Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Hangman's Tree/Streets of Derry: A Historical Analysis

In the folk tune "The Prickly Bush"/"The Prickle-Holly Bush"/"Prickle-Eye Bush"/"The Maid Freed from the Gallows"/"The Golden Ball" a woman is to be hanged.  The woman's family comes to see her hanged, but she hoped they had come to bring money to pay for her release.  They did not.  Her last resort, her lover, comes riding in with the money just before the swing of the axe.  This may be your typical damsel in distress story, but recent versions are far from it.  When the song traveled to the U.S. with the English immigrants, executing women was less common, so the story turned to a male-centric tune, where he must be saved by his love, in the more recent versions.  In those versions of "The Derry Gaol"/"The Streets of Derry"/"Hail a Brighter Day" we see the ancient Irish matriarchal society coming through, as it also celebrates the female saving the day.  Let's take a look at the transformations.


The origins of "The Prickly Bush" go back to the Scandinavian area, where the woman has been taken captive by pirates.  This is fleshed out as a full narrative, where we have a reason why the woman is to be executed.  Finland has over fifty versions of the tune commonly called "Lunastettava neito".  When there are that many variations, the song must go back further in time than two hundred years.  Considering one version form Lithuania talks about bartering animals or belongings for the woman's freedom, it's likely that it predates any monetary system adoption in Lithuania's rural areas.  This origin runs parallel with AL Lloyd's notes in his and Ewan MacColl's album 1964 English and Scottish Folk Ballads:
The form of the ballad is likewise interesting. It is frequently suggested that the ballad originated as choral dances. That is, a group formed a ring and danced round. A member of the group sang a single line or set of lines, and the rest came in with a refrain...The Prickly Bush, with its extremely simple construction, may well have come into being in such a way.


Once the tune travels to England, the woman becomes accused of some sort of sexual scandal, either adultery or premarital sex, as is hinted by the symbol of a key for her chastity.  As her body has been defiled, so should her family's name if they are to defend her.  So they go to see her hanged.  Her lover rescues her from her impending death.  but upon many translations to England, much of our story is lost, as noted by collector Francis James Child, who documented "The Briery Bush"/"The Maid Freed from the Gallows" (Ballad 95). Child also considered a version from Sicily the most enthralling.  I've got to get my hands on this version!  While the tune had been reduced to children's play tunes, the story is yet reflected in the English folk tale "The Golden Ball"/"The Golden Key".  The theme is also present in the French folk tale "Bluebeard" by Charles Perrault, written in 1697, which has possible derivations from the 1400s of serial killer Gilles de Rais.  A key unlocks the mystery to what happens to Bluebeard's former wives, as his new wife discovers.  He sentences her to death, but she stalls until her family arrives to save her and slay Bluebeard.  This mimics A.L. Llyod's comments again:
In earlier forms of the ballad, the girl is condemned to die for the loss of a golden ball (or golden key, either signifying the girl's honour which, when lost, can only restored by her lover). There is a folk tale, once well-known in England, in which a stranger gives a girl a golden ball. If she loses it, she is to be hanged. While playing with the ball she does lose it. At the gallows, her kindred refuse to help, but the lover recovers the ball after terrible adventures in the house of ill-omen where it had rolled. It seems that verses from The Prickly Bush (also called The Maid Freed from the Gallows) were sung in the course of telling the story. The losing of the golden ball and the subsequent scene at the gallows used to form a children's game in Lancashire in the 19th century, again accompanied by the song.
These folk tales and tunes likely share common origins, whether it is indeed based off of Gilles de Rais.

"The Briery Bush" or "The Prickly Bush" is supposed to be symbolic (to some) of the woman's heart and how she feels, pricked and stabbed, feeling betrayed and sorrowful at the thought of her family refusing to pay her freedom.  Many see the prickly bush as the symbol of unhappy love, a motif which arises in Scottish and English folk tunes.

What's very interesting is Rubus' recording of "The Golden Ball" in which the golden ball, a symbol of childhood, is lost by the little girl.  As her family members come to see her hanged "upon the linden tree", she is rescued by her grandmother, who brings her golden ball from over the high, high hill.  This version is dated 1827 or before, collected in Edinburgh by George R. Kinloch.  The Scots, then, too, had their female-centric outlook on the tale.






In America, slaves adapted the song "The Maid Freed from the Gallows".  One version came from Missouri in a derivation of "The Golden Ball", in which the Golden Ball will turn the black girl white and live happily ever after.

John Jacob Niles (not Jingleheimerschmidt) transcribed and recorded "The Maid Freed from the Gallows" in the 1930s on his quest to document folk music from Appalachia.  It's there in the Appalachians that we know these songs stayed in their truest forms.  In it, he takes on the female voice in a shrill falsetto, reminiscent of the Appalachian women.



Later in 1939, Leadbelly transformed "The Maid Freed from the Gallows" into "Gallis Pole" and brought to a commercial audience.  In it, the man is in prison and is freed from death by his wife.  Leadbelly inserts historical information about the corruption of police.  It seems Blacks were taken, even if they did nothing, and imprisoned, until someone appeared with bail money.  Here is "Gallis Pole":


Father, did you bring me the silver,
Father, did you bring me the gold?
What did you bring me, dear father,
Keep me from the gallows pole?

Yeah, what did you?
Yeah, what did you?
What did you bring me, keep me from the gallows pole?

Spoken: In olden times years ago, when you put a man in prison behind the bars in a jailhouse, if you had fifteen or twenty-five or thirty dollars you could save him from the gallows pole 'cause they gonna hang him if you don't bring up a little money. Everybody would come to the jailhouse and boy would ran upside the jail; he was married, too. As for who brang him something, lot of comfort, here comes his mother.

Mother, did you bring me the silver,
Mother, did you bring me the gold?
What did you bring me, dear mother,
Keep me from the gallows pole?

Yeah, what did you?
Yeah, what did you?
What did you bring me, keep me from the gallows pole?

Son, I brought you some silver,
Son, I brought you some gold.
Son, I brought you a little of everything,
Keep you from the gallows pole.

Yeah, I brought it.
Yeah, I brought it.
I brought you, keep you from the gallows pole.

Spoken: Here come his wife. His wife brought him all kind of clock parts and trace change. Everything in the world she could to get him out of the jailhouse.

Wife, did you bring me the silver,
Wife, did you bring me the gold?
What did you bring me, dear wifey,
Save me from the gallows pole?

Yeah, what did you?
Yeah, what did you?
What did you bring me, keep me from the gallows pole?

Friends, did you bring me the silver,
Friends, did you bring me the gold?
What did you bring me, my dear friends,
Keep me from the gallows pole?

Yeah, what did you?
Yeah, what did you?
What did you bring me, keep me from the gallows pole?

AL Lloyd's version of "Prickly Bush" with Ewan MacColl (1964) has the woman saving the man.  What's also notable is that this version was collected by Lucy Broadwood in 1893 with origins in Somersetshire, which houses Glastonbury and is next door to Wales, both having strong matriarchal origins.  It goes as follows:
"O hangman, hold thy hand", he cried,
"O hold thy hand awhile;
For I can see my own dear father
Coming over yonder stile.

"O father, have you brought me gold?
Or will you set me free?
Or be you come to see me hung,
All on this high gallows tree?"

"No, I have not brought thee gold,
And I will not set thee free;
But I am come to see thee hung,
All on this high gallows tree."

Chorus: O the prickly bush, the prickly bush,
It pricks my heart full sore;
If ever I get out of the prickly bush,
I'll never get in any more."

"O hangman, hold thy hand", he cried,
"O hold thy hand awhile;
For I can see my own dear mother
Coming over yonder stile.

"O mother, have you brought me gold?
Or will you set me free?
Or be you come to see me hung,
All on this high gallows tree?"

"No, I have not brought thee gold,
And I will not set thee free;
But I am come to see thee hung,
All on this high gallows tree."

Chorus: O the prickly bush, the prickly bush,
It pricks my heart full sore;
If ever I get out of the prickly bush,
I'll never get in any more."

"O hangman, hold thy hand", he cried,
"O hold thy hand awhile;
For I can see my own dear brother
Coming over yonder stile.

"O brother, have you brought me gold?
Or will you set me free?
Or be you come to see me hung,
All on this high gallows tree?"

"No, I have not brought thee gold,
And I will not set thee free;
But I am come to see thee hung,
All on this high gallows tree."

Chorus: O the prickly bush, the prickly bush,
It pricks my heart full sore;
If ever I get out of the prickly bush,
I'll never get in any more."

"O hangman, hold thy hand", he cried,
"O hold thy hand awhile;
For I can see my own dear sister
Coming over yonder stile.

"O sister, have you brought me gold?
Or will you set me free?
Or be you come to see me hung,
All on this high gallows tree?"

"No, I have not brought thee gold,
And I will not set thee free;
But I am come to see thee hung,
All on this high gallows tree."

Chorus: O the prickly bush, the prickly bush,
It pricks my heart full sore;
If ever I get out of the prickly bush,
I'll never get in any more."

"O hangman, hold thy hand", he cried,
"O hold thy hand awhile;
For I can see my own dear sweetheart
Coming over yonder stile.

"O sweetheart, have you brought me gold?
Or will you set me free?
Or be you come to see me hung,
All on this high gallows tree?"

"Yes, I have brought thee gold,
And I will set thee free;
And I am come, but not to see thee hung,
All on this high gallows tree."

Chorus: O the prickly bush, the prickly bush,
It pricks my heart full sore;
If ever I get out of the prickly bush,
I'll never get in any more."


In the 1970s, Led Zepplin recorded a twisted, rather misogynistic, version tune with the executioner carrying out the execution after receiving the payment.  The brother brought gold and silver.  To go further, the man  ordered his sister to have sex with the executioner.  They did.  Then he's hanged (deservedly).  While the folk genres were (and still are) singing of a man being saved by a woman, rock decides to display their misogyny proudly.  Here, his sister has nothing else to offer but sex; she, too, is an object, just like gold or silver.


Hangman, hangman, hold it a little while,
I Think I see my friends coming, Riding a many mile.
Friends, you get some silver?
Did you get a little gold?
What did you bring me, my dear friends? Keep me from the Gallows Pole.
What did you bring me to keep me from the Gallows Pole?

I couldn't get no silver, I couldn't get no gold,
You know that we're too damn poor to keep you from the Gallows Pole.
Hangman, hangman, hold it a little while,
I think I see my brother coming, riding many a mile.
Brother, you get me some silver?
Did you get a little gold?
What did you bring me, my brother, to keep me from the Gallows Pole?

Brother, I brought you some silver, yeah.
I brought a little gold, I brought a little of everything
To keep you from the Gallows Pole.
Yes, I brought you to keep you from the Gallows Pole.

Hangman, hangman, turn your head awhile,
I think I see my sister coming, riding many mile, mile, mile.
Sister, I implore you, take him by the hand,
Take him to some shady bower, save me from the wrath of this man,
Please take him, save me from the wrath of this mad, man.

Hangman, hangman, upon your face a smile,
Tell me that I'm free to ride,
Ride for many mile, mile, mile.

Oh yes, you got a fine sister, She warmed my blood from cold,
She warmed my blood to boiling hot to keep you from the Gallows Pole,
Your brother brought me silver, Your sister warmed my soul,
But now I laugh and pull so hard, see you swinging from the Gallows Pole

But now I laugh and pull so hard, see you swinging from the Gallows Pole
Swingin' on the gallows pole!

Ah-ha-ha
Swingin'
Swingin' on the gallows pole!
See-saw marjory daw
See-saw knock at my door

Recent version have been flowing from Ireland.  See Jon Boden perform "The Prickle-eye Bush" with his group Bellowhead with an unstated gender for the narrator.  Most, though, depict a man ready to be hanged with his family there to watch, only to be saved last minute by a woman, as the two were lovers.  The most beautiful version is a duet by Cara Dillon and Paul Brady as "The Streets of Derry."  This tune derives from anywhere from 1620, as it was aptly named "The Derry Gaol" (which is Gaelic for "prison").  The earliest Derry gaol was constructed in 1620, so the tune could have sprung up any time after that, but it was revived by the Irish rebels during the Irish Civil War in 1922-1923, in which so many of the Irish Republican Army were imprisoned in Derry gaols.  The tune was again revived during the 1970s during the folk resurgence.  Her, the woman gets a pardon directly from the king.  Impressive, no?



After the morning there comes an evening
And after the evening another day
And after a false love there comes a true love
I'd have you listen now to what I say

I swear my love is the finest young man
As fair as any the sun shines on
But how to save him, I do not know it
For he has got a sentence to be hung

As he was marching the streets of Derry
I own he marched up right manfully
Being much more like a commanding officer
Than a man to die upon the gallows tree

"What keeps my love so long in coming
Oh what detains her so long from me
Or does she think it a shame or scandal
To see me die upon the gallows tree"

He looked around and he saw her coming
And she was dressed all in woollen fine
The weary steed that my love was riding
It flew more swiftly than the wind

Come down, come down from that cruel gallows
I've got your pardon from the king
And I'll let them see that they dare not hang you
And I'll crown my love with a bunch of green

Following Shirley Collins, Dillon and Brady omit three verses in the middle, describing the man's sadness and the priest stepping in to buy some time with prayer.
Now the very first step he did put on that ladder,
His bloomin' colour began to fail;
Then with heavy sighin' and bitter cryin',
“Is there no releasement from Derry Gaol?
And the very next step he did put on that ladder,
His lovin' clergyman was standing by,
Cryin', “Stand you back, you false prosecutors,
I will make you see that he may not die.”
“Yes, I will make you see that you may not hang him
Until his confession to me is done;
And then you will see that you may not hang him
Till within ten minutes of the setting sun.”
What I've come to conclude is that, though the tune began in the Scandavian area, it seems to have traveled to Ireland, Scotland, and England, where it flourished in different forms, many of which praised the woman for being a valiant hero.  The British isles have a history with strong and heroic women, and their transformation of the song "The Prickly Bush" proves it.  And there were not just men in the 1920s IRA.  Women served and were imprisoned as well, so either way, it's impressive that a woman saves a man from death, since most stories revolve around a heroic man saving a damsel in distress.

2 comments:

  1. Hi! I'm really glad that I decided to research the song as I know it, The Streets of Derry! I first heard it from the artist Julie Henigan. I'm thrilled to find such a treasure trove of information on how the song has changed over time. I really appreciate your work here. Thank you, thank you!

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    1. Thanks, Jackie! It takes a lot of effort, both fun and rigorous, to research so many versions and insert my own feminist lends analyses into them. I have another coming up soon. I'll have to listen to Julie Henigen's version!

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