Remembering The Old Songs:


by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, June 2005)

Over the last half year or so, Lyle and I have had an improbable number of chance meetings. At least, it was improbable until I realized why. One of them was at the Guthrie's production last year of the OEdipus Tyrannus. That was possible because I will go to Greek tragedy. I'm less likely to pay to see Shakesperean tragedy. It just doesn't ring true to me.

Shakespearean tragedy is tragedy of evil -- Iago is a slimeball because he likes it; Richard III is vicious because he's bored. They are completely vile.

I don't see that today. Oh, we try to paint our political enemies as evil, just as Shakespeare did with Richard III (who was, as Lyle reminded me, a member of a dynasty deposed by Elizabeth I's grandfather). In our current political environment, I've heard people call George W. Bush the Antichrist. If Hillary Clinton becomes a presidential candidate I'm sure she will face the same. But it's not true. Yes, Bush's environmental policies (e.g.) are so far in conflict with science that you can often find scientific fact just by taking what he says and reversing it. True, Clinton's policies would result in the U. S. being less internationally competitive and might result in a change in morality. But that's not evil; it's just operating from a different set of beliefs. Fools they may be, but both do what they do from conviction. Wrong conviction, perhaps, but conviction. Even someone like Stalin wasn't evil in the sense that lago and Goneril were; Stalin was indifferent to others, but he didn't torture for fun. Since Shakespeare is full of evil characters, his tragedies don't do it for me.

Greek tragedy is different -- it's tragedy of fate. In a way, it's almost Christian, a variation on Philippians 2:12-13 -- "Work out your own tragedy in fear and trembling, for the gods are working upon you." OEdipus was doomed (in Old English terms, it was his wyrd) to murder his father and marry his mother -- but he also brought it upon himself: He fled the oracle, and at the end, he investigated the truth of his family until it destroyed him.

That is the tragedy of the ballads also: The tragedy of fate -- of people placed in impossible situations largely by circumstance. There is no lago, no vile near-demon pushing people to murder or to pregnancy or to love above or below their station. There is just the world as it is, opening doors and letting the consequences happen. My world.

Of all the ballads, few show that as clearly as this song. (The one absolute exception I can think of, the most brutal ballad of all, Sheathe and Knife, never made it across the Atlantic.) And this version, from Betty Smith of North Carolina, makes the story even more poignant than usual. In most Butcher Boy texts, the father discovers the body. Here -- well, you can at least believe that it's the lover.

There are a lot of theories about this song. Many scholars have assumed that it is composite, with one of the parts being of the There Is an Alehouse in Yonder Town (Tavern in the Town) type. This is perfectly plausible, but I've never quite been convinced. This song is too popular, too exquisite. Yes, it changes voices in mid-song, but that's not proof. And the song is very widespread, found in Britain, Canada, the U. S., even Australia. It's been collected, if Steve Roud's index is to be believed, over two hundred times, including quite a few Midwestern versions (Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa).

Transcribing this song was tricky. If you look at the chord changes, it will appear that the song should be written in 6/4 time, and very many of the recorded tunes are indeed in triple time of one sort or another. But it clearly scans in common time, so I wrote it in 4/4 even though it stuck me with a bunch of slurs. It's a great tune however you transcribe it. And a great tragedy of a kind all too real....

Butcher Boy

Complete lyrics:
In London city, where I did dwell
A butcher boy I loved right well.
He courted me my life away,
And now with me he will not stay.

I wish, I wish, I wish in vain
I wish I were a maid again.
But a maid again I ne'er will be
Till cherries grow on an ivy tree.

I wish my baby it were born
And smiling on its daddy's knee,
And I, poor girl, to be dead and gone
With the long green grass growing over me.

She went upstairs to go to bed,
And calling to her mother said,
"Give me a chair till I sit down
And a pad and pen, till I write down."

And every line cried, "Willie, dear. "
At every word she dropped a tear;
"Oh, what a foolish girl was I
To be led astray by a butcher boy. "

He went upstairs, the door he broke
And found her hanging by a rope.
He took a knife and he cut her down.
And in her pocket, these words he found.

"Go dig my grave both wide and deep.
Put a marble stone at my head and feet.
And in the middle a turtle dove
To show the world that I died for love. "

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