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Death and the Lady

[ Roud 1031 ; Ballad Index ShH22 ; VWML COL/5/28 , COL/5/29 ; Bodleian Roud 1031 ; Wiltshire Roud 1031 ; trad.]

The ballad Death and the Lady was collected in 1946 by Francis M. Collison from Mr Baker of Maidstone, Kent, and published in Ralph Vaughan Williams and A.L. Lloyd's Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. Shirley Collins sang this version in 1970 as title track of her and her sister Dolly's album Love, Death & the Lady. She also sang Death and the Lady on her 2016 album Lodestar where she commented in her album notes:

Many English folk songs begin with the words “As I roved out one May morning”, a device for setting the song up, much as a fairy tale opens with “Once upon a time”. On this walk you might encounter your true love, or a seducer, or perhaps a long lost lover returned from fighting abroad for seven weary years. You might encounter the Devil, who you could outwit, or Death, who you couldn't.

Death and the Lady harks back centuries, but these words were noted down from a Mr Baker of Maidstone, Kent, in 1906, collector unknown. The tune is my own. The song puts me in mind of the sombre scene from Ingmar Bergman's 1975 film The Seventh Seal, where a Knight, returned home from the Crusades, plays a long game of chess with Death, on a lonely Scandinavian seashore. That was set at the time when the Black Death ravaged Europe, and this song may well have started its life then.

Waterson:Carthy sang Death and the Lady in 2002 with somewhat different verses on their fourth album, A Dark Light. Martin Carthy commented in the album's sleeve notes:

Norma learned Death and the Lady from [the Cecil Sharp collection One Hundred English Folksongs (1916)]. It's a dark song here and she did what was second nature to the Watersons in their heyday, transforming the tune by altering just a couple of notes.

This video is from the Open University course “Norma Waterson: English Folk Singing” it is available for free from iTunes:

Bellowhead recorded Death and the Lady in 2006 for their CD Burlesque and Jon Boden sang it as the May 7, 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. He commented in the CD booklet:

The theme of a conversation between the grim reaper and a lovely young maiden has featured in European ballads, plays and paintings since the Middle Ages; existing English broadsides, also entitled The Great Messenger of Mortality and Life and Death Contrasted date back to the late 17th century. A number of oral versions were collected in the south and south west of England during the early 20th century, including the one published by the collector Alfred Williams in Folk-Songs of the Upper Thames (London: Duckworth, 1923), from which our version is derived. As Williams collected no melodies at all, the words were set to a reworking of Rakish Paddy, or Caber Feidh (The Deer's Antlers), claimed by both the Irish and the Scots.

Frank Purslow has written about the song in The Constant Lovers (London, EFDSS Publications, 1972), p. 121, and further studies can be found in the Journal of the English Folk Dance & Song Society 5/1 (1946), pp. 19-20, and Vaughan Williams and Lloyd's Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, now revised by Malcolm Douglas and issued as Classic English Folk Songs (London: EFDSS, 2005).

Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin sang Death and the Lady in 2011 on their CD Singing the Bones. They adapted their lyrics from the version in the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs.

Andy Turner sang Death and the Lady as the May 26, 2013 entry of his project A Folk Song a Week.

Peter Knight sang Death and the Lady in 2015 on Gigspanner's CD Layers of Ages.

Lyrics

Shirley Collins sings Death and the Lady Bellowhead sing Death and the Lady

As I walked out one morn in May
The birds did sing and the lambs did play,
The birds did sing and the lambs did play;
I met an old man,
I met an old man by the way.

As I walked out alone one day
All in the merry month of May
I met an old man on my way,
All in the morning early.

His head was bald, his beard was grey,
His coat was of a myrtle shade,
I asked him what strange countryman,
Or what strange place,
Or what strange place he did belong.

His head was bald, his beard was grey,
His cheeks were like the mortal clay;
I asked him how he came that way,
All in the morning early.

“My name is Death, cannot you see?
Lords, dukes and ladies bow down to me.
And you are one of those branches three,
And you fair maid,
And you fair maid must come with me.”

“My name is Death, oh don't you see?
Lords, dukes and squires bow down to me.
And you must come along with me,
All in the morning early.”

“I'll give you gold and jewels rare,
I'll give you costly robes to wear,
I'll give you all my wealth in store,
If you'll let me live,
If you'll let me live a few years more.”

“I'll give you gold and riches rare,
I'll give you costly robes to wear,
I'll give you all my earthly share,
If you'll spare me a little while longer.”

“Fair lady, lay your robes aside,
No longer glory in your pride.
And now, sweet maid, make no delay,
Your time is come,
Your time is come and you must away.”

“Lady, leave your robes aside,
No longer glory in your pride.
No more in life you may abide
So come along with me.”

And not long after this fair maid died;
“Write on my tomb,” the lady cried,
“Here lies a poor distressed maid,
Whom Death now lately,
Whom Death now lately hath betrayed.”

And then the mortal toll was paid
And all alone this pretty maid
By Death so cruelly was betrayed
And we all come stumbling after.

Waterson:Carthy sings Death and the Lady

As I walked out one day, one day
I met an aged man by the way.
His head was bald, his beard was grey,
His clothing made of the cold earthen clay,
His clothing made of the cold earthen clay.

I said, “Old man, what man are you?
What country do you belong unto?”
“My name is Death—have you not heard of me?
All kings and princes bow down unto me
And you fair maid must come along with me.”

“I'll give you gold, I'll give you pearl,
I'll give you costly rich robes to wear,
If you will spare me a little while
And give me time my life to amend,
And give me time my life to amend”

“I'll have no gold, I'll have no pearl,
I want no costly rich robes to wear.
I cannot spare you a little while
Nor give you time your life to amend,
Nor give you time your life to amend”

In six months time this fair maid died;
“Let this be put on my tombstone,” she cried,
“Here lies a poor distressed maid.
Just in her bloom she was snatched away,
Her clothing made of the cold earthen clay.”

(Repeat first verse)

Acknowledgements and Links

See also the Mudcat Café thread Penguin: Tune Add: Death and the Lady.