:
She'd be with child for long and many's the year
But a child she would never bear.

And in her bower she lies in pain.
King Willie at her bedhead he do stand
As down his cheeks salten tears do run.

King Willie back to his mother he did run,
He's gone there as a begging son.

Says, “Me true love has this fine noble steed
The like of which you ne'er did see.

“At every part of this horse's mane
There's hanging fifty silver bells and ten
There's hanging fifty bells and ten.

“This goodly gift shall be your own
If back to my own true love you'll turn again
That she might bear her baby son.”

“Oh, the child she'll never lighter be
Nor from sickness will she e'er be free.

“But she will die and she will turn to clay
And you will wed with another maid.”

Then sighing said this weary man
As back to his own true love he's gone again,
“I wish my life was at an end.”

King Willie back to his mother he did run,
He's gone there as a begging son.

Says, “Me true love has this fine golden girdle
Set with jewels all about the middle

At every part of this girdle's hem
There's hanging fifty silver bells and ten
There's hanging fifty bells and ten.

This goodly gift shall be your own
If back to my own true love you'll turn again
That she might bear her baby son.”

“Oh, of her child she'll never lighter be
Nor from sickness will she e'er be free.

But she will die and she will turn to clay
And you will wed with another maid.”

Sighing says this weary man
As back to his own true love he's gone again,
“I wish my life was at an end.”

Then up and spoke his noble queen
And she has told King Willie of a plan
How she might bear her baby son.

She says, “You must go get you down to the market place
And you must buy you a loaf of wax.

“And you must shape it as a babe that is to nurse
And you must make two eyes of glass.

“Ask your mother to the christening day,
And you must stand there close as you can be
That you might hear what she do say.”

King Willie he's gone down to the market place
And he has bought him a loaf of wax.

And he has shaped it as a babe that is to nurse
And he has made two eyes of glass.

He asked his mother to the christening day
And he has stood there close as he could be
That he might hear what she did say.

How she spoke and how she swore,
She spied the babe where no babe could be before,
She spied the babe where none could be before.

Says, “Who was it who undid the nine witch knots
Braided in amongst this lady's locks?

“And who was it who took out the combs of care
Braided in amongst this lady's hair?

“And who was it slew the master kid
That ran and slept all beneath this lady's bed
That ran and slept all beneath her bed?

“And who was it unlaced her left shoe
And who was it that let her lighter be
That she might bear her baby boy?”

And it was Willie who undid the nine witch knots
Braided in amongst this lady's locks.

And it was Willie who took out the combs of care
Braided in amongst this lady's hair.

And it was Willie the master kid did slay
And it was Willie who unlaced her left foot shoe
And he has let her lighter be.

And she is born of a baby son
And greater the blessings that be them upon
And greater the blessings them upon.

Lady Maisery sing Willie's Lady

Oh Willie he's crossed over the foam,
He's wooed a wife and he's brought her home.

He wooed her for her golden hair,
His mother thought her mighty care.

So wicked spells she's cast on her,
So from her babe she'd not be free.

But in her bower she sits in pain
Whilst Willy mourns o'er her in vain.

So to his mother he has gone,
That vilest witch of the rankest kind.

And says, “My lady has a cup
With gold and silver set about.

“This goodly gift shall be your own
If your relieve her of her bairn.”

“Oh of her babe she'll not be free
And she shall never lighter be.

“But she will die and turn to clay,
And you shall wed with another maid.”

So Willy sighed and turned away,
“I wish my life,
I wish my life were at an end.”

“Oh go you to your mother again,
That vilest witch of the rankest kind.

“And say your lady has a steed
The like of which has ne'er been seen.

“For he has golden hooves before,
And he has golden hooves behind.

“And just below that horse's mane
There hangs a bell on a golden chain.

“This goodly gift shall be your own
If your relieve her of her bairn.”

“Oh of her babe she'll not be free
And she shall never lighter be.

“But she will die and turn to clay,
And you shall wed with another maid.”

So Willy sighed and turned away,
“I wish my life,
I wish my life were at an end.”

“Oh go you to your mother again,
That vilest witch of the rankest kind.

“And say your lady has a gown
With rubies red all woven round.

“And every stitches made from gold
The like of which is rarely seen.

“And at every golden hem
Hangs fifty silver bells and ten.

“This goodly gift shall be your own
If your relieve her of her bairn.”

“Oh of her babe she'll not be free
And she shall never lighter be.

“But she will die and turn to clay,
And you shall wed with another maid.”

So Willy sighed and turned away,
“I wish my life,
I wish my life were at an end.”

Then up and spoke old Billy the Blind
And he has spoken just in time,

Then up and spoke old Billy the Blind
And he has spoken just in time:

“Oh go you down to the market place
And there you'll buy a loaf of wax.

“And shape a babe that is to nurse,
An in it place two eyes of glass.

“And bid you mother to his christening day
And you stand close by her right side.

“And never stray too far away
But listen well to what she says.”

“Oh who has loosed the nine witch knots
That were among this lady’s locks?

“And who has take the combs of care
That hung among this lady's hair?

“And who has killed the master kid
That ran beneath this lady’s bed?

“And who has loosened her left shoe
And let this lady lighter be?”

So Willie's loosed the nine witch knots
That were among this lady’s locks.

And Willie's taken the combs of care
That hung among this lady's hair.

And Willie's killed the master kid
That ran beneath this lady’s bed.

And Willie's loosened her left shoe
And let this lady lighter be.

They from this witch's curse be free
And now they have their son so bonny.
And many blessings, many blessings,
Many blessings on all three.

Acknowledgements

Transcription of Martin Carthy's singing from Mudcat Café, carefully checked by Garry Gillard. Abby Sale refers in the Mudcat Café thread Origin: Willie's Lady (Child #6) to The Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection, #III, Simon's Lady, and says, following him, that the “kid” under the bed is in fact a “ted”, ie. a toad, a witch's familiar.