Remembering The Old Songs:


by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, April 2002)

Last month, Lyle gave us a Romeo and Juliet story, in the form of the Silver Dagger variant Katy Dear. Which is convenient, because it gives me the chance to vent about Romeo and Juliet stories.

Did anyone ever stop to think how incredibly dumb those kids were? Confronted with the need to get away from their parents, they concocted this incredibly complicated plan to fake their own deaths and then run away. It was the sort of plan that only a pair of romantic idiots could conceive.

And it got what it deserved. There is an old military maxim, sometimes attributed to Helmuth von Moltke, which says, "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy." Or you may have heard a more "street" version: "Keep it simple, stupid."

Romeo and Juliet's plan was too complex; it depended on an impossible degree of timing. Hence the alleged tragedy.

And so, too, the tragedy of Katy Dear. The guy says, "Ask your parents,"  and proposes to run away if the parents don't consent. When she says, "It's not so simple," what does he do? Answer her objections? No, kills himself.

The only good news is, at least the elimination of these dimwits improves the average intelligence of the species slightly.

But it's characteristic of the ballads to tell two sides of a story. For every tale with a sad ending, there is one with a happy ending. For Lady Diamond, in which a princess gets pregnant by a commoner and the king kills him, there is Willie o' Winsbury, in which the king spares him. For The Twa Magicians, in which the man uses magic to rape the girl, there is The Broomfield Hill, in which she uses magic to escape. And for The Silver Dagger, or the Scottish Bonnie Susie Cleland in which a father burns his daughter at the stake for wanting to marry the wrong man, there is John of Hazelgreen, in which she and her lover run away (in the original Scottish texts, they flee to England, but that's not really essential to the plot). In other words, instead of acting like they've both been taking overdoses of Stupid Pills, they do the logical thing. Gee, what a concept! (I guess they aren't planning careers as politicians.)

In Folk Revival circles, this song is best known from the rewrite by Sir Walter Scott, Jock o' Hazeldean. But, as Bertrand H. Bronson wrote, this "rather too literary" piece is "surprisingly widespread." He prints no fewer than twenty-eight versions of the song.

What's really amazing is how many of these are from the U. S., where the proper plot of Jock o' Hazeldean makes relatively little sense. But on this side of the water, the song has undergone a transformation. There is a whole family of versions collected in Virginia by Arthur Kyle Davis, in which it's just a song about two lovers reuniting.

I learned this song from the singing of Joan Sprung, and I can't tell with certainty which version from Davis she used (though I gather she did learn it from print); they're quite similar, and Sprung changed the text a little. And her tune doesn't exactly match any of the versions printed in Bronson's Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads. (Bronson, we should note, patched the Davis transcription, and Sprung apparently worked from the messed-up original.) But it looks to me like Sprung's version is intended to be that of Davis's "A" text (Bronson's "C"), said to be from the singing of "a mountain woman." There isn't much plot left (and even that looks a little cleaned up), but it's a very fun little tune.

It's interesting to compare this with Scott's text:

Why weep ye by the tide, lady?
Why weep ye by the tide ?
I'll wed ye tae my youngest son,
And ye shall be his bride.
And ye shall be his bride, lady,
Sae comely tae be see,
But aye she loot [let] the tears doonfa'
For Jock o' Hazeldean.

Whereupon the father reveals his plan to marry her to "Young Frank," the

chief o' Errington And lord o' Langley dale.

She isn't interested. The song ends like this:

The kirk* was decked at morning tide,
The tapers glimmered fair,
The priest and bridegroom wait the bride,
And dame and knight were there.
They sought her baith by bow'r and ha',
The lady was nae seen;
She's o'er the border and awa'
Wi' Jock o' Hazeldean

The text below is the full one printed by Bronson; Sprung omitted the next-to-last verse, and I can't say it's much loss.


Complete Lyrics:
As I walked out one May morning
Down by the greenwood side,
There I spied a pretty fair maid
And all alone she cried.

"If you go home, it's home with me,
It's home with me to stay.
You may have my oldest son
A husband for to be."

"I neither want your oldest son,
He's neither lord nor king;
For I intend to be the bride of none
But John o' the Hazelgreen."

His arms are long, his shoulders broad,
He's the flower of all his kin;
His hair hangs down like links of gold,
John o' the Hazelgreen.

As she rode down the lengthy road
And drew near to the town,
Out stepped John o' the Hazelgreen
And holp his lady down.

Three times he kissed her ruby lips,
Three times he kissed her chin;
He took her by her lily-white hand
And led his lady in.

"If ever you have forsaken me,
I hope sweet heaven will forsake you,
And send you down to the torment place,
And there forever be."

"If ever I have forsaken you,
The rocks must melt in the sun,
The fire shall freeze to ice,
And the raging sea shall burn. "

* "kirk": church

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