"The Twa Sisters" ("The Two Sisters") is a traditional murder ballad, dating at least as far back as the mid seventeenth century. The song recounts the tale of a girl drowned by her jealous sister. At least 21 English variants exist under several names, including "Minnorie" or "Binnorie", "The Cruel Sister", "The Wind and Rain", "Dreadful Wind and Rain", "Two Sisters", "The Bonny Swans" and the "Bonnie Bows of London". The ballad was collected by renowned folklorist Francis J. Child (Child 10) and is also listed in the Roud Folk Song Index (Roud 8).Whilst the song is thought to originate somewhere around England or Scotland (possibly Northumbria), extremely similar songs have been found throughout Europe, particularly in Scandinavia.
Two sisters go down by a body of water, sometimes a river and sometimes the sea. The older one pushes the younger in and refuses to pull her out again; generally the lyrics explicitly state her intent to drown her younger sister. Her motive, when included in the lyrics, is sexual jealousy – in some variants, the sisters are being two-timed by a suitor; in others, the elder sister's affections are not encouraged by the young man. In a few versions, a third sister is mentioned, but plays no significant role in events. In most versions, the older sister is described as dark, while the younger sister is fair.
When the murdered girl's body floats ashore, someone makes a musical instrument out of it, generally a harp or a fiddle, with a frame of bone and the girl's "long yellow hair" (or "golden hair") for strings. The instrument then plays itself and sings about the murder. In some versions, this occurs after the musician has taken it to the family's household, so that the elder sister is publicly revealed (sometimes at her wedding to the murdered girl's suitor) as the murderess.
The variant titled "The Two Sisters" typically omits the haunted instrument entirely, ending instead with an unrelated person (often a miller) executed for robbing the murdered girl's corpse and the elder sister sometimes going unpunished, or sometimes boiled in lead.
It is first known to have appeared on a broadside in 1656 as "The Miller and the King's Daughter".Several historical resources are available via the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, such as a manuscript of the melody and lyrics of a Scottish version entitled "Binnorie" from 1830.
Cecil Sharp collected many versions of the ballad on both sides of the Atlantic, including one from a Lucy Dunston of Bridgwater, Somerset, England in 1909,and another from a Jenny Combs of Berea, Kentucky, USA in 1917. Many authentic audio recordings have since been made (see Authentic Field Recordings).
The theme of this ballad was common in many northern European languages. A 38; and it is (among others) known as Den talende strængelek or De to søstre (DgF 95) in Danish, Hørpu ríma (CCF 136) in Faroese, Hörpu kvæði (IFkv 13) in Icelandic, Dei tvo systar in Norwegian, and De två systrarna (SMB 13) in Swedish. It has also spread further south; for example, as Gosli iz človeškega telesa izdajo umor (A Fiddle Made from a Human Body Reveals a Murder) in Slovenian.There are 125 different variants known in Swedish alone. Its general Scandinavian classification is TSB
In the Norse variants, the older sister is depicted as dark and the younger as fair, often with great contrast, comparing the one to soot or the other to the sun or milk. This can inspire taunts from the younger about the older's looks.
In most of the Norwegian and some of the Swedish variants, the story ends by the instrument being broken and the younger sister coming alive again.In a few, she was not actually drowned, but saved and nursed back to health; she tells the story herself.
This tale is also found in prose form, in fairy tales such as The Singing Bone , where the siblings are brothers instead of sisters.This is widespread throughout Europe; often the motive is not jealousy because of a lover, but the younger child's success in winning the object that will cure the king, or that will win the father's inheritance.
In Polish literature from the romanticism period, a similar theme is found in Balladyna (1838) by Juliusz Słowacki. Two sisters engage in a raspberry-gathering contest to decide which of them gets to marry Prince Kirkor. When the younger Alina wins, the older Balladyna kills her. Finally, she is killed by a bolt of lightning in an act of divine retribution.
A Hungarian version exists, where a king has three daughters. The older two are bad and ugly and envy the younger child sister because of her beauty. One day, they murder her in the forest and place her corpse inside a fiddle. The fiddle plays music on its own and eventually is given to the royal family. The fiddle does not play for the evil sisters, but the princess is restored to life once her father tries to play it. The sisters are imprisoned, but the good princess pardons them once she becomes queen.
The ballad also appears in a number of guises in Scottish Gaelic, under the name 'A' Bhean Eudach' or 'The Jealous Woman'. In many of the Scottish Gaelic variants the cruel sister murders her sibling while she is sleeping by knotting her hair into the seaweed on a rock at low tide. When she wakes the tide is coming in fast and as she is drowning she sings the song 'A' Bhean Eudach' detailing her tragic end.
As is frequently found with traditional folksongs, versions of The Twa Sisters are associated with tunes that are used in common with several other ballads. For example, at least one variant of this ballad ("Cruel Sister") uses the tune and refrain from "Lay the bent to the bonny broom", a widely used song (whose original lyrics are lost) which is also used, for example, by some versions of "Riddles Wisely Expounded" (Child 1).
Canadian singer and harpist Loreena McKennitt's song "The Bonny Swans" is a pastiche of several traditional variants of the ballad. The first stanza mentions the third sister, but she subsequently disappears from the narrative. The song recounts a tale in which a young woman is drowned by her jealous older sister in an effort to gain the younger sister's beloved. The girl's body washes up near a mill, where the miller's daughter mistakes her corpse for that of a swan. Later, after she is pulled from the water, a passing harper fashions a harp from the bones and hair of the dead girl; the harp plays alone, powered by the girl's soul. The harp is brought to her father's hall and plays before the entire court, telling of her sister's crime. The song also mentions her brother named Hugh, and her beloved William, and gives a name to the older sister, Anne.
An early Alfred Lord Tennyson poem, "The Sisters", also bears a resemblance to the ballad: a sister scorned in love who murders the lover of her sister, and possibly the sister too, out of jealousy.
Approximately 139 recordings have been made of authentic versions of the ballad sung by traditional singers, mostly in the United States and Scotland.The following are examples of these recordings:
"Lord Randall", or "Lord Randal", is an Anglo-Scottish border ballad consisting of dialogue between a young Lord and his mother. Similar ballads can be found across Europe in many languages, including Danish, German, Magyar, Irish, Swedish, and Wendish. Italian variants are usually titled "L'avvelenato" or "Il testamento dell'avvelenato", the earliest known version being a 1629 setting by Camillo il Bianchino, in Verona.
"Lily of the West" is a traditional British and Irish folk song, best known today as an American folk song, listed as number 957 in the Roud Folk Song Index. The American version is about a man who travels to Louisville and falls in love with a woman named Mary, Flora or Molly, the eponymous Lily of the West. He catches Mary being unfaithful to him, and, in a fit of rage, stabs the man she is with, and is subsequently imprisoned. In spite of this, he finds himself still in love with her. In the original version, the Lily testifies in his defense and he is freed, though they do not resume their relationship.
"The Daemon Lover", also known as "James Harris", "James Herries", or "The House Carpenter" is a popular Scottish ballad dating to around 1685. Roud records the title as A warning for married women and identifies the woman in the song as "Mrs. Jane Reynolds born near Plimouth who having plighted her troth to a Seaman, was afterwards married to a Carpenter, and at last carried away by a Spirit."
"Foggy Dew" or "Foggy, Foggy Dew" is an English folk song with a strong presence in the South of England and the Southern United States in the nineteenth century. The song describes the outcome of an affair between a weaver and a girl he courted. It is cataloged as Laws No. O03 and Roud Folk Song Index No. 558. It has been recorded by many traditional singers including Harry Cox, and a diverse range of musicians including Benjamin Britten, Burl Ives, A.L. Lloyd and Ye Vagabonds have arranged and recorded popular versions of the song.
Sir Lionel is the younger son of King Bors of Gaunnes and Evaine and brother of Bors the Younger in Arthurian legend since the Lancelot-Grail cycle. He is a double cousin of Lancelot and cousin of Lancelot's younger half-brother Ector de Maris. He later became the subject of one of the famous Child Ballads (#18).
"Matty Groves", also known as "Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard" or "Little Musgrave", is a ballad probably originating in Northern England that describes an adulterous tryst between a young man and a noblewoman that is ended when the woman's husband discovers and kills them. It is listed as Child ballad number 81 and number 52 in the Roud Folk Song Index This song exists in many textual variants and has several variant names. The song dates to at least 1613, and under the title Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard is one of the Child Ballads collected by 19th-century American scholar Francis James Child.
John Strachan (1875–1958) was a Scottish farmer and singer of Bothy Ballads. He had a huge repertoire of traditional songs, and was recorded by the likes of James Madison Carpenter, Alan Lomax and Hamish Henderson.
"The Maid Freed from the Gallows" is one of many titles of a centuries-old folk song about a condemned maiden pleading for someone to buy her freedom from the executioner. In the collection of ballads compiled by Francis James Child in the late 19th century, it is indexed as Child Ballad number 95; 11 variants, some fragmentary, are indexed as 95A to 95K. The Roud Folk Song Index identifies it as number 144.
"Young Beichan" is a ballad, which with a number of variants and names such as "Lord Baker", "Lord Bateman", and "Young Bekie", was collected by Francis James Child in the late 19th century, and is included in the Child ballads as number 53.
Lord Thomas and Fair Annet is an English folk ballad.
"The Twa Magicians", "The Two Magicians", "The Lady and the Blacksmith", or "The Coal Black Smith" is a British folk song. It first appears in print in 1828 in two sources, Peter Buchan's Ancient Ballads and Songs of the North of Scotland and John Wilson's Noctes Ambrosianae #40. It was later published as number 44 of Francis James Child's English and Scottish Popular Ballads. During the 20th century, versions of it have been recorded by a number of folk and popular musicians.
"Fair Margaret and Sweet William" is a traditional English ballad which tells of two lovers, of whom either one or both die from heartbreak. Thomas Percy included it in his folio and said that it was quoted as early as 1611 in the Knight of the Burning Pestle. In the United States, variations of Fair Margaret have been regarded as folk song as early as 1823.
"The Knight and the Shepherd’s Daughter" is an English ballad, collected by Francis James Child as Child Ballad 110 and listed as number 67 in the Roud Folk Song Index.
"The Cruel Brother" is a folk song.
"Edward" is a traditional murder ballad existing in several variants, categorised by Francis James Child as Child Ballad number 13 and listed as number 200 in the Roud Folk Song Index. The ballad, which is at least 250 years old, has been documented and recorded numerous times across the English speaking world into the twentieth century.
"Babylon" or "The Bonnie Banks o Fordie" is Child ballad 14, Roud 27.
Mr. Motherwell gives a version under the title of Babylon; or, the Bonny Banks o' Fordie; and Mr. Kinloch gives another under the title of The Duke of Perth's Three Daughters. Previous editors have attempted to find a local habitation for this tradition, and have associated it with the family of Drummond, of Perth. As a legend exactly similar is current in Denmark. this appears a bootless quest.
"The Twa Brothers" is Child ballad 49, Roud 38. existing in many variants.
"The Trees They Grow So High" is a British folk song. The song is known by many titles, including "The Trees They Do Grow High", "Daily Growing", "Long A-Growing" and "Lady Mary Ann".
"The Derby Ram" or "As I was Going to Derby" is a traditional tall tale English folk song that tells the story of a ram of gargantuan proportions and the difficulties involved in butchering, tanning, and otherwise processing its carcass. The song was popular in Britain, but travelled to North America with immigrants and was thought to have been sung by George Washington. Because of its popularity, the city of Derby has adopted ram imagery in its architecture and for its sports teams.
"The Bramble Briar", "The Merchant's Daughter" or "In Bruton Town" is a traditional English folk murder ballad that tells the story of how two brothers murder a servant who is courting their sister. There are many versions of the song going by a number of different titles.
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