Anti-Valentine’s Day Folk Songs

A banner with the words The Top Ten Tuesday List on it.Happy (Anti) Valentine’s Day!

As you can probably tell I’m not all that into Valentine’s Day. In my opinion if you’re in a happy and healthy relationship then neither partner should be forced to prove their love on a single day. If you’re happily single then it’s annoying to get those “You’re not doing anything tonight?” gasps of pity.

So I’ve created a list of folk songs that may be about love, but it’s love askew, awkward and perhaps a bit murderous and tragic at times. However, since I do realize that some people do like Valentine’s Day (and possibly because I’m a bit of a softy at times) I may have let one or two good ones slip by unnoticed.

We’ll just have to see.

This post is in relation to Broke and Bookish‘ Top Ten Tuesday weekly theme

Anti-Valentine’s Day Folk Songs

I decided to go back to the folk songs, ballads, tales and poems as I’m sure today you can find many modern “Love Sucks” lists. Besides, I find folk songs intriguing and some have breathtakingly beautiful melodies and singers when the subject matter can be quite horrific. And they say that our music is disturbing. Where possible I have linked the title of the song with the best (in my opinion) rendition of it on YouTube that I could find.

I’d like to also point out that some of these stories are not exactly pleasant so be aware of possible Trigger Warnings: Murder, Robbery, Drowning, Hanging, and Suicide

The Twa Sisters
Also known as The Cruel Sister and Binnorie. It was also recorded by Loreena McKennitt under the title The Bonny Swans.

The Story
Like many folk songs the lyrics shift a bit through regions, the teller and the times. Each version of this was so good I had to link each one but the basic story remains the same.
Two sisters go walking by the ocean or river. The elder pushes the younger in. The younger sister begs her sister for help, offering her gold and land. Does the sister want any of these? Pshaw! She will only save her sister if her younger sister gives her the hand of her younger sister’s true love. I’ve heard of sibling rivalry before but this is ridiculous! I guess the guy doesn’t get a say in the matter. In one version (The Cruel Sister) it’s pure jealousy that is the motive. The younger is fair headed while the elder is dark haired. You know how bitchy us brunettes can be.
In some versions a musician comes upon the bones and fashions them into a harp or flute. When he plays before the father the younger sister tells of the treachery of the elder sister and she is suitably punished.

Why I Like It
It has a strangely upbeat tempo for so horrific a murder. I like the morbid element of some passing musician fashioning an instrument from her bones and the ghostly element of the sister’s ghost singing through it.

Sovay, the Female Highwayman
Sovay is likely a corruption somewhere along the line of Sophie or Sylvie. I think the unique name of Sovay fits this rather unique woman in balladry. There were two versions and I couldn’t decide between the two. One is Rasputina, who seems to be a professional. The other are The Rosannah Sisters who perform it a capella and it’s a beautiful rendition. Not to mention very talented.

The Story
A woman, Sovay, dresses as a highwayman and rides to where her true love is. She commands him to “Stand and Deliver!” (I don’t know why but I love that phrase) and robs him of his watch and assorted items. She demands, upon pain of death, the gold or diamond ring that she had given him. He refuses, even though it means his life. She collects his valuables and rides off. Later Sovay and her lover are walking in the garden when he spies his watch upon her clothing. He blushes and she admits her deception. She wanted to see if he truly loved her. However, if he had given it up she would have shot him through the heart on the spot.

Why I Like It
Looking at so many folk songs and ballads one common theme that I came across was the man’s testing of his love by various ruses, deceptions and disguises. There are very few of the reverse and usually the woman ends up apologizing for the deception and doubting her suitor (or husband). I love the sheer titanium ovaries of her dressing as a highwayman (yes, I do have a minor thing for Highwaymen, or women, as the case may be) and holding her love at gunpoint. The deciding factor being whether or not he gives up the ring. Since this isn’t real life I’m free to say I think it’s awesome. I  love that she doesn’t apologize for her actions and tells him that she would have killed him on the spot. Things also presumably end well for them so I guess you could say it was a successful (though rather strange) courtship.

The Highwayman
See, told you I like Highwaymen. This song is actually a poem by Alfred Noyes that Loreena McKennitt put to music. She has a beautiful voice. I’m not much into poetry but this is one of my favorites and her voice really brings it to life.

The Story
An innkeeper’s daughter and an elusive (to the king’s soldiers) highwayman have been courting in secret for quite a while. He comes to her saying he’s going out for a good gold robbery. I think the implication we’re supposed to get is that he’s only been robbing King George’s gold. He says if he’s not there by dawn then he’ll come for her by moonlight. Incidentally, one of the best parts of the poem.
Unfortunately for them a stable hand, who is secretly in love with Bess, overhears them and alerts the soldiers to when the highwayman will be there next.
The soldiers come and put the innkeeper out of commission…somehow. It’s not quite clear what happens to him. The soldiers tie Bess to the end of the bed. Upright to a bedpost. I only mention that because looking around the internet there seems to be some confusion as to how she’s tied up (my favorite being that she’s tied to the bed and the bed tipped upright so she can see through the window). They also tie a musket up with her jokingly for ‘sentry duty’. She tries to free herself but can only manage to get her fingertip on the trigger of the musket.
She hears the Highwayman approach and pulls the trigger. The Highwayman, hearing only the shot, turns and flees. The next day he hears the truth and it enrages him. He charges the soldiers, who kill him. Thus, they both die and the poem ends with a ghostly Highwayman approaching the inn to see the ghostly Bess.

Why I Like It
It’s beautiful and tragic. Plus, Bess and the Highwayman seem to have been courting a long while so her sacrifice at least makes sense. More so than, “I’ve only known you four days but I can’t live without you!” *cough*Romeo and Juliet*cough*. The imagery is beautiful as well.

The Brown Girl
I’m not really crazy about the recording but it’s not a popular tune to record. “Brown” back then meant either dark-haired or she was tanned from the sun and thus, poor. The recording is by Steeleye Span.

The Story
A maiden and young man are in love. The young man is mentioned as “having a fortune by his side”, implying that he was richer and of higher standing than the maiden. He leaves and sends her back a letter saying that he is no longer in love with her “because she is so brown” (poor). She sends the letter back. Later he sends her a letter telling her that he is dying. She sends a letter back telling him that she is delighted to hear it.

Why I Like It
There’s so many stories where a lover has been untrue and when he is dying the woman left behind rushes to his bedside. Usually she forgives him and/or dies with him. It’s very rare to find one where her answer is “tough”.

Eggs and Marrowbones
Again I’ve got two recordings because I love the live version by Figgy Duff but the lyrics in the second song by Richard Dyer-Bennet are closer to the original lyrics.

The Story
A woman was married but loved another so she went to the doctor for something that would make her husband blind. He advises her to feed her husband a mixture of marrowbones and eggs and that will make him blind. So she does and the husband says he is blind and doesn’t want to live anymore but to drown himself would be a sin. So the wife helpfully suggests that she will go and shove him in. She gets a running start for the big push and the husband steps to the side so she falls in instead. She calls for his aid but he says he cannot see her to help her. Thus ends the most convoluted murder plan ever.

Why I Like It
I’m honestly not sure why but it strikes me as funnier than hell. Especially the concluding lines in the original that say you don’t feed your man eggs and marrowbone to do him in, you sneak up from behind.

I love Joan Baez’s voice and the song was also covered by The Grateful Dead so I’ll leave that link here also for the DeadHeads among us.

The Story
A maiden and her true love are forced to part, him for the sea, presumably to make some money to marry on. She dresses as a sailor and follows him to the ship. After the battle she looks among the dead and dying and finds him gravely wounded. She carries him to the doctor and nurses him back to health. Eventually they marry.

Why I Like It
Told you I’d sneak a romantic one in on you. I like it because in a way it implies that she’s a better fighter than he. I mean, she is still standing after the battle and he’s not. Plus she’s strong enough to carry him to a doctor in town. The ending winds up in a marriage proposal from the singer to whom they’re singing to. Seems like a long proposal to me but I guess it’s a cute one.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley
Again I used Loreena McKennitt’s version simply because I love her voice. There is one slight variation in her lyrics from the original. In her version it says “when to my ears that fateful shot”, while the original lyrics say “when a foe-man’s shot burst on our ears”. I’m not sure but my theory for the change is that back when the song was written “a foe-man” would probably be automatically translated to the English. I don’t really know, that’s just my theory.

The Story
A man is kissing his love goodbye, off to join the United Men (the Irish Army against the British, I believe, don’t quote me though as I’m not positive. As they’re embracing farewell a shot comes from the bushes. It kills the woman. The man takes his revenge (“twas blood for blood, I took”) and buries his sweetheart with the hope that he dies so he can join her.

Why I Like It
I don’t know, actually. For some reason I’m drawn to tragic love stories and this one has a rhythm to it that is complemented by Loreena’s voice.

The Knoxville Girl
I could only find one or two recordings so I chose the best. It was recorded by Jim and Jesse in 1976.

The Story
A man “in love” with a girl beats her with a stick and throws her in the river. Out of jealousy, we can presume.

Why I Like It
While I can’t say I exactly ‘like’ it I’m interested in what are called ‘Murder Ballads’.

Long Black Veil
There were a few recordings but I chose the Johnny Cash one.

The Story
A man is arrested and taken into custody for a murder that he did not commit. Witnesses claim that the killer who ran looked like him. The judge says that he will let the teller of the story go if he can produce an alibi. He can, but won’t do it since he was in bed with his best friend’s wife at the time. He doesn’t want to involve her. She, for her part, doesn’t say a word and doesn’t shed a tear when he dies. Hung for a crime he didn’t commit. She visits his grave in a long black veil afterwards. It’s implied that she still visits after her death as a ghost. Presumably in punishment for her crime of not speaking up and saving his life.

Why I Like It
First I just want to say…What. A. Bitch. Just to save her reputation she was willing to sacrifice this guy’s life? He wasn’t exactly innocent but she just let him die! I also think it’s a little unlikely but so are a lot of them. I like the ghostly flavor to the end as well.

This isn’t actually an old folk song but a newer one written by Bobby Mackey of the purported events of Bobby Mackey’s Music World. There are various legends of murder and a portal to hell on the premises. I’m not here to say whether they’re true or not but I do love the song. It hits all the right notes when it comes to folkloric and balladry music.

The Story
A dancer named Johanna became pregnant by a singer at the club, Robert Randall. Her father, out of jealousy, had Robert murdered by hanging him in his dressing room. Afterwards Johanna commits suicide by drinking poison and now supposedly haunts the nightclub.

Why I Like It
I love the ghostly element to it. I really don’t care if it’s true or not but it’s fun to think it is.

That wraps up my Anti-Valentine’s Valentine’s Day Folk Songs list. I’d like to say I hope you enjoyed it but some of the stories are a tad gruesome so whether they’re enjoyable or not is debatable. Either way, have a good Whatever Day and I hope you like the songs!


PS: Though Lilyn and GracieKat normally split the Top Tuesday List, Lilyn was quite happy to take a backseat on this one.

3 thoughts on “Anti-Valentine’s Day Folk Songs

    1. Thank you! That sounds like an awesome way to spend Valentine’s Day. Or any other day for that matter! 🙂

  1. I also got a good recommendation from Ichabod Temperance @ickytemperance.
    Tom Jones’s song ‘Delilah’. It’s a little newer than what I was going for but it is an excellent murder ballad.

    Another I’d like to add is ‘Delia’s Gone’ by Johnny Cash

Comments are closed.