Remembering the Old Songs:

The Holland Handkerchief

by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, September 1997)

Ask almost any ethnomusicologist what makes a ballad a ballad and you're likely to be told "the story."

Tristram Coffin disagrees. Oh, a plot is necessary for a ballad, the same way a foundation is necessary for a house. But a foundation is not what sells a house; it's the external beauty that gives a home its appeal. Coffin argues something similar for ballads: That it is the emotional impact that makes them popular.

So this month, rather than giving a song with a lot of story to it, I decided to go for the song with the most impact in the last line.

Actually, this is #3 on my "emotional impact" list. But the first two -- Sheath and Knife and Bonnie Susie Cleland -- are both Scottish. Whereas this piece -- #272 in the Child catalog, officially titled The Suffolk Miracle -- has been found from the Ozarks to Appalachia to New England.

Given its emotional impact, I'm not going to talk about it at length.

Unfortunately, every recording I've ever heard of this piece was Irish. And the American versions to which I have access (e.g. in Randolph) are all rather defective. So I am here giving you a composite text. The text is from Vermont (except for the three stanzas in brackets, which I inserted to fill out the story. It's not "authentic" -- but you need to know what's going on). Unfortunately, it was printed (in MacEdward Leach's Ballad Book) without a tune. So I transcribed an Irish tune.

This turned out to be a challenge. As sung, it has so many fermatas that I felt the piece -- which is always found in three -- to be in two. There is no good way to represent it in conventional notation (other than Pete Seeger's notion of putting all folk songs in 1/4 time); I just did my best. The tune is also mixolydian, so the chord patterns are a bit different.

Some people may find the key here to be rather high. If so, A is a good key.

And, by the way, this is a great piece for a bass solo. The recording from which I learned the tune -- Connie Dover's If Ever I Return -- has a fine bass part that sounds like it could carry the whole melody.

One last note: "Holland" does not refer to where the handkerchief was made. Rather, it is the way the cloth is woven.
Holland Handkerchief

Complete Lyrics:

There was a squire lived in this town,
He was a man of high renown;
He had one daughter, a beauty bright,
And the name he called her was his heart's delight.

[And many a young man to court her came
But none of them could her favor gain
Till there came one of a low degree,
And above them all she did fancy he.

Then when her father came this to know
That she was in love with this young man so,
Full fifty miles he sent her away,
To disappoint her of her wedding day.]

One night as she was for her bed bound,
As she was taking out her gown,
She heard the knock and the deadly sound,
"Loosen those bonds, love, that we have bound.

"I have your horse and your mother's cloak,
And your father's orders to take you home."
She dressed herself in rich attire,
And away she went with her heart's desire.

As she got on, with him behind,
They rode far faster than any wind,
And every mile he would sigh and say
"Oh my jewel, my head it aches."

A Holland handkerchief she then took out
And tied his head with it about;
She kissed his lips and she then did say,
"My love, you're colder than any clay."

When they came to her father's gate,
"Come down, my jewel," this young man said.
"Come down, my darling, and go to bed,
And I'll see your horse in his stable led."

When she came to her father's hall,
"Who's there, who's there?" her father called.
"It is I, dear father; did you send for me
By such a messenger?" naming he.

Her father, knowing this young man being dead,
He tore his grey hair down from his head,
He wrung his hands and he wept full sore,
And this young man's darling cried more and more.

[Then early, early, at the break of day
She found the grave where this young man lay,
Where lay her lover, though nine months dead,
With a Holland handkerchief around his head.]


Although this song, under the title The Suffolk Miracle, is #272 in the Child collection, Child had only one text, and it rather bad. Child had some biting (and unfair) remarks about the poor quality of the piece. A much better source is Bertrand Bronson's Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, which lists thirteen versions from throughout the eastern United States as well as Ireland and the Maritimes of Canada. The song may well be extinct in Britain.

The text given here is from MacEdward Leach's Ballad Book; compare the version printed in Flanders and Olney's Ballads Migrant in New England. The collated lyrics come from Sam Henry's Songs of the People (H217) and from the singing of Cathal McConnell, who also transmitted the tune here.

In addition to the versions in Bronson and Henry, John Jacob Niles has a version he claims comes from Kentucky. This version is much more heavily Americanized than most of the others cited, and may be authentic, but I will not vouch for it absolutely.

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