Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Dead Girl Song.

I know, I know, y'all are wondering why it took me so long to get around to writing about murder ballads. The answer is: I don't know. But I figured I'd start with my favorite: The Two Sisters, or as our friends like to call it, The Dead Girl Song.

I could say I have no idea how I got interested in murder ballads, but that wouldn't be entirely true. Back when Mister and I were first married and listened to Celtic music almost exclusively, we had a cassette (remember those gadgets?) of various artists which included a version of the song Bonnie Susie Cleland. I don't think I have the cassette any more so I can't even tell you who sang it. Anyway, to make a long and tragic story a little shorter, Bonnie Susie, a Scottish lass, is burned at the stake by her own father for falling in love with an Englishman and refusing to give him up. Incredibly sad and tragic, no? This tune grabbed hold of me pretty tightly, but I didn't really want to be grabbed by That Kind of Song - because actually liking a song about a woman getting burned at the stake would make me a freak, right? - so I let it go at the time.

Some time passed. Mister and I got into historic music and did a lot of research and listened to a lot of recordings. We got the first Songcatcher CD, which included a song called Wind and Rain, sung by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Our ears perked up, since we sing two-part a capella quite a bit, but when it got to the part about making a fiddle from the drowned girl's body parts, I was back to feeling like a freak because I liked a song about a person getting killed. Nice people don't like things like that.

Finally I decided that yes, nice people do like things like that, and it doesn't make me a freak. (I do, however, continue to get funny looks from some people when I say I research murder ballads.) We started including this song in our repertoire and it's probably one of our most requested tunes, along with Willy Taylor, which is a song about someone getting shot. It's kind of a joke now that "it's not a real Caudells show till somebody gets killed."

But back to Wind and Rain, aka The Dead Girl Song. This is one version of many (and I do mean many) of a song commonly known as The Two Sisters. The gist of the story is that one sister drowns the other in a fit of jealousy over a man. In some versions, her bones and hair are fashioned into a musical instrument, usually a harp or a fiddle. Even back in the old days, this song was apparently quite popular, as song collector Francis Child collected over 30 English versions, as well as 9 Danish, 12 Norwegian, 2 Icelandic, 4 Faroe, and 8 Swedish versions. Twentieth-century researcher MacEdward Leach maintained that the ballad was widespread in Germanic & Slavic regions; Tristram Coffin claims that The Two Sisters has more American story variations than any other song. He lists more than 60 known North American versions of the song, including one from Newfoundland.

As you can see, The Two Sisters got around. Once we started singing Wind and Rain, other versions of the song kept popping up: Custer LaRue's Binnorie, Martin Carthy's Bonny Bows of London, Loreena McKennitt's The Bonny Swans, just to name a few. Mister went on a Scandinavian folk music bender awhile back and found us a Swedish version. I've also found a German version on the Internet, but just words, no music. (Gosh, I guess I could write some. Folk process at work and all.)

I wrote my Master's thesis on murder ballads, not only to explore the history of these songs, but also to try and figure out why people are so drawn to them. I'm still not entirely sure about that last point, but I think it has something to do with the human's fascination with drama and tragedy. There's something cathartic about a tragic song, and when that song is centuries old, it connects the listener to all the singers and listeners who went before.

And to me, that connection is probably the most important reason to keep singing these songs.

Taking my nerd hat off now - till next time ---


  1. See that's why you are our people because if you were to tell me you were researching murder ballads, that would be the start of a very long and rambling conversation in which I would find that you were an absolutely interesting person. Go figure.

  2. People who are into history or music usually find it interesting - other people, not so much. ;-)