This month, we're heading back to an old ballad, although from a slightly different direction. Any of us who took a college English Literature course a few decades ago learned about the "Classic Ballads" and their poetic importance. Just go to your Used Book Store, buy an out-of-print poetry textbook, open it to page fourteen, and you'll know what I mean. Those "poems" were all British, non-copyrighted, and cribbed from the Francis James Child collection of English and Scottish Popular Ballads. If you've been following this series, you already know quite a bit about them. After reading and singing a number of these ballads, particularly in the American versions, you get sensitized to a certain kind of poetry that's intensified by both simplicity and compression. I recognized the intensity of The Lonesome Valley the first time I heard it, on a recording made by John and Alan Lomax in Austin, TX, in 1936 (Library of Congress Archive of American Folksong #648B). The singers were the Gant Family, parents and children, originally from Tennessee, temporarily in Texas, and John, in his memoirs, didn't mention much about them. That's strange, because they knew some of the most interesting songs he ever collected. If I live long enough, this series will include a dozen Gant Family songs.
This ballad, although not in Child's book, was commonly collected in Britain and the U.S. (mostly in inferior versions) as The Bramble (or Bamboo) Briars, The Jealous Brothers, or The Lonesome Valley. Scholars have pointed out that a similar story exists concisely in Giovanni Boccaccio's Tales of the Decameron (fourth day, fifth story) and (as an acknowledged ripoff poem) in John Keat's long-windedly Isabella, or The Pot of Basil. Well, I hate to be disagreeable with scholars, but those stories are not kin to this one. In those versions, the sister finds the lover's grave (via a dream), cuts off his head, brings it back, and plants it in a pot as basil fertilizer. The brothers steal the pot, and the sister dies of sorrow. Notice that, in the Gants' version, the sister takes control of the situation, and does not fade away. If this is a composed ballad, it was written by a more talented (or at least more modern) poet than Keats.
As you might surmise, I have no idea where the Gants got this
I also don't know where they or their descendants are (some of them
very young on the recording, and could be still alive). To the best of
knowledge, the only public performance of this version was by The
Folksinger, unaccompanied, on a Prairie Home Companion program years
After the show, he walked out the Stage Door, into the night. Maybe we
bring him back by singing this song, even if we need the crutch of a
accompaniment. It's worth a try.
Accompaniment Note: This song can end on either a G or a D chord. A D chord leaves a suspended feel; G sounds more like a conclusion. Your choice....
One night a couple, they sat courting,
Two brothers chanced to overhear;
Saying, "This courtship, it must be ended,
We'll force him headlong to his grave."
Her brothers rose early the very next morning,
A game of hunting for to go;
And of this man they both insisted
That along with them that he must go.
They rambled over the hills and mountains
And to many a place where they were unknown,
Until they came to a lonesome valley
And there they left him dead alone.
And when her brothers had return-ed
Their sister inquired for the chosen man;
"We've lost him in our game of hunting,
We lost him in a foreign land."
The sister rose early the very next morning
She dressed herself to go away;
Her brothers asked her where she's going,
Not a word to them that she would say.
She rambled over the hills and mountains
And to many a place where she were unknown,
Until she came to the lonesome valley
And there she found him dead alone.
His red rosy cheeks, they were all faded;
His lips were salt as any brine;
She kissed him over and over, crying,
Says, "my darling bosom friend of mine."
And when the sister had return-ed
Her brothers asked her where she'd been;
"O, hush your tongues, you deceitful villians,*
For the one you killed, you both shall hang."
And so her brothers were arrested,
And forced across the rousing sea;
There come a storm and the wind did drown them,
Their bloody grave lies in the deep.
* pronounced "vill-yuns."
This song is Laws M32, The Bramble Briar (The Merchant's Daughter; In Bruton Town). Laws lists nineteen American versions (from Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia) plus four English texts and a broadside. In addition, he cites a 1918 article by H. M. Belden, "Boccaccio, Hans Sachs, and The Bramble Briar." (Sachs published a verse recounting of this story or something similar to it in the sixteenth century. Many recordings are known.
Laws evidently regards this as derived from a broadside ancestor; given, however, that only one broadside version is known (and that one obscure), it seems likely enough that it originated in tradition.