Probably English originally, though it can be found throughout England, Scotland and Ireland and further afield.
There is a set in the DT, heard in Vancouver in 1969, which is very similar to the MacColl recording:
THE LADY OF SKIN AND BONE
In the Forum:
Lady All Skin and Bones Another set very similar to MacColl's.
Skin & Bones Discussion with a number of versions, two with tunes.
Know Lady All Skin and Bone or...? Discussion.
There is an entry at The Traditional Ballad Index:
Skin and Bones (The Skin and Bones Lady)
The Oxford Book of Nursery Rhymes (Iona and Peter Opie, 1951) gives the earliest known set of words, from 1810:
There was a lady all skin and bone,
Sure such a lady was never known:
It happened upon a certain day,
This lady went to church to pray.
When she came to the church stile,
There she did rest a little while;
When she came to the church yard,
There the bells so loud she heard.
When she came to the church door,
She stopped to rest a little more;
When she came to the church within,
The parson prayed 'gainst pride and sin.
On looking up, on looking down,
She saw a dead man on the ground;
And from his nose unto his chin,
The worms crawled out, the worms crawled in.
Then she unto the parson said,
Shall I be so when I am dead?
O yes! O yes! the parson said,
You will be so when you are dead.
"Here the lady screams, notes the editor of Gammer Gurton's Garland, and ever since the story was first told, her experience has been bringing terror to the listeners in the nursery. [The poet] Southey, in tears, used to beg his family not to proceed. An essayist, in 1863, recalled his 'suppressed anticipation' as the story 'drew near its terribly personal ending'; a correspondent in 1946 said that these verses in Rimbault's book 'scared us so much as children, we fastened the leaves together'. The lady, the title says, was a 'gay' lady before the event, and therefore undoubtedly wanting in virtue. Perhaps the macabre moralist whe wrote the tale had in mind the paintings of bodies corrupting in the grave at one time hung in churches."
Gammer Gurton's Garland or The Nursery Parnassus, R. Christopher, 1784: edition of 1810, enlarged by R. Triphook.
Nursery Rhymes with the tunes to which they are still sung, Edward F. Rimbault, 1846.
In The Lore and Language of Scoolchildren (OUP, 1959) the Opies give three sets from current tradition:
"The most haunting of these quietly told tales with electrifying endings is probably also the oldest, for it was in print by 1810. Its popularity today amongst children is, nevertheless, almost certainly due to an unbroken chain of retelling through the years, rather than to print. They say `Let's play The woman all skin and bone', or `Let's do The woman in a churchyard' (the tale is currently known in two versions), and the children crouch around in the darkest part of the room while the narrator recites in a sepulchral voice :
There was a woman all skin and bone
Who lived in a cottage all on her own,
She thought she'd go to church one day
To hear the parson preach and pray,
When she got to the wooden stile
She thought she'd stay and rest a while
When she reached the old church door
A ghastly ghost lay on the floor,
The grubs crawled in, the grubs crawled out,
Of its ears, eyes, nose, and mouth.
Oh you ghastly ghost, she said,
Shall I be like you when I am dead ?
Version from girl, c.12, Welshpool.
A woman in a churchyard sat,
Very short and very fat,
She saw three corpses carri ed in,
Very tall and very thin,
Woman to the corpses said,
Shall I be like you when I am dead ?
Oo-oo-ah-ah! Corpses to the woman said,
Yes, you'll be like us when you are dead,
Woman to the corpses said
[piercing deathlike scream!]
Version from girl, 10, London.
Such a story could have been the `sad tale' young Mamillius began to tell on a winter's day long ago. He, too, knew that the story must be told softly, so softly that `Yond crickets shall not hear it', and he began his tale in the same way: `There was a man dwelt by a churchyard.'
That's Mamillius from Shakespeare's Winter's Tale, of course. M.R. James wrote a chilling little story about the tale that the young prince never had a chance to finish, based on traditional versions that can still be heard now, nearly a century later.
Of the references cited by MacColl, the Rymour Club one he probably got from an article by Anne Gilchrist in the Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society of 1941: "Death and the Lady" in English Balladry:
There was a lady all skin and bone.
She went to a churchyard all alone,
And when she came to the churchyard door
Behold a dead man lay on the floor.
The worms and snails through him did creep:
Then asked the lady, while sore she did weep,
"Will I be this way when I die?"
And then the dead man answered "'AY!"
[Miscellanea of the Rymour Club, Edinburgh, 1909: contributed by Alan Reid, who had it from a great-aunt who learnt it in Edinburgh c.1850).
The article includes a discussion of various examples of The Lady All Skin and Bone, including one which I think is the version MacColl recorded (the text is the same as the one posted at the beginning of this thread): it's an Irish variant from Petrie's Ancient Music of Ireland (1855). Music is given. Reference is also made to the use of the song in Dorset as a cure for the hiccups.
The other reference MacColl made to JEFDSS was to a set of Death and the Lady, noted by Francis M. Collinson from Mr. Baker of Maidstone in 1946. It doesn't really have any direct connection to this discussion, besides the momento mori theme. Mr. Baker's song was re-published in the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs (1959), and the notes, together with links to texts and other related stuff, can be seen here: Death and the Lady.
Skin and Bones (The Skin and Bones Lady)DESCRIPTION: "There was an old woman, all skin and bones." The old woman decides to go to church. At the church she encounters a (rotting?) corpse. She asks the (parson/clock), "Will I be thus when I am dead." When told "Yes," she screams and/or dies
EARLIEST DATE: 1810 (Gammer Gurton's Garland)
KEYWORDS: death questions
FOUND IN: US(Ap,MW,NE,SE,So) Britain(England)
REFERENCES (7 citations):
Randolph 69, "The Skin-and-Bone Woman" (2 texts, 2 tunes)
Eddy 86, "The Skin-and-Bone Lady" (2 texts, 1 tune)
Ritchie-SingFam, pp. 11-12, "[Skin and Bones]" (1 text, 1 tune)
JHCox 167, "The Skin-And-Bone Lady" (2 texts)
Chase, p. 186, "The Old Woman All Skin and Bones" (1 text, 1 tune)
Botkin-NEFolklr, p. 586, "Old Woman All Skin and Bone" (1 text, 1 tune)
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