Remembering the Old Songs:

Lizie Wan

by Bob Waltz
(Originally published: Inside Bluegrass, January 1998)

Society shies away from incest. It is one of the great taboos in American society -- so much so that we kept child abuse hidden for a long time, just so we could avoid mentioning incest.

But the ballads can talk about anything. The Child canon contains a half-dozen incest ballads -- though few of them have seen much circulation in print.

Be warned: This song has everything. Incest. Adultery. Murder. Child abandonment.

Just the way to start off a year, if you're a ballad scholar. For the rest of you, read on at your own risk.

Lizie Wan (you can call her Lucy if you think "Lizie" is too informal) is Child #51, and it's relatively common for an incest ballad. Bertrand H. Bronson has eight tunes in six groups, of which seven are American and one British. Bronson remarks that it was perhaps more common than his listing would suggest; people were not willing to sing such a song for ballad collectors -- "strangers at best."

Every known tune was collected in the twentieth century, but the song itself appears to be ancient. Some versions were taken from backwoods folk who had more than a hint of Scots in their speech (just as Bill Monroe's family once did). I sing this song in braid Scots (which seems to have been its original dialect; both texts in Child are Scottish); it means that the people who don't listen carefully won't hear all the mayhem.

I'm not going to say much about this song's plot; it stands on its own. The story is not unique in English; there are Danish analogies. The earliest English text is Herd's, printed without a tune in 1776.

Although Bronson describes the tunes as falling into six families, it appears to me that there are in fact two basic types. One of these is dominant in America, the other is perhaps more British, and appears in the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. Despite history, I chose the more atypical English melody, for the simple reason that it is much more suited to bluegrass. (Yes, that's a challenge.)

Those who want a typical example of the American tune family can see it below.

Lizie Wan Tune 2
Bronson's Tune 1b, transcribed by Phillips Barry from the singing of Mrs. Myra Daniels

The text is essentially that of the Penguin Book, except that I've gone from the title "Lucy" to "Lizie," and added the fourth verse to explain the rest of the song (in most versions Geordie and his mother exchange many more questions than this). I've footnoted a few odd words.

A fine, if modern, recording of this version can be found on Lisa Null and Bill Shute's The Feathered Maiden (which is not as strange a recording as it sounds). I especially enjoy the guitar part and the first/fourth (C/F) vamping between verses.

Lizie Wan

Complete Lyrics:

Fair Lizie she sits in her father's hall
Weeping and making moan,
And by there came her brother so dear,
"What ails thee, Lizie Wan?"

"Oh I ache and I ail, kind brother, she said,
Tell you the reason why:
A babe there lies between my two sides,
Between you, dear billy,[1] and I."

And he has drawn forth his good broadsword
That hung down by his knee,
And he has cutted off Lizie Wan's head
And her fair body in three.

"Oh what's that blood upon your sword
Oh my son Geordie Wan?
For I can tell by thy ill color
That some fallow's[2] deed thou hast done."

"Oh I hae cutted off my greyhound's head,
I pray you pardon me."
"That is not the blood of our greyhound
But the blood of our Lizie...."

"Oh what will you do when your father comes to know?
My son, pray tell unto me."
"Oh I will dress myself in a new suit of blue
And sail into some far country."

"And what will you do with your houses and your land?
My son, pray tell unto me."
"Oh, I will gie them all to my children so small,
By one, by two, by three."

"And when will you return to your own wife again?
My son, pray tell unto me."
"When the sun and the moon come over yonder hill,
And I pray that will never ever be."

  1. "billy": affectionate for "brother" (Notice that the brother's name is Geordie)
  2. "fallow's": ill-bred person's


There are really only two important references for this song: Child (#51), who prints the two old Scots texts, and Bronson, who lists all tunes known in his time.

John Jacob Niles claims to have an Appalachian version of this piece, but all of his alleged Child Ballads are of questionable origin.

[Lyle comment, 2006]: An excellent version of this ballad, titled Fair Lucy was sung by Mrs. G.A. Griffin, Newberry FL, in 1937, recorded by John Lomax. The recording is stored at the Archive of Folk Song, Library of Congress as call numbers 958A3 and 959B1.

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