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Two sisters, two songs?

14 Jun 09 - 11:02 PM (#2656578)
Subject: Two sisters, two songs?
From: plnelson

Binnorie, Cruel Sister, Two Sisters, Twa Sisters, The Wind and the Rain - are these all variations on the "same" song or, are they really two DIFFERENT songs in their historical origins, but they have enough similarities that people, including performers, confuse them?

They both involve a jealous relationship between two sisters, but broadly, there seem to be two distinct flavours -

1. The younger sister goes swimming but the older one won't help pull her out of the water so she drowns and floats downstream to the miller's pond (who sometimes is complicit or related). But pretty much it ends there.

2. The older sister pushes the younger one in, who drowns and floats downstream until her body is found, a harp is made from her breastbone and hair, and when played the harps accuses the older sister.

Is there any historical source research on this/these song(s)?

Thanks in advance.

14 Jun 09 - 11:13 PM (#2656580)
Subject: RE: Two sisters, two songs?
From: artbrooks

I think those are all variants of Child 10. According to Wiki, there are parallels in other languages than English.

14 Jun 09 - 11:58 PM (#2656590)
Subject: RE: Two sisters, two songs?
From: dick greenhaus

Is a bear like a man?

15 Jun 09 - 07:40 AM (#2656801)
Subject: RE: Two sisters, two songs?
From: plnelson

"Is a bear like a man?"

Exactly. The idea of a jealous, murderous relationship between two siblings is common enough that we can imagine it arising spontaneously in many cultures. That Wiki was very interesting because it showed that this motif was even more widespread than I imagined.

But just because two things have a superficial similarity doesn't mean they have a common origin (e.g., bears, men) Maybe the key thing to focus on is the tell-tale musical instrument because that seems to distinguish the main variants.   

Are there other common folk songs that don't involve murderous siblings but DO involve tell-tale musical instruments?

15 Jun 09 - 08:12 AM (#2656818)
Subject: RE: Two sisters, two songs?
From: Rumncoke

I dimly recall the tale of a barber who works for a powerful, vain, moody, vengeful lord, and who knows the dreadful secret that the man wears an elaborate wig because he is completly bald.

From time to time the knowledge becomes too much and the barber takes himself off into the woods where he bangs on a particular tree trunk and shrieks 'our lord and master is bald' - just to get it out of his system.

One day the barber goes into the woods and finds that the tree he has been pounding has been cut down, but thinking nothing of it, he simply finds another sturdy old tree to beat.

Time passes, there is to be a parade, a new drum is to be presented to the city band. Everyone turns out for the grand march past, even though the sun is very hot and there is not a cloud in the sky.

When the drum is beaten it doesn't go 'boom boom boom' but cries out 'our lord and master is bald' in the barber's voice.

There is a deathly hush, everyone waits for the reaction.

The lord suddenly bursts out laughing and takes off his wig.

'I was just wishing I could take off this hot heavy wig.' he says, 'and now I can.' and orders the parade to go on.

The drum is carried right around the town shouting out that the lord is bald each time it was struck, until all the shouting was used up and it changed to making the normal sound for a drum.

16 Jun 09 - 04:13 AM (#2657480)
Subject: RE: Two sisters, two songs?
From: Darowyn

There is a Greek legend about King Midas who was clearly a man who had problems with magic. Not only was he given the golden touch, but over some dispute over musical differences with Apollo, grew Donkey's ears.
Only his barber knew the truth, and whispered the fact to the reeds, which were made into Panpipes which did the magical outing trick, just like the macabre fiddle/harp or drum above.
Somewhere in my library I have an account of a social-psychological study of rumour. It describes how, when people remember a story and re-tell it, it is as if they remember the key points, then re-build the narrative to connect them.
-Really wierd details like talking fiddles tend to survive unless cultural inhibitions, such as religious doctrines, suppress them.
-Anything which, from memory, appears to be unconnected- for example the callousness of the Miller, is either taken out or rationalised- he stole her ring.
-Interesting fragments of other stories are often grafted on. Legends about Sir Francis Drake often include borrowings from tales of Bran the Blessed and King Arthur- Drakes Drum and England's time of need for example.
My interpretation is that there is fundamentally one song, but it is localised by the singer to bring it closer to his or her audience. In a similar way, if I tell the "Phantom Hitch Hiker", I always start by describing a suitable local road on which it is alleged to happen.
It's just the folk process in prose!

16 Jun 09 - 05:43 AM (#2657519)
Subject: RE: Two sisters, two songs?
From: Brian Peters

F. J. Child's introduction to #10 is full of international examples from folk tales, of the corpse reconstituted as musical instrument or other everyday object, and going on to reveal truth or treachery. The Grimm's fairy tale 'The Singing Bone' is one of them.

Going back to the actual ballad, the question posed by the OP is an interesting one. There seem to be two main strains for Child #10: one with the alternate line refrains 'Bow Down, Bow Down / Bow and Balance (or the Bough it Bends) to Me", and the other the 'Binnorie / by the Bonny Mill Dams of Binnorie' type (the 'Edinboro / Bonny Saint Johnstone Stands Upon Tay' type is very similar, textually).

The first strain is the commonest in North American collections of the 20th century (particularly in the Appalachians) and has also been collected in England; in this form it almost always concludes with the miller either finishing off or rescuing the drowning sister, with no supernatural element. The motive for the murder, originally jealousy over a lover, is here changed to a quarrel over a hat (what's the world coming to, eh?).

The second seems restricted to Scotland apart from one Northumbrian example; this strain (when collected in a reasonably complete form) usually does include the magic harp or fiddle.

It would be tempting to propose from that evidence that an 'English' strain, with the 'Bow Down' refrain and a simple murder-ballad theme, was the ancestor of the numerous Appalachian variants, while a separate, supernatural Scots strain existed but never made the crossing. But of course nothing is ever that easy. The oldest example listed by Child is an English broadside from 1656 with the refrain 'Hie downe downe a downe-a', which includes very detailed references to the body parts used in building the fiddle (the nose becomes the bridge, and the veins the strings, etc.). Meanwhile, Appalachian versions exist that do include an account of the magical fiddle, but these have different refrain types: either 'Oh the Wind and Rain' (fairly rare in tradition though popular currently), or 'Jenny Flower Gentle and Rosemary', which - confusingly - has associations with at least three other Child ballads.

It's quite possible that entirely different versions of the ballad might have arisen independently from the same raw material (folk tale, minstrel romance, whatever). However, in this case it is possible to compare the texts of the two main strains and find certain similarites:

The stanza from the 1656 broadside 'Somtymes she sanke, somtymes she swam / until she came unto the mill dam', survived in recognizable form in several Scots 'Binnorie' variants collected nearly two hundred years later, but also in 'Bow Down' versions found later still in England and the US.

Another common sequence, in which the drowning sister fruitlessly offers inducements in return for rescue ('Sister, sister, give me your hand / and you'll be the heir to all my land') did not appear in the 1656 broadside, but occurs in several of the 19th century Scots versions listed by Child, and carries on turning up in English and N. American versions right through to Derbyshire singer George Fradley's 1980s recording for Veteran.

Such textual similarities would argue against two versions of the ballad having arisen completely independently. But we know so little about the composition of the ballads that any conclusions are going to be speculative. Did some 18th or 19th century hack compose the 'Bow Down' murder ballad, cannibalising verses from an earlier broadside? We just don't know. It's at times like this that I miss Malcolm Douglas!

17 Jun 09 - 04:39 PM (#2658843)
Subject: RE: Two sisters, two songs?
From: BB

I was just thinking that you seem to be taking up his mantle quite successfully, Brian, although you'd be hard pressed to have such a wide knowledge as he did, I grant you!

Barbara x

17 Jun 09 - 08:03 PM (#2658995)
Subject: RE: Two sisters, two songs?
From: Diva

Reed in Border Ballads says that there is a Border version that has a refrain line of Norham, Norham.

The one I have is from Erland Voy of the Clutha

17 Jun 09 - 08:40 PM (#2659009)
Subject: RE: Two sisters, two songs?
From: Joe_F

In a common American version of the "bow & balance to me" type, there are *three* sisters (contamination from King Lear?) & she is never mentioned after the first stanza. It has been a repeated temptation for me to sing, at the end,

    The eldest daughter ran off with the prince,
      Bow down, bow down,
    The eldest daughter ran off with the prince,
      Bow & balance to me,
    The eldest daughter ran off with the prince,
    And neither of them has been heard from since.
      I will be true, true to my love,
      Love, and my love will be true to me.

In that one, there is no quarrel *about* a hat, but

    He gave the youngest a beaver hat.
    The elder sister thought ill of that.

Plain envy.

17 Jun 09 - 10:44 PM (#2659090)
Subject: RE: Two sisters, two songs?
From: Kent Davis

Here are two Appalachian versions, one sung by Dr. Patrick Gainer, West Virginia's great ballad collector, and the other sung by Maggie Hammons, from a well-known family of "source singers".

Both these versions have the oldest sister pushing the youngest into the water and then rejecting her pleas for help as she drowns. The first includes the tell-tale fiddle but no miller. The second includes the miller but not the fiddle.


18 Jun 09 - 04:41 AM (#2659208)
Subject: RE: Two sisters, two songs?
From: Brian Peters

"He gave the youngest a beaver hat.
The elder sister thought ill of that."

Jim Eldon used to sing a version that ended:

The farmer was left to count the cost
Two daughters dead, and the new hat lost

I think he might have made it up, though!

18 Jun 09 - 04:58 AM (#2659214)
Subject: RE: Two sisters, two songs?
From: Brian Peters

Kent Davis:
Thanks for the link to the Gainer material. New to me, and there's an interesting version of Child 1, that I'd not heard before, there too.

The 'Murdered Sister' he sings doesn't appear to be in Bronson, but looks like a rare instance of a 'Bow Down' variant including the magic fiddle. Do we know whether Gainer performed the songs exactly as collected, or was he prone to 'improving' them?

18 Jun 09 - 07:22 PM (#2659844)
Subject: RE: Two sisters, two songs?
From: Kent Davis

Brian Peters,

I don't know for sure if Dr. Gainer was prone to "improving" songs he collected, but I doubt that he was.

His writing about folk song emphasizes authenticity. He founded the West Virginia State Folk Festival which emphasized authenticity. For several years, the festival has included his granddaughter and other family members presenting "Papa Gainer's Favorite Songs". They make it a point to sing "his" songs as they learned them from him.



That festival starts tomorrow. I won't be able to go this year but, if the Lord wills, next time the third weekend of June rolls around, I'll be there.

18 Jun 09 - 07:43 PM (#2659861)
Subject: RE: Two sisters, two songs?
From: dick greenhaus

The younger sister killing the elder one makes a lot of sense in a culture where the younger sister couldn't marry until the elder one did. That's the way it appears in at least one version collected in New York State.