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The Maid and the Palmer / The Well Below the Valley

[ Roud 2335 ; Child 21 ; Ballad Index C021 ; trad.]

John Reilly sang The Well Below the Valley when he was recorded by Tom Munnelly in 1969 in Dublin. This recording was released in 1977 on Reilly's Topic album The Bonny Green Tree: Songs of an Irish Traveller, and it was included in 1998 on the Topic anthology O'er His Grave the Grass Grew Green (The Voice of the People Series Volume 3). Tom Munnelly commented in the first album's booklet:

In his headnote to John Stickle's singing of Child No. 19, King Orfeo (on The Child Ballads 1, Topic 12T170), Professor Bronson marvels at the survival of this “whisper from the Middle Ages … by what frail means, against what odds”. Hardly less remarkable is the survival of The Maid and the Palmer as Child called it, a century and a half after it had last been reported, albeit in very fragmentary form, by Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe who obtained it from no less an informant than Sir Walter Scott.

This ballad, popular in European tradition, tells the story of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman. Christ, who appears as a palmer or pilgrim, is refused a drink by a woman whom he meets at well. He reveals himself by enumerating the woman's sins.

It is worth remembering that in Biblical times and, I believe, even today, vessels for drawing water in parts of the Holy Land were the property of individuals and families who brought them to the well each time they went. As many of these wells are extremely deep it is possible to die of thirst on the brink of a water supply. Thus the consternation at being refused the use of a bucket or cup to a traveller who was without the means of drawing water himself.

In America a song Jesus Met the Woman at the Well is found in the repertoire of Gospel singers. Though the source of inspiration is obviously the same, the Gospel song must be considered as being a separate entity to our ballad, which Bronson describes as “a spectacular find” (BTT, Vol. IV, p. XIV).

The most complete text preserved is that which John [Reilly] sang for Prof. D.K. Wilgus, his wife Ebby and me in 1969. The verses which appear [below] in brackets are stanzas which John does not sing on this, earlier, recording. They are given here for the sake of completeness and Professor Bronson's very painstaking transcription is included with his permission.

Planxty sang The Well Below the Valley as the title track of their 1973 LP, The Well Below the Valley. Their sleeve notes commented:

The Well Below the Valley had never been collected from oral tradition in Britain or Ireland until Tom Munnelly heard John Reilly of Boyle, Co. Roscommon sing it. Other versions of the song appear in Child's Collection (No. 21). From these it is apparent that the song is based on the story of Jesus at the Well. Tom Munnelly tells us that many older singers refuse to sing the song because of its sinister, incestuous overtones.

Steeleye Span, then with Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick, reworked this ancient ballad story as The Maid and the Palmer “to fit an eighteenth century dance tune called From Night Till Morn”. They played it on their 1978 farewell live album Live at Last! with Martin Carthy and Maddy Prior singing. Another Steeleye live recording from The Forum, London on September 2, 1995 was released on the CD The Journey. Martin Carthy and John Kirkpatrick recorded The Maid and the Palmer again in 1983 with Brass Monkey for their eponymous first album, Brass Monkey. The whole album was re-released ten years later on The Complete Brass Monkey, and this song was included in 2001 on Carthy's anthology The Carthy Chronicles, and in 2003 on his The Definitive Collection.

This YouTube video shows Brass Monkey singing The Maid and the Palmer at The Electric Theatre Guildford in March 2009:

Jon Boden sang The Maid and the Palmer as the February 24, 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day.

Frankie Armstrong and Maddy Prior sang The Well Below the Valley in 1996 on Armstrong's ballad album Till the Grass O'ergrew the Corn and in 2001 on the Fellside anthology Flash Company. Her original album's sleeve notes commented:

Early Scandinavian forms of the ballad tell the story of an encounter between Christ and Mary Magdalene. Despite her protestations of virginity, he reveals that she has borne three children by her father, her brother and the local priest. She begs forgiveness and after years of penance in the wilderness, she meets Christ again and is promised salvation. Child prints two texts, a fragmentary one from Scotland and a rather absurd English text from the Percy manuscript, which the noted Welsh poet and scholar Tony Conran has convincingly argued to be an Elizabethan anti-catholic burlesque of a lost earlier version. By one of those miracles of ballad survival, what looks like a true descendant of that hypothetical version turned up in the 1960s. Tom Munnelly collected it from John Reilly in Boyle, County Roscommon. The song is extraordinarily dark, despite its light and airy tune. As Conran noted, [it] is hard to hear as anything other than a song about sexual abuse and one, moreover, where the victim is blamed. In this respect, it reflects contemporary reality only too well. Trapped between her brutal family and the uncompassionate “man of noble fame”, she has no hope in this world and little in the next. Frankie was sent a recording of Pyewacket singing their arrangement of John Reilly's version and learned the song immediately.

The Devil's Interval sang The Well Below the Valley in 2006 on their CD Blood and Honey. They commented in their liner notes:

We first heard this song from Planxty, who made it famous. Then we heard their source and we were sold! His name was John Reilly, a traveller from Co. Roscommon. Reilly approached the tune with such fluidity that we decided to incorporate his variations into our version. At one time this ballad was banned in Ireland for its references to incest and infanticide; it clearly was not popular with the Catholic Church. There are many theories regarding the story within the song. We reckon the young woman in the tale is an earthbound spirit who is unaware that she is dead. The tall, dark, handsome gentleman (as we imagine him) may be the Devil in disguise, come to claim her soul… But don't let our interpretation mar your judgement!

The Norfolk Broads sang The Well Below the Valley on their 2017 CD In the Valley of the Flowers.

Lyrics

John Reilly sings The Well Below the Valley Frankie Armstrong and Maddy Prior sing The Well Below the Valley

For a gentleman was passin' by
He axed a drink as he got dry
At the well below below the valley-o
Green grows the lilies-o right among the bushes-o

A gentleman was passing by
He asked for a drink as he was dry
At the well below below the valley
Green grows the lilies-o all amongst the bushes

My cup it is in overflow
An' if I do stoop I may fall in
At the well below below the valley-o
Green grows the lilies-o right among the bushes-o

My pitcher now does overflow
If I bent over 'tis in I'll go
To the well below the valley
Green grows the lilies-o all amongst the bushes

Well if your true love was passin' by
You'd fill him a drink if he got dry
At the well below below the valley-o
Green grows the lilies-o right among the bushes-o

If your true lover was passing by
You'd give him a drink if he was dry
At the well below the valley
Green grows the lilies-o all amongst the bushes

[She swore by grass and swore by corn
That her true love was never born
At the well below below the valley-o
Green grows the lilies-o right among the bushes-o]

She swore by grass, she swore by corn
That her true lover had never been born
At the well below the valley
Green grows the lilies-o all amongst the bushes

Peace, fair maid, you are forsworn
For nine children have you born
At the well below the valley
Green grows the lilies-o all amongst the bushes

Well if you're a man of noble fame
You'll tell to me the father o' them
At the well below below the valley-o
Green grows the lilies-o right among the bushes-o

If you're a man of noble fame
Pray tell to me the father's name
At the well below the valley
Green grows the lilies-o all amongst the bushes

(Two of them by your father dear
At the well below below the valley-o
Green grows the lilies-o right among the bushes-o)

Two of them came by your uncle Dan
At the well below below the valley-o
Green grows the lilies-o right among the bushes-o

Another one by your brother John
At the well below below the valley-o
Green grows the lilies-o right among the bushes-o

Four of them by your father dear
Four more of them by your uncle
The other one by your brother John
At the well below the valley
Green grows the lilies-o all amongst the bushes

Well if you're a man of the noble fame
You'll tell to me what happened then
At the well below below the valley-o
Green grows the lilies-o right among the bushes-o

Since you're a man of noble fame
Pray tell to me what happened then
At the well below the valley
Green grows the lilies-o all amongst the bushes

There was two o' them buried by the kitchen fire
At the well below below the valley-o
Green grows the lilies-o right among the bushes-o

Two more o' them buried by the stable door
At the well below below the valley-o
Green grows the lilies-o right among the bushes-o

The other was buried by the well
At the well below below the valley-o
Green grows the lilies-o right among the bushes-o

Four of them buried by the sty
Four more of them by the stable
The other one lies beneath the well
The well below the valley
Green grows the lilies-o all amongst the bushes

Well if you're a man of a noble 'steem
You'll tell to me what'll happen mysel'
At the well below below the valley-o
Green grows the lilies-o right among the bushes-o

Since you're a man of noble fame
Pray tell to me what happens then
At the well below the valley
Green grows the lilies-o all amongst the bushes

You'll be seven year a-ringin' a bell
At the well below the valley
Green grows the lilies-o all amongst the bushes

You'll be seven more a-portin' in Hell
At the well below the valley
Green grows the lilies-o all amongst the bushes

You'll be seven long years a-ringing a bell
Seven more a-portin' in hell
At the well below the valley
Green grows the lilies-o all amongst the bushes

I'll be seven long years a-ringing a bell
But the Lord above may save my soul
From portin' in Hell
At the well below the valley
Green grows the lilies-o all amongst the bushes

I'll be seven long years a-ringing a bell
But the Lord above will save me from hell
At the well below the valley
Green grows the lilies-o all amongst the bushes

Martin Carthy and Maddy Prior sing The Maid and the Palmer on Live at Last!

Oh, the maid went down to the well for to wash,
And the dew fell down from her snow-white flesh,
The dew fell down from her snow-white flesh
As the sun shone down so early.

And as she washed, as she wrang,
She hung them out on a hazel wand,
She hung them out on a hazel wand
When by there come a palmer man.

Oh, God speed you, Old Man, she cries,
God speed you, you fair pretty maid,
God speed you, my pretty fair maid
As the sun shines down so early.

Have you got a cup? Have you got a can?
Can you give a drink to a palmer man?
Can you give a drink to a palmer man
As the sun shines down so early?

Oh, I've no cup and I've no can
And I cannot give a drink to a palmer man,
I cannot give a drink to a palmer man
As the sun shines down so early.

You lie, you lie, you are forsworn,
For if your true love came from Rome,
Then a cup, a can you'd find for him,
As the sun shines down so early.

Now she swore by God and the good St. John,
A true lover she'd had never the one,
A true love she'd had never the one,
As the sun shines down so early.

You lie, you lie, you are forsworn,
For nine children you have born,
Nine children you have born
As the sun shines down so early.

Oh, there's three of them lying under your bedhead,
Three of them under the hearth are laid,
Three of them under the hearth are laid
As the sun shines down so early.

Three more laying on yonder green,
Count, fair maid, for that makes nine,
Count, fair maid, for that makes nine
As the sun shines down so early.

Palmer, oh palmer, do tell me,
Penance that you will give to me,
Penance that you will give to me
As the sun shines down so early.

Penance I will give thee none,
But seven years as a stepping stone,
Seven years as a stepping stone
As the sun shines down so early.

Seven more as a clapper to ring in the bell,
Seven to run as an ape through hell,
Seven to run as an ape through hell
As the sun shines down so early.

Welcome, welcome stepping stone,
Welcome clapper in the bell to ring,
Welcome clapper in the bell to ring
As the sun shines down so early.

Welcome stone, welcome bell,
Christ, keep me from the apes of hell,
Christ, keep me from the apes of hell,
As the sun shines down so early.

Links

See also the Mudcat Café threads Lyr Req: Jesus Met a Woman at the Well and Origins: Well below the valley - discuss!.