Like a Version: Variants, Versions and Communal Authorship of Folk Songs

The contemporary concept of music is that a song is authored by a particular songwriter, we can identify who that songwriter is, and the song belongs to him or her. Folk songs, though, are songs of the people and belong to the people rather than any single person; their authors are anonymous and collective. I used to tell this joke in performances:

What’s the difference between most musicians and folk musicians?

Most musicians hope to be famous one day.

Folk musicians hope to be anonymous one day.

Your reaction to this joke has a lot to do with why I used to tell it.

The songs in this collection are old, probably from the 17th to 19th Centuries, and may have roots going back much further. Some were composed by illiterate common folks and never written down in their original forms. Sometimes, a particularly popular ballad would be printed as a broadside, a cheap, single-page printing of the lyrics often decorated with woodcuts and sold for nearly nothing. Typically, several versions of the same song would be produced as broadsides. A few collections of folk songs were printed beginning in the mid 1700’s, but the first scholarly attempts to collect and document English ballads and folk songs were not published until the late 1800’s by collectors like Francis Child. Of course, no audio recording was possible until the 20th Century.

That gave these songs many generations to pass from singer to singer with only the fickle and fallible human memory as a recording device. So, the songs changed over time. Sometimes the changes were great, sometimes minor; sometimes the changes were purposeful, sometimes unintentional; and over time, like a great tree, the song branched out into a family of variants and versions, the prodigy of untold numbers of communal authors.

Take “Lord Randall,” an English murder ballad, for example. Generally, it tells the story of young Lord Randall (or depending on the version, Lord Ronald, Lord Donald, King Henry, Lairde Rowlande, Rendal, Billy, Tiranti, Jimmy, Willie Doo, My Bonny Wee Croodin Doo, My Bonnie Wee Croodlin Dow, My Little Wee Croudlin Doo, or simply My Own Pretty Boy) who returns home after visiting his sweetheart (and sometimes hunting as well). He then sickens and asks his mother to make his bed so he can lie down. His mother interrogates poor, sick Randall, and each question brings her closer to the conclusion that his girl poisoned him (and often his hunting dogs as well), most often by feeding him bad eels cooked in broth but sometimes fried in a pan, cooked in butter or baked in a pie. (In some versions, small fish replace the eels, but in my book, bad seafood is bad seafood and the unfortunate diner suffers just the same). The interrogation continues even though Randall is sick unto death, with his mother quizzing him about what he will leave to his various relatives when he dies: land and houses to his father (although in one interesting version he leaves his father “The keys of Old Ireland, and all that’s there-in”) 1, gold and silver to his mother, cows and horses to his brother, etc. Mother’s last question is usually about what he will leave his true love, and the final verse serves as a turning point characterized by a definitive change in tone.  We learn, finally, that Randall, bonny though he may be, is one to hold a grudge. As such, he leaves his love something lethal: a rope or halter to hang her with, a high hill to hang her on, or hellfire in which to burn forever.

In Folk Songs You Never Sang in Grade School, I honor the communal nature of this art by referring to authorship in the plural; that is, I use “balladeers” rather than “balladeer,” “authors” rather than “author,” “songwriters” rather than “songwriter,” and “poets” rather than “poet.” I also distinguish between variants and versions when referring to different members of a song’s family. In these essays, a version refers to a minor change. In “Lord Randall,” for example, the substitution of small fish for eels is a minor change, thus, a different version. Eels or fish, Randall is still poisoned by his love with the same consequences ensuing.

Deciding if a member of a folk song family is version or a variant can be a judgment call. In some versions of the song, Randall is on a hunting trip, and the girl also poisons his dogs. Does that change also constitute a version, or is it significant enough to be a variant? I say a version. The basic plot and conflict remain the same, and the same players are involved with just a slightly higher body count by the end. But what if the players change? Lord Randall is not always poisoned by his young lover. One member of the song family collected in West Virginia fingers Randall’s sister as the culprit. 2 Two of the 21 “Lord Randalls” collected by Child identify his grandmother as the assassin. 3 Though these variations are close calls, they are significantly different enough to call them variants.

Another issue with variants is that they can be so dissimilar that they seem like different songs altogether. Consider this verse from “Lord Randall:”

Oh, where have you been, Lord Randall my son?
And where have you been, my handsome young man?
I have been to the greenwood; mother, make my bed soon
For I’m sick to my heart and I want to lie down.

Seem familiar? This inappropriate for grade school ballad may remind you of a cleaned up relative you probably did sing as a child:

Oh, where have you been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Where have you been charming Billy?
I’ve been to seek a wife; she’s the joy of my life.
She’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother.

“Billy Boy” or “Charming Billy,” a classic American folk song (with Irish and Scottish versions), is widely identified as a relative of “Lord Randall” though there is no poisoning and no death. The plot is completely changed, but the song retains its mother/son question/answer structure. So different is the plot that I’m tempted to consider it a different song, but I’ll go along with the crowd and call it a member of the same song family, if only a shirttail relation, thus a variant.

Some versions of the “Billy Boy” variant share another, more esoteric feature with “Lord Randall,” and that is the nature of the final verse. In most versions of “Lord Randall,” the questions and answers inevitably lead up to a turning point in the dark final verse when Randall ceases bequeathing valuable objects to family members and viciously leaves the gift of death to his assassin:

What will you leave your true love, Lord Randall, my son?
What will you leave your true love, my bonny young man?
The tow and the halter to hang on yon tree,
And let her hang there for the poisoning of me.

In many versions of “Billy Boy,” the final verse is a turning point, but the intent is not to get revenge but to get a laugh. Throughout the song, Billy answers his mother’s questions by extolling his love’s virtues while bemoaning her youth, as in this verse:

Can she make a cherry pie, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
Can she make a cherry pie, charming Billy?
She can make a cherry pie, quick as a cat can wink an eye,
She’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother.
However, this pattern is turned around in the final verse to serve as an ironic punch line:

How old is she, Billy Boy, Billy Boy?
How old is she, charming Billy?
Three times six and four times seven, twenty-eight and eleven,

She’s a young thing and cannot leave her mother.

At 85 years old, she’s hardly the young thing Billy has been praising. The nature of the final verse in both songs establishes that they are related but are distant variants rather than versions.

My research indicates that the terms version and variant are not typically differentiated as the way I use them; they are usually interchangeable.   I find using variant and version to make a distinction helpful (and I note that Child sometimes made a similar distinction by identifying major variations with upper case letters—12A, 12B, 12C—and minor variations with lower case letters—12Aa, 12Ab, 12Ac.)  But is there yet another distinction to be made? A distinction for songs that have been influenced by an older song but are so far removed in structure and content that they cannot even be called a variant? I think so, and I submit Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”:

Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son ?
And where have you been my darling young one ?
I’ve stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways
I’ve stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I’ve been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, and it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall. 4

According to Matthew Zuckerman in his article, “If There’s An Original Thought Out There, I Could Use It Right Now: The Folk Roots of Bob Dylan,”

The lyrical structure of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” was based on”Lord Randall” (Child ballad No. 12) which he learnt from Martin Carthy… There are many versions of this song … but all follow the same basic question/answer structure. The surrealistic flood of images that makes up the “blue-eyed” son’s reply to the inquiry has no connection to “Lord Randall.” In fact, it probably owes more to Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” than to anything that might be found in the song. 5

The “Lord Randall “family tree is vast. It’s roots may be set in a historical event, the sudden death in 1332 of Thomas Randolph, Earl of Murray, and nephew to Earl the Bruce “…because the death was so untimely for Scotland, it could have been caused by poison” 1 Through the ensuing centuries, the basic story and question/answer structure became the solid trunk. The tree branched into numerous variants and versions crafted by balladeers throughout the English speaking world. It further spread into many different “Billy Boys,” including protest song, rockabilly  (this Johnny Preston recording is used by Rush Limbaugh as the musical bump into his Bill Clinton updates), and jazz variants.  By 1951, J.D. Salinger twice referenced “Lord Randall” in The Catcher in the Rye; by 1962, the ballad’s structure influenced Bob Dylan; and by 1998, the “Billy Boy” variant gave title to Alice McDermott’s novel, Charming Billy.

As ancient as it is, the tree shows no sign of withering. Zuckerman begins his article about Dylan’s folk influences with his statement of a theme which recurs throughout Folk Songs You Never Sang in Grade School, “Traditional music will not die just so long as there are people to keep it alive.” Dylan himself gets the last word on this subject: “There’s nobody that’s going to kill traditional music. All these songs about roses growing out of people’s brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels – they’re not going to die.” 5

How many folk musicians does it take to change a lightbulb?  Find out in the next essay, “Tradition Unbound.”

Like a Version: Variants, Versions and Communal Authorship of Folk Songs

  1. Burns, Lesley. “Variants for Child Ballad #12 Lord Randal.”Lesley Nelson’s Folk Music of England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and America. http://www.contemplator. com/child/variant12.html . Retrieved 1/27/12.
  2. Cox, John Harrington.  “Lord Randall.” Folk-Songs of the South: Collected Under the Auspices of the West Virginia Folk-Lore Society.
  3. Würzbach, Natascha and Simone M. Salz. “Child #12, Lord Randal.” Motif index of the Child Corpus: the English and Scottish Popular Ballad.  Retrieved 1/27/12
  4. Dylan, Bob.  “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”  A-Z / lyrics/bobdylan/ahardrainsagonnafall.html. Retrieved 1/27/12
  5. Zuckerman, Matthew. “If There’s An Original Thought Out There, I Could Use It Right Now: The Folk Roots of Bob Dylan.” Dylan Influences. dok/div/influences.html. Retrieved 1/27/12

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