Saturday, May 25, 2013

Bonnie Banks o' Fordie: A Historical Analysis

Usually if there's a murder ballad in the folk tune repertoire, it's likely that the victim is a young female.  However, sometimes she survives if attacked due to her cunning intelligence!  Take, for example, my focus this post "Bonnie Banks o' Fordie."  The tune has gone by other names, such as "The Bonnie Banks of Airdrie", "Bonny Farday", "The Banished Man", "Fair Flowers of the Valley" (Tim O'Brien recorded this first by this title), "The Outlyer Bold", "The Duke of Perth's Three Daughters",  "Babylon", and "The Bonnie Banks of the Virgie O".  It's also known as Child Ballad 14, having 5 versions recorded.  The earliest known versions from Scotland developed in the 1700s.  Version B of Child Ballad 14 is supposedly from the latter half of the 18th century, while the others are from the earlier half.  (You can find all versions here and all versions here, along with the origins in which the versions were collected).

Malinky's version "Bonnie Banks o' Fordie"




For the sake of simplicity, I'm only going to post Version A from Child Ballads, the most standard, I think.



14A.1   THERE were three ladies lived in a bower,
      Refrain: Eh vow bonnie
        And they went out to pull a flower.
      Refrain: On the bonnie banks o Fordie
14A.2   They hadna pu’ed a flower but ane,
        When up started to them a banisht man.
14A.3   He’s taen the first sister by her hand,
        And he’s turned her round and made her stand.
14A.4   ‘It’s whether will ye be a rank robber’s wife,
        Or will ye die by my wee pen-knife?’
14A.5   ‘It’s I’ll not be a rank robber’s wife,
        But I’ll rather die by your wee pen-knife.’
14A.6   He’s killed this may, and he’s laid her by,
        For to bear the red rose company.
14A.7   He’s taken the second ane by the hand,
        And he’s turned her round and made her stand.
14A.8   ‘It’s whether will ye be a rank robber’s wife,
        Or will ye die by my wee pen-knife?’
14A.9   ‘I’ll not be a rank robber’s wife,
        But I’ll rather die by your wee pen-knife.’
14A.10  He’s killed this may, and he’s laid her by,
        For to bear the red rose company.
14A.11  He’s taken the youngest ane by the hand,
        And he’s turned her round and made her stand.
14A.12  Says, ‘Will ye be a rank robber’s wife,
        Or will ye die by my wee pen-knife?’
14A.13  ‘I’ll not be a rank robber’s wife,
        Nor will I die by your wee pen-knife.
14A.14  ‘For I hae a brother in this wood,
        And gin ye kill me, it’s he’ll kill thee.’
14A.15  ‘What’s thy brother’s name? come tell to me.’
        ‘My brother’s name is Baby Lon.’
14A.16  ‘O sister, sister, what have I done!
        O have I done this ill to thee!
14A.17  ‘O since I’ve done this evil deed,
        Good sall never be seen o me.’
14A.18  He’s taken out his wee pen-knife,
      And he’s twyned himsel o his ain sweet life.

Essentially, the story is of three sisters who go into the forest to pick wildflowers.  A drifter happens upon them and wants them for his wife.  He threatens them: Be my wife, or I'll kill you.  The first two would rather die.  (Side note: They either could not see his face and are distant from each other, or they see him and do not recognize him.)  So he slits their throats with his knife.  The third sister uses her brains and either knows it's him or outright lies and says her drifter brother will save her.  He realizes that drifter is him and that he has slain his long lost sisters.  He then kills himself, ultimately saving his sister like she had said.  Her words, intended as truth or accidentally truth, had saved her.  She outsmarted her assailant to save her life.  Unfortunately, she could not save her sisters, as well.

According to Geo R. Kinloch in his book Ancient Scottish Ballads, "The Duke of Perth's Three Daughters" developed in Mearns-shire, Scotland, while "Babylon" and "The Bonnie Banks of Fordie" developed, quite backwardsly in Perthshire, Scotland.  I believe it's the Scottish versions that hold more weight as a female-friendly version, where they yet retain their rights and sanctity and will die nobly with them.  As does their brother when he learns that he's killed his own sisters in the traditionally ancient noble fashion when one dishonors himself/herself.

Nic Jones sang an Americanized version of "The Bonnie Banks of Fordie" (rooted by Child version E), and, rather, than the third sister saving herself, she was saved by her actual brother, who fends off the murderous stranger and gets him trialed and hanged.  The woman becomes the damsel in distress and needs saving.  This is the basis of American pop culture, right?  (See: This summer's blockbusters.)  It came from somewhere in the British Isles, but what's special about this song is that more versions appear where the last and youngest sister outsmarts her assailant.

Other versions can be found in Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Faeroe Islands, but it seems that two very different versions of the same source sprouted in Scotland and Denmark.  Pete Coe, who recorded a version called "Banks of Virgie", believes it's Scandinavian in origin.  I think I'd agree.  Each regions developed its own twist, specific to the culture.  Scotland has historically been more respective of women, while Scandinavian countries are generally mostly known for raping of women (Vikings pillaging and raping).  

Where the Danish version "Herr Truels' Daughters" differs is the third daughter is murdered as well, but before she dies, she tells her murderers of an inn to for proper lodging.  This inn, it turns out, is owned by the sisters' father and mother.  After the murderers get the father drunk and put him to bed, they attempt to have their way with the mother.  However, she finds in their packs her own daughters' clothing.  She flees to wake her husband, who she wants arrested.  Upon interrogation, he finds out that they're his long-lost sons, and he wants to help them escape.  However, they're so horrified that they've killed their own sisters that they want to be executed.  They say nothing about trying to sleep with their mom.  Clearly they have an Oepidal Complex.  I find this version much more...messed up.  However, I think it shows that the last sister, who this time around dies, had either told them that to get their father to avenge them or she just wanted them to rest up well after such a terrible ordeal they just went through to murder them.

I think I like the Scottish versions much better, where the woman saves herself and still holds onto her individuality and freedom.

Dick Gaughan sings "Babylon"


Tim O'Brien sings (with his sister Mollie on harmony) "Fair Flowers of the Valley"
Fair Flowers Of The Valley


Jean Hewson's version "The Bonny Banks of Vergie-O"




Malinky also sings the song for Celtic Connections with the Swedish folk ground Ranarim, for a combination of the same song in their respective countries of Scotland and Sweden.


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