To Thread - Forum Home

The Mudcat Café TM
17 messages

Twa sisters

15 Jul 97 - 07:26 AM (#8698)
Subject: Twa sisters
From: Clara Duong

Hi there, I'm looking for a song which is basically that of 'Binnorie' or the 'Twa sisters' but the version I heard was a very sad, eerie a cappella version where the chorus is 'fa la la la la la la la' instead of 'binnorie oh binnorie'. I know that doesn't sound terribly sad, but I assure you it was. =) Hope someone can help, Clara

15 Jul 97 - 12:42 PM (#8710)
Subject: Lyr Add: THE CRUEL SISTER (sung by Pentangle)
From: Jon W

I think I saw a version on DT that had the fa la la... refrain. I also heard a recording by Pentangle (John Renbourne, Jacqui McShee, et al.) with that chorus, but it wasn't a cappella. Here's my transcription of their lyrics:


There lived a lady by the North Sea shore
Lay the bend to the bonny broom
Two daughters were the babes she bore
Fa la-la-la-la la la la la-la

As one grew bright as is the sun
So coal black grew the elder one

A knight came riding to the lady's door
He travelled far to be their wooer

He courted one with gloves and rings
But he loved the other above all things

Oh, sister, will you go with me
To watch the ships sail on the sea

She took her sister by the hand
And led her down to the North Sea strand

And as they stood on the windy shore
The dark girl threw her sister o'er

Sometimes she sank; sometimes she swam
Crying sister reach to me your hand

Oh, sister, sister let me live
And all that's mine I'll surely give

Your own true love that I'll have and more
But thou shalt never come ashore

And there she floated like a swan
The salt sea bore her body on

Two minstrels walked along the strand
And saw the maiden float to land

They've made a harp of her breastbone
Whose sound would melt a heart of stone

They took three locks of her yellow hair
And with them strung the harp so rare

They went into her father's hall
To play the harp before them all

But as they laid it on a stone
The harp began to play alone

The first string sang a doleful sound
The bright haired younger sister drowned

The second string as that they tried
In terror sits the black haired bride

The third string sang beneath their bow
And surely now her tears will flow

Hope this helps.

HTML line breaks added. --JoeClone, 5-May-02.

15 Jul 97 - 01:19 PM (#8714)
Subject: RE: Twa sisters
From: dick greenhaus

Twa Sisters is Child #10. Search for #10 in the Digital tradition Database--you should find about tev variants.

15 Jul 97 - 08:37 PM (#8760)
Subject: RE: Twa sisters
From: Karina


This is actually a very old medieval ballad. It's likely based on reality, but as usual the whys and wherefores have been lost. I'll have to look up the particular text that carries all the lyrics. The one's mentioned in John W's message are the common version available in some older folk song collections. (early 19' hundreds). You can find other versions of the same story by Loreena McKennitt, called the Bonnie Swans, on the Mask and the Mirror, or by Clannad, called The Two Sisters on Dulaman.

Our group knows two versions and are currently learning the one John mentioned.


16 Jul 97 - 12:17 AM (#8773)
Subject: RE: Twa sisters
From: anna root

The Old Blind Dogs do a very lovely rendition of this song--I'll check the album name when I get home.

16 Jul 97 - 11:15 AM (#8804)
Subject: Lyr Add: THE TWO SISTERS (sung by T ni Dhmomnaill)

I heard a version sung by Triona ni Dhmomnaill (from the Bothy Band) that was very up-tempo -- almost suitable for a hoedown. Slightly different lyric structure:

There were two sisters side by side
Sing ai-dum, sing ai-day
There were two sisters side by side
The boys are bound for me
There were two sisters side by side
The eldest to young Johnny cried
I'll be true unto my love
If he'll be true to me.

Unfortunately, I heard this sung live, and have never heard this version done by anyone else.

16 Jul 97 - 11:19 AM (#8806)
Subject: RE: Twa sisters
From: Seamrog

I know this tune as ┬┤The Swans Swim Bonnie┬┤

There is a version with not so naughty lyrics sung by Anne Wylie. It also has a great fiddle/Pipe break in between the verses.

16 Jul 97 - 11:56 AM (#8813)
Subject: Lyr Add: OH, THE WIND AND RAIN (Red Clay Ramblers)
From: Jon W.

There's another very different version on the Red Clay Rambler's Hard Times album. The story in it has degenerated considerably - no motive for the murder is mentioned, for instance. The lyrics go like this:

Two lovin' sisters went a-walkin side by side
Oh, the wind and rain.
The one throwed the other in the water so wide,
And she cried the dreadful wind and rain.

She floated on down to the miller's millpond
Oh, the...
Yes, she floated on down...
And she cried...

The miller fished her out with his long hook and line...

He made fiddle strings of her long curly hair...

He made fiddle screws of her little finger bones...

But the only tune that fiddle would play was
Oh the wind and rain
Yes the only tune that fiddle would play was
Oh the dreadful wind and rain.

The tune's completely different too but it's interesting the verse structure is the same (line, refrain, line, refrain).

16 Jul 97 - 05:45 PM (#8841)
Subject: RE: Twa sisters
From: Karina


The tune you refer to was redone (?) depending on dates, by Clannad on the album I mentioned before, Dulaman, which I believe is still available. It was recorded on Sanachie Records.

16 Jul 97 - 06:53 PM (#8845)
Subject: RE: Twa sisters
From: Kiwi

Jon W, there was another, similar version to the one you posted, called "The Cruel Sister", done by Old Blind Dogs. It's a single guitar, and a solo singer on the lyrics, with a chord sung for "Lay the bann tae the bonny broom"..

16 Jul 97 - 08:35 PM (#8851)
Subject: RE: Twa sisters
From: Moira Cameron

I heard a very interesting version of this ballad on an LP entitled "The Feathered Maiden and other Ballads", by Lisa Null and Bill Shute. The ballad is called "Rocky Banks of the Buffalo." It is a distinctly American version with an up beat tune and a story-line that seems to blend with First Nations North American folklore.

16 Jul 97 - 11:24 PM (#8871)
Subject: RE: Twa sisters

Why do you think it's medieval? Bronson seems to indicate that it's a fairly modern ballad... I don't have Child lying around to check.

-- g

17 Jul 97 - 04:04 PM (#8913)
Subject: RE: Twa sisters

Karina -- thanks for the tip. I'll check out the Clannad album. I learned this song from Triona post-Bothy Band, when she was playing in a group called Touchstone from North Carolina, about 15 years ago. She wrote down the lyrics for me.

I'm also pretty familiar with Pentangle's version, which also includes the line, "lay the bent to the bonny broom," that Kiwi mentioned from the Old Blind Dogs version. It's much more melancholy than Triona's/Clannad's version.

As far as the Wind and Rain--I've seen that in a couple of different songs; one entitled "The Cruel Mother" who drowns her two babes, and the other The Cruel Sister or the Twa Sisters.

Pentangle's version of The Cruel Sister doesn't use the refrain "Oh the wind and rain," but nonetheless, the eldest sister's crime is revealed when some musicians happen upon the younger sister's corpse and make a harp from her hair and bones. They then scamper on to the wedding of the eldest sister and Johnny, where the harp sings out the grisly details of the murder.

Lindahl -- I suspect the tune is medieval or at least pretty old, just judging from the number of versions there are, as well as the more oblique rreferences/crossovers (i.e. The Wind and Rain).

17 Jul 97 - 07:45 PM (#8927)
Subject: RE: Twa sisters
From: Alan of Australia

The oldest version known to Child was from a broadside "The Miller and the King's Daughter" dated 1658, assuming there were no later additions (I can't tell right now as my volume 5 has been borrowed - Alison are you listening ;-).

Jon W,
I can't help noticing the similarity between the version you mention and Arlo Guthrie's "Percy's Song"; tune, structure and refrain (turn, turn the wind and rain). The stories are different but Guthrie must have been influenced by the older song.


17 Jul 97 - 09:58 PM (#8934)
Subject: RE: Twa sisters
From: Karina


I think Alan pointed out the version that I have heard. In its entirety, the song is somewhat over 20 minutes to sing. The original version is exceptionally long and becomes exceptionally boring. Pretty well all of the more modern versions seem to take parts of the whole story and use them as works with the new tune.

17 Jul 97 - 11:03 PM (#8937)
Subject: RE: Twa sisters
From: Barry Finn

As Alan Of Australia pointed to it's first (English) appearance in print was 1658, it's belive to be of Norwegian/Scandinavian extraction & exists as a folktale, ballad & as a children's piece. It's been collected in the US, Scandinavian countries, the Balkans, Great Britain, Ireland & throughout Western Eurpoe. So it's quite possible that it's been floating around for quite some time prior to it's appearance as a broadside. Bronson suggests that the versions with the rare refrain 'swan swims' are associated with Celtic communities. Although the older versions were longer, they carried a message for the younger listeners of yore. Folktales & ballads were used to help guide the child of yesteryear into adulthood, the more it was heard the less chance of forgetting the lesson, the longer the lesson, the more to be absorbed. Child & Bronson both have this but see Paul G Brewster 'The Two Sisters' Folklore Fellows Communication #147, Helsinki, 1953 for a main study. Barry

27 Feb 98 - 07:00 PM (#22476)
From: Bruce O.

By Mr. [James] Smith

There were two Sisters they went a playing,
Withe a hie downe, downe, a doene-a-
To see their fathers ships come sayling in
With a hy downe, downe, a downe-a-

And when they came unto the sea-brym,
With, &c,
The eldest did push the younger in;
With, &c.

O sister, O sister, take me by the gowne,
With, &c.
And drawe me up upon dry ground,
With, &c.

O sister, O sister, that may not bee,
With, &c,
Till salt and oatmeale grow both of a tree;
With, &c.

Somtymes she sanke, Somtymes she swam,
With, &c,
Untill she came unto the mil-dam;
With, &c.

The miller runne hastily downe the cliffe,
With, &c,
And up he betook her withouten her life,
With, &c.

What did he doe with her brest bone?
With, &c,
He made him a viall to play thereupon,
With, &c.

What did he doe with her fingers so small?
With, &c,
He made him peggs to his Violl withall;
With, &c.

What did he doe with her nose-ridge?
With, &c,
Unto his Violl he made him a bridge,
With, &c.

What did he do with her Veynes so blewe?
with, &c,
He made him strings to his Viole thereto;
with, &c.

What did he doe with her eyes so bright?

with, &c.
Upon his Violl he playd at first sight;
with, &c.

What did he doe with her tongue soe rough?
with, &c.
Unto the violl it spake enough;
with, &c.

What did he doe with her two shinnes?
with, &c.
Unto the violl they danc't Moll Syms;
with, &c.

Then bespake the treble string,
with, &c.
O yonder is my father the King;
with, &c.

Then bespake the second string,
with, &c.
O yonder sitts my mother the Queen;
with, &c.

And then bespake the stringes all three;
with, &c.
O yonder is my sister that drowned mee
with, &c.

Now pay the miller for his payne,
with, &c.
And let him bee gone in the devels name.
with, &c.

[From a photo facsimile reprint of 'Wit Restor'd', pp. 51-4, 1658. There was said to be a broadside text printed by Francis Grove in 1656, but no such broadside has been noted as seen by any ballad scholar. The only one of many of Grove's ballads to have contained a date was one of 1643. Child gives the perported broadside version as #10.]