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The Bonnie Banks of Fordie / Babylon

[ Roud 27 ; Child 14 ; G/D 2:199 ; Ballad Index C014 ; trad.]

In spite of the innocent title, The Bonnie Banks of Fordie is a cruel ballad of senseless murder. Dick Gaughan sang it on his 1972 Trailer album, No More Forever. He explained in his album's sleeve notes:

The Bonnie Banks o' Fordie has all the makings of a classic ballad… two cases of fratricide and a consequent suicide. It's also known as The Duke of Perth's Three Daughters, and is in the Child collection as Babylon, or The Banks of Airdrie. The climax comes in the penultimate verse with the revelation that the murderer is in fact, Babylon, the brother, and leads up to his inevitable suicide. I learned this in approved traditional fashion from my mother, who sang it as a child's skipping song.

Nic Jones sang an Americanised version (‘outlaw’, ‘rattlesnake’, ‘bank robber’) of The Bonnie Banks of Fordie in 1974 on The First Folk Review Record. Here the robber is not related to the three sisters, the third sister is rescued by her brother, and the robber gets hanged. This recording was later included on the Fellside anthology Ballads. According to Paul Adams' sleeve notes,

Nic collected this version from verses to be found in Child and the tune was inspired by the one in Dean Christie's Traditional Ballad Airs for The Laird of Drum. Child discovered five versions of this song and noted that the ballad could also be found in Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Faeroe Islands. Bronson reported eight versions including four from North America.

A live performance from the late 70's of unknown source is on Nic Jones' CD Game Set Match.

Pete Coe sang this song as Banks of Virgie in 2004 on his CD In Paper Houses. He commented in his sleeve notes:

This robber ballad is officially entitled Babylon, though it often appeared in Scotland as The Banks of Fordie. I know of only two versions which were collected in England, both from school children who'd turned this murder ballad into a playground game. It seems likely that the ballad is Scandinavian in origin although this version is based on the variants collected by Maud Karpeles in Newfoundland.

Malinky sang The Bonnie Banks o Fordie to a traditional Swedish tune on their 2005 Greentrax CD The Unseen Hours. They noted:

A classic ballad scenario of a highway robber accosting three young women, and when they refuse his demand to be his wife, he murders them. Alas he discovers he has killed his sisters and in turn takes his own life. We've teamed this up with a Swedish tune supposedly written by a real-life penknife murderer in prison: from the playing of Olov Johansson, nyckelharpa master with the band Väsen. The ballad story is also, conveniently, well known across Scandinavia, although it has something of a second chapter. Usually involving three murderous robbers who were kidnapped from their family as boys, they seek lodging later that night and, upon trying to seduce the woman of the house, they find that they are in fact at their father's house, the woman is their mother, and they have killed their sisters. Beat that Jerry Springer! There is a Fordie in Perthshire, between Comrie and Crieff, although it's unlikely that's the location of the ballad, not least since it’s often found as The Bonnie Banks o Airdrie, as it appears in Gavin Greig's 1925 collection Last Leaves (after which our first record was named).

Jon Boden sang The Bonnie Banks of Fordie with verses nearly identical to Dick Gaughan's (except that he sings it in English rather than in Scottish) as the May 28, 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. He noted in the project blog that he learned his version from Ian Giles at the Half Moon pub in Oxford.

Teresa Horgan sang this ballad as Fair Flowers of the Valley in 2015 on her and Matt Griffin's CD Brightest Sky Blue. She commented in their sleeve notes:

We heard this song from the great Irish American folk/bluegrass singer, Tim O'Brien. A thief confronts three sisters and attempts to steal them away, but there were fatal consequences at refusal and a very surprising ending. A classic murder ballad.

Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne sang Babylon in 2017 on his WildGoose CD Outway Songster. He commented:

This variant of the classic ballad (Child 14) comes from Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger’s Travellers’ Songs from England and Scotland. MacColl and Seeger collected it from John MacDonald, a Lanarkshire traveller, in 1969. The verse structure of John MacDonald’s text for Babylon seems to be unique; whereas most feature a refrain on lines two and four of the verses, MacDonald’s verses begin with two lines, followed by a repeat of line two and a refrain. I have managed to unwittingly change this song in the process of learning and performing it; the tune is slightly different to the one printed in Travellers’ Songs, but I have also added some extra verses (and lost a few others on the way), quite where they came from, I have absolutely no idea!

Alasdair Roberts sang Babylon on his, Amble Skuse and David McGuinness' 2018 CD What News. They noted:

This ballad appears in Child’s collection under the title of The Bonnie Banks o’ Fordie in addition to the present title. Our version was learnt from the singing of the late Aberdeenshire traveller singer and storyteller Stanley Robertson.

This video shows Alasdair Roberts and Kami Thompson singing The Bonnie Banks o Airdrie as part of Song East at the Marie Lloyd Bar, Hackney on March 9, 2010:

Lyrics

Nic Jones sings The Bonnie Banks of Fordie Jon Boden sings The Bonnie Banks of Fordie

Oh there were three sisters lived in a bower
    Oh I am so bonnie
They've gone out for to pull all the flowers
    On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Fordie.

There were three sisters lived in a bower
And they went out for to pull a flower,
They went out for to pull a flower,
    Down by the bonnie banks o Fordie-o.

And they've not pulled a flower but one
Till by there came an outlaw man.

Now they had not pulled a flower but one
When up there stepped a banished man,
etc.

And he's gone up to the eldest one,
He's turned her around and he made her stand.

And he's taken the first one by the hand
And he's turned her round and he's made her stand,

“Oh, will you be a bank robber's wife?
Or will you die with my little pen knife?”

“Oh, it's will ye be a robber's wife?
Or will you die by my pen knife?

“Oh, it's I'll not be a bank robber's wife,
But I'd sooner die with your little pen knife.”

“Oh, it's I'll not be a robber's wife!
I would rather die by your pen knife.”

And he's killed the girl and he's laid her by
To keep the red rose company.

So he's taken out his little pen knife
And there he's twined her of her life.

And he's taken the second girl by her hand,
Turned her around and he made her stand.

And he's taken the second one by the hand
And he's turned her round and he's made her stand.

“Oh, will you be a bank robber's wife?
Or will you die with my little pen knife?”

“Oh, it's will you be a robber's wife?
Or will you die by my pen knife?”

“Oh, it's I'll not be a bank robber's wife,
But I'd sooner die with your little pen knife.”

“Oh it's I'll not be a robber's wife!
I'd rather die by your pen knife.”

So he's killed the girl and he's laid her by
To keep the red rose company.

So he's taken out his little pen knife
An there he's twined her of her life.

And he's taken the youngest by her hand,
He's turned her around and he made her stand.

And he's taken the third one by the hand
And he's turned round and he's made her stand.

“Oh, it's will you be a bank robber's wife?
Or will you die with my little pen knife?”

“Oh, it's will you be a robber's wife?
Or will you die by my pen knife?”

“Oh, I'll not be a bank robber's wife,
But I'd sooner die with your little pen knife.”

“Oh, it's I'll nor be a robber's wife
Nor will I die by your pen knife.

But her own brother John came a-riding by
And this bold robber he chanced to spy.

For I have a brother in yonder tree
And if you kill me then he'll kill thee!”

And he's gone up to his sister fair,
He's taken her up by her long yellow hair.

“Come tell to me your brother's name!”
“Oh, my brother's name it is Babylon.”

And he's sent out his page-boys three
To take this robber most speedily.

“Oh sister, sister, I've done you wrong,
Oh sister, sister, I have done you wrong!”

“Two of my sisters you took their life
All with your cruel and your bloody pen-knife.

And he's taken out his little pen knife
And there he's taken his own sweet life.

For my sisters then you shall die.”
And they hanged him up on the gallows high.

They'd thrown him into a poisoned lake,
To feed all the toads and the rattlesnakes.