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Things I Learned From British Folk Ballads

As a folk song nerd, you notice certain patterns you find throughout British Isles folksongs and folk tales. Mainly, there’s a lot of death, which isn’t so great, but you’ll notice similar death tropes, or if nothing else, character tropes.

I’ve known about the list, “Things I Learned from British Folk Balads” for a nice long while, as its been bopping around the internet for a good many years, and I’m sure a lot of you have heard of it, but I wanted to share some of my favorites! (My comments in bold.)


Don’t ignore warnings. If someone tells you to beware of Long Lankin, friggin’ beware of him. If someone tells you not to go by Carterhaugh, stay away. Same goes for your mother asking you not to go out hunting on a particular day. (See Kate Rusby’s “Drowned Lovers”) Portents about weather, particularly when delivered by an old sailor who is not currently chatting up a country maid, are always worth heeding.

If someone says he’s going to die, believe him.

Avoid navigable waterways. Don’t let yourself be talked into going down by the wild rippling water, the wan water, the salt sea shore, the strand, the lowlands low, the Burning Thames, and any area where the grass grows green on the banks of some pool. Cliffs overlooking navigable waterways aren’t safe either. (See “The Twa Sisters” or “Cruel Sister”)

Broom, as in the plant, should be given a wide berth. (Probably alluded to in the title of “Bonny Broom” by The Glengarry Bhoys, one of the Twa Sister songs)

Avoid situations where the obvious rhyme-word is “maidenhead.” (Haven’t heard any with this, but it CAN’T be a good thing!)

If you’re drinking toasts, mention your One True Love early and often. (Always a good idea in general ^_^)

If you’re a brunette, give up. (The evil of two siblings, or in a group of people, usually is dark-haired, as seen in “Bonny Broom” by The Glengarry Bhoys)

Not that being a blonde will improve the odds much. (Particularly the victim in “The Twa Sisters”)

If you are a young lady and a soldier promises to “marry you in the morn,” it means he’s already married. And has kids. And he’s not going to marry you anyway. Even if you’re pregnant. Which you will be. (Close enough, in “As I Roved Out.”)

If a former significant other turns up unexpectedly after a long absence, don’t throw yourself into his/her arms right away. (Like in Nickel Creek’s “House Carpenter”)

You are justified in cherishing the direst suspicions of a suddenly and unexpectedly returned significant other who mentions a long journey, a far shore, or a narrow bed, or who’s oddly skittish about the imminent arrival of cockcrow.

If you are a young lady and you meet a young man who says his name is “Ramble Away,” don’t be surprised if, by the time you know you’re pregnant, it turns out he’s moved and left no forwarding address.

If you’re out hunting, make sure of your sight picture before you pull the trigger/loose your bow. Especially so if you’re near a navigable waterway or the greenwoodside. (Like the boyfriend in “Molly Ban”)


If you want to read the rest, they’re right here.

Also, as I threw this together I was watching “Waking Ned Devine.” It’s a delightfully charming movie! Nice backdrop to the topic too!

One Comment

  • AislingWingate

    If a former significant other turns up unexpectedly after a long absence, don’t throw yourself into his/her arms right away. (Like in Nickel Creek’s “House Carpenter”)

    That’s exactly what happened to a friend of mine and now she has a beautiful son named Layten.

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