"The Maid Freed from the Gallows"

Hello, and welcome to the January 2022 Folklore & Fiction dispatch. First up, a bit of housekeeping. After three years of writing and podcasting on folkloristics for storytellers, I've opened a Patreon account. Patrons are listed on the Folklore & Fiction website, they receive a copy of the monthly Folklore & Fiction dispatch by email, and they have access to exclusive posts about folkloristics, writing, and music, among several other benefits. So if you've come to value the Folklore & Fiction project, I'd be most grateful for your support. You'll find my account at patreon.com/folkloreandfiction.

Much as the 2021 series foregrounded folk narrative plots with help from The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography, the 2022 series will foreground folk narrative motifs with help from the Motif Index of Folk Literature and other, similar guides. You'll also notice that instead of naming the dispatches and podcasts in this series by their location in a folklore index, I'm naming them with the titles of folk ballads and tales instead. This is because the same motif can be found in many different kinds of traditional narratives,1 and it's more sensible for our creative purposes to explore several motifs in a single ballad or tale than it is to follow a single motif across several ballads or tales. Finally, this edition is the first of three dispatches inspired by requests from followers of the Folklore & Fiction project, and we owe our thanks to Marie Brennan's interest in "The Prickle Holly Bush" for this month's discussion.

"The Prickle Holly Bush" is a version of Child 95, "The Maid Freed from the Gallows," a ballad so popular it has been sung all over the world across hundreds of years. In The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, published in 1886, Francis James Child identifies Spanish, Faröe, Icelandic, Swedish, Danish, German, Estonian, Finnish, Wendish, Russian, and Slovenian versions, and he lists 8 full or partial English lyrics.2 In The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, published in 1962, Bertrand Harris Bronson lists 68 airs for the ballad, and many of these are paired with with full or partial English lyrics.3 The Roud Folk Song Index, housed online at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, returns approximately 403 results for Roud 144, which is the number given to the set of ballads containing "The Maid Freed from the Gallows" and "The Prickle Holly Bush."4 I also found reference to 12 modern renditions of the ballad performed by Led Zeppelin, Lead Belly, Jean Ritchie, Neil Young, Judy Collins, and others in the MusicBrainz encyclopedia of music metadata.5 Several of these were quite interesting, so I gathered them into a YouTube playlist for you and included the Swedish version "Den bortsålda" performed by Garmarna and the Finnish version "Lunastettava neito" performed by Laulupuu. You'll find a link to that playlist in the footnotes.6

This month's example version of Child 95 was originally communicated from oral tradition to Bishop Percy on April 7, 1770 by the Reverend P. Parsons of Wey. It's listed first in Child's discussion of the ballad, and it tells the complete tale.7 I'm singing it to a slight variation of the air "Oh, Stop Your Hand, Lord Judge," which is listed first in Bronson's discussion.8 I've also copied Bronson's musical notation and created sheet music for your reference, and I've created an audio file from the sheet music so you can hear the original. Here are the lyrics, sheet music, and audio together with my performance.

"The Maid Freed from the Gallows"

Lyrics

'O good Lord Judge, and sweet Lord Judge,
Peace for a little while!
Methinks I see my own father,
Come riding by the stile.

'Oh father, oh father, a little of your gold,
And likewise of your fee!
To keep my body from yonder grave,
And my neck from the gallows-tree.'

'None of my gold now you shall have,
Nor likewise of my fee;
For I am come to see you hangd,
And hanged you shall be.'

'Oh good Lord Judge, and sweet Lord Judge,
Peace for a little while!
Methinks I see my own mother,
Come riding by the stile.

'Oh mother, oh mother, a little of your gold,
And likewise of your fee,
To keep my body from yonder grave,
And my neck from the gallows-tree!'

'None of my gold now shall you have,
Nor likewise of my fee;
For I am come to see you hangd,
And hanged you shall be.'

'Oh good Lord Judge, and sweet Lord Judge,
Peace for a little while!
Methinks I see my own brother,
Come riding by the stile.

'Oh brother, oh brother, a little of your gold,
And likewise of your fee,
To keep my body from yonder grave,
And my neck from the gallows-tree!'

'None of my gold now shall you have,
Nor likewise of my fee;
For I am come to see you hangd,
And hanged you shall be.'

'Oh good Lord Judge, and sweet Lord Judge,
Peace for a little while!
Methinks I see my own sister,
Come riding by the stile.

'Oh sister, oh sister, a little of your gold,
And likewise of your fee,
To keep my body from yonder grave,
And my neck from the gallows-tree!'

'None of my gold now shall you have,
Nor likewise of my fee;
For I am come to see you hangd,
And hanged you shall be.'

'Oh good Lord Judge, and sweet Lord Judge,
Peace for a little while!
Methinks I see my own true-love,
Come riding by the stile.

'Oh true-love, oh true-love, a little of your gold,
And likewise of your fee,
To save my body from yonder grave,
And my neck from the gallows-tree.'

'Some of my gold now you shall have,
And likewise of my fee,
For I am come to see you saved,
And saved you shall be.'9

Air

10
 

 

Analysis

This month, The Motif Index of the Child Corpus provides our first motif analysis and reads:

Child 95, "THE MAID FREED FROM THE GALLOWS"

A condemned woman begs her parents, her brother and her sister to pay the ransom necessary to free her, but all refuse their help. Only her lover is prepared to part with his money to save her life.

help ( --> rescue (of daughter from execution), refused by person asked for help) rescue (of person from death: of mistress from execution; through --> ransom) / punishment (of woman; by --> execution; prevented)11

I find this entry a bit spare because it gives us a summary of the ballad and a few prominent motifs but leaves other motifs unmentioned. So let's turn our attention to Child's discussion of the ballad and see what else might be found there. He writes that in many other versions of the ballad, "both from northern and southern Europe, a young woman has fallen into the hands of corsairs; father, mother, brother, sister, refuse to pay ransom, but her lover, in one case husband, stickles at no price which may be necessary to retrieve her."12

This information gives us another motif; namely, of a young woman abducted by corsairs. The Motif Index of Folk Literature classifies it as:

R12.1. Maiden abducted by pirates (robbers).13

Child also writes that in some ballad versions "a characteristic explanation is furnished of the danger which the heroine has incurred: she has lost a golden key, or a golden ball, which had been entrusted to her."14 Tristram Potter Coffin offers insight about the reason this loss is significant, writing that "In Britain and America the antecedent action, if mentioned at all, ties up with a crime —the conventional loss of a golden ball, key, or comb, possibly representing virginity."15 In these versions, the heroine's family believes she is worthless without her virginity, but her beloved is willing to give everything he has to spare her life. In an interesting reversal of this paradigm, the Wendish ballad versions feature a young shepherd "thrown into prison by a nobleman for wearing a costume above his station."16 Once again, the hero of the ballad has transgressed, and his family rejects him because of it, but his beloved pawns her coral necklace to free him.

Animism, Folklore, and Storytelling

Given the prevalence of English folk ballads and tales that warn maidens about faithless suitors, I find the suitor's impassioned rescue of the maiden in this ballad refreshing. However, I also find the criminalization of her sexual agency problematic. Let's take a look at Version H of "The Maid Freed from the Gallows" to situate ourselves more firmly in this issue:

2. 'Oh mother, hast brought my golden ball,
And come to set me free?
Or have you come to see me hanged,
Upon this gallows-tree?'

3. 'I've neither brought thy golden ball,
Nor come to set thee free,
But I have come to see thee hung,
Upon this gallows-tree.'17

If Coffin's argument holds, our maiden is begging her mother to defend her virtue even though she is no longer a virgin. Instead, her mother asserts the maiden's only virtue is in her virginity. Indeed, the ballad empowers the maiden's community and family to assign all of her worth to an intact hymen. She is reduced from a woman whose body autonomy and sexual choices are personal to a woman whose life is worthless because she transgressed external restrictions placed upon them. But whatever the ballad might tell us about 18th century English womanhood, we can sacralize the maiden's body autonomy and sexual choices now, in the 21st century. We can recognize that the right to take a lover was hers alone; not her family's and not her community's. Finally, we can remember that when we hold the bodies and choices of women sacred, ballads like this one cease to be written.

Folk Narrative and Storytelling

If you're a storyteller working with motifs as story prompts or inclusions, here is your list for this month:

  • The rescue of a daughter from execution, refused by the person asked for help.
  • The rescue of a person, perhaps a mistress, from execution through ransom.
  • The punishment of a woman by execution, prevented.
  • A maiden abducted by pirates.
  • A maiden transgresses societal expectations and takes a young man as a lover, who later rescues her from execution because of it.
  • A young man transgresses societal expectations to improve his lot by unorthodox means, is imprisoned for it, and is later ransomed by the maiden he loves.

There's also plenty of creative work you might do interrogating the criminalization of the maiden's sexual agency, whether you choose to do it through the lens of sacred embodiment and sexuality or through some other means.

The rest of this edition is devoted to ballad adaptation. Some of you might recall that I've written a feminist adaptation of Child 10 "The Twa Sisters,"18 which I'm releasing in the spring as part of an EP titled Shatter and Rise. Child 95 "The Maid Freed from the Gallows" offers the balladeer similar opportunities for adaptation, and as we've seen, musicians have been and remain fond of it. But I would argue that adapting a traditional English ballad should go quite a bit further than performing a familiar version differently from other musicians. So I'm going to outline the process for ballad adaptation I use in the hope it will be helpful to you.

First, it's important to think about what you want to accomplish with a traditional English ballad adaptation. I had been vexed with "The Twa Sisters" for years and wanted the sisters to be loyal to each other and not to a creep who, in some versions, really did threaten the dark sister's life. I wanted to subvert the ballad and write something dangerous, empowering, and spooky. Your reasons for working with a traditional English ballad might be equally lyrical, or you might want to expand upon or change something you've heard in a ballad air. Whatever your reasons, let them become the foundation of your work.

Second, read the source material. In the case of Child 95, that means Francis James Child's entry in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads Volume II and Bertrand Harris Bronson's entry in The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads Volume II. As you do, remember that your mileage with these texts will vary depending on the ballad you've chosen to adapt. "The Maid Freed from the Gallows" is old and well-loved, so there are plenty of lyrics and airs to choose from. But it's well-known that Child didn't collect the lyrics and airs together (more's the pity), and Bronson's work follows his by over half a century, so you might find gaps. But really, what are gaps but opportunities for a balladeer to innovate with the material?

Third, remember that the same principles you use to bring motifs into a story can be used to adapt a ballad. They're stories themselves, after all. So innovate with the material in a way that leaves the scaffolding of the story intact. In the case of "The Maid Freed from the Gallows," the maid might be a spy in the service of a noble rebellion who has information dangerous to the established order. Her execution might come in the form of a mind wipe, which her establishmentarian family supports, but her lover makes an impassioned and successful plea for her freedom, and the noble rebellion wins the day. (It's Yuletide. I've been watching a lot of science fiction.)

Finally, a two-part bit of advice. Listen to every adaptation you can find. This will help you understand what other musicians have done with the material and begin to separate your own creative process from theirs. But remember that while traditional English ballads come out of oral tradition, these new adaptations are the creative work of your fellow storytellers and musicians. For example, "The Twa Sisters" is traditional, and you can adapt it to your heart's content, but "Cruel Johnny" is my work, so you'd need my permission to borrow from it. Make sense?

That's all for now. Thanks so much for your time! Join me next month for a look at "The King with the Horse's Ears." Meanwhile, you'll find the podcast edition of this dispatch below.

 

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  • 1. Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran, “Introduction to the ATU Tale Types,” Folklore & Fiction, January 4, 2021, https://csmaccath.com/blog/introduction-atu-tale-types.
  • 2. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: Volume II (Minneola: Dover Publications, 2003), 346-355.
  • 3. Bertrand Harris Bronson, The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, Volume II, Annotated Edition (Loomis House Press, 2009), 448-475.
  • 4. English Folk Dance and Song Society, “Vaughan Williams Memorial Library,” accessed December 27, 2021, https://www.vwml.org/roudnumber/144.
  • 5. MusicBrainz, “Song ‘The Maid Freed From the Gallows,’” accessed December 27, 2021, https://musicbrainz.org/work/37b7e41e-a515-4f0a-80ef-df7759499be9.
  • 6. "The Maid Freed from the Gallows" YouTube Playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLjRT0LiKrXGlUjEOUDS-Y615aaI9NCBim.
  • 7. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: Volume II (Minneola: Dover Publications, 2003), 350-351.
  • 8. Bertrand Harris Bronson, The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, Volume II, Annotated Edition (Loomis House Press, 2009), 450.
  • 9. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: Volume II (Minneola: Dover Publications, 2003), 350-351.
  • 10. Bertrand Harris Bronson, The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, Volume II, Annotated Edition (Loomis House Press, 2009), 450.
  • 11. Natascha Würzbach and Simone M. Salz, Motif Index of the Child Corpus (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter & Co., 1995), 128.
  • 12. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: Volume II (Minneola: Dover Publications, 2003), 346.
  • 13. Stith Thompson, Motif-Index of Folk-Literature Volume Five L-Z (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957), Electronic Edition.
  • 14. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: Volume II (Minneola: Dover Publications, 2003), 346.
  • 15. Tristram Potter Coffin and Roger deV. Renwick, The British Traditional Ballad in North America, Revised Edition (University of Texas Press, 2014), Kindle.
  • 16. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: Volume II (Minneola: Dover Publications, 2003), 349.
  • 17. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: Volume II (Minneola: Dover Publications, 2003), 353.
  • 18. "The Twa Sisters,"Ceallaigh S. MacCath-Moran, “ATU 780 ‘The Singing Bone,’” Folklore & Fiction, accessed December 30, 2021, https://csmaccath.com/blog/atu-780-singing-bone.