|Stolen from the Murder Ballad Monday blog
You can keep your sensitive troubadours singing sweet pastoral melodies and hey nonny nonny. I like my folk songs full of senseless murder, greed, lust, betrayal and insanity.
One of my favorite Steeleye Span songs is "Edwin," which comes from their album Now We Are Six.
Not only is it a delightfully gruesome tale of young lovers vs. truly evil parents (Spoiler Alert: The truly evil parents win!) It also has a great guitar lick that I shamelessly appropriated for my own song, "Child of the Falling Star."
Basically, it's the story of young Edwin, a sailor who went off to earn some gold, returning seven years later to his true love, Emma, whose family apparently runs some inn, basically a Bed-and-Breakfast of Doom. Edwin gets a room there, but that night as he sleeps, Emma's "cruel parents" sneak in his room, chop off his head, take his gold and dump his body in the sea to send him floating back to the Lowlands Low.
Here's the song.
Besides the music and the basic story of the song, Steeleye's "Edwin" has some lines that are simply unforgettable, starting with the very first one, "Come all ye wild young people and listen to my song ..."
Then there's "Young Edwin he sat drinking till time to go to bed/ He little thought a sword that night would part his body and head ..."
And then the not-so happy ending: "And Emma broken-hearted was to Bedlam forced to go / Her shrieks were for young Edwin that plowed the lowlands low. "
But Steeleye, it turns out left out a few verses, including a key one, in which Emma tells Edwin to go stay at dad's inn for the night -- and not to tell him his true identity. She planned on meeting him there in the morning What could possibly go wrong?
A version of "Edwin" appears as "Edwin in the Lowlands Low" in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, edited by Ralph Vaughan Williams and A.L.Lloyd in 1959.
"This was an extremely widespread song in England, Scotland, Ireland and even more so in North America, where dozens of versions have been collected," the songs notes say. "... The song was also printed by everybody who was anybody in the broadside trade, but, on present evidence, only from the 1820s onwards. The plot would seem a natural for the melodrama stage or the cheap nineteenth century `shocker' novel ..."
That must be why I like it so much.
I hadn't listened to "Edwin" in a few years. But a few nights ago, listening to an iTunes mix of old Lomax field-recordings, the song "Diver Boy" by a lady named Ollie Gilbert from Timbo, Arkansas popped up.
Appearing on the collection Southern Journey Vol. 1: Voices from the American South, this was recorded in 1959. Young Emma is in this one, though the unfortunate "diver boy" is named Henry. Emma's brother, however, is named "Edward." It's the brother who helps his murderous dad here, while in Steeleye's songs it's Emma's parents.
Here's Ollie's version:
Natalie Merchant recorded a very similar version of "Diver Boy" on her 2003 album of (mostly) old folk songs The House Carpenter's Daughter.
So in the Steeleye Span song, Emma ends up shrieking in the insane asylum, while in the version done by Ollie Gilbert and Natalie Merchant, Emma merely scolds her dad and brother. ("Oh father, you're a robber ...")
Neither tells what happens to the creepy dad and whoever helped him murder Emma's beau.
But the Mainly Norfolk website documents a 1979 recording by a singer named Peter Bellamy, in which an angry "Young Emily" threatens the old man, “Oh father, cruel father, you will die a public show .." This line is found in other versions of the song. But Bellamy includes this final verse, which I've yet to see elsewhere:
Now Young Emily's cruel father could not day or night find rest,
For the dreadful deed that he had done he therefore did confess.
He was tried and he was sentenced and he died a public show
For the murder of Young Edmund so dear who ploughed the lowlands low.
Justice at last!
Listen to Bellany's stark acoustic verssion version here:
Read more about "Edwin," "Diver Boy" or whatever you want to call it at the excellent Murder Ballad Monday blog (on the website for the venerated Sing Out!, one of the greatest folk music publications) and at Mainly Norfolk, a "comprehensive overview of recorded traditional and contemporary English folk music".
And what the heck. Here's a bonus throwback to an ancient time.
For more deep dives into songs, check out The Stephen W. Terrell Web Log Songbook