The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #140832   Message #3237706
Posted By: Phil Edwards
12-Oct-11 - 06:40 AM
Thread Name: George Collins Is Innocent!
Subject: George Collins Is Innocent!
Since becoming the owner of a copy of Tony Rose's Bare Bones, I've been listening quite a lot to his version of George Collins - one of the most quietly powerful tracks on an album that's full of them. (If there was ever an album that sneaks up on you & socks you over the head with love & death & passion, it's that one.)

George Collins (a.k.a. Giles Collins) is a variant on Clerk Colvin (a.k.a. Clerk Colvill) without the supernatural elements, and with a bit of Lady Alice added on at the end. Clerk goes out one morning, sometimes brushing off a warning from his wife not to go with any strange women, sometimes one from his mother; he sees a strange woman & instantly falls for her; he kisses her; she turns out to be a mermaid and to have poisoned him; he goes home and dies. George or Giles is different in that he has a girlfriend rather than a wife, she doesn't warn him and the strange woman isn't a mermaid; his girlfriend weeps for him when he's dead and promises to kill herself.

Looking into all this, I came across Frankie Armstrong's notes on the song, cited on Reinhard's site:

Clerk Colven is a two-timer: his wife suspects as much, but his mermaid lover is quite sure of it and acts accordingly. ... There cannot be a more unpleasant macho couplet in balladry than Colven's sneering boast to his wife that

    "I never saw a fair woman
    But with her body I could sin."

This level of hubris ensures his inevitable and well-merited demise. The mermaid is not one to forgive and forget and, says Frankie, while not a wholly desirable role model from a marriage counsellor's point of view, she is very satisfying to sing about.

But what does Clerk say to his wife (or mother)? Certainly there's one variant (in Bronson) in which he replies to her warning with the lines above - "don't bother me with your talk about being faithful, I'm the kind of guy who likes to roam around", in effect. But both the Child variants which feature the wife have something different:

A: 'O haud your tongue, my gay ladie,
Tak nae sic care o me;
For I nae saw a fair woman
I like so well as thee.'

The B variant is particularly interesting:

B: 'Now speak nae mair, my lusty dame,
Now speak nae mair of that to me;
Did I neer see a fair woman,
But I wad sin with her body?'

It's a rhetorical question, not a boast - "Of course I'll be true to you - do you think I'm the kind of man who sleeps with every woman he meets?" This to me makes much more sense of the story - he's not intending to meet the mermaid, he's bewitched by her - and it makes me think that the Bronson text is probably a garbled version of Child's B version.

Frankie's idea that Clerk was two-timing the mermaid (which, to be fair, Child also suggested) also seems weird and unhistorical - supernatural beings in ballads are strange and powerful and scary, they're not people like us whose feelings we care about. As for the idea that by the end of the ballad we're somehow expected to be rooting for the mermaid rather than Clerk, I can't see any support for that at all.

Clerk Colvill is innocent! Beware of the mermaids!

PS George Collins never met a mermaid, so this post isn't really about him. I couldn't resist the title, though (British readers of a similar age will know why).