A lady from Kansas sent me an e-mail recently. She had run across my article on the web about Babes in the Woods (January 2001 Inside Bluegrass). She thanked me for a full text, as she knew only part of it. She'd learned it as a child from her father, sang it to her children and, later, her grandchildren at bedtime. That made me remember that our own kids, as pre-schoolers, loved bedtime songs such as this one or Fatal Flower Garden (Dec. 1997 issue). Songs about the gruesome murder or torture of little children seemed to relax them. Puzzled by this, I asked others for their ideas about the reason. The answer was a name rather than an explanation: schadenfreude, the German term for a pleasant feeling of relief on hearing of someone else's misfortune (Freud said it was due to "displacement," which is still a name rather than an explanation). For whatever reason, stories of murdered children made them feel more snug in their beds.
Francis James Child evidently didn't believe in schadenfreude. He called this song "the terror of countless nurseries." It was first collected by Bishop Percy in 1775, but is most likely a lot older than that. Everyone assumes it's originally Scottish, perhaps due to the cliche about their fiscal prudence.
I learned this one over 40 years ago from the singing of Mrs. Lena
Bare Turbyfill, Elk Park NC (recorded 1939; Library of Congress Archive
of Folk Song item 2842B2). Following is the way I sing it, but on
listening to the original, I was surprised at how little I'd changed
the words over the years.
1. Bolakins, the finest mason that ever laid stone,
He built a fine castle, and pay he got none.
2. "Oh, where is the gentleman, is he at home?"
"He's gone down to Marion for to visit his son."
3. "And where is the lady, is she at home?"
"She's upstairs sleeping," said the false nurse to him.
4. "And 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.*
5. The false nurse she rocked and Bolakins he sung
While blood and tears from the cradle did run.
6. Down come my lady, not thinking any harm,
Old Bolakins, he took her in his arms.
7. "Bolakins, Bolakins, spare my life one day,
I'll give you as many marigolds as my horse can carry away."
8. "Bolakins, Bolakins, spare my life one hour,
I'll give you daughter Bessie, my own blooming flower."
9. "You better keep your daughter Bessie for to run to the flood,
And scour a silver basin for to catch your heart's blood."
10. Daughter Bessie climbed up in a window so high,
And saw her father come riding hard by.
11. "Oh father, oh father, can you blame me?
Old Bolakins has killed your lady."
12. "Oh father, oh father, can you blame me?
Old Bolakins has killed your baby."
13. They hung old Bolakins to the high gallows tree,
And tied the false nurse to the stake standing by.
* The repeated line repeats the tune of the last line.
The original is almost certainly Scottish, not just because almost all the early versions are from there (though they are) but because the situation fits the Scottish social climate. This version, though localized, has most of the events of the ballad of Lamkin--it's shorter but more complete than most texts in Child.