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The Three Ravens

[ Roud 5 ; Child 26 ; Ballad Index C026 ; trad.]

Ewan MacColl sang the English ballad The Three Ravens on his 1961 Folkways album The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: Vol. 1 Child Ballads. The album's notes commented:

The first printed copy of this ballad is in Ravenscroft's Melismata, London 1611. In The Popular Music of the Olden Time, 1855, Chappell remarks that the ballad was still so popular in some parts of the country that he had “been favoured with a variety of copies of it, written down from memory, and all differing in some respects, both as to words and tune, but with sufficient resemblance to prove a similar origin.”

Motherwell in his Minstrelsy, 1827, de2scribes it as being “very popular in Scotland”, where it is more commonly known as The Twa Corbies.

The version here is given from Kidson's Tradtitional Tunes, 1891, and comes from the village of Stoney-Middleton, Derbyshire.

Isla Cameron sang Three Ravens in 1964 in a recording made by Peter Kennedy on the LP Northumbrian Minstrelsy. The uncredited sleeve notes commented:

Three Ravens is a ballad found in many countries. In Francis J. Child's English and Scottish Popular Ballads this is No. 26. The Scots version is often known as The Twa Corbies. The plot translates almost word for word from similar Danish folklore. It has frequently been collected in the U.S.A. This version was printed in Melismata, Musicall Phansies, Fitting the Court, Cittie, and Countrey Humours (London 1611).

The Black Country Three (Jon and Mike Raven—no relation to the song's protagonists, I believe—and Derek Craft) sang The Three Ravens in 1966 on their eponymous album The Black Country Three. This track was also included on several Transatlantic anthologies.

Fred Jordan sang a rather more comic variant, Three Old Crows, on his 1966 Topic album Songs of a Shropshire Farm Worker. This track was also included in 2003 on his Veteran anthology A Shropshire Lad. The former album's sleeve notes commented:

The old ballad of The Three Ravens (called in Scotland The Twa Corbies) was first printed in T. Ravenscroft's Melismata in 1611. Various comic versions arose, as a children's game song, a students' song, a Boy Scout's campfire song, etc. Fred Jordan learnt his version of this familiar piece from a gamekeeper named Albert Woodward, who came to Corve Dale from the Vale of Aylesbury in the 1940's.

Pete Elliott and chorus sang Three Crows in 1972 on the Topic album of “ballads and songs from Newcastle and thereabouts”, Canny Newcassel. Tony Wilson commented in the sleeve notes:

The tragic ballad The Twa Corbies seems to linger in the tradition only in humorous versions such as this, learned by Pete from his father. Another may be heard on Fred Jordan’s Songs of a Shropshire Farm Worker.

Appropriately, the tune of this mock-clerical piece is taken from the chorus of the Revival (religious not folk song!) hymn There Is a Power in the Blood though it is probably better known as the tune to the chorus of The Quartermaster’s Store.

George Deacon sang The Three Ravens in 1973 on his and Marion Ross' Transatlantic album Sweet William's Ghost. The album's liner notes commented:

This arrangement by Thomas Ravenscroft, first published in 1609, is the earliest known version of this song. Many composers have tried to a range English folk song but rarely as successfully as this sympathetic setting for one of the saddest, yet most beautiful of English songs.

Charlie Clissold sang Three Old Crows and Bob Cross sang Two Old Crows on a Veteran cassette released in 1987-95 and on the 2001 Veteran anthology of traditional folk music from rural England, Down in the Fields.

Bob Lewis sang Three Old Crows at a concert he did with Bob Copper at Nellie’s Folk Club, The Rose and Crown Hotel, Tonbridge, Kent, on October 17, 1999. This concert was released in 2017 on their Musical Traditions CD The Two Bobs' Worth.

Arthur Knevett sang The Three Ravens on his 1988 cassette Mostly Ballads. Vic Gammon commented in the album's notes:

This is a version of a ballad which has been in print since the Jacobean musician Thomas Ravenscroft harmonised it for middle class musical recreation in the early seventeenth century. This short version from Frank Kidson's collection ends with the regret of the slain man's lady. Longer versions are even bleaker: lady, hawk and hound all desert the unfortunate man (or knight) and the sense of desolation is absolute. This song has had a long and varied life and still exists as a children's song in Britain and America.

Malinky sang Three Ravens in 2002 as the title track of their second CD, 3 Ravens. They commented in their liner notes:

Karine [Polwart] first heard this sung by Susan Thores. It's related to the much better known ballad The Twa Corbies. Our arrangement takes its inspiration from the brilliant Breton band Skolvan.

German group Cara learned Three Ravens from Malinky's album. They recorded it in 2004 for their CD In Colour and sang it live at the Arsenaal Theater in Vlissingen, Netherlands, on October 21, 2007; this concert was published in 2008 on their DVD In Full Swing. This YouTube video shows them at a Cooldog Concert in Delaware on August 19, 2007:

The Devil's Interval (Lauren McCormick, Emily Portman and Jim Causley) sang Two Crows in 2006 on their WildGoose CD Blood and Honey. They commented in their liner notes:

Harry Adams sang The Three Crows to Bob and Jacqueline Paton in 1977 calling it “an old pub song”. Some people think it is related to the ancient ballad The Three Ravens but in our scholarly opinions we feel the connection is highly dubious! Emily folked it up a bit, added some lines and lost a crow along the way.

This video shows them at Loughborough Folk Festival in 2008:

Brian Peters sang Three Ravens in 2008 on his album of Child Ballads, Songs of Trial and Triumph.

Both Hannah James and Fay Hield learned Three Ravens from a version collected by Frank Kidson from Mrs Holmes of Stoney Middleton, Derbyshire. Hannah sang it in 2009 on her and Sam Sweeney's CD Catches and Glees, and Fay sang it together with Jon Boden as the September 27, 2010 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day.

The Demon Barbers learned Three Ravens from Fay Hield and sang it in 2010 on their CD The Adventures of Captain Ward.

Inge Thomson sang Three Ravens in 2014 on Martin Green's album Crows' Bones. Their version, like Cara's above, seems to come from Malinky's arrangement.

Lyrics

Ewan MacColl sings The Three Ravens

There were three ravens on a tree,
    A-down, a-down, a derry down,
There were three ravens on a tree,
    Heigh ho!
The middlemost raven said to me,
“There lies a dead man at yon tree,”
    A-down, a-down, a derry down,
    Heigh ho!

There comes a lady full of woe,
    A-down, a-down, a derry down,
There comes his lady full of woe,
    Heigh ho!
There comes his lady full of woe,
Riding fast as she can go,
    A-down, a-down, a derry down,
    Heigh ho!

“Who's this that killed my own true love?
    A-down, a-down, a derry down,
Who's this that killed my own true love?
    Heigh ho!
I hope in heaven he'll never rest,
Nor e'er enjoy that blessed place.”
    A-down, a-down, a derry down,
    Heigh ho!

The Black Country Three sing The Three Ravens Malinky sing Three Ravens

There were three ravens sat on a tree,
    Down, a down, heigh down, heigh down
They were as black as black might be,
    With a down
The one of them said to his mate,
“Where shall we our breakfast eat?”
    With a down, derry derry derry down down

Three ravens sat upon a tree,
    Hey doun hey derrie day
Three ravens sat upon a tree,
    Hey doun
Three ravens sat upon a tree
And they were black as black could be.
    Singing la do an la do a day

The middle ane said tae his mate:
“Oh where shall we our dinner get?”

”Oh down in yonder green field
There lies a knight slain under his shield.
His hounds they lie down at his feet,
So well they do their master keep.”

“It's doun intae yon grass green field,
There lies a knight that's newly killed.”

His horse was standing at his side
And thought he might get up and ride.

His hounds were lying at his feet
And they licked his wounds sae sore and deep.

His hawks they fly so eagerly,
There is no fowl dare nigh him come.
Oh down there comes a fallow doe
As great with young as she may go.

There came a lady full of woe,
As big wi' child as she could go.

She lifted up his wounded head
And kissed the wounds that were so red.
She got him up upon her back,
Carried him to earthen lake.

She buried him before the prime
And was dead herself ere evesong time.
God send to every gentleman
Such hawks, such hounds and such woman.

She's stretched herself doun by his side
And for the love of him she's died.

Hannah James sings Three Ravens Fay Hield sings Three Ravens

There were three ravens on a tree,
    A down, a down, a derry down
There were three ravens on a tree,
    Hi ho
The middlemost raven said to me,
“There lies a dead man at yon tree.”
    A down, a down, a derry down
    Hi ho

There were three ravens on a tree,
    Down, down and a derry down
There were three ravens on a tree,
    Hey ho
The middlemost raven said to me,
“There lies a dead man at yon tree.”
    Down, down and a derry down
    Hey ho

Here comes his lady full of woe,
Here comes his lady full of woe,
Here comes his lady full of woe,
Here comes his lady as she may go.

Here comes his lady full of woe,
Here comes his lady full of woe,
Here comes his lady full of woe,
Riding fast as she can go.

“Who's this that's killed my own true love?
Who's this that's killed my own true love?
I hope in heaven they'll never rest
Or e'er enjoy that blessed place.”

“Who's this that's killed my own true love?
Who's this that's killed my own true love?
I hope in heaven he'll never rest
Nor ever reaches that blessed place.”

There were three ravens on a tree,
    A down, a down, a derry down
There were three ravens on a tree,
    Hi ho, hi ho, hi ho, hi ho

Fred Jordan sings Three Old Crows The Devil's Interval sing Two Crows

Now three old crows sat in a tree
And they were as black as black could be,
And they were as black as black could be.

Said one old crow unto his mate,
“What shall we have this day to eat?
What shall we have this day to eat?”

They flew away across the plain
To where an old horse had been slain,
To where an old horse had been slain.

They sat all on his old back-bone,
They pecked his eyes out one by one,
They pecked his eyes out one by one.

Up come the farmer with his gun,
He shot them all excepting one
He shot them all excepting one.

Now this old crow flew in a tree
He said, “You old bugger you can’t catch me,”
He said, “You old bugger, oh you can’t catch me.”

There were two crows sat on a tree,
    Sing brethren sing.
There were two crows sat on a tree
And they were as black, and they were as black,
And they were as black as black could be.

Said number one unto his mate,
    Sing brethren sing.
Said number one unto his mate,
What shall we have, oh what shall we have,
Oh what shall we have this day for to eat?

In yonder field a horse lies slain,
    Sing brethren sing.
In yonder field a horse lies slain.
Around his neck, around his neck,
Around his neck there hangs a gold chain.

We'll take a lock of his yellow hair,
    Sing brethren sing.
We'll take a lock of his yellow hair
To stuff in our nest, to stuff in our nest,
To stuff in our nest with gold so rare.

We'll latch upon his old breast-bone,
    Sing brethren sing.
We'll latch upon his old breast-bone
And pluck out his eyes, and pluck out his eyes,
And pluck out his eyes one by one.

Pete Elliott and chorus sing Three Crows

There were three crows upon a tree,
They were as black as crows could be,
Sing, brethren, sing:
    There were three crows upon a tree,
    𝄆 They were as black as crows could be. 𝄇

They flew away across a plain
And found a sheep that had been slain,
Sing, brethren, sing:
    They flew away across the plain
    𝄆 And found a sheep that had been slain. 𝄇

They stoop upon its fleecy hump
And picked the maggots off its rump,
Sing, brethren, sing:
    They stoop upon its fleecy hump
    𝄆 And picked the maggots off its rump. 𝄇

They stoop upon its crookèd horn
And pecked its eyes out one by one,
Sing, brethren, sing:
    They stoop upon its crookit horn
    𝄆 And pecked its eyes out one by one. 𝄇

The moral of this little lay
Is get your mutton where you may,
Sing, brethren, sing:
    The moral of this little lay
    𝄆 Is get your mutton where you may. 𝄇
    A-men

Links

See also the Mudcat Café thread Origins: Twa Corbies / Three Ravens / etc..