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Postcard showing a witch entertaining Halloween guests.
This postcard from the author's personal collection shows a witch entertaining Halloween guests.

Haunting Songs for Halloween 2020

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It’s late October, and here at Folklife Today that means we’re getting ready for Halloween! Our very first post was for Halloween 2013, and that makes this Halloween our 7th Blogiversary! As usual, we’ll be featuring a few posts related to Halloween this October, beginning with this one presenting more great supernatural songs from the collections of the American Folklife Center. This post features ghosts, goblins, faeries and elves as they appear in traditional folksongs.

Sweet William’s Ghost

A Colonial-era gravestone with a stylized angel on top. The visible part of the inscription reads "In Memory of William French Son to Mr Nathanial French, Who was shot at Wstminster, March ye 13th, 1775, by ye Cruel Ministereal tools of George the 3rd in the Courthouse at a 11 a clock at night in the 22nd year of his age. Here William French his body lies, For murder his blood for vengance cries. King George the third his Tory crew, tha with a bawl his head shot threw. For Liberty and his Country's good, he lost his life his dearest blood."
Gravestone of William French, claimed by some to be the first man killed in Revolutionary War, Westminster, Vermont. Detroit Publishing Company, between 1900 and 1910. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. See the archival scan here.

We’ll begin with a good, old-fashioned ghost song: Len Graham’s version of “Sweet William’s Ghost,” which he sang in his concert at the Library of Congress on November 6, 2008—alas, just a week too late for Halloween that year! Len recounts that he learned the song from Northern Ireland singer and folklorist Sandy MacConnell. Sandy’s son Cathal is a founder of the Irish band The Boys of the Lough, and a good friend of Len’s over many years. According to Len, Sandy in turn learned “Sweet William’s Ghost,” from a Royal Irish Constabulary officer from Lochguile in Co. Antrim, who was stationed in Kinawley, Co. Fermanagh, prior to Ireland’s partition. Find out more about Len, and find a link to his concert, at this link.

“Sweet William’s Ghost” is similar in theme and action to “The Unquiet Grave,” which I presented in this previous blog post. In that ballad the young woman’s excessive grief causes her lover’s ghost to return, but in this one it’s his unfulfilled promise to marry her. As long as that promise weighs on William’s conscience, his ghost can’t rest. He asks for her to release him from his promise, but instead she insists on him fulfilling it, so the ghost marries her! She then gives him back his “plight in troth,” the token of his promise, which appropriately enough was a cross, and wishes him peaceful rest in heaven.

“Sweet William’s Ghost” is a widespread popular ballad, given the number 77 in Francis James Child’s book The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, and Roud 50 in the Roud Folk Song Index. You can read Child’s entry on the song at this link.

Singer Len Graham from Northern Ireland, shown at Wexford Library in 2017. Graham also sang at the Library of Congress in 2008. Photograph by Sean Rowe. Shared on Flickr with a Creative Commons License. See it on Flickr at this link.

On their Blood and Roses album, Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl said of this ballad:

It is a simplification of a story found throughout northern Europe. The Scots and Scandinavian versions and analogues are more complex than ours, involving the girl’s death (she often embraces the corpse and enters the grave with him), the cock crowing, long interrogations as to the nature of heaven and hell. The surviving motifs central to all these ballads is very clear: that love is strong enough to pull the dead back from the grave and that the dead may not sleep peacefully until wrong done to the living has been righted.

See the lyrics below, and hear it in the player right under that:

Sweet William’s Ghost
Sung by Len Graham
AFC 2008/

“Clerk Saunders or Sweet William’s Ghost” by Gewn Raverat, 1909. Placed online by the Raverat Archive with the notice that it may be displayed for non-commercial purposes.

Lady Margaret she lay on her fine feather bed,
The midnight hour drew near,
When a ghostly form came to her room,
And to her did appear, appear,
And to her did appear.

“Are you my father, the king?” she said,
“Are you my brother John?
Or are you my true love William,” she said,
Coming home from Scotland along, along,
Coming home from Scotland along?”

“I am not your father, the king,” he said,
“Nor am I your brother John,
But I am your true love William,” he said,
Coming home from Scotland along, along,
Coming home from Scotland along.”

“Oh Margaret, oh Lady Margaret,” he said,
“For love or charity,
Will you bring to me the plight in troth
That once, love, I gave thee, gave thee,
That once, love, I gave thee?”

“I’ll not give you back your plight in troth
Nor any such a thing,
Until you take me to my own father’s hall
Where oft times we have been, have been,
Where oft times we have been.”

He took her to her own father’s hall,
And as they entered in
The gates flew open of their own free will
To let young William in,
To let young William in.

Two 18th century tombstones. Each has a stylized angel face and wings at the top and an inscription.
This is a detail from a  2011 photo by Carol M. Highsmith entitled “Ancient Cemetery, located in Hartford, Connecticut.” Although the original is a beautiful color photo, it’s spookier this way! The George F. Landegger Collection of Connecticut Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. See the archival scan here.

“Oh Margaret, oh Lady Margaret,” he said,
“For love or charity,
Will you give to me the plight in troth
That once, love, I gave thee, gave thee,
That once, love, I gave thee?”

“I’ll not give you back your plight in troth
Nor any such a thing,
Until you take me to my own father’s hall
And marry me with a ring, a ring,
And marry me with a ring.”

He took her to her own father’s hall,
And there they entered in
They joined their hands in wedlock bands,
He married her with a ring, a ring
He married her with a ring

“Oh Margaret, oh Lady Margaret,” he said,
“For love or charity,
Will you give to me the plight in troth
That once, love, I gave thee, gave thee,
That once, love, I gave thee?”

Then out of her pocket she drew a cross
And she laid it on his breast,
Saying, “Here is back your plight in troth,
In Heaven your soul find rest, find rest,
In Heaven your soul find rest.”

“The wind may blow and the cocks they may crow
And it’s nearly breaking day,
And it’s time that the living would depart part from the dead,
My love, I must away, away,
My love, I must away.”

Polly Vaughan

“Polly Vaughan,” also known sometimes as “Polly Vaughn,” “Polly Von,” “Molly Bawn” or “The Shooting of his Dear,” is a widespread folksong about a young man who kills his true love by accident. He’s out hunting, she has a white dress all around her, and he mistakes her for a swan and shoots her. Later, when he is on trial for her murder, her ghost comes to testify at the trial and tells everyone it was an accident.

Illustration shows several swans in an inlet to Carroll Island in the Chesapeake Bay
The haunts of the wild swan Carroll Island, – Chesapeake Bay. Published by Currier & Ives, c1872. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. See the archival scan here

The version we will hear below was sung for the BBC by A.L. Lloyd, and was duplicated by Alan Lomax for his collection. (Lomax also made a separate recording of Lloyd, on which I believe he made mistakes in the words, but you can hear that one here.)

Albert Lancaster Lloyd, who published as A.L. Lloyd but was generally known as Bert, was a crucial figure on the British folk scene. As a journalist, Lloyd started writing about folksong in the 1940s and became one of Britain’s leading experts. He mentored most of the singers in Britain’s 1960s folk revival, including soloists like Martin Carthy, ensembles like The Watersons, and folk rock bands like Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention. Eventually he became a part-time professor and mentored ethnomusicologists, including Jennifer Cutting of the American Folklife Center staff. In addition to all this, he was a good singer himself. He collated and edited a lot of songs for his own repertoire and those of his students, and these often became the folk revival’s standard versions.

In the liner notes to the LP Fair Game and Foul, Alan Lomax and Peter Kennedy, who recorded this version of “Polly Vaughan” from A.L. Lloyd, wrote the following about the ballad:

Because the early great ballad scholars had a very rigid model in mind by which they judged the excellence and authenticity of the ballads they chose to publish, they frequently missed songs of great antiquity and beauty that came into their hands in broadside form. This song is a case in point. Jamieson, in Popular Ballads (1806), commented, “This is indeed a silly ditty, one of the very lowest descriptions of vulgar English ballads which are sung about the streets in country towns and sold four of five for a alfpenny.” In fact, however, this story probably enshrines a fragment of one of the age-old myths of North Europe—the transformation of a maiden into a bird by some jealous person. This theme occurs in many legends and is the basis of the famous ballet, “Swan Lake.”

Francis James Child followed Jamieson in despising this ballad, and therefore did not include it in his collection of ballads. It is included in the Roud Folk Song Indexes, with the number 166.

Lloyd himself wrote a note about the song for his book Folk Song in England:

Pen and ink portrait of a young woman, half-length.
“Molly Bawn,” an illustration by Charles Henry Gibson of “Gibson Girls” fame. Ca. 1910. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Find the archival scan here. 

It seems clear enough that the story is a come-down relic of the same myth that, long before Ovid’s time, became attached to the figures of Cephalus and Procris. Procris, an enthusiastic huntress, had a dog that never failed to catch its quarry and a dart that never missed its mark (she obtained them from Minos in return for bed-favours). She gave both dog and dart to her husband Cephalus. He went out hunting in the dusk, and Procris, suspecting he was visiting a mistress, put on a camouflage robe and stole out after him. As she hid in a thicket, the dog detected her, and Cephalus, mistaking her for a deer, cast his unerring dart and killed her. He was banished for her murder and haunted by her ghost.

Several commentators, including Annie Gilchrist and Phillips Barry, have identified the girl under the apron as a descendant either of a swan maiden or an enchanted doe. There is even the suggestion, rather far-fetched, that in their title for the song, singers have been confused between ‘dear’ and ‘deer’ ‘Vaughan’ and ‘fawn’. In any case the magical maiden who is a woman by day and a beast by night, and fatally hunted by her brother as like as not, is as familiar a figure in folklore as the swans and other birds flying by night, who are thought to be souls in bird form. So the modern-seeming ballad of Molly-Polly Bawn-Vaughan, that Jamieson thought so paltry, in fact reaches far back beyond the time of classical mythology. The song that the most experienced Irish folk song collector, Patrick Joyce, thought ‘obviously commemorates a tragedy in real life’, turns out to be connected with the fantasies of primitive hunting societies such as produced the ballad of the magic deer that Rumanian peasants still sing as a midwinter ceremonial piece, and that Bela Bartók immortalized in his superb Cantata Profana.

Whether the ballad is in any sense based on these ancient mythic ideas is hard to establish. But the intertextual echoes of old stories detected by Lomax, Kennedy, and Lloyd are equally hard to deny.

As you’ll see, the ghost in this song is very friendly and forgiving. In fact, the song is haunted by the ghost, but it’s haunting primarily because of the horror of Jimmy’s accidental deed and the pathos of Polly’s return to forgive him. Lloyd’s version is relatively short; in many others, Jimmy’s uncle convinces him not to run but to stay for his trial. (You can hear such a version by Harry Cox at this link.) Oddly, almost all versions of the song leave the ending unresolved, so we don’t know if Jimmy is convicted!

The most remarkable thing about Lloyd’s performance is his modulation to a new key in the third verse.  It’s an unusual feature of his singing, but it occurs in both the recordings of this song that he made for Lomax. Hear Lloyd in the player below the lyrics!

Polly Vaughan
Sung by A.L. Lloyd
AFC 2004/001

Half-length portrait of Bert Lloyd looking right.
Bert Lloyd, photographed by Hedy West. There is a copy of this photo in the Alan Lomax Collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

Come all you young fellows that carry a gun,
I’ll have you come home by the light of the sun.
For young Jimmy was a fowling, and a-fowling alone,
When he shot his own true love in mistake for a swan.

As young Polly went out in a shower of rain,
She hid under the bushes her beauty to gain
With her apron thrown over her, and he took her for a swan,
And he aimed and he fired and shot Polly his own.

Now the girls of this country, they’re all glad we know,
To see Polly Vaughan a-lying so low.
You could gather them into a mountain, you could plant them in a row,
And her beauty’d shine among them like a fountain of snow.

Well, the trial wore on and young Polly did appear
Crying, “Uncle, dearest uncle, let Jimmy go clear,
For my apron was thrown over me and he took me for a swan
And he made my poor heart bleed all on the green ground.

Bolakins (Lamkin)

“Bolakins” was recorded from Lena Bare Turbyfill at Elk Park, North Carolina by Herbert Halpert in 1939. It’s a version of the ballad that Child numbered 93, and Steve Roud numbered 6. The song is about a traditional British bogeyman, called by Child “the terror of countless nurseries.” You can read Child’s comments on the ballad here.

Herbert Halpert stands next to an old ambulance.
Folklorist Herbert Halpert posed by the old ambulance he outfitted as a “sound wagon,” using an acetate-disc recorder from the Archive of American Folk Song–now the archive of the American Folklife Center. Salotillo, Mississippi, 1939. (Photo courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History)

In some versions the villain is called “Long Lankin.” The ballad seems to have come here from Scotland, where “long” is a common word for tall, and “lanky” likewise means tall and thin, making “Long Lankin” suggestive of the more modern sinister figure, Slenderman. Some versions of the ballad in oral tradition make Lankin into a creature that lives outdoors; in the version printed in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, which Cecil Sharp collected from an Anglican nun in 1909, Lankin is said to “live in the moss,” and to “live in the hay,” and to be able to get into the castle through a mouse hole or a tiny window. Similarly, in some versions printed in Child’s book he “lies in the moss” and “lies in the clay.” So in these versions he appears to be supernatural, a kind of monster or goblin.

Our version contains a more rational explanation, in which the character is a stonemason who doesn’t get paid for his work and seeks revenge. John Niles has suggested that these versions contain an echo of the building sacrifice idea—that Lankin really seeks a human sacrifice to make his building complete. Phillips Barry suggested he is a leper and seeks an innocent’s blood as a cure. In some versions he’s called “Lambkin” or even “The Lambkin,” as on the broadside below, and Child proposes that this is because of the meek way he initially accepts being swindled. But in all versions, whether a mason out for revenge or a goblin with no clear motive, the character is a vicious murderer, so it’s a very grisly ballad.

Lena Bare Turbyfill, who lived from about 1904 to 1984, spent most of her life around Elk Park and Cranberry, North Carolina, near the Tennessee border. She knew a lot of old songs, and she has living children who still remember her singing. In 1939, folklorist Herbert Halpert recorded 30 songs from Mrs. Turbyfill in Elk Park, including “Bolakins.”

An old broadside slip containing words to another version of the "Bolakins" song. The broadside is in poor condition and hard to read.
Nineteenth-century broadside printing of “The Lambkin,” a version of “Bolakins.” Author’s collection: this was published in the 19th century and is in the public domain.

In Lena Bare Turbyfill’s version, the mason Bolakins builds a fine castle, but as the ballad succinctly puts it, “pay he got none.” So he comes to the castle when the lord is away. He has an accomplice who is one of the household’s nurses or nannies; the word Turbyfill uses is “foster,” which is an old name for a wet-nurse. Then it gets pretty grisly, as you can hear and read below.

When they made the catalog card for this song back in the 1940s they listed it as restricted—it was basically rated R by the archive because of the scary subject matter. But quickly they revised this opinion, and the head of the Folklore Section, Benjamin Botkin, released the song on one of the Archive’s early LPs—you can find a pdf of the liner notes here.

So, since the cat’s out of the bag, we’ll let you hear it…but you’ve been warned-it’s pretty scary! As always, I’ll place the player right below my transcription of the lyrics.

Lena Bare Turbyfill
AFC 1939/005
AFS 02842 B02

Bolakins was a very fine mason as ever laid stone
He built a fine castle and the pay he got none.

Where is the gentleman? Is he at home?
“He’s gone down to Marion for to visit his son.”

“Where is the lady? Is she at home ?”
“She’s upstairs sleeping,” said the foster to him.

“How will we get her down such a dark night as this?”
“We’ll stick her little baby full of needles and pins.”

They stuck her little baby Full of needles and pins.
The foster she rocked, and Bolakins he sung
While blood and tears from the cradle did run

Down come our lady, not thinking any harm.
Old Bolakins, he took her in his arms.

“Bolakins, Bolakins, spare my life one day.
I’ll give you many marigolds as my horse can carry away.

“Bolakins, Bolakins, Spare my life one hour.
I’ll give you daughter Bessie, my own blooming flower.”

You better keep your daughter Bessie for to run through the flood,
And scour a silver basin for to catch your heart’s blood!’

Daughter Bessie climbed up in the window so high
And saw her father come riding hard by.

“Oh, father, oh, father, Can you blame me
Old Bolakins has killed your lady.

“Oh, father, oh, father, can you blame me
Old Bolakins has killed your baby.”

They hung old Bolakins to the sea-gallows tree
And tied the foster to the stake of stand-by.

A Bhean Úd Thíos (The Woman Of The Fairy Mound)

Séamus Ennis, seated in a chair playing the Irish Uilleann bagpipes.
Folklorist, singer, and piper Séamus Ennis was Lomax’s main fieldwork mentor in Ireland. There is a copy of this photo in the Alan Lomax collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

In Britain and Ireland, Halloween is closely associated with beliefs about faeries. If you listen to Jack Santino’s great Halloween lecture, which I included in this previous post, you’ll find that he discusses the ballad “Tam Lin” at some length. That ballad’s climactic scene takes place on Halloween when the Faeries ride in a great procession. We don’t have any traditional versions of Tam Lin that I know of in the archive, but you can read all about it and hear many versions at this website devoted to the ballad. We do have a related, Irish-language ballad, which is just as fascinating. In English it’s typically known as “The Stolen Bride,” but the singer of our version, Séamus Ennis, called it “A Bhean Úd Thíos,” “The Woman of the Fairy Mound.” Ennis was a folklorist and collector as well as a singer and piper, and he was Alan Lomax’s guide on his trip to Ireland in 1951. In addition to his singing of the song, we get to hear Ennis’s English-language explanation of what it means:

This is one of the few fairy songs that we have in Ireland. I learned it from a woman in west Cork, and the story of the song is that a woman was abducted by the fairies. And one day, one of the neighbors, a woman, was washing on the washing slab by the side of river when she heard this song coming from a mound which was behind her in a field, a fairy mound. The song gave her instructions to give to the abducted woman’s husband, which would enable her [sic] to rescue the abducted woman from the clutches of the fairies.

To flesh out that story a little bit, in Irish tradition fairies were known for stealing human babies, and also for stealing young women to act as nurses and nannies for those babies.  So in this song, a recently married woman is stolen by the fairies and put to work as a nurse inside a fairy mound. Fairies in Ireland are believed to live under tumuli, the artificial hills and mounds left behind by stone age and bronze age peoples. So the woman in the song is magically imprisoned inside this hill where she has to nurse a baby. The hill conceals her magically, so she can’t leave but she can sit near the doorway and look out. From near the doorway of the hill she can see a ford at a stream where local women wash clothes. And so she formulates a plan: she encodes instructions for rescuing her in what appears to be a lullaby—that way, she can sing the lullaby to the baby as she sits near the doorway, invisible but audible to the women outside. She can be overheard by the washers at the ford, who can relay the instructions to her husband. Her captors inside the mound will just hear her singing a lullaby, which is, after all, her job.

Two large grass-covered mounds in Ireland.
The passage graves at Knowth, Ireland, are the kinds of “Fairy Mounds” imagined in the song “A Bhean Úd Thíos”.  This photo by Pam Corey was posted on Flickr with a Creative Commons License.  Find the original here.

So “A Bhean Úd Thíos” takes the form of a lullaby with an explanation of where she is and how to rescue her embedded in it. Ennis’s literal translation of the song was as follows:

Oh woman, down yonder, on the washing slab
Stop your washing board and listen to my complaint
A year from today I was abducted from my true love
And carried in here to the faerie mound
(The words seothin, seothin, seothin, so, are purely nonsensical being chorus words.)
Tell my husband to come here tomorrow
With a wax candle in the palm of his hand
A black-handled knife to be carried in his hand
And he’s to strike the first horse that comes through the gap.
If he doesn’t come by that time, I will be a queen over these ladies.

Longer versions of the song have been collected with a fuller set of rescue instructions, which is where the relationship to “Tam Lin” lies: in both cases, the rescuer has to pull their true love off a horse as the faerie procession goes by, then hold on to their loved one while the faeries change them into various dangerous animals. The main difference between the two songs is that in “Tam Lin” the man is the abductee and the woman rescues him, while in “The Stolen Bride” it’s the other way around.

A young woman and a toddler dressed in 19th-century attire; both are barefoot.
Alfred Downing Fripp’s 1846 watercolor “An Irish Peasant and her Child.” Although this painting was not a good representation of its historical moment (the great famine of the 1840s), it is a reasonable picture of more prosperous times. This artwork was published in the 19th century and is in the public domain. The original is in the “Ireland’s Great Hunger” Museum at Quinnipiac University.

However, the woman in “The Stolen Bride” is far from a stereotypical “damsel in distress.” Even though her husband is expected to perform the rescue, the woman takes the initiative for figuring out how to escape, formulating a plan, and devising a means of contacting the outside world by hiding her subversive message in plain sight in the form of a lullaby. Feminist folklore scholars have written a lot of analysis of exactly this kind of coding—the subversive messages that women have historically hidden within a permissible channel of communication; see this book for examples. Lullabies themselves are a well-known example, as Margaret McDowell pointed out in a classic 1977 essay in the journal Women’s Studies. Protest and even hostility toward the baby are often encoded into lullabies, so that in “Rock a Bye Baby,” what sounds like a loving croon is actually about a baby being left in a tree, only to come crashing down when a limb breaks!

The idea of a resourceful woman devising her own escape and communicating it in a lullaby isn’t exclusive to Ireland, or even to supernatural songs. We have in the archive a Lebanese song in Arabic, with the same plot about a captured woman being used as a nurse, who encodes instructions for how to rescue her into a lullaby to be overheard by a family member. But that song isn’t supernatural—her captors are Turks. Find audio for that song at this link, and a transcription and explanation at this link.

Séamus Ennis said he learned “A Bhean Úd Thíos” from a lady in West Cork, but he actually recorded it from two such ladies, Máire Ní Shúilleabháin and Elizabeth Cronin.  He also took Lomax to meet both of them, and Lomax recorded each of them singing of the song. You can hear part 1 of Máire Ní Shúilleabháin’s version of the song at this link, and part 2 of the song at this link. You can hear Mrs. Cronin’s version of “A Bhean Úd Thíos” at this link, and Mrs. Cronin’s discussion of it with Lomax at this link.

I don’t have the Gaelic expertise to transcribe this version, but you can hear it the player below, along with Ennis’s spoken translation, which I transcribed above.

A Bhean Úd Thíos (The Woman Of The Fairy Mound)
Sung by Séamus Ennis

AFC 2004/001

The Outlandish Knight (Lady Isabel And The Elf Knight)

In its current form, “The Outlandish Knight” dates to the 18th Century, but scholars have noted probable connections to European ballads and legends that are much older. It is given the number 4 by Child and number 21 by Roud. As with Bolakins, there are versions in which the knight seems merely human and others in which he seems supernatural. In some versions the “knight” is explicitly identified as an elf, and for that reason Child gave it the standard name “Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight.”  You can read Child’s entry on the ballad, which traces many of the connections to older stories, at this link.

Three-quarter-length portrait of Luke Stanley carrying a farming tool.
Luke Stanley in the early 1950s, photographed by Peter Kennedy. There is a copy of this photo in the Alan Lomax collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

Our version of this song was recorded by Alan Lomax and Peter Kennedy from Luke Stanley. Stanley, who was formally named Luther but always known as Luke, came from Lincolnshire and spoke in a broad dialect, but could also explain dialect words in more standard English. This, plus the fact that he sang, played the accordion, and acted in folk dramas, made him an excellent folklore source for Kennedy and Lomax.

Luke Stanley’s version of “The Outlandish Knight” is a fairly typical English version. In it a knight described as “outlandish” (which could mean either bizarre or merely foreign) courts a woman, and convinces her to steal some horses and money from her parents to run away with him. When they reach the destination he chooses, he reveals that he’s a serial killer who has already lured six young women to their deaths. Through clever trickery, Polly turns the tables on him and escapes.

The English text of this ballad became stable in the 19th century due to widespread appearances in broadsides and chapbooks—cheaply printed versions that working people could afford. Compare my transcription below of Luke Stanley with the broadside version to its right. Note that the texts are very similar.

Where it differs from the broadside, Stanley’s sung version sometimes makes more sense. For example, in the broadside, Polly and the knight arrive by the seaside “three hours before it was day” and have a complex interaction there. She then returns home, arriving at her father’s house, again “three hours before it was day.” Since it doesn’t seem like the song represents a 24-hour journey, this looks like an inconsistency. Stanley’s version has the seaside interaction occur “six hours before it was day,” which makes a lot more sense. (On a more practical note, his version’s omission of the word “best” in the phrase “best nags” makes the line scan better.)

Note also that versions derived from broadsides often included a final incident after Polly arrives back home, involving an interaction with her pet parrot. Luke Stanley’s version doesn’t include this incident. Interestingly, the broadside suggests a reason why: the song was printed in two columns, and column 1 ends exactly where Stanley’s version ends. It was not uncommon for broadsides to be cut apart and sold as individual song “slips,” and it’s quite possible that a broadside similar to the one below was cut in half, leading someone in the chain of transmission to learn a version of the song that ends where the first column does. (On the other hand, the parrot incident can also be seen as detracting from the seriousness of the song, so Stanley or one of his predecessors in the chain of transmission may have omitted it for artistic reasons.)

The Outlandish Knight
Luke Stanley
AFC 2004/001

A broadside containing printed texts of two songs, including "The Outlandish Knight."
Broadside of “The Outlandish Knight” and “The Wandering Boy.” From the Kenneth S. Goldstein Collection at the University of Mississippi.

An outlandish knight came from the northlands
And he did come a wooing to me
He said he would take me to the northlands
And there he would marry me
And there he would marry me

So fetch me some of your father’s gold
And some of your mother’s fee
And two of the nags out of the stable
Where there stands thirty and three
Where there stands thirty and three

So she fetched him some of her father’s gold
And some of her mother’s fee
And two of the nags out of the stable
Where there stood thirty and three
Where there stood thirty and three

Then she mounted on her milk white steed
And him on the dapple gray
And they rode til they came close by the seaside
Six hours before it was day
Six hours before it was day

Dismount, dismount my pretty fair maid
And deliver thy steed up to me
For six pretty maids have I drownded here
And thou the seventh shall be
And thou the seventh shall be

Take off, take off that silken gown
And deliver it unto me
Methinks it a shame that a garment so fine
Should ripple all in the salt sea
Should ripple all in the salt sea

If I take off my silken gown
I pray turn your back unto me
Methinks it not fitting for a villain like thee
A naked woman to see
A naked woman to see

So he turned his back to the pretty fair maid
And viewing the hills with glee
And she seized him around the middle so small
And she keltered him into the sea
And she keltered him into the sea

He tumbled high and he tumbled low
Til he came at last to the side
Take hold of my arm, my pretty Polly
And I will make you my bride
And I will make you my bride

Lie there, lie there, thou false-hearted man
Lie there instead of me
If six pretty maids hast thou drownded here
The seventh has drownded thee
The seventh has drownded thee

Then she mounted on her milk-white steed
And she led the dapple gray
She returned home to her own father’s house
Three hours before it was day,
Three hours before it was day

Thanks for joining us for this haunted hayride of traditional songs. We’ll be back before Halloween with more great frightening content, including a Halloween podcast–keep your eyes peeled!

Comments (2)

  1. Very nice stuff.
    Thank you

  2. Cannot hardly wait for more – for 2021! I’ve enjoyed the music, but more than that – the impeccable history. Thank you so much.

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