There was a lady, a lady of York,
She fell a-courting in her own father’s park,
Down by the greenwood side-o.
She leaned her back up against a thorn,
And there she had two pretty babies born.
But she had nothing for to lap ’em in,
But she had a penknife sharp and keen.
And she didn’t care how much it hurt,
There she stabbed them right through the heart.
She wiped her penknife in the sludge,
And the more she wiped it the more blood showed.
As she was a-walking in her own father’s park,
She saw two pretty babies playing with a ball.
Pretty babes, pretty babes, if’n you was mine,
I’d dress you up in silks so fine.
Dear mother, dear mother, when we was thine,
You didn’t have time to dress us up fine.
But now we’re away to the heavens so high,
But you, you’ll go to the bad when you die.
Down by the greenwood side-o.
(spoken) So she did.
Recorded by Jim on his Stick Records album I wish there was no prisons, 1984
This is a traditional song about Yorkshire.
This celebrated Child ballad (number 20, The Cruel Mother, in Professor Child’s enormously influential English and Scottish Popular Ballads) appears to have derived from a broadside ballad The Duke’s Daughter’s Cruelty, or, The Wonderful Apparition of Two Infants whom she Murther’d and Buried in a Forrest, for to hide her shame, printed by J Deacon at the Sign of the Angel in Guiltspur-street, London, c1684. (See references below for a copy of this) Child in his notes refers to continental analogues, but the only ones that show any direct relationship to our ballad were found in Denmark post 1870 and these very likely derive from the British version translated into Danish by Svend Grundtvig in 1842-46.
The vast majority of versions that indicate where the mother was from follow the broadside in placing her firmly in York as does our version given here. Some have obvious corruptions of York and only one gives a different place altogether, London. The popular theory on origins of ballads like these which consist of typical traditional motifs and form, and have their earliest known version on a broadside, is that the broadside version must have been taken from earlier versions in oral tradition. However, the vast majority of British ballads are thought to have their origins in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries so there is absolutely no reason why the Deacon broadside should not be the original. Other ballads of this period (See TYG65 The Merchant’s Son and the Beggar Wench) turned up in twentieth century Scotland with no indication whatsoever as to what had happened to them in the two centuries between. Some might point to the supernatural elements in the ballad as indication of earlier provenance but the vast majority of the population of seventeenth century Britain believed implicitly in the supernatural.
Many broadside ballads of all periods are created as dire warnings to the population at large not to embark on a sinful course. This broadside is definitely such a warning to well-to-do young girls not to enter into relationships with servants. In fact the broadside ends with the following stanza:
‘Young ladies, all of beauty bright
Take warning by her last goodnight’
Oral versions tend to end with the ghosts of the children pronouncing her fate in hell.
Further detailed notes and the text of the broadside can be found in articles 6 and 22 of the Dungheap series at www.mustrad.org.uk/articles/dungheap.htm
Jim Eldon’s splendid version comes from the singing of gipsy children, Eliza Wharton and her brothers, who travelled through North Shropshire and Staffordshire, and was noted by James Smart on the 13th of July 1885. It was first published by Charlotte S Burne in her Shropshire Folk-Lore, 1883-86, p540 (tune p651). The Cruel Mother is one of the more popular British ballads, having turned up frequently in Scotland and North America. There is even a burlesque children’s version, closely related to ours, which is popular in Ireland and Liverpool in which the police come knocking on her door. In my view deeply pared down versions like Jim’s are vastly superior to the longer earlier versions in that they tell the skeleton of the tale starkly and quickly without losing any of the essential elements of the plot, the oral tradition at its best.