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.
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
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
(C/F) vamping between verses.
Fair Lizie she sits in her father's hall
"Oh I ache and I ail, kind brother, she said,
And he has drawn forth his good broadsword
"Oh what's that blood upon your sword
"Oh I hae cutted off my greyhound's head,
"Oh what will you do when your father comes to know?
"And what will you do with your houses and your land?
"And when will you return to your own wife again?
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.
Return to the Remembering the Old Songs page.