ATU 780 "The Singing Bone"

ATU 780 "The Singing Bone"

Hello, and welcome to the April 2021 Folklore & Fiction dispatch. In this edition, I'll be exploring ATU 780 "The Singing Bone." This month's discussion is all about subversion, so to kick it off, I'll be singing my own subverted rendition of Child Ballad #10, "The Twa Sisters," which is itself listed in the ATU index as an example of the tale type.

Child Ballad #10 "Cruel Johnny"

By: C.S. MacCath

Two sisters sang in a shady bower.
Oh, the wind and rain.
A song to pass a happy hour.
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain.

One was bright as the morning sun.
Oh, the wind and rain.
Dark as earth was the other one.
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain.

One day, Johnny came a-courting there.
Oh, the wind and rain.
Hungry for the sisters, fair.
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain.

He courted the brighter with a glove.
Oh, the wind and rain.
And vowed he would be her own true love.
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain.

He courted the darker with a knife.
Oh, the wind and rain.
And vowed he would take her sweet, young life.
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain.

"Oh, Johnny, Johnny come and walk the cliffs."
Oh, the wind and rain.
"To watch the ships and the sailing skiffs."
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain.

But as he looked down upon the shore,
Oh, the wind and rain.
The sisters pushed cruel Johnny o'er.
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain.

A minstrel walked by the windy strand.
Oh, the wind and rain.
And saw his body float to land.
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain.

She made a harp of his white breast bone.
Oh, the wind and rain.
The sight would melt a heart of stone.
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain.

She took the strands of his yellow hair.
Oh, the wind and rain.
And with them strung this harp so rare.
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain.

The harp she took to a shady bower.
Oh, the wind and rain.
Where two sisters sang of love and power.
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain.

And laid the harp upon a stone.
Oh, the wind and rain.
Where it began to play alone.
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain.

"Two sisters did I come to court."
Oh, the wind and rain.
"And of their love, I made cruel sport."
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain.

"They chose each other over me."
Oh, the wind and rain.
"And by my death, they are set free."
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain.1

Analysis

ATU 780 "The Singing Bone" is a Religious Tale under the sub-category "The Truth Comes to Light," and the ATU index summarizes it this way:

A brother (sister) kills his (her) brother (sister) and buries (him) her in the earth. From the bones a shepherd makes an instrument (harp, violin, flute) which brings the secret to light [E632, D1610.34, N271].

Or the murder is revealed by a (speaking [D1610.2]) tree growing from the grave [E631, E632].2

There are several references to the Motif-Index of Folk-Literature listed in this entry, so let's take a look at them now for a bit more context.

D1610.20. Speaking crozier.3

D1610.34. Speaking musical instrument.4

E631. Reincarnation in plant (tree) growing from grave.5

E632. Reincarnation as musical instrument. The Singing Bone. A musical instrument made from the bones of a murdered person, or from a tree growing from the grave, speaks and tells of the crime.6

N271. Murder will out.7

This tale type is rich in motifs and variants, among them a German story entitled "The Singing Bone," which is printed in the 1853 edition of Grimm's Popular Tales and Household Stories. In it, a prideful elder brother and good-hearted younger brother hunt a wild boar plaguing the countryside. The younger brother's hunt is successful, but when the elder brother sees this, he kills the younger brother and claims a promised reward for the boar's corpse from the King.8 Years later, a peasant finds a bone from the younger brother's body and fashions it into a mouthpiece for his horn. But when he blows into it, the bone begins to sing of itself:

"My brother slew me, and buried my bones
Under the sand and under the stones:
I killed the boar as he came from his lair,
But he won the prize of the lady fair."9

It's worth noting that the mouthpiece's extraordinary song is preceded in the story by the pious assertion that "because nothing is hid from God’s sight, so also this black deed at last came to light," giving us an explicit anchor in the religious. However, many other variants don't provide this anchor, leaving the reader to conclude that the rationale for including ATU 780 among the Religious Tales and not the Tales of Magic is in the relationship between God's will and a terrible truth coming to light. This is further reinforced by the motifs themselves, in which a crozier, tree, or instrument gain the ability to reveal a misdeed.

Those of you who are familiar with "The Bonny Swans" performed by Loreena McKennitt, "The Cruel Sister" performed by Old Blind Dogs, or "Wind and Rain" performed by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings will have already heard variants of this tale type sung as ballads. "The Bonny Swans" tells the tale of an elder sister who drowns a younger sister for the sake of her "own true love:"

Oh sister, oh sister, pray lend me your hand
A hey ho and me bonny o
And I will give you house and land
The swans swim so bonny o

I'll give you neither hand nor glove
A hey ho and me bonny o
Unless you give me your own true love
The swans swim so bonny o10

"The Cruel Sister" tells the love story more completely, placing the blame for the sisters' quarrel in the hands of a knight who courts them both:

One was as bright as is the sun
Lay the bairn tae the bonnie broom
Sae coal black grew the elder one
Fa la la la la la la la la la

A knight came riding to the ladies' door
Lay the bairn tae the bonnie broom
He travelled far to be their wooer
Fa la la la la la la la la la

He courted one, aye with gloves and rings
Lay the bairn tae the bonnie broom
But he loved the other above all things
Fa la la la la la la la la la11

"Wind and Rain" also follows the love story as well:

There were two sisters of County Clare
Oh, the wind and rain
One was dark and the other was fair
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain.

And they both had a love of the miller's son
Oh, the wind and rain
But he was fond of the fairer one
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain.12

In all cases, the older and/or darker sister drowns the younger and/or fairer one, whose bones eventually find their way into a haunted harp or fiddle.

In my research for this edition, I found an interesting note in Francis James Child's discussion of "The Twa Sisters" that shed some light on the dark sister versus light sister motif in the ballad. He writes:

It is a thing made much of in most of the Norse ballads that the younger sister is fair and the older dark; the younger is bright as the sun, as white as ermine or as milk, the elder black as soot, black as the earth...and this difference is often made the ground for very unhandsome taunts, which qualify our compassion for the younger: such as Wash all day, and you will be no whiter than God made you, Wash as white as you please, you will never get a lover..."13

Finally, my own subversion of the tale type does away with the dark sister's jealous murder of the fair sister over her "own true love" or because of a man who courts them both. Instead, it follows the lead of a collected Child variant in which the elder sister's life is threatened:

He courted the eldest with a penknife,
And he vowed that he would take her life.

He courted the youngest with a glove,
And he said that he'd be her true love.14

When the sisters realize Johnny is courting them both and plans to kill one of them, they push him off a cliff in self-defence. Later, a minstrel finds Johnny's bones and makes a harp of them that confesses Johnny's crimes against the twa sisters rather than blaming them for his death.

Adaptation and Subversion

My exposure to ATU 780 began with "The Bonny Swans." Years later, I found "The Cruel Sister" and "Wind and Rain." It was then that I grew vexed with the plot of the ballad. An older, darker, jealous sister drowns a younger, fairer, sweeter sister over a man who in some variants dated them both at the same time. Who was this paragon of masculine virtue anyway, and why would any two sisters permit a man to divide them? Clearly, my worldview clashed with the worldview of the ballad, in which a prospect of marriage was enough reason to overlook the unsavoury courting practices of the prospective groom and set one sister against the other, likely because they lived in a world that granted them too little power without a husband.

With this clash of worldviews in mind, I rewrote "Twa Sisters." There are several variants of the lyrics for the ballad, and I pulled from them a rough outline of the story. Crucially, I borrowed from a variant in which the suitor threatens the dark sister's life ("He courted the eldest with a penknife/And he vowed that he would take her life"15), which provides enough motivation for the sisters in my ballad to view Johnny as a threat to their safety. From there, I worked poetically to supplement the fragments I had gathered with the story I wanted to tell, and I set the finished result to a North American melody and refrain. Now you know what I did with Child Ballad #10 and why I did it. But there's still a question here you ought to be asking me.

What business did I have subverting this ballad at all?

Last month, I introduced the idea that subversion of folkloric narratives is deeper work than simple gender-swapping or modernization, and I argued that we should be prepared to examine the ways our own ideas about the world intersect with the ideas presented in these narratives if we hope to adapt or subvert them successfully. I would also argue that in general, taking an ideological stand in storytelling is a powerful act capable of shaping the ways other people think and behave, so we should assume that power with care. Remember that the Grimm Brothers sanitized the tales they collected before publishing them, and Stith Thompson wasn't even willing to discuss folkloric motifs with explicit elements in his index. Even literary fairy tale writers like Charles Perrault sought to civilize children by means of the narratives they wrote, leading folklore scholar Jack Zipes to write that his "foremost concern is how fairy tales operate ideologically to indoctrinate children so that they will conform to dominant social standards that are not necessarily established in their behalf."16

Yikes.

But as Shakespeare himself might say, here's the rub. Storytellers tell stories because we have something to say, and often what we have to say touches on important cultural or political themes. Should we avoid using folkloric motifs, tale types and genres because they resonate with our audiences and have the potential to amplify the ideological messages in our storytelling? I don't think so. We're artists, and this sort of commentary is an important part of what we do. In fact, I love what Dinty Moore has to say in The Mindful Writer about this issue. He writes:

The true work of the writer is the true work of all artists: to take risks, to lean far out over the edge of the accepted truth, to see what can only be seen from that vantage point.

Ask yourself every once in a while: Am I in over my head? Am I posing questions in my work to which there can never be satisfying, final answers? Am I trying to tackle a project here that is well beyond my capacity as a writer? Am I just a little afraid of the direction that all of this is going?

If the answer to each of these questions is yes, then you are heading in the right direction.

Steady on.17

So where does all of this leave the folklorically-minded storyteller who has something ideological to say? I have no clear answer to this question. However, I do think that genuinely subversive storytelling calls into question the deepest threads of folkloric, cultural, or political narratives. I also think it can provide an alternative worldview, though I would add that positions of absolute rightness or wrongness can make our storytelling fragile and polarize our audiences.

With that in mind, I'll close with few questions in lieu of a specific storytelling exercise. Perhaps they'll be of help to your own subversive storytelling:

  1. What deep narrative threads does your work call into question?
  2. What is your motivation for questioning or subverting these narrative threads?
  3. What alternative does your storytelling provide?
  4. How are you leaving that alternative open to question?
  5. Ultimately, how can you be a more mindful storyteller when you subvert folkloric narratives or include your own ideological positions in your work?

That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! Join me next month for an exploration of ATU 852 "Lying Contest." Meanwhile, you'll find the podcast edition of this dispatch below.

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Monthly Meme Archive

Here are the folklore-related memes I published to social media in March 2021.


  • 1. C.S. MacCath, Cruel Johnny, MP3 (South Haven: Triskele Media Press, 2020).
  • 2. Hans Jörg Uther, The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography. Part 1: Animal Tales, Tales of Magic, Religious Tales, and Realistic Tales, with an Introduction (Helsinki: Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 2011): 439.
  • 3. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature Volume Two D-E (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957): 285.
  • 4. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature Volume Two D-E (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957): 286.
  • 5. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature Volume Two D-E (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957): 488.
  • 6. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature Volume Two D-E (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957): 489.
  • 7. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature Volume Five L-Z, Electronic. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957).
  • 8. Alex Bledsoe's novel Gather Her Round, Book #5 in his critically-acclaimed Tufa series, is a novel-length adaptation of this tale that delighted me both as a reader and a folklorist because I was able to map the tale type onto the novel and still be enchanted by the journey. I recommend it, and indeed the entire series, to any lover of folkloric fiction.
  • 9. Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm, “The Singing Bone,” in German Popular Tales and Household Stories. Volume I. (New York: C.S. Francis and Co., 1853): 151.
  • 10. Loreena McKennitt, The Bonny Swans, MP3 (Quinlan Road, 1994).
  • 11. Old Blind Dogs, The Cruel Sister, MP3 (Klub Records Ltd., 1993).
  • 12. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Wind and Rain (Lionsgate, 2000).
  • 13. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: Volume I (Minneola: Dover Publications, 2003): 120.
  • 14. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: Volume I (Minneola: Dover Publications, 2003): 131.
  • 15. “TWO SISTERS (12),” The Mudcat Café, accessed January 3, 2021, http://mudcat.org/@displaysong.cfm?SongID=8258.
  • 16. Jack Zipes, Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion (New York: Routledge, 2006): 34.
  • 17. Dinty W. Moore, The Mindful Writer (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2016): 25.