Friday, 31 January 2014

Sacred Vampirism in the Child Ballads

If anyone ever wants to buy me a present - and has a few hundred quid to spare on it - I wouldn't say no to a full text, hard copy of Francis James Child's The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. A online version can be found on the superlative Sacred Texts website, but while this is arguably more practical for my daily researching needs, it does not have Child's notes, nor can it replace that calm, reassuring weight of the blue cloth volumes, the smell of the paper, or the joy you can get by just flicking through the pages and seeing what you can see.

That's how I came across 'Leesome Brand' (Child15), one of those little curios that lodges in your brain, needling you. Child recorded only two versions of it, and, although they share some motifs, B is much more like 'Sheath and Knife' (Child16) than it is like Child15A.

The story is.... odd. It begins with a mother lamenting that her son Leesome Brand left home at a young age (ten or younger), going to a strange land where the wind doesn't blow and the cocks do not crow. In this land he meets a girl who - despite being improbably young (eleven or younger) - is sexually active. When it became clear she is heavily with child, she and Leesome Brand steal some stuff (horses and her dowry) and flee her father's hall.

As they are riding through the forest, the girl goes into labour with that much used and wonderfully resonant declaration that her "back will gang in three!" After a little discussion about the distance from the town and the unavailability of a midwife, Leesome Brand offers to deliver the baby: The girl tells him to go off hunting because childbirth is women's business. Still, she gives the caveat that whilst he can kill whatever he wants, he mustn't touch the white hind, because the white hind is a woman. 

Enjoying himself hunting, he forgets about the girl until he sees the white hind. Racing back to where he left her, he finds her dead, the baby lying beside her (also dead?). He returns to his mother's hall, where she, overjoyed at his return, asks the reason for his dejection. He says he has lost a golden knife and its far more valuable golden sheath (if I had to pick one thing I love most about folk songs, it would be the unsubtlety of their sexual metaphors), but after crude symbolism proves inadequate, he explains that the lady he loves is dead, as is the son she had borne him.

What happens next is, strictly speaking, a relic miracle. Leesome Brand's mother has three drops of St Paul's blood, which, splashed upon the bodies, will restore them to life. Leesome Brand does this, and the woman and child are reborn,

as lively [..], 
As the first day he brought them hame.

 Now, I could spend years picking my way through this. Such a dark little ballad of love, of neglect, of loss. There is a lot about childbirth, about the relative statuses and antagonisms between women.  Like in 'Gil Brenton', another ballad that haunts me, the initially hostile mother-in law becomes the agent of her daughter-in-law's restoration. There is a lot about pre-marital sex and legitimacy. There is magic; both that which works (the blood) and that which does not (the White Hind).

Besides, the story is so poignant. That sense of lament, the mother's lament, the lover's lament...  Leesome Brand's support of the woman he loves, and how despite that love, his powerlessness to help her, even to understand her... Actually, it got to me so much I used a verse as an epigraph in Time's Fool, my own little tale of uncrossable gulfs.

And vampirism, of course.

Because it has to be blood, doesn't it? This isn't a prayer to Saint Thomas at Canterbury, it isn't a fragment of the True Cross (what better symbol of resurrection?) it is the blood of Saint Paul, the one who some traditions claim was crucified upside-down. What is more, it isn't merely contact with the relic that restores the life. The ballad is specific: three drops of blood - two for the mother, one for the son.

Christian tradition has a very conflicted view regarding blood, self mutilation and bodily injury.  On the one hand, it has inherited the (frequent) Old Testament injunctions against eating the blood with the meat, as well as Leviticus 19:28 ("You shall not make any cuts in your body for the dead"). On the other, it is a religion based upon martyrdom. Christians are redeemed by the Blood of the Lamb - the sacrament is (depending on your denomination) either literally, symbolically, or well-a-little-of-both, the blood of Jesus.  

The blood of saints, too, is powerful. The rituals of physical penance are often cited in the lives of Saints as a mark of holiness. It has been the cause of much worry in the church that the drawing of blood is seen as a visible mark of holiness. To be fair, when relics are venerated, what is more powerful than the blood? After all "the blood is the life" (Deuteronomy 12:23). After Becket's martyrdom, handkerchiefs soaked in his blood were sold as miraculous relics. 

But relics - at least in my limited understanding of these things - are incorruptible. Their power, coming as it does from sacred sources, is not diminished by their use. The sacrament renews with each consecration. The blood has been once spilt - to squander it would be sacrilege.

And, of course, there is the infamous 'Black Mass', where - one is told -  the cross upon the altar was inverted and human blood drunk from the chalice. Witches had familiars who came and suckled at their veins, giving them power over these humans, giving these humans powers beyond their lot. The promise of vampirism is the same: drink the blood of the right person, have the right person draw your blood and you will have eternal life. 

In his notes on the ballad, Child draws a comparison to the story The Transformation of a Maiden in to a Hind, where a girl is cursed by her stepmother and transformed into a hind. The curse can only be broken if she drinks her brother's blood. In the logic of story, it is her brother who shoots her and, at her request, cuts his fingers so she can be restored to her natural shape. He also references a Scandanavian ballad,
'Redselille og Medelvold', which follows a similar plot, but instead of the resurrection that we get in Leesome Brand, the protagonist buries the woman and her still living children, until their screams drive him to suicide. More concerns of the vampire genre - the dead coming back to seize the living. The curse that makes you prey upon those dearest to you.

A strange little ballad, Leesome Brand, one that asks more than it answers.

 Who is this woman who can be revived by blood? This precocious woman brought back from an uncanny land? The song begins as a lament,
MY boy was scarcely ten years auld, 
Whan he went to an unco land, 
Where wind never blew, nor cocks ever crew, 
Ohon for my son, Leesome Brand!

Yet ends 'well', or as well as these things ever do. The wording, too, is strange. They are as lively as the day he first brought them home. Perhaps folk ballads are not the place to analyse logic, but when Leesome Brand brought them home, weren't they dead?

(This article owes access to Child's commentaries to

Friday, 10 January 2014

Who'll be a soldier? Desperation and the modern folk tradition

...And he sang as he walked through the crowded streets of Rochester
"Who'll be a soldier for Marlborough and me?..."

A song of whisky and despair, for me,  a song half chanted, half crooned, the monotony of the refrain turned into a plaint against fate, against poverty. It is a song for the Medway towns.

Much of this is because of the way I heard it first, in the basement of The Command House, cried out by Chatham's favourite son. Riding on my coat-tails passport to the Medway Arts scene, I lurked at the back.  It felt old to me, as old the misery of being broke, as bleak as the folk-imagination can muster:

..."Oh I," said the young man, "have oft endured the parish queue
There is no labour or work here for me...

The folk tradition is conservative and subversive in equal measure. It at once defines normative roles (the recruitment sergeant) and offers criticism of structures of power those roles enforce. It is, as Adam Fox says, "inherently subversive and irreverent" and what else does the throw-away quality of that verse convey but the powerlessness with which the young and dispossessed see the promise of the recruitment centre - put so conveniently in the poorer areas of town - and wonder if they might as well not join the army. Without the benefit of a trade, an apprenticeship, what way do young men have of earning a wage?

...To be paid with the powder 
or rattle of the canon ball
Wages for soldiers for Malborough and me...

 The song keeps calling back to 'the King's Shilling', a soldier's first day of pay, taken in advance as they take their oath. Between 1700 and 1860, the average wage of a London carpenter rose from around 2s 6d to 5s a day (Source: To be a soldier, or at least a raw recruit, is perhaps not an elevation from poverty, butan affirmation of it. And as we hear

...forty new recruits 
came marching back through Rochester
Off to the wars in the North country...

How cheap a commodity, desperation.
As all scholars of the oral tradition will tell you, auditory experience is unique in that it leaves no mark. A ballad exists only in its performance, in the mind. But, from an emotive perspective, the mark that it leaves is deep, enduring. For all I hear it cried out with the full force of jollity and optimism at Rochester's Dickens festival (every time I can be bothered to attend) that will always seem an irony, a piece of false history, a failure to eulogise that sadness, the jingoism that masks the complete absence of hope.
But my conception of Who'll be a Soldier is a piece of false history, too. Although the first stanza is traditional, being the remaining fragment of a ballad called The Bold Fusilier, the song as we recognise it was written in the '70s by Peter Coe of Strawhead - who asksto be credited when it is sung. It is actually called The Rochester Recruiting Sergeant and, For those of you unfamiliar with it, the tune is Waltzing Matilda.

Given closer scrutiny, even the structure of the song suggests that it is not the creation of an oral culture. For example, each stanza takes on its own refrain (come be a soldier, wages for soldiers, take the King's shilling) - although this technique is not unknown in oral culture, what Ong calls the 'redundant' or 'copious' feature of oral tradition would lead me expect the refrain to be uniform - with the possible exception of a single verse.

The song, then, is modern. My interpretation of it, based upon Billy Childish's performance, and my lack of attention as he credited it to Coe, is a modern construct. Is this, then, as inauthentic, as much a indulgence of sentiment as the tendency to wear a crinoline and simper over Mr Darcy?

No. No, I would argue it isn't. For a start, Coe is clearly a talented and versatile folk writer. The song sings well, it marches well, as I'm sure the red-coats at the Dickens festival would attest. Like a good piece of historical fiction, while not 'authentic' it is, perhaps, an authentic reconstruction. It is a common feature of the broadside ballad to say, "sung to the tune of...". What is more, there is suggestion of scepticism towards the armed forces in Ratcliffe Highway (also known as The Deserter), which shows the reluctant soldier. Other ballads speak of press-gangs. Perhaps the only note that rings false about The Rochester Recruiting Sergeant is that young men, the forty new recruits, are willing volunteers.

But this is not my main objection to a consideration of the song as 'inauthentic'. To use that word implies the existence of folk tradition that is not real, one that can be stood next to a 'pure' oral culture. The fact is, my 'authentic' example of Ratcliffe Highway is a broadside ballad - is, essentially, a text, a literate creation. Of course, it is possible to postulate and oral 'original' to these texts, one captured by the culture of print which, even as it destroyed our English oral heritage, was kind enough to fossilize some of its remains. This Romantic conception of folk music is incredibly attractive, but is founded upon the fallacy that English culture has - at any point in the last 800 years - been anything other than literate.

Studies by historians, such as M.T Clanchy and Adam Fox show that the gradual encroachment of literacy and literate forms into every aspect of legal life made text accessible, even to those who could not read. Instead of the idyllic image of a pristine, peasant orality only gradually being 'preserved' by text, more historically likely is a vibrant symbiotic relationship between the two, of which surviving textual sources provide us with snapshots. Those texts - cheaply produced, cheaply sold, printed, reprinted, collected and shared - were equally sites of performance as the folksinger's memory. If, as Fox claims, "By 1700 it may reasonably be assumed that England was a society in which half of the adult population could read print," then it follows that half of the adult population could not. In this context, a broadside ballad becomes a social site, one that has a performative value beyond the words upon the page. There is some evidence that people bought them, put them up in their cottages and shops, even if they themselves could not read. Rather than dead text, a private indulgence, the context of literacy frames the broadside as a social site. The value of the text is known, even if its mysteries remain inaccessible without help. Having just one person in the village who could read it would have created the opportunity for everyone in that community to experience - and learn - the song.

So, it is conceivable that this written song would pass into the oral tradition, perhaps to be recorded again some some ten, some fifty years later by another broadside ballad printer - or perhaps a clergyman out 'collecting' Britain's oral heritage. In the context of literacy, the relationship between oral and textual ceases to be fixed and hierarchical, to be symbiotic, to become ongoing.

"In oral tradition, there will be as many minor variants of a myth as there are repetitions of it", Ong writes in Orality and Literacy. Speaking specifically of orally composed songs, he states, "though metrically regular, they were never sung the same way twice."

The Rochester Recruiting Sergeant can be found by searching, The Bold Fusilier, Who'll be a Soldier, The Recruiting Sergeant. Researching this post, I found locating a text of Coe's original words  nigh on impossible. Rochester's streets are either 'cobbled' or 'crowded' - although the 'kettle drum' of the original is barely mentioned.  The agonist is variously described as a fuslilier, a grenadier, or simply a recruiting sergeant. Approximately half of the versions I discovered referred to 'The King's shilling', despite the fact "the Queen" is the one recruiting troops. This smoothing of language - to fit the modern idiom rather than the historical accuracy of describing the shilling as 'The Queen's' - displays another aspect of oral tradition, that of close adherence to the human lifeworld. Similarly, there was a general tendency to homogenise the refrain lines. Each individual site of the text is informed by the performances of the song the transcriber has heard, informed by their politics, their sentiments, their understanding of the past.
As I sing the song - remembering the Dickens festival and the Command House - I don't sing the 'right' words. I rhapsodise upon the theme, the general idea, the memory. I don't sing the same words route marching my children home from the shops, trying to prevent them from dawdling, as I do when drinking with friends and feeling maudlin. Like the oral tradition, my engagement with this is empathetic, and participatory. Coe's song offers a critique of current conditions of army recruitment, just as broadside ballads offered one of the press gangs. Like many subversive forms, this critique is concealed beneath the veneer of historicity - the King's shilling, the parish queue, the objections of masons or butchers and bakers - what remains is the fact that a entry level pay in the army is around £15k, entry level pay for a teacher is almost £22k. Yet still, forty new recruits go marching.

Who'll be a soldier, indeed?