Creature, Creature, Triple Feature!

Scary stories were as entertaining in the days of balladry as they are today, so it’s no wonder three of the songs in this collection are creepy. “The Unquiet Grave,” “Reynardine,” and “Oh, the Wind and Rain,” are populated by a ghost, a werefox and the-most-dreadful-monster-of -all respectively, so grab your popcorn, sit back and imagine yourself a preteen again at the Saturday matinee ready to enjoy a horrific triple feature!

The Unfriendly Ghost

Ghosts don’t have to be spooky. Like Casper, they can be friendly. Like Patrick Swayze’s ghost in Ghost, they can be gallant, brave, protective, handsome and loving, even sticking around for a last lingering kiss from his still body-temperature lover before finally departing to some other, distant realm.

In modern parlance, ghosts have unresolved issues and must seek closure for themselves and others before they can really call it quits. “Captain Glenn” (aka “William Glenn”) is a sea song in which the crew of a great ship sailing to New Barbary is beset by bad fortune including sickness and dangerous storms. The cause, it turns out, is the ship’s captain who dreams, “A [ghost’s] voice came to him and said to him/‘Prepare yourself and your whole company/ tomorrow night you must lie with me.’” 1 Confession is good for the soul (and good for supplying background information in a very compressed narrative), so Captain Glenn spills it all to the Bosun but swears him to secrecy:

“Bosun,” he said, “it grieves my heart
To think I’ve played a villain’s part.
A man I slew in Staffordshire
And all for the sake of his lady fair
And of the ghost of that I am afraid,
That has in me such terror bred.
So keep the secret within your breast
And pray to the lord that he gives you rest”

Shortly after, a tempest lashes out that will surely sink the ship, and the bosun is forced to act:

And then the bosun he did declare
That the captain was a murderer!
This so enraged the whole ship’s crew
That overboard our captain threw.
Our treacherous captain he being gone,
Immediately there came a calm,
And the winds abated and so did the sea,
And we went sailing to New Barbary.

Achieving closure can be violent, but some ghosts are benevolent. In the folk song, “Bay of Biscay,” recorded in 2009 by Irish musicians Karen Casey and John Doyle on their brilliant album Exile’s Return, a considerate ghost returns to his lover after being lost at sea for seven years. A faithful girl, all this time she has waited for him not knowing his fate. She definitely needs closure, so he appears at her door introducing himself as “…but the ghost of your Willie-o.”

There follows a kind and touching reunion scene:

They spent that night in deep conversation
Concerning their courtship years ago.
They kissed, shook hands and sorrowfully parted
Just as the cockie began to crow.

And as they were in deep conversation,
Down her cheeks the tears did flow.
“Farewell, Darling, I must leave you;
I’m but the ghost of your Willie-o.”

His girl is not ready to accept the finality of Willie’s situation, and she persists, “Oh, Willie, dear, when will we meet again?” The ghost responds with a trio of events so unlikely that we must allow that he is gone forever, “When the fishes they will fly/And the sea it will run dry/And the rocks they will melt with the sun.” 2 This ghost lets his love down easy. Death is death, the song teaches, and the lovers will never meet again: another path to closure is realized.

Kindly, compassionate, considerate ghosts, though, have no place in a collection such as this. The ghost represented in Folk Songs You Never Sang in Grade School is the other kind. The unfriendly ghost. One of the oldest songs in this collection, “The Unquiet Grave,” is said to have originated about 1400 with roots reaching back as far as the ancient Greeks and Persians. 4 It tells the story of a woman (or a man in some variants) who mourns her lover by sitting on his grave for a year (or a year and a day). At the year’s end the ghost rises and speaks, demanding to know who is sitting on his grave and “will not let [him] sleep.” The ghost warns that his lover’s intent to continue their romance is unhealthy and, one way or another, will lead to her own death.

This tale from the crypt has a particularly eerie mood set by the sense of decay pervading the song. This is no friendly ghost or happy ghost or gallant ghost or handsome ghost. This ghost is clearly a dead body, horrible and decomposing. When the living lover asks for but one kiss, unlike the loving ghost of “Biscay Bay,” this ghost warns her off, making clear his current situation and the practical implications of such forbidden love:

My breast is cold as the clay;
My breath is earthly strong
And if you kiss my cold, clay lips,
Your days will not be long.

The sense of decay continues in a later verse:

How oft on yonder grave, Sweetheart,
Where we were wont to walk,
The fairest flower that I e’re saw
Has withered to a stalk.

Though much more macabre than the two previously mentioned ghosts, this ghost nonetheless seeks closure. The “Unquiet Grave” fits broadly into the category of riddle songs, songs in which a protagonist must answer riddles to save his life or gain an objective or is given impossible tasks to complete; the latter riddle ploy is more common when the protagonist faces a lost cause such as bringing back a dead lover:

Go fetch me water from the desert sand
And blood from out the stone.
Go fetch me milk from a fair maid’s breast
That young man has never known.

In the end, this awful ghost achieves closure much as the thoughtful ghost in “Bay of Biscay.” When his love asks, “When shall we meet again, sweetheart?” He replies, “When the oaken leaves that fall from the trees/Are green and spring up again” In other words, never. Such is the reality of being a ghost, friendly or unfriendly.


As a boy in the 1960’s, I enjoyed the classic horror movie monsters then appearing in all their black-and-white glory on late-night TV creature features: Dracula, King Kong, the Creature, the Mummy, and of course, the Wolfman. Werewolves hold a lasting place in mythology, going back as far as 440 BC 5, but wolves are not the only werecreatures; ancient stories identify werebears, weretigers, werejackles and werelizards. In this song collection, the weremonster community is well represented by “Reynardine,” a folk song about a werefox.

Reynardine is a widely collected song with a geographical range spanning from at least central Europe to the American Midwest. The French word for fox is Reynard, so France may be the song’s original home, but it spread throughout the English speaking world to the New World where versions were “…collected in Missouri, Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, Vermont, Arkansas as well as in Canada…An American broadside (with the name ‘Ranordine’) was printed in Boston around 1813,” and Washington Irving [American author of ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’] reported hearing “Reynardine” in Kentucky about 1832. 6

In spite of its wide distribution through many, many renderings, the basic story remains remarkably similar. In the version I sing, Reynardine (in human form) meets a fair maiden on a lonely mountainside path and speaks with her. He claims to be on the run from “the judge’s men,” but because he is so smitten with her beauty, he cannot leave her side and swears to protect her by his sword. She is suspicious, fearing he is a rake (a very human seducer who frequently leaves his pregnant victims in ruin). He convinces her that his intensions are honorable and kisses her whereupon she falls into a swoon. Reynardine discloses his identity and historical fame, but, alas, in her trancelike state she follows him over the mountain to an undisclosed fate. That the outcome for the maiden is left ambiguous is a common tenet of the song in its many versions.

If ghosts seek closure, then monsters seek power; they are the control freaks of the supernatural realm, and they just have to have things their way whether it’s Dracula getting his nightly neck fix or King Kong who just has to carry off the lovely, screaming Fay Wray to the top of the Empire State Building. The interesting thing about werecreatures is that how they gain control has a lot to do with what kind of creature they are associated with. The werewolf, like the wolf, gets his way by brute force, but the werefox, appropriately, gains control by employing cunning. He is sly. In the song, Reynardine deceives the girl when she accuses him of having dangerous motives by claiming victim status; it is he who is enthralled by her charms:

“Oh, no, my dear, I am no rake brought up in Venus’s train.
I’m searching from concealment all from the judge’s men,
But your beauty has ensnared me; I cannot pass you by,
And by my sword I will guard you all on the mountain high.”

It is only after his kiss places her under a spell that he reveals his true nature:

“Well, if by chance you look for me, by chance you’ll not me find.
‘Tis writ in ancient history, my name is Reynardine!”
Sun and dark she followed him; his teeth so bright did shine,
And he led her o’re the mountainside, that sly old Reynardine.

I used to live in the country, and I saw lots of deer, pheasant, raccoons, coyotes, woodchucks and rabbits, but I rarely did I see a fox. Foxes are too clever to make themselves public, and “Reynadine” is a song in which form follows function very well. The balladeers use narrative compression slyly by only hinting at details that point to the monster’s true nature. There is no gruesome bodily transformation or great sprouting of hair as in werewolf stories; there is only his teeth that “…so bright did shine” to identify him. Like the real reynard, Reynadine gains much of his power through concealment. Thus, in the creature’s own words, “If by chance you look for me, by chance you’ll not me find.” He tips his hand a bit in the last verse, though. Usually, a goodnight verse is delivered by the victim. In this case, the monster himself provides the warning, an admonition as apt for rakes as for rascals like Reynardine:

So, come all you pretty, fair maids; this warning take by me:
Never go a-roving and shun bad company.
For if you do, you’ll surely rue until the day you die,
And beware of meeting Reynardine all on the mountain high.

Most Dreadful of All

Ghosts and werecreatures are scary, but perhaps the most dreadful of all monsters is the one that lives within us all, the green-eyed monster: Jealousy. This monster comes to the fore in many folk songs including, in this collection, “Oh, the Wind and Rain.” Based on the Scottish ballad, “The Twa Sisters” (or “The Two Sisters”), “Oh, the Wind and Rain” (sometimes “The Dreadful Wind and Rain”) is the Americanized variant recorded by such notables as Jerry Garcia and David Grisman, Jodie Stecher, Gillian Welch, Peggy Seeger, Mike Seeger and Altan. Many of the selections in Folk Songs You Never Sang in Grade School made that trip across the ocean, and so in this case, a side by side comparison of old world to new world with commentary is apropos.

Scottish Variant American Variant Commentary
27 verses 12 verses American variants are much more modern than their old world analogs. I speculate that the more modern we become, the less patient we are with lengthy narrative.
“There were two sisters in a Bowr.” “There were two sisters came walking down a stream.” The Scottish sisters were daughters of a king and queen. A “bowr” is a private room for women in the king’s castle. There were no castles in Appalachia, ergo, no bowrs. Lots of streams, though.
“There came a knight to be their wooer.” The sisters are courted by Johnny. Not many knights in Appalachia. Lots of Johnnys, though.
Although the knight “…courted the eldest with glove and ring…broach and knife…He loved the youngest above a thing.” “Johnny gave the youngest one a gay, gold ring…He didn’t give the eldest one anything.” Americans are practical.
“The eldest she was vexed sair [sore],” so she dwells upon her jealousy, plots against her little sister and spends ten verses killing her. The elder sister commits the murder in the first verse. The younger dies for a couple more verses, and that’s it. Americans are practical.
The elder took the younger “… by the middle sma [small], And dashd her bonny back to the jaw” [eventually pushing her in the ocean to drown.] “She pushed her in the river to drown.” No oceans in Appalachia. Plenty of rivers.
The drowned sister is spotted by a miller’s son who believes she is “…either a mermaid or swan.” The drowned sister is spotted by a miller’s son who cries, “Father, oh Father, there swims a swan.” No ocean = No mermaids
The miller pulls her onto dry land. The miller pulls her onto dry land. Someone has to do it.
“An by there came a harper fine.” “Down the road came a fiddler fair.” Harps just didn’t make the cut in the Appalachian music scene; fiddles sure did.
“He’s taen [taken] three locks o her yallow hair.” “He took thirty strands of her long, yellow hair.” NA
An wi them strung his harp sae fair.” He made a fiddle bow of her long, yellow hair. Fiddles need bows but harps don’t.
NA He made fiddle pegs of her long finger bones.” Harps don’t need fiddle pegs.
NA He made a little fiddle of her little breast bone…With a sound that would melt a heart of stone.” This is a fiddle-centric variant.
“The first tune he did play and sing, Was, ‘Farewell to my father the king.’” “But the only tune that the fiddle would play was ‘Oh, the Wind and Rain. The only tune that the fiddle would play was ‘Oh, the Dreadful Wind and Rain.” Kings are more of and Old World thing.
“The nextin tune that he playd then, Was, ‘Farewell to my mother the queen.’” NA Only tune means only tune.
“The lasten tune that he playd then, Was, ‘wae [woe] to my sister, Fair Ellen.’” 7 NA In the older version, the harp identifies the murderous sister in the final verse. There’s that Ellen, again!

That the Americanized version is more compressed seems typical of ballads that have made the transition from the old country, and I can understand that. What I haven’t come to terms with is why “Oh, the Wind and Rain” loses the plot element of the harp or fiddle ratting out the homicidal sister, a common element of European versions. It’s such a great plot twist, I can’t see cutting it, even for the sake of brevity. I note a similar omission in “The False Lady,” an Americanized version of “Young Hunting.” (note) In both songs, the lady kills her lover because she believes him unfaithful. A know-it-all bird, though, understands the truth:

Oh, then up spoke a pretty little bird,
Sitting in a tree:
“An ill death may you die, lady,
For he had no love but thee.” 8

In the old world version, she does, indeed, die an ill death for her transgression, but she gets away with it in America. An unidentified writer on the Golden Hind website notes,

In common with other American examples, this New England version of “Young Hunting” has lost its ending, in which the heroine is burned at the stake for her transgressions. Jealousy is often a good enough motive for murder, but death is still a rather high price to pay for a little white lie. 9

It’s interesting to speculate on the reasoning behind new world revisions of old world ballads, but two examples is not enough to start making generalizations, and, alas, this creature feature must come to an end. But I hope one day to produce a sequel to the story. Perhaps, Son of Folk Songs You Never Sang in Grade School? I like the sound of that.

Finally, “The One That Got Away.”

Creature, Creature, Triple Feature!

  1. “Captain Glenn.” Traditional and Folk Songs with Lyrics and Midi Music.
  2. Zierke, Reinhard. “The Bay of Biscay/Willie the Waterboy.” Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music. bayofbiscay.html. Retrieved 1/27/12.
  3. Casey, Karen and John Doyle. “Bay of Biscay.” Exile’s Return. Audio recording.
  4. Zierke, Reinhard. “The Unquiet Grave/Cold Blows the Wind.” Mainly Norfolk: English Folk and Other Good Music. songs/theunquietgrave.html. Retrieved 1/27/12.
  5. The Scribe. “The Earliest Werewolves.” The Ancient Standard. Retrieved 1/27/12.
  6. “Renardine.” The Bard of Avalon. http://www.bardofavalon.
  7. Davis, John Renfro. “The Twa Sisters.” Retrieved 1/27/12.
  8. Casey, Karen and John Doyle. “The False Lady.” Exile’s Return. Audio recording.
  9. “The False Lady.” Golden Hind Music. FALSELAD.html



What’s This?

Folk Songs You Never Sang in Grade School is one folk musician's effort to document, honor and share a collection of folk songs I love and my personal history with them through research, essays, and performance. Read the essays here and watch this site for future performances.

What’s New?

Tara McGovern and I, joined by uilleann piper Jon Cooper, have completed the album version of Folk Songs You Never Sang in Grade School. For a taste of the CD listen to "Oh, the Wind and Rain/The Quail It Is a Pretty Bird" and "Let No Man Steal Your Thyme."

Oh, the Wind and Rain/The Quail It Is a Pretty Bird
Let No Man Steal Your Thyme