The Twa Sisters

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"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). [1] 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". [2] 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. [3]

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, [4] and another from a Jenny Combs of Berea, Kentucky, USA in 1917. [5] Many authentic audio recordings have since been made (see Authentic Field Recordings).

Parallels in other languages

The theme of this ballad was common in many northern European languages. [6] There are 125 different variants known in Swedish alone. Its general Scandinavian classification is TSB  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.

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. [7]

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. [8] In a few, she was not actually drowned, but saved and nursed back to health; she tells the story herself. [9]

This tale is also found in prose form, in fairy tales such as The Singing Bone , where the siblings are brothers instead of sisters. [10] 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. [9]

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.

Connections to other ballads

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.

Versions and settings

Authentic Field Recordings

Approximately 139 recordings have been made of authentic versions of the ballad sung by traditional singers, mostly in the United States and Scotland. [11] The following are examples of these recordings:

Other Versions and Settings

Retellings in other media

See also

Related Research Articles

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  2. "The Miller and the King's Daughter (Roud Folksong Index S407108)". The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Retrieved 2 October 2020.
  3. "Binnorie (Anne Geddes Gilchrist Collection AGG/3/3/14)". The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Retrieved 2 October 2020.
  4. "Binorie (Cecil Sharp Manuscript Collection (at Clare College, Cambridge) CJS2/10/2181)". The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Retrieved 2 October 2020.
  5. "The Two Sisters (Cecil Sharp Manuscript Collection (at Clare College, Cambridge) CJS2/10/3761)". The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Retrieved 2 October 2020.
  6. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 1, p 119, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  7. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 1, p 120, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  8. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 1, p 121, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  9. 1 2 Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 1, p 123, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  10. Stith Thompson, The Folktale, p 136, University of California Press, Berkeley Los Angeles London, 1977
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  14. "The Twa Sisters (Roud Folksong Index S339085)". The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Retrieved 2 October 2020.
  15. "The Swan Swims So Bonnie (Roud Folksong Index S431895)". The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Retrieved 2 October 2020.
  16. "The Swan It Swims Sae Bonnie O (Roud Folksong Index S384920)". The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Retrieved 2 October 2020.
  17. "The Two Sisters (Roud Folksong Index S432060)". The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Retrieved 2 October 2020.
  18. "The Two Sisters (Roud Folksong Index S340950)". The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Retrieved 2 October 2020.
  19. "The Old Woman By the Seashore (Roud Folksong Index S445863)". The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Retrieved 2 October 2020.
  20. "The Old Man in the Old Country (Roud Folksong Index S247437)". The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Retrieved 2 October 2020.
  21. "The Two Sisters (Roud Folksong Index S224465)". The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Retrieved 2 October 2020.
  22. "Twa Sisters (Roud Folksong Index S273453)". The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. Retrieved 2 October 2020.
  23. Host: Cal Koat (8 April 2008). "Boiled in Lead". Celt in a Twist.
  24. The Genuine Bootleg Series: Volume 2 with "The Two Sisters" (Disc 1, Track 1), performed at Karen Wallace's Apartment, May 1960
  25. The Genuine Bootleg Series, Take 2 at, with "The Two Sisters" (Disc 1, Track 1), performed in St. Paul, May 1960
  26. Wolfe, Julia (2004). "Cruel Sister". G. Schirmer Inc. Retrieved 8 August 2016.
  27. "The Only Tune". Retrieved 10 June 2015.
  28. Niles, John Jacob (1961). The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles - John Jacob Niles - Google Books. ISBN   0813127521 . Retrieved 10 June 2015.
  29. Rootham, Cyril Bradley; Fausset, Marjory (1920). "The two sisters. An opera in three acts founded on the ballad 'The twa sisters O'Binnorie'" (Vocal score). London: Goodwin & Tabb Ltd. hdl:1802/24394.Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  30. Lewis, Thomas P (1991). "Chapter 4. Program notes. 'The Nightingale' and 'The Two Sisters'". A source guide to the music of Percy Grainger. Pro/Am Music Resources. p. 254. ISBN   978-1-871082-22-7 . Retrieved 23 January 2013.
  31. Joseph Jacobs, English Fairy Tales, transcript.