Saturday, January 30, 2010

Take This Tune: 'At Sojer Boy's Got a EVIL Twin

This week at Take This Tune, our theme is love lost and found, as in the ballad Pretty Fair Maid in the Garden, with roots in the sixteenth century.

The faithful soldier in "Pretty Fair Maid in the Garden" is the epitome of fantasy: he returns after seven long years (unrecognizable to his true love). The fantasy could go wrong, of course; the potential for disaster is in the questions he asks, designed as a test for her. What if he’s "in some watercourse drowning" or "on some battlefield slain" or—YIKES!!!--"to some fair girl married"? The Pretty Fair Maid’s answers are apparently satisfactory, for he reveals himself as her true love, and they live happily ever after.

Sometimes, though, things don’t turn out exactly in the approved fairytale fashion. Witness the ending of Clarence (Tom) Ashley’s variant on the theme, "The House Carpenter", in which the female protagonist has married in the interim, but leaves with her old true love, only to find she misses the child she bore her husband—whereupon, abruptly, she and her partner in elopement die in a shipwreck—an ending no doubt approved in the Calvinist traditions of the mountains.

In the variant from which "The House Carpenter" sprang, though, things get downright terrifying. As noted, that soldier has an EVIL twin: "The Demon Lover".

In this I will not budge: the most hair-raising version of "The Demon Lover" I have ever heard is the one recorded by Tim O’Brien and Karen Casey on O’Brien’s 2001 CD TWO JOURNEYS. Unfortunately, it isn’t available anyplace on the Webz that I’ve been able to find (and I even used the Google). The lyrics, though, give you an idea. They begin quite innocuously, as in Ashley’s variant, with the true love having returned "from the west" to find his own true love has married a house carpenter. She’s not content though; she is seduced away from her husband and sons with almost indecent ease, and then the fun begins.

Well met, well met, my own true love,
Well met, well met, cried he
I have returned from the salt salt sea,
And it’s all for the sake of thee

I’ve come for the vow you promised me
To be my partner in life
She said, My vow you must forgive
For now I’m a wedded wife.

Yes, I got married, a house carpenter
To him I’ve borne two fine sons
It’s seven long years since you sailed to the west
And I took you for dead and gone.

(instrumental break. Then we learn she’s discontented—and perhaps a bit mercenary.)

If I was to leave my husband dear
And my two babies also
Just what have you to take me to
If with you I should now go?

I have seven ships out upon the sea
And the eighth one that brought me to land
And four and twenty bold mariners
And music on every hand.

It was then she went to her two little babes
And kissed them on cheek and on chin
Saying fare thee well, my sweet little ones
I’ll never see you again.

They had not sailed much more than a week
I know that it was not three
When altered grew his countenance
And a raging came over the sea.

(instrumental break)

And when they reached the shore again
On the far side of the sea
It was there that she spied his cloven hoof
And wept most bitterly.

Oh what is that mountain yon, she cried,
So dreary with ice and with snow?
It is a mountain of Hell, he cried,
Where you and I now will go.

Karen Casey sings her part with all the passion and intensity of a young, bored, and finally frightened—badly frightened—woman, while O’Brien sings his with an almost flat matter-of-factness that will freeze your heart stone-cold with that final couplet.

"The Demon Lover" is, according to some folklore scholars, based on the true story of a Scotsman named James Harris, who, back in the sixteenth century, allegedly abducted a former lover in somewhat the same fashion. There are other stories, variants on this basic motif, from other centuries, other places, including one from 1930s Kentucky.

Aw, heck, may as well admit it, though: the sucker had me at "music on every hand."


  1. Dude.....Im here about the reading porch. It's rather cold out there.....I don't want to side it in, but I need to borrow a couple of blankets.

    Hee Hee,


  2. Having a cousin who plays in a bluegrass band and another cousin who spins bluegrass tunes at a college station on weekends, I am quite familiar with the genre and the stories that the songs tell. I'm also quite familiar with Tim O'Brien whom I first got to know when he was singing with Hot Rize.

    I love, love, love his voice even if he's singing about love gone wrong - something rather prevalent in bluegrass songs I've noticed - though always set to a jaunty little tune! As my cousin says, there's always a happy little banjo in there somewhere!

  3. Fairweather you and I have minds that went to the same place. I love your post! :)