Thursday, February 10, 2011

Child Ballad No. 1, "Riddles Wisely Expounded"

"Riddles Wisely Expounded" is the first ballad in Francis Child's collection. In it a knight comes wooing three sisters. The youngest sister (who in some of the versions, sleeps with the knight first), is chosen by the knight to answer a series of riddles. If she answers the riddles correctly, then she will wed the knight. In some of the versions collected by Child, the questioner is not a knight, but the Devil disgused as an "unco knicht". When the daughter names him in answer to the last riddle, he shrieks and disappears, and thus the maiden escapes. Until that moment, however, she did not appear to know that she was competing for her soul.

Like many English songs, this ballad has also been collected in America, where it is usually know as "The Devil's Nine Questions." In it, the wooing aspect is dropped and if the maiden (who has often lost her sisters in these versions) fails to answer the riddles, she will be taken to Hell. What binds the two versions together is the set of riddles and their answers. Although there is some variation in the riddles, all of the versions include many of the same riddles. Some of the typical riddles are:

What is longer than the way? (love)
What is deeper than the sea? (hell)
What is higher that the tree? (heaven)
What is louder than the horn? (thunder)
What is sharper than a thorn? (hunger, or death)
What is whiter than milk? (snow)
What is softer than silk? (down)
What is greener that the grass? (poison)
What is worse than woman? (the devil)

Interestingly enough, the American version may be the older version. A mid-15th century version called "Inter diabolus et virgo" (Between the devil and the virgin), was included by Child in his later editions. It bears more resemblance to the American version, being a straightforward confrontation without the wooing setting.

This ballad was one of those that became part of the mid-cetury folk revival, being recorded by Ewan MacColl, Jean Ritchie and others. As such it has had a fairly wide circulation. The following is a listing of every recorded version I could find. I make no guarantees that I have found them all. I also expect this list to fall quickly out of date as there have been seven recordings released in the last five years alone. I welcome any corrections or information about recordings I may have missed.

"Riddles Wisely Expounded"
       Daniel Dutton on Murder of Crows, ?
       Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger on The Long Harvest, Vol. 2, Argo, 1966
       Jacqueline and Bridie on Hold Back the Dawn, Fontana, 1964
       Jean Redpath on Lowlands, Philo, 1994
       Lon Loomes on Fearful Symmetry, Fellside Recordings, 2005
"A Riddle Wisely Expounded"
       Hanita Blair on Minstrel, Millefolia, 2005
"A Noble Riddle Wisely Expounded"
       Askew Sisters on All In a Garden Green, Wild Goose Records 2007
       Demon Barbers on Waxed, Demon Barbers Sounds, 2010
"The Devil's Nine Questions"
        Atwater-Donnelly on The Weaver's Bonny, Rabbit Island Music, 2009
        Bonnie Kolac on After All This Time, Ovation Records, 1971 (out of print)
        Bruce Molsky on Song Links 2, Fellside Recordings, 2005
        Elizabeth Laprelle on Rain and Snow, Old 97 Wrecords, 2007
        Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger on The Long Harvest, Vol. 2, Argo, 1966
        Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger on Two Way Trip, Folkways, 1961
        Jean Ritchie and Oscar Brand on Shivaree! - A Folk Wedding Party, Essential Media Group, 2008
        Jill Trinka on The Little Black Bull, Gia, 2007
        Stephen Moore on Sourwood Mountain: American Folk Traditions, Vol 1, Stephen Moore, 2005
        Texas Gladden on Ballad Legacy, Rounder, 2001
"The Devil's Ten Questions"
        Phil Cooper on Written in Our Eyes, CDBY, 2007
"The Devil's Question"
        The Golden Glows on A Folksongbook, Glans and Luister, 2007
        Jean Ritchie and Paul Clayton on American Folk Tales and Songs, Tradition Records, 1956.

Here's The Askew Sisters performing "A Noble Riddle Wisely Expounded" live.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Nutting Girl

"The Nutting Girl", sung by Ashley Hutchings and friends from the album Morris On. Ashley was a founding member of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, AND The Albion Band.

"The Nutting Girl" is a broadside ballad, several versions exist with minor variations. It was collected by Baring-Gould and printed in a bowdlerized form in Songs and Ballads of the West as "A-Nutting We Will Go". Most recordings, including this one, follow the version of Cyril Poacher collected and recorded by Alan Lomax and others. Watch out for singing plow-boys.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

By Chance It Was

‎"By Chance It Was" performed by Clannad. This was collected by Sabine Baring-Gould in Devonshire and tune and words were published in Songs and Ballads of the West in 1889. Baring-Gould cites earlier publications of versions of the lyrics in a volume in the British Library called The Court of Apollo, which may be the volume by Abraham Shackleton published in 1815 and The Songster's Favourite which I assume is Mirth and Glee, or the Songster's Favourite published in 1782.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Child Ballad #10, The Cruel Sister

Child Ballad 10: The Cruel Sisters, also known as The Twa Sisters. Evidently in addition to strange knights, you can't trust your sister either. Then there's the minstrel. If I find a dead body on the seashore, I'm not making a harp out of the bones. I guess I'll never be in a ballad. Sung by Pentangle.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Child Ballad #9

The Flower of Northumberland, sung by Alistair Hulett. Don't trust the promises of strange knights seems to be a theme in the first few Child ballads.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Child Ballad #7

Child Ballad 7: Earl Brand. I'm surprised that this is the only version I can find, I know it's been recorded elsewhere. This is the same guy from Ballad 5. He had a project in which he uploaded 1001 videos of folk songs in 1001 days, so I suspect I'll use him again.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Child Ballad #5

Child 5: Gil Breton. This one has a complicated plot involving adultery, but not really. I never heard of this guy before, but he's pretty good for a guy singing in his living room. I guess he's an example of the democratization of music that the interwebs have made possible. (Here's his website: