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January 05, 2007

A Murder Ballad

One of the reasons I think that I like the Steeleye Span 'Official Bootleg' so much is that it includes a live version of "Sir James the Rose"; I have only two other versions of this Child ballad; the studio version of the Steeleye track (on Rocket Cottage), and an unaccompanied field recording from Orkney of the other major thread of the ballad.

The Steeleye version was incredibly influential on my musical tastes. It's possible to listen to 'All Around My Hat' or 'Black Jack Davy' without getting the sense of exactly what sort of song it is that resonates across centuries. But even the densest child cannot fail to notice that the plot of Sir James the Rose is not the sort of thing you tend to hear on the radio. Briefly, if you don't know it, we start in media res. James is on the run because he's killed someone, he asks his lover for help, she hides him out on the moor, the posse following him ask her where he's gone (and torture her in some versions), she tells them but asks them to kill him in his sleep. Instead they wake him up, cut out his heart and give it to her. Steeleye stops there but in most versions she then kills herself and no bloody wonder frankly. I love the wildness and tragedy of the song, and the way it places itself so securely in moorland. It's very well matched too with its lavish rock treatment. And ever since then I've had a particular fondness for love songs that end very, very badly.

Having said that nobody ever plays songs like this on the radio, I did hear snatches of a murder ballad on the radio a couple of months ago; a modern song in which the singer is walking through a park or woodland when he sees a beautiful girl asleep with a hat over her face. It's only when he tries to rouse her that he realises she's dead. I have absolutely no idea what it is; it was very freaky indeed. Any ideas?

Posted by Alison Scott at January 5, 2007 01:49 PM


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