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Lyr Req: Twa Sisters / Lay Bent to the Bonny Broom

23 Apr 01 - 07:31 PM (#447693)
Subject: 'twasisters' lay the bent to bonny broom
From: GUEST,

Does anyone have lyrics to version of 'Twa/Two Sisters with burden, 'lay the bent to the bonny broom'? I would appreciate them. Thankyou.

23 Apr 01 - 07:41 PM (#447698)
Subject: RE: 'twasisters' lay the bent to bonny broom
From: Sorcha

Do you want Twa Sisters or Riddles Wisely Expounded? "lay the bent" is from Riddles, Click here, then choose one of the titles.....if you want Twa Sisters, it's in the database too. Just use the search box on the top left of the Main Forum page.

23 Apr 01 - 07:59 PM (#447707)
Subject: RE: 'twasisters' lay the bent to bonny broom
From: GUEST,Sarah2 (at work)

Slight variation from version on page 2 of the Twa Sisters is the Cruel Sister, found under "C" in the Digitrad. I think, (but am not sure, as usual -- will have to look on the liner notes) that Old Blind Dogs actually sings "Lay the bairn to the bonny broom" as the second line of each couplet -- if that's what you're after.

Will check; am headed home now.


23 Apr 01 - 08:28 PM (#447720)
Subject: RE: 'twasisters' lay the bent to bonny broom
From: Malcolm Douglas

"Lay the Bent (not Bairn!) to the Bonnie Broom" is a refrain that properly belongs to Riddles Wisely Expounded, as Sorcha says.  Pentangle recorded a set of Cruel Sister back in the 1970s, which used both the tune and refrain from RWE, and which has confused the issue ever since.  Frankie Armstrong did, too, and I suspect that she got it (the tune and refrain, that is), as they probably did, from Roy Harris.  Obviously, there are a great many references here to the song-family (Child #10); you might like to look at this one:

TWO SISTERS (Bonnie Broom)

It's quite close to the Pentangle set, but is probably -like theirs- a modern collation rather than an authentic traditional song.


23 Apr 01 - 08:44 PM (#447729)
Subject: RE: 'twasisters' lay the bent to bonny broom
From: Sarah2


Well, Ian Benzie says he sings "bairn." Not saying he's right to do so, but that's what he writes in the liner notes on Old Blind Dogs' "Close to the Bone."


23 Apr 01 - 10:15 PM (#447783)
Subject: RE: 'twasisters' lay the bent to bonny broom
From: Malcolm Douglas

Fair enough!  He's got it wrong, though.  "Bent" makes sense, and can be traced back to real traditional versions; "bairn" just sounds like a misunderstanding...


23 Apr 01 - 10:59 PM (#447808)
Subject: RE: 'twasisters' lay the bent to bonny broom
From: Sarah2


You're doubtless right -- it even sounded as if he were singing "bend" or "bent," so I was surprised to read his liner notes. But that's one thick accent he has, too. I think he beefs it up on purpose...


23 Apr 01 - 11:08 PM (#447813)
Subject: RE: 'twasisters' lay the bent to bonny broom
From: Nancy King

OK, I'll bite. What does "Lay the bent to the bonny broom" mean? I'm sure it's fraught with symbolism, but I've always wondered where it came from.

Cheers, Nancy

23 Apr 01 - 11:23 PM (#447832)
Subject: RE: 'twasisters' lay the bent to bonny broom
From: Sandy Paton

I think it was Evelyn Wells, in The Ballad Tree that conjectured that crossing a branch of bent with one of broom at the door to the croft was believed to ward off the devil. I'll have to look it up, though.

Ewan MacColl recorded the "Riddles Wisely Expounded" version that uses this refrain. The reference makes sense in that ballad, doesn't it? I can also check Ewan's source.


23 Apr 01 - 11:52 PM (#447848)
Subject: RE: 'twasisters' lay the bent to bonny broom
From: Nancy King

Oh! So "bent" is a kind of wood? Never heard of it. Even that bit of knowledge helps clarify. Thanks!


24 Apr 01 - 06:05 AM (#447940)
Subject: RE: 'twasisters' lay the bent to bonny broom
From: nutty

"bents" are reeds - not sure what type - but Robert Herrick states in " Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve"

Green rushes then and sweetest bents
With cooler oaken boughs
Come in for comely ornaments
To re-adorn the house

Herrick's poems were published in 1648 and this particular poem has been set to music and has recently been recorded by Martyn Wyndham-Read ( so I understand)

24 Apr 01 - 06:16 AM (#447943)
Subject: RE: 'twasisters' lay the bent to bonny broom
From: GUEST,Dita (at work)

Sorry Malcolm, it's you who have it wrong.
Iain's just got it different, - this is an evolving oral tradition we are dealing with, not an exam question.
Todays collations are the traditions of tomorrow. Just because at some point a "collation" was collected by Child, Greig, Bronson or whoever does not make that the correct "version", and render all that comes after it wrong. What a dreary stale old world it would be if we were only allowed to sing the "correct" song, and were not allowed any intellectual or emotional involvement in the recreation of each performance.
love, john

24 Apr 01 - 08:21 AM (#447982)
Subject: RE: 'twasisters' lay the bent to bonny broom
From: nutty

One of the most unexpected aspects of the Bodleian Broadside site has been finding so many versions of a particular song or ballad.

These have been the result of changes made by:-
Regional variation

I have always believed that folksongs "evolve" and this evidence has strengthened that belief

24 Apr 01 - 09:46 AM (#448053)
Subject: RE: 'twasisters' lay the bent to bonny broom
From: Mrrzy

thread creep ... I am reminded of a misheard Star Trek line, when Scotty is sobbing over his engines (och, me puir wee bairns) and my bro-X-Law thought he was saying Och, me pir wee BEARINGS (which at least are engine parts!)... creep off...

I also have a great version of this song by Cynthia Gooding, similar to pentangle's but the refrain (in parens) is different:

There was an old man in the North Country (Bow Down), there was an old man in the North Country (the boughs they bend to me), there was an old man in the North Country and he had daughters one, two, three (that will be true, true to my love, love will be true to me). In the verse where "the dark girl threw her sister o'er" the last part is changed to Love and your love will be true to me, and in the verse where the blondie swims away, it is "love and my love will be true to me" - what I like about this version is that the "brighter, younger" sister survives the drowning attempt by the dark sister, and is drowned instead by the miller, for the rings she'd offered as a reward if he'd take her home. And this version ends with the miller being hung "for the drowning of MY sister Kate" so the dark sister gets away with it, which is also an interesting ending, instead of being betrayed by the harp strung from the murdered sister's hair.

24 Apr 01 - 12:54 PM (#448243)
Subject: RE: 'twasisters' lay the bent to bonny broom

Doesn't, "Lay the Bent" mean aboput the same as, "Bend your elbow" or,"Get with it"? In which case it means, "Put some effort into sweeping the floor". Who knows? Maybe we're looking for something that isn't there.
What I'm getting at is that maybe some "minstrel" in the past had a cool sense of humor, and was kind of fed up with all the other nonsense lines found in celtic songs.

I used to have a dog named "Looie" who, when he was being energetic, looked for all the world like his pants were falling down. His mother's name was "Gussie. Well, on one long sailing adventure that my son David and I were on, we spent a lot of time laughing ourselves silly by making up "old Scottish Folk Songs" each verse of which ended with

Could it be that, "Lay the bent to the bonny broom" followed by "Fa la la la fa la la la la la la" has it's roots in the same sort of sillyness?

24 Apr 01 - 05:26 PM (#448422)
Subject: RE: 'twasisters' lay the bent to bonny broom
From: Malcolm Douglas

Obviously, I don't agree with Dita on this one.  The point seems to be that he and I have a differing understanding of the nature of the "oral" process and the relationship between the Tradition and the Revival.  While it would be quite accurate to say that a song found in tradition is by definition a "correct" traditional song, no matter how garbled it may have become, the same is not at all true of songs commercially recorded by revival performers, unless they themselves belong to a continuing tradition and have learnt their material directly from traditional singers.  After all, nobody would seriously suggest that, for example, Britten's arrangement of The Foggy Dew was in any sense traditional, though it was based on a version found in tradition.  That is not to say that it may not at some point re-enter tradition in its new form, but that is not the point at issue.

I make a point of identifying collated texts (which means, texts deliberately assembled by editors or performers from bits and pieces of a number of songs, or different versions of the same song), not because there is anything inherently wrong in "mix and match" songs (it's a very old procedure, after all) but because we need to know how a thing was in order properly to understand what it is, and may become.  It is simply a question of being as accurate as possible, and not knowingly falsifying the historical record; a collated text is not itself traditional, though it may at some point, through continued transmission, become so.  The point at which that happens is moot.

I have at no time suggested that anyone should be allowed to sing only one form of any song; and to start talking as if I had seems almost like a wilful misunderstanding of what I said here, and have said fairly consistently in other discussions in the Forum over the last couple of years.  What I have said a number of times is that "the folk process" (a much-abused term) is all too often used by people who, though they may be singers of traditional songs, are not themselves traditional singers -it's an important distinction- as an excuse for ill-informed tinkering with songs, or just for not bothering to learn them properly.  In this particular case, the Old Blind Dogs recorded, not a traditional version of Cruel Sister, but an arrangement of the song as remade by Pentangle, complete with the tune and refrain borrowed from Riddles.  As such, "bairn" (if that's what he sang; it's pretty difficult to make out, and it could very well be that whoever transcribed the text for the liner notes just guessed at it, unless it was Iain himself -I've heard the recording, but not seen the notes) is, by definition, a mistake; particularly as the new form no longer makes any sense.

Though all this does seem a lot of talk about a very small detail, I would stress that it's actually quite a fundamental issue when considering the very complex relationship between tradition and revival, and the way in which the commercial music industry re-casts and re-distributes traditional or ersatz traditional material in a way which often seems to involve the wholesale re-writing of history.  It is by no means a new phenomenon, as anyone who has looked into the subject in any depth at all will know, and it is not one on which we can expect general agreement.  Others would take a stricter viewpoint than I, many think it less important.  I would, however, ask you, Dita, to credit me with at least some understanding of all this; probably not inferior to your own.


24 Apr 01 - 05:32 PM (#448434)
Subject: RE: 'twasisters' lay the bent to bonny broom
From: Malcolm Douglas

As to the significance of the phrase Lay the bent to the bonny broom, there was some discussion of it in this thread:

LYR clarify -- Bent to the Bonnie Broom?

Particularly useful is a message from Sandy Paton, quoting Lucy Broadwood and others on various esoteric interpretations.  It's worth mentioning, though, that Margaret Dean Smith had this to say on the subject (A Guide to English Folk Song Collections, Liverpool University/ EFDSS, 1954):

"The refrain Lay the bent, sometimes found in other contexts is sometimes glossed as a magical "herb refrain", but "bonny broom" has a physiological significance - and "bent" may possibly be glossed "horn" (cf. Chevy Chace), and the whole phrase interpreted in the lingua franca of amatory folk song."

In plain terms, a sexual meaning is just as likely as a magical one; probably more so.  In neither context would "bairn" make any sense unless one were to construct a whole raft of contrived "explanations" as to what the new phrase might mean!

Here is some further material on some of the many Cruel Sister variants, both traditional and revival.  I've stuck, as usual, to sites which seem likely to remain stable, and which offer generally reliable information:

In the DT:

The Twa Sisters  Collated version from Travellers' Songs from England and Scotland (Ewan MacColl/ Peggy Seeger); with tune.
The Swan Swims Bonnie  From The Scottish Folksinger (Buchan and Hall, 1973).  A collated text; tune from Belle Stewart.
The Cruel Sister  As recorded by one Dave Webb; appears on the face of it to have been learnt by ear from a Pentangle record, and re-cast without the refrain.  No tune.  If anyone knows anything about this one, I'd be grateful for any information -the tune is one of the "missing" ones that we're looking for.
Binnorie  From the Grieg-Duncan Collection.  Two slightly different tunes are given; both from Greig-Duncan?
Binnorie (Two Sisters) Version from Bruce and Stokoe, (Northumbrian Minstrelsy, 1882).  Four tunes given; the first is from B&S, but with no clues as to where the others are from.
The Two Sisters (7)  ?Collated text, with tune; from memory.
The Wind and the Rain  American version from Southern Folk Ballads (McNeill).  Collected from Dan Tate, VA, 1962; with tune.
Oh, The Wind and the Rain  American version as recorded by one Jody Stecher; no original source or tune given.
Two Sisters (Bonnie Broom)  As recorded by Frankie Armstrong, with tune.  No indication of original source; text is more or less the same as that recorded by Pentangle, with the same interleaved refrain borrowed from Riddles Wisely Expounded, though the tune is different.
The Two Sisters (8)  From Songs of the Newfoundland Outports (Peacock); with tune.
The Two Sisters (9)  No source named, no tune given.

In the Forum:

Minorie  As recorded by Ewan MacColl; apparantly learned from his father.
Binnorie - Icelandic version  Some discussion, plus a link to Norwegian versions (Dei to Søstre)
I'll be true unto my love  American version as recorded by Clannad.
dulaman/two sisters  Inconclusive discussion of Clannad recording.
RE: dreadful wind and rain lyrics  As recorded by Grisman and Garcia, (who learnt it from Kirby Snow) plus a short parody.
Two Sisters (Child #10)  Variants: Barkshire Tragedy, Grisman and Garcia (again), There was an old Jaynor (from Vance Randolph, Ozark Folksongs Vol 1) together with some discussion.
Two Sisters, Horpa  Norwegian version, with translation.
Rollin' a-Rollin' (Child #10)   Modified American version (Florida).
on a "two sisters" song  Further discussion of the US version recorded by Clannad.  Also The Little Drownded Girl, collected by John Jacob Niles from Patterson Whetmore, in 1932 on the steps of the Hatcher Hotel in Pikeville, Ky.
RE: Cruel Sister Two  Unidentified versions quoted from Child, E&SPP: the first is his version G, (Mrs. King of Kilbarchan; Motherwell's MS), followed by some lines from the version given by Thomas Hughes in The Scouring of the White Horse (1859) as quoted in Child's notes.  The second is Child's version H (I. Goldie, 1825; Motherwell's MS.)  Version from Hindman, Kentucky.  Short parody by "Fiddlesticks".
Twa sisters  Text as recorded by Pentangle, short American version as recorded by Red Clay Ramblers,
Lyr/Chords Req: the two sisters  Discussion of the set recorded by Bob Dylan; several half-remembered American versions; the Pentangle text again (twice); American text as recorded by Cynthia Gooding; version from Horton Barker (Chilhowie, Virginia, 1939).
Stupid Question--"The Twa Sisters"  Entertaining discussion on the practicalities of constructing harps out of bits of dead people.
Flanders ballad in Polish  Some inconclusive discussion of a Polish version.
An Bhean Udaí Thall  Several Irish versions of a Gaelic song, plus one tune; similar story, but not really a relative.

There is an entry at  The Traditional Ballad Index:

The Twa Sisters

There are a number of versions at Lesley Nelson's  Folk Songs  site:

The Twa Sisters  From Jamieson's Popular Ballads (1806); with tune.
The Barkshire Tragedy  Text and tune from English County Songs (Lucy Broadwood/ J.A. Fuller Maitland)
Child's versions A-U

At the  Max Hunter Folk Song Collection:

The Millers Daughter  As sung by Fred Smith in Bentonville, Arkansas on June 23, 1958
The Old Woman Lived on a Sea Shore  As sung by Mrs. Pearl Brewer in Pocahontas, Arkansas on November 12, 1958
Two Sisters  As sung by Mrs. Lizzie Maguire in Fayettville, Arkansas on June 23, 1959

As mentioned earlier, there are some 103 Norwegian versions at  Dokumentasjons-prosjektet  A Norwegian Universities Joint Project:

Dei to Søstre  (The Two Sisters).


24 Apr 01 - 06:26 PM (#448487)
Subject: RE: 'twasisters' lay the bent to bonny broom
From: nutty

Did anyone e-mail the words to "joellead"???

24 Apr 01 - 09:35 PM (#448650)
Subject: RE: 'twasisters' lay the bent to bonny broom
From: Sarah2


Yes, I did; told him to check out all Malcolm's links. Lummy, if he can't find a version through all those...!

Sarah (going back around to read some more of them, myself)

24 Apr 01 - 10:30 PM (#448685)
Subject: RE: 'twasisters' lay the bent to bonny broom
From: Sandy Paton

I am in complete agreement with what Malcolm has written here. The above statement concerning the distinction between the traditional and the interpretive singer of folksongs is as well put as ever I've seen it.

Malcolm, was it Lucy Broadwood who conjectured about the magical properties of bent and broom, rather that Evelyn Wells, as I may have misremembered above?

The Horton Barker version of the "Two Sisters" ballad (mentioned above)is on the recording I made of him in 1961, released by Folkways before I started Folk-Legacy. That should still be available from Smithsonian/Folkways. Joelle, who knew Richard Chase, through whom I first met Horton Barker, has surely heard that version. Further, Joelle, I misremembered Caroline's source for the "Riddles Wisely Expounded" version that makes use of the "Lay the bent" refrain. Caroline first heard it sung by Isla Cameron in London, 1958. MacColl may not have sung it after all.


24 Apr 01 - 10:49 PM (#448692)
Subject: RE: 'twasisters' lay the bent to bonny broom
From: GUEST,Bruce O.

That "lay the bent to the bonny broom" could have been added on at any time, but is not in James Smith's original version, 1658, which is in the Scarce Songs 2 file on my website. In an American version collected in Virginia in 1962, and published with tune in 1988, it goes: And she cried "The dreadful wind and rain".

25 Apr 01 - 12:44 AM (#448747)
Subject: RE: 'twasisters' lay the bent to bonny broom
From: Sandy Paton

There are ninety-seven versions of "The Two Sisters" in Bertrand Bronson's The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads (Volume 1, Princeton, 1959). Horton Barker's version, as recorded by Herbert Halpert in 1939, is number sisty-seven. One of Randolph's texts, collected near Mena, Arkansas, in 1930, uses "Bow she bent to me" as the first of the refrain lines, but I doubt that those who have chosen to sing this ballad to a "Riddles Wisely Expounded" tune and refrain were inspired to do so by this fleeting use of the word bent in the Arkansas Ozarks.

Joelle: Has anyone yet pointed out to you that the Frankie Armstrong version, using the refrain and tune you're looking for, is in the Digital Tradition? Just type "#10" (without the quotes) in the box at the top of this page, and scroll down to the eleventh (isn't it?) version listed on the page that comes up there. It's title is followed by (Bonnie Broom) in parentheses. Or, even easier (but not as good a learning experience), click on that title in Malcolm's exhaustive list of sources available in the long post above and you can take it from there, although I would urge you to learn a "Riddles Wisely Expounded" to the tune. Either way, m'lady, have fun.


25 Apr 01 - 06:36 AM (#448818)
Subject: RE: 'twasisters' lay the bent to bonny broom
From: GUEST,Dita (at work)

Malcolm, I had no intention of calling into question your understanding, you have shown your depth in this and other threads. Maximum respect. However one can respect someone without always agreeing with them.
Joellead asked for informaton on a partcular version of a song and it seems to me that you, and others, are in effect saying, don't sing "that" sing "this".
I am well aware of the trad/revival issues.

"Fair enough! He's got it wrong, though. "Bent" makes sense, and can be traced back to real traditional versions; "bairn" just sounds like a misunderstanding"

In replying to your post, quoted above, I was defending the right of any singer, trad or revival, to take possession of the song and recreate it. What they create might be good or bad, but not right or wrong.

I cannot understand why you presume that he is faithfully trying to reproduce Pentangle's version and not creating the next step in the songs development.

It might be a leaf that withers on the branch, but its still part of the trees growth.

22 Jan 05 - 12:30 PM (#1385272)
Subject: RE: 'twasisters' lay the bent to bonny broom
From: GUEST,Andrew

I know it's not much help, but I heard an absolutely gorgeous a cappella version of this song here in Glasgow at a concert called the "Unusual Suspects". It was incredibly beautiful, and the most haunting song I have ever heard. It uses the same lyrics as Pentangle's version but the tune was slightly different and in my opinion, slightly better. Maybe you should look for the live album if and when it comes out. I will be.

22 Jan 05 - 01:32 PM (#1385317)
Subject: RE: 'twasisters' lay the bent to bonny broom
From: John C.

Botanical note: A 'bent' is a type of grass, as in 'Creeping Bent' (Agrostis stolonifera) although, I suppose, the 'folk' could have applied it to any type of grass, sedge or rush (and may still do in certain parts of the country).
I have encountered both the magical charm and 'amatory' explanations for the 'lay the bent to the bonny broom' refrain.

23 Jan 05 - 05:54 AM (#1385915)
Subject: RE: 'twasisters' lay the bent to bonny broom
From: s&r

Info on broom here

I wonder if it refers to basket weaving?