Tuesday, November 19, 2013

"Twa Corbies" as a Deconstructionist Ballad

"Twa Corbies" (Child 27, Roud 5) is a border ballad of the Anglo-Scottish tradition first published in print by Sir Walter Scott in Minstrelry of the Scottish Border (1802). It fell partway into obscurity with the loss of a melody for it in the oral tradition, but was revived when Steeleye Span set it to an old Breton air; with their tune, it's now fairly well-known, and has been recorded by other bands, such as in the wonderful rendition by Sol Invictus. (There's also a great Norwegian translaton by the band Folque, under the title "Ravene.") For the benefit of listeners who don't speak Scots, it's not uncommon for liner notes to explain a little bit of the vocabulary.

What the liner notes almost never mention is that "Twa Corbies" probably originated as a parody.

"Three Ravens," a ballad closely related to "Twa Corbies," is first known to us from Thomas Ravenscroft's Melismata (1611), where it is printed in a form artfully adapted to three voices. Though Child only gives one version of the ballad (taken directly from Ravenscroft), later versions are fairly widespread. Most have a slightly reduced version of the plot, in which the ravens are considering what to have for supper, attempt to eat a freshly dead man (sometimes implied to be a murder victim, and often a knight), and are driven off by his lady who has found his body and is in mourning. But the Ravenscroft version is the best known in modern folk and early music circles, where it is prized in part for its antiquity, and it expands on this theme a bit:
There were three ravens sat on a tree,
Down a down, hey down, hey down
They were a black as black might be,
With a down.
The one of them said to his mate.
"Where shall we our breakfast take?"
With a down, derry, derry, derry down, down.
Down in yonder green field,
Down a down, hey down, hey down
Their lies a knight slain under his shield,
With a down.
His hounds they lie down at his feet
So well they do their master keep.
With a down, derry, derry, derry down, down.
His hawks they fly so eagerly,
Down a down, hey down, hey down
No other fowl dare him come nigh,
With a down.
Down there comes a fallow doe
As heavy with young as she might go.
With a down, derry, derry, derry down, down.
She lifted up his bloody head,
Down a down, hey down, hey down
And kissed his wounds that were so red,
With a down.
She got him up upon her bac
And carried him to earthen lake.>
With a down, derry, derry, derry down, down
She buried him before the prime,
Down a down, hey down, hey down
She was dead herself ere even-song time,
With a down.
God send every gentleman
Such hawks, such hounds, and such leman,
With a down, derry, derry, derry down, down.
It's highly probable that some form of this ballad in which the hound, hawk, and lady love (albeit likely not in the form of a doe, a detail which seems to be unique to Ravenscroft's version) are all specifically present to defend the knight survived in Scotland and gave rise to "Twa Corbies", as they are all referenced in that variant.

But unlike the Ravenscroft version, the "Twa Corbies" branch of the family brings these defenders up only in order to dismiss their relevance. It seems like its core is written as a specific rejection of the notion of loyalty outlasting death, and was probably written with the intended audience being people already familiar with the earlier version. "Twa Corbies" is often described as grim or cynical, but it's not cynical about the universe in general - merely about the specific ideas celebrated in Ravenscroft's "Three Ravens." One imagines that whatever melody went with the version known to the composer of the first version of "Twa Corbies" was also applied to the cynical rewrite, as aside from the refrain in the early version, the two even scan the same.

Here's "Twa Corbies" as sung by Maddy Prior, who takes it directly from Scott:
As I was walking all alane
I met twa corbies making a main
And tane inta the tither did say O
Where shall we gang and dine the day O
In behint yon auld fell dyke
I wat there lies a new slain knight
And naebody kens that he lies there O
But his hawk and his hound and his lady fair O
His hound is tae the hunting gane
His hound tae fetch the wild fowl hame
His lady's taen anither mate O
So we maun make our dinner sweet O
Ye'll sit on his white hause bane
And I'll pike out his bonny blue een
Wi mony a lock o' his gowden hair O
We'll theek our nest when it grows bare O
Mony a one for him makes main
But nane shall ken where he is gane
O'er his white bones when they are bare O
The wind shall blow for ever mair O
Sometime in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, then, a Scottish poet likely got sick and tired of the saccharine ballad of love driving off scavengers and decided to write a rebuttal. And the rebuttal is able to stand alone as a meditation on the impermanence of all things, that persists as a well-received ballad into the present day.

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