In addition to the traditional festivals at the equinoxes and solstices, the Celts (and probably most of the other pre-Christian Europeans) celebrated "Corner-Holidays," festivals approximately halfway between each of the main solar events. As far as I can make out, the belief was that there were seams in the border between the natural and supernatural worlds at these eight annual occasions, and beings from the other existence could seep through into ours if the proper propitiations were not made. Several of the Corner-Feasts have come down to us as secular quasi-holidays (you can celebrate them if you want, but don't expect your employer to pay you): The early February Festival of Imbolg has become Groundhog Day; the Festival of Beltain (with maypole dancing and bonfires) is now May Day; while the Festival of Lammas (Bread Goddess) in early August has turned into the MBOTMA Festival. The most important of these, though, is the Celtic New Year, the Festival of Samhain, when, for one evening, the dead arise and wander about. This happens just before the First of November, and I suppose I don't have to tell you about the related secular festival. Today we're going to consider one of the old ballads related to that restlessness, identified scholarly as Child #79, The Wife of Usher's Well. The version we present here, The Three Babes, was sung by I. G. Greer of Thomasville, North Carolina, in 1941, and was later published by the Library of Congress in their LP Volume 7. Mrs. Greer accompanied him on the mountain dulcimer in a Chanka-Chank rhythm reminiscent of the triangle in a Cajun two-step. The Greers were well-educated amateur folksong collectors, and his singing is a little stilted. Still, I find it interesting that he found a version in North Carolina that was more primitive as well as more complete than the Scottish versions that Child was able to find. Everything I've run across mentions either Christmas or Michelmas, but the event obviously happened on Hallowe'en, and it should stand as one more reminder to be careful about what you pray for, because it might come true.
[Editor's Note: I should point out that I have
with Lyle's pristine original. First, I added the mountain dulcimer
(below the lyric), so that all those dulcimer players I met at this
Kickoff can have a shot at the piece. Second, Lyle gave a very simple
part -- just G and Em chords. And he wondered if even that wasn't too
I decided that, if we were using chords at all, we might as well go
hog. If the results are too elaborate, it's my fault, not his.]
There was a lady of beauty rare,
And children she had three;
She sent them away to the north country
To learn their Grammaree.
They'd not been there so very long,
Scarcely three months and a day,
When there came a sickness all over the land
And took those babes away.
"Ain't there a king in heaven," she cried,
Who used to wear a crown?
I pray the Lord would me reward,
And send my three babes down."
It was along about Christmas time,
The nights being clear and cold;
Those three little babes came running down
To their dear mammy's home.
She fixed them a bed in the backmost room,
All covered with clean white sheets;
And over the stuff, a golden one,
That they might soundly sleep.
"Take it off, take it off," said the oldest one;
"Take it off, we say again.
Oh woe, oh woe, to the wicked world,
So long since pride began."
She fixed a table for them there,
All covered with bread and wine;
"Come eat, come drink, my dear little ones,
Come eat and drink of mine."
"We do not want your bread, Mammy;
Neither do we want your wine;
For in the morning at the break of day,
With the Savior we must dine."
Songs that mix pagan and Christian legend usually don't do too well. This piece is an exception. Although Child knew only three texts of his #79, Bertrand H. Bronson was able to provide 58 different melodies, coming from many shires of England and most parts of the eastern U.S. The song goes under a very wide variety of titles, including Child's The Wife of Usher's Well, The Three Little Babes, Mary Hebrew (an Ozark title, found in McNeil's Southern Folk Ballads, Volume 2), Lady Gay, The Dead Little Boys, The Wife of the Free, and The Cartin Wife. No doubt a vigorous search could list others.
Most of the versions collected are old; there are few reported collections since Bronson's time.
The version here is fairly complete, but there are versions which include the story of the Roasted Cock, which we will see next month. Such a version was recorded by John Roberts and Tony Barrand on Dark Ships in the Forest, though this hardly qualifies as an old-time recording.
The reader wishing more details is referred to Child, Bronson, and Coffin/Renwick.
Although it was commonly found in the early part of this century, I know of few recent collections.
Return to the Remembering the Old Songs page.