> Ewan MacColl > Songs > Old Lady All Skin and Bone
> Cyril Tawney > Songs > There Was a Lady All Skin and Bone

(There Was a) Lady All Skin and Bone

[ Roud 501 ; Ballad Index R069 ; Mudcat 35197 ; trad.]

Roy Palmer: Everyman's Book of British Ballads Peggy Seeger, Ewan MacColl: The Singing Island Jean Ritchie: Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians

Jean Ritchie sang Skin and Bones in 1952 on her Elektra album Singing the Traditional Songs of Her Traditional Kentucky Mountain Family. Edward Tatnall Canby wrote in the sleeve notes:

A musical ghost story, usually sung in a half-light with much shivering expectation in the listening audience. The explosive BOO! that invariably breaks up the party at its end could not successfully recorded; we've put in a microphonable substitute.

Ewan MacColl sang Old Lady All Skin and Bones in 1961 on his and Peggy Seeger's Folkways album Two-Way Trip. They also included the song year earlier in their book The Singing Island. The album's liner notes commented:

‘Death and the Lady’ has been a common theme in European art from the Middle Ages onwards. Most of the songs on this theme retain something of the medieval homiletic poem. In modern times the theme has inspired a number of lugubrious ditties, the most noteworthy being those which were sung by American soldiers in World War I and by British airmen in World War II. Perhaps the most assimilated folk version of the subject is in the Scots nursery rhyme, The Strange Visitor.

Cyril Tawney sang There Was a Lady All Skin and Bone on his 1970 Argo album Children’s Songs from Devon and Cornwall. He noted:

A favourite ‘scarey’ song to startle the unsuspecting. I recorded this version from Molly Spooner of Yelverton, Devon, in June 1964.

Jo Freya sang There Was a Lady All Skin and Bone in 1992 on her Saydisc album Traditional Songs of England. The liner notes commented:

A popular subject in European literature and music for centuries was the Death and the Lady theme and this gruesome song is a typical traditional song manifestation. A children’s ditty in America runs:

The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out,
The worms play pinochle on your snout.

A soldier’s song in the American Army during the 1st World War followed the same pattern, as did a British airman’s song during the 2nd World War.

The Devil's Interval sang Lady All Skin and Bone in c. 2005 on their EP Demon Lovers, and Jim Causley sang it in 2007 on his WildGoose solo album Lost Love Found. He noted:

This is a version of a song my Mum used to sing to my sister and me when we were children. Her favorite time to sing it to us would be when driving home through winding lanes at night just after she had pretended the car had broken down… I think that explains why I grew up to be somewhat unbalanced! James [Dumbelton] can take all the wrap for the choice of chords, somehow this arrangement really makes me think of the music to the computer game, ‘Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge’. Anyone who has ever owned an Amiga will know exactly what I mean!

Eliza Carthy sang Lady All Skin and Bone in 2019 on her Topic album Restitute. She noted:

A campfire classic! I don't remember where or when I learned this. I've been singing it now for so long. There are comedy versions out there but I've always loved the lesson, and the worms… the first appearance of a sexton here [i.e. on this album], gateway to the further world and leveller of everyone rich and poor.

Jackie Oates and John Spiers sang There Was a Lady All Skin and Bone on their 2020 album Needle Pin, Needle Pin.

Lyrics

Ewan MacColl sings Old Lady All Skin and Bones The Devil's Interval sing Lady All Skin and Bone

There was a lady all skin and bone,
And such a lady was never known;
It happened on a holiday,
The lady went to church to pray.

There was a lady all skin and bone,
And such a lady was never known;
It happened on a holiday,
The lady went to the church to pray.

And when she came unto the stile,
She tarried there a little while;
And when she came unto the door,
She tarried there a little more.

And when she came unto the stile,
She tarried there a little while;
And when she came unto the door,
She tarried there a little more.

And when she came unto the aisle,
She had a sad and woeful smile;
She'd come a long and a weary mile,
Her sin and sorrow to beguile.

And when she came unto the aisle,
She had a sad and a woeful smile;
She had come a long and a weary mile,
Her sin and sorrow to beguile.

And she walked up and she walked down,
And she saw a dead man upon the ground;
And from his nose unto his chin,
The worms crept out and the worms crept in.

Well, she's walked up and she's walked down,
And she saw a dead man all on the ground;
And from his nose unto his chin,
The worms crept out and the worms crept in.

Then the lady to the sexton said,
“Shall I be so when I am dead?”
And the sexton to the lady said,
“You'll be the same when you are dead.”

And as the worms through him did creep,
Then asked the lady while sore she did weep,
“Will I be this way oh when I die?”
And the dead man turned his head and he answered, “Aye!”