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“There are two of them, Bunter, two ladies lived in a bower, Binnorie, O Binnorie!”
Lord Peter Wimsey in Dorothy L. Sayers: Strong Poison, Chapter VIII

The Twa Sisters / The Two Sisters / The Bows of London / The Wind and Rain / The Berkshire Tragedy / Binnorie / Minorie

[ Roud 8 ; Master title: The Twa Sisters ; Child 10 ; G/D 2:213 ; Ballad Index C010 ; WindRain at Old Songs ; The Swan Swims Sae Bonnie at A Puckle Mucke Sangs ; DT BINNORI , TWOSIS ; Mudcat 54663 , 122229 ; trad.]

Lucy E. Broadwood, J.A. Fuller Maitland: English County Songs J. Collingwood Bruce, John Stokoe: Northumbrian Minstrelsy Norman Buchan and Peter Hall: The Scottish Folksinger David Herd: Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs, Heroic Ballads, etc. Alexander Keith: Last Leaves of Traditional Ballads and Ballad Airs James Kinsley: The Oxford Book of Ballads John Jacob Niles: The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles John Ord: Bothy Songs and Ballads Roy Palmer: Everyman’s Book of British Ballads Sir Walter Scott: Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border John Stokoe: Songs and Ballads of Northern England Peggy Seeger, Ewan MacColl: The Singing Island Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger: Travellers’ Songs From England and Scotland

John Strachan of Fyvie, Aberdeenshire, sang Binnorie, o Binnorie to Alan Lomax on 16 July 1951. This recording was included in the anthology The Child Ballads 1 (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 4; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1968), and in 2002 on Strachans’s Rounder anthology, Songs From Aberdeenshire. Hamish Henderson and Ewan McVicar noted:

A version of the ballad of sisterly hatred best known as The Twa Sisters, very widely sung, collected and recorded in Britain and the U.S. Here, the sisters both love the miller lad. In others the suitor is noble, and the miller rescues the younger sister but then either drowns her at the behest of the elder or uses her bones and hair to construct a harp or fiddle that sings to reveal the murder.

Willie Matheson of Turriff, Aberdeenshire, sang Binnorie to Alan Lomax on 17 July 1951. This recording was included in 2011 on the anthology of Lomax’s Scottish recordings, Whaur the Pig Gaed on the Spree.

John Whyte of Laurencekirk, Angus, sang The Swan Swims So Bonnie, O in 1953 to Hamish Henderson. This recording from the School of Scottish Studies Archives was included in 2006 on the Kyloe CD Hamish Henderson Collects Volume 2.

Betsy Whyte of Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire, sang The Twa Sisters to Hamish Henderson, probably in the 1950s too. This recording was included in the anthology The Muckle Sangs (Scottish Tradition Volume 5; Tangent 1975; Greentrax 1992).

Ewan MacColl sang Minorie in 1956 on his and A.L. Lloyd’s Riverside series The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Volume I. Another recording was published in 1960 on his Topic album Chorus From the Gallows and in 1993 on his Topic anthology The Real MacColl.

Cynthia Gooding sang The Twa Sisters in 1957 on the extended reissue of her 1953 Elektra album of early English folksongs, Queen of Hearts. She noted:

The oldest versions of Twa Sisters (Child No. 10) emphasised the fact that an instrument was made of the dead sister’s hair and when the instrument was played, the story of her murder was related. The modern variants contain only vestiges of this myth and concentrate on the crime of the elder, uglier sister.

Shirley Collins sang The Berkshire Tragedy in 1959 on her Collector EP The Foggy Dew. Peter Kennedy noted:

This is a shortened song version of the great supernatural ballad Binnorie or The Two Sisters. There is another ballad giving the second part of the story in which a passing fiddler discovers the girl’s body, and strings his fiddle with the strands of her hair. In a Virginian version sung by blind Horton Barker to a similar tune, the story of sister jealousy begins…

There was a young man came by to see them
The eldest one got struck on him
So he bought the youngest a beaver hat
The oldest one got mad at that

but it does not contain Shirley’s last verse about “black savages” which is the feature of the Berkshire version. (See also Sandy Paton, Collector JEA2 [American Folk Songs Vol. 2].)

Louis Killen sang The Cruel Sister in 1961 on his and Isla Cameron’s album of Northumbrian songs and ballads, The Waters of Tyne.

Lucy Stewart of Fetterangus, Aberdeenshire, sang Swans Swim So Bonnie O on her 1961 Folkways album Traditional Singer from Aberdeenshire, Scotland, Vol. 1: Child Ballads, and in 2012 on the Topic anthology Good People, Take Warning (The Voice of the People Volume 23). Kenneth S. Goldstein commented:

One of the most widely distributed of all British traditional ballads, The Two Sisters has proved excellent material for detailed study. Of 27 texts published by Child, the earliest is a broadside dating from the middle of the 17th century, though it may have been sung in Britain at an earlier date.

In an extensive study of the ballad, Paul G. Brewster [The Two Sisters, Helsinki, 1953, FFC #147] comes to the conclusion that it is definitely Scandinavian in origin; starting in Norway prior to the 17th century, the ballad spread from there to other Scandinavian countries and then to Scotland and England. Archer Taylor has made a strong case for his belief that American versions of the ballad derive from English rather than Scottish tradition.

Child considered the heart of the ballad to be the making of a musical instrument from the drowned sister’s body, the instrument in turn revealing the identity of her murderer. Most recently collected texts have eliminated this supernatural motif.

Lucy’s version containing “the swan swims so bonnie” refrain is rather uncommon and, as pointed out by Bronson, seem to have currency in Celtic communities.

Dan Tate of Fancy Gap, Virginia, sang Wind and Rain to George Foss on 10 July 1962. This recording was included in 1978 on the Blue Ridge Institute album in their Virginia Traditions series, Ballads From British Tradition.

Pentangle sang Cruel Sister as the title track of their 1970 Transatlantic album Cruel Sister.

Frankie Armstrong sang The Two Sisters on her 1972 Topic LP Lovely on the Water. A.L. Lloyd noted:

On the continent this ballad was a straightforward realistic lyrical tragedy, but as often happened when it spread to the North it picked up supernatural bits, including the savage notion of the singing bones that reveal a crime. Realistic English versions sometimes called The Berkshire Tragedy, exist side by side with Scots-Scandinavian magical ones. Sundry sets of the ballad carry various refrains, including “Bow down, bow down” (a dance instruction?) and “Binnorie o Binnorie” (said to be the invention of Sir Walter Scott). The present refrain, about swans swimming bonny, probably got attached to the song in Ireland, where they’re great on swans. Frankie’s version derives mainly from a set noted by Frank Kidson from an Irish singer in Liverpool.

Folque sang a Norwegian version, Harpa, in 1974 on their eponymous album Folque, and Swedes Carin Kjellman and Ulf Gruvberg sang De Två Systrarna in 1976 on their album Folk och Rackare. This track was also included in 1996 on Folk och Rackare’s anthology CD, 1976-1985.

Tom Gilfellon sang The Two Sisters in 1976 on his Topic album In the Middle of the Tune. He noted:

The Two Sisters or Binnorie as it appears in the Northumbrian Minstrelsy is a ballad which has had wide currency throughout the Borders and beyond. The tune is one I learned some time ago and is an approximation of that sung by Lucy Stewart of Fetterangus, a beauty of a singer if ever there was one. The text is a hotch-potch from sources in Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads.

Muckram Wakes sang The Two Sisters in 1976 on their eponymous Trailer LP Muckram Wakes. Helen Hockenhull (the former Helen Watson in Muckram Wakes) recorded this song again in 2001 with Grace Notes for their Fellside CD Anchored to the Time. Pete and Chris Coe, who played as session musicians on Muckram Wakes album, but not on The Two Sisters, recorded this song in the same year for their Trailer album Out of Season, Out of Rhyme.

The Clutha sang Binnorie on their 1977 Topic album The Bonnie Mill Dams. The album’s title is a phrase from this song. Don Martin noted:

Gilbert Voy, Erlend’s father, learned this version from his older sisters at Inganess Farm, near Kirkwall, Orkney, during the first decade of the present century. Binnourie or The Twa Sisters (Child 10) is one of the most widespread of our old traditional narrative ballads. Child gave twenty-seven versions of the words from Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland. Bertrand Harris Bronson printed ninety-seven variants of the tune in Volume 1 of The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, but he missed this one.

Steve Turner sang The Cruel Sister on his 1979 Fellside album Out Stack. He also sang it as The Two Sisters on his 2018 Tradition Bearers CD Late Cut where he noted:

The ballad collector Anna Gordon (1747-1810) was born in Aberdeen and married the Rev. Dr. Andrew Brown, minister of Falkland, Fife. She became famous as a collector of fifty Scottish ballads, with some of her work being published by Walter Scott and Francis James Child. She was known as Mrs Brown of Falkland and is said to have learnt this version of the Two Sisters as a child from her mother. It is one of ninety-seven versions of the ballad noted by Child (no. 10), so many that he divided the song into five groups, A to E, according to their choruses. This is from group C, the Scottish section! Thanks to Kenny Smith of Aberdeen Folk Club and Tom Spiers for helping me with the information about Anna Gordon.

Johnny Collins and Friends sang Wind and the Rain in 1982 on their Traditional Sound album Free & Easy. He noted that it “is from the singing of my friend and fellow member of the back row at Herga Folk Club, Hugh Diamond”. His version is quite different from the usual Two Sisters; the girl is killed by per lover rather than her sister. According to Phil Edwards in the Mudcat Café thread Wind and the Rain (NOT Two Sisters), it’s a version recorded, and probably rewritten, by the Appalachian autoharpist (John) Kilby Snow.

George Fradley of Sudbury, Derbyshire, sang The Two Sisters to Mike Yates in 1984. This recording was included in 1987-95 on his Veteran album One of the Best, and in 2001 on the Veteran anthology CD of traditional folk music from rural England, Down in the Fields. Mike Yates noted:

George’s version of this rare and ancient ballad (number 10 in Professor Child’s collection) is lacking in one crucial respect. Following the murder of the young girl, a musical instrument, such as a harp or fiddle, is made from her hair and bones. When played, the instrument sings out the details of the girl’s death for all to hear. Most English versions have now lost this motif which has, however, survived in Scottish sets, such as those sung by Jock Duncan and those that were sung by the late Betsy Whyte.

Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick recorded The Bows of London live on 23 February 1990 at Focal Point, St. Louis, MO, USA for their album Life and Limb; this recording was also included in the Martin Carthy anthology The Definitive Collection. Another live version, also from St. Louis, was recorded by Peter Bellamy on 16 August 1991 in the Botanical Gardens and released on The Carthy Chronicles. Martin Carthy noted on the first album:

Ever since I head Jody Stecher sing a luminous song called The Wind and the Rain—a version of The Two Sisters— I have wanted to sing it. Its overwhelming feature is its concentration on that aspect of the story dealing with the building from the murder victim’s remains of a fiddle which then takes on a life of its own and ultimately unmasks the murderer. Having found my own efforts at singing this to be as unconvincing as my efforts at American songs usually are, I cast around for a tune from this side of the water, came upon The Bows of London and then tried to stay close to Jody’s words. A “bow” is the bend in a river.

This video shows him accompanied by Eliza Carthy in a concert at Union Chapel in Islington; it was broadcast on BBC 4 TV in April 2002:

Old Blind Dogs sang The Cruel Sister on their 1993 album Close to the Bone. Ian Benzie noted:

I heard this song about 25 years ago, sung by Jacqui McShee and Pentangle. I’m sure it’s based on a Scottish ballad as, “lay the bairn tae the bonnie broom” isn’t exactly the Queen’s English. Making harps out of breast bones strung with locks of golden hair certainly appeals to the Old Blind Dogs’ sense of the weird.

Roger Wilson sang an Appalachian version of The Two Sisters in 1998 on the album Wood—Wilson—Carthy. Both he and Chris Wood played violin; Martin Carthy does not appear on this track.

June Tabor sang The Wind and Rain live in Dorsten, Germany in April 1991. She was accompanied by Mark Emerson, viola, and Giles Lewin, violin. This recording was included in 2005 on her anthology Always. She noted:

There were lots of versions of this song (The Two Sisters) about but Jody Stecher’s on Going up on the Mountain had a kind of immediacy on it. I like the refrain—probably it’s the English in me; talking about the weather—but it was particularly the verse about making a little fiddle out of her breastbone and how the sound would melt a heart of stone. I thought that was a really nice way of putting it. It told the story very strongly. It’s a good one to do with voice and fiddles. Mark put a tune called The Falls of Richmond in the middle.

Nancy Kerr & James Fagan sang The Berkshire Tragedy in 1997 on their Fellside CD Starry Gazy Pie. They noted:

A variant of the Two Sisters, with a walk-on part for an extra sister, and no al-fresco instrument-making workshop. It’s in Broadwood’s English County Songs but this is the melody Sandra [Kerr] remembers John Faulkner singing.

Elspeth Cowie sang Twa Sisters in 2000 on her CD Naked Voice.

Jim Malcolm sang Cruel Sister in 2000 on his album Resonance. He noted:

This eerie ‘muckle ballad’ (that is, an ancient narrative song) is one I learned from Ian F Kenzie’s singing with the Old Blind Dogs. It tells the story of a jealous older sister who kill her more favoured sibling. The dead girl’s breastbone is discovered on a beach and made into a harp, which begins to play and tell their father what had happened…

Alison McMorland sang The Swan Swims Sae Bonnie in 2000 on her Tradition Bearers CD Cloudberry Day.

Niamh Parsons and her sister Anne Parsons-Dunne sang Two Sisters in 2000 on Niamh’s Green Linnet album In My Prime. She noted:

My sister Anne and myself learnt this from a Clannad album years ago. Anne particularly enjoys the opportunity to push me in the river—even if she does have to suffer being boiled in lead!

Jack Beck sang The Twa Sisters in 2001 on his Tradition Bearers CD Half Ower, Half Ower tae Aberdour. He noted:

This classic and highly dramatic ballad is found all over Europe. In this version the wronged sister is recycled into a harp, in others as a fiddle. Wendy [Welch] and I often do this as a story and song duo; the question of why the characters act in this way fascinates us.

Dave Arthur with Pete Cooper and Chris Moreton (later known as Rattle on the Stovepipe) sang Oh Death in 2002 on their WildGoose CD Return Journey. This was reissued in 2010 on their compilation So Far, So Good. Dave noted on the first album:

The story of the man who courts two sisters, and chooses the youngest, thus precipitating her murder by the elder, is well known throughout Northern Europe and America. In the older European versions there is a supernatural element, missing in many American texts, where parts of the victim’s body are used to make an instrument. On being played the harp/fiddle/pipe denounces the murderess, who is punished for the crime. Although undoubtedly a much older tale, the Two Sisters first appears in 1656 as a broadside entitled The Miller and the King’s Daughter. From then on it achieved widespread popularity in a variety of forms, from the Berry Fields of Blair, Perthshire, to Detroit, Michigan. As a folktale and cante-fable it is known across east and west Europe. A common element in the folktale, but missing from the ballad, is the resurrection of the girl brought about by the breaking of the instrument.

There are numerous choruses ‘Binnorie, o binnorie’, ‘The swan she swims sae bonny’, etc., this one, ‘Oh the wind and rain’, is uncommon, and seems to have been popularised by the autoharp player Kilby Snow. I first heard it some twenty five years ago at a house-party in Washington, and its been going round my head ever since.

and they added on the second:

Learnt by Dave from the singer Helen Schneyer in Washington in 1972.

More Maids sang The Cruel Sister Live at the Kulturzentrum Dieselstraße, Esslingen, Germany, in March 2002.

Brian Peters sang Two Sisters in 2003 on his CD Different Tongues.

The Witches of Elswick sang The Two Sisters in 2003 on their first album, Out of Bed. They noted:

We first heard this song by John McCormick at Bacca Pipes Folk Club in Keighley. However due to the cheap pints only the tune and story stuck in our heads, so we created this version from the many Child(ish) ones.

Jim Moray sang Two Sisters in 2003 too on his CD Sweet England.

Lucy Stewart’s niece Elizabeth Stewart sang Binnorie as the title track of her 2004 Elphinstone Institute anthology, Binnorie.

Steeleye Span sang The Three Sisters on their 2004 CD Bloody Man and on their 2009 live CD and DVD Live at a Distance. The middle sister doesn’t have anything exciting to do.

Rachel Unthank sang Cruel Sister as the title track of Rachel Unthank & The Winterset’s 2005 album, Cruel Sister. She noted

Taffy Thomas told Becky [Unthank] the story of the Cruel Sister and we’ve wanted to learn the song ever since as we couldn’t resist the temptation for a bit of sibling rivalry. We found this version of the ballad in the Northumbrian Minstrelsy which claims that the tune is a “true Northumbrian melody” and tells us of how the story can be found in many different cultures and languages. It stands as a warning to all mean big sisters! Some of you might wonder why my sister Becky’s name isn’t on the front cover (until recently we’ve mainly performed as a duo). We changed the name partly to accommodate the new band line-up and partly to give Becky a back seat while she’s at university. But really it’sjust because I am the original Cruel Sister!

Ygdrassil (Linde Nijland and Annemarieke Coenders) sang Cruel Sister in 2005 on their CD Easy Sunrise and a year later Live at the Folkwoods Festival 2006.

Norman Kennedy sang Binnorie at the Fife Traditional Singing Festival, Collessie, Fife in May 2005. This recording was published a year later on the festival anthology For Friendship and for Harmony (Old Songs & Bothy Ballads Volume 2). The album notes commented:

Binnorie or The Twa Sisters is one of the oldest of the classic Scots ballads, number 10 in Francis J. Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. There are more than 100 versions with tune in Bertrand Bronson’s Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads—many collected from oral tradition in the United States. The ballad remains popular in Scottish tradition in various forms—some with the Binnorie line as here and others with the burden line “The swans swim sae bonnie O” […]

Norman has sung this for over 50 years and has often used it to accompany his hand loom weaving. In this recording Louis Killen can be heard on one side and Elizabeth Stewart on the other along with a room full of singers joining the chorus.

Kate Fletcher sang Cruel Sister in 2007 on her CD Fruit. She noted:

No one ever tells you what happened to the middle sister… perhaps she ran away with the instrument maker and learnt to play the jouhikko…

Kerfuffle learned another version of Two Sisters as sung by George Fradley of Derbyshire. They recorded it in 2008 for their fourth CD, To the Ground.

Broom Bezzums sang Binnorie on their 2008 album Under the Rug.

Paul and Liz Davenport sang The Wind and the Rain in 2008 on their CD Songbooks and The Scent of Lilies in 2014 on their CD Wait for No Man.

Ruth Notman sang The Cruel Sister in 2009 on her CD The Life of Lilly.

Martin Simpson sang The Wind and the Rain in 2009 on his Topic CD True Stories. He noted:

Among the many ballads of the supernatural is The Wind and the Rain, aka The Two Sisters or The Cruel Sister. Constructing a musical instrument from a newly drowned girl is an odd way to demonstrate compassion. The itinerant musician who performs the lutherie is variously a harper, a fiddle player and a banjo player. The completed instrument in some versions points out the guilty party, or as here, refuses to play anything cheerful. This in an English version of an American version of a Scots ballad. Jody Stecher has recorded two fine versions.

The Askew Sisters sang The Bonny Bows of London Town in 2010 on their CD Through Lonesome Woods. They noted:

The words to this song are an amalgamation of various versions from the Child Ballad collection (no. 10, The Two Sisters) and the last couplet was written by Pete Coe. The tune is based on one collected from “an old woman in Banffshire” which can be found in Christie’s Traditional Ballads and Airs. There are versions of this tale from all over Europe (some of which are very grizzly!) and the story can even be found in tales from as far away as South Africa. The refrains we use are from Motherwell’s 1825 manuscript as we like the way it is set in London (but Hazel is hoping it hasn’t given Emily too many ideas!). We avoided this song for many years, but were won over when Jeff Warner suggested we should do a version whilst we watched someone sing it at Whitby Folk Week a couple of years ago… so here it is!

Corncrow sang Cruel Sister in 2010 on their CD Sweet Nightingale.

Emily Portman and Rachel Newton sang Two Sisters in 2010 on Emily’s CD The Glamoury and Rachel Newton sang it on her 2020 album To the Awe. Emily noted:

The words of this magical ballad are a collage of my favourite bits from the Child and Bronson collections. The tune has been adapted from a version in Bronson “sung by Mrs. Martha L. Sistrunk, White Springs, Fla. [, 1936]” [Bronson: Child no. 10, version 88] which I misread and rewrote. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the refrain line should include the name of a flower that symbolises a warning, the oleander.

And Rachel noted:

Lyrics and music based on The Old Woman Lived on a Sea Shore, as sung by Mrs Pearl Brewer, Pochahantas, Arkansas, on 12 November 1958 and Two Sisters as sung by Mrs Lizzie Maguire, Fayetteville, Arkansas, on 23 June 1959. Both are featured in the Max Hunter Folk Song Collection.

Alasdair Roberts sang The Two Sisters in 2010 on his CD Too Long in This Condition.

Anne Armstrong and Ron Kavana sang Wind & Rain in 2011 on the latter’s CD 40 Favourite Folk Songs.

Freya Abbott Ferguson sang Two Sisters in 2011 on her No Masters CD Get Well Soon.

Swedish group Triakel sang Kallt väder on their 2011 CD of song sung by Ulrika Lindholm (1886-1977), Ulrikas minne. They noted:

The tune is the one sung by Ulrika, but the words come from a variant learned of Britta Moberg of Jorm, Frostviken.

Lucy Ward sang The Two Sisters in 2011 on her first CD, Adelphi Has to Fly.

Bellowhead sang Wind & Rain as second track of their 2012 promo CD single 10,000 Miles Away. It was also included as a bonus track of the digital download of Broadside. It is not on the regular CD though.

Eddy O’Dwyer sang The Bows of London in 2012 on his CD Go and ’List for a Sailor.

Haddo sang Two Sisters in 2014 on their CD Borderlands.

Alice Jones sang The Swans Swim So Bonny in 2014 on her and Pete Coe’s album The Search for Five Finger Frank.

Kirsty Law learned Twa Sisters from Betsy Whyte and recorded it in 2014 for her CD Shift. She noted:

This version of a well known song I learned from the singing of Betsy Whyte, a Scottish Traveller. I love the way the song breaks its form towards the end, something not so common in these old ballads.

Emily Smith sang Twa Sisters in 2014 on her CD Echoes. This video shows her at The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, on 8 March 2014:

Steve Byrne translated De Två Systrarna into Scots and sang it as The Twa Sisters in 2015 on Malinky’s album Far Better Days. The liner notes commented:

This is a Swedish version of the weel-kent ballad which Steve translated into Scots. We first heard this during a tour of Sweden in 2003 when we were introduced to the music of the band Folk och Rackare, as Malinky had been advertised as “The Scottish Folk och Rackare”—namely a band which took old traditional ballads and made them anew. We were delighted to perform a dual Swedish/Scots version with the band Ranarim at the Celtic Connections festival in Glasgow in 2007 [on 27 January 2007; see the video below]. The harp metaphor is often found as a fiddle in Scottish versions.

Teresa Horgan sang Cruel Sister in 2015 on her and Matt Griffin’s CD Brightest Sky Blue. She noted:

This tale of sibling jealousy and murder is a recurring theme in a number of folk songs. This is our take on a song we first heard from English folk-rock group, Pentangle. It was featured on their 1970 record of the same name.

Robert Lawrence and Jill Greene sang The Cruel Sister on their 2015 CD Legends and Laments. Jill Green noted on the Mudcat forum in 2021:

We have a version of Cruel Sister on our album Legends and Laments. We made a few slight revisions in the lyrics to get away from stereotypes of fair = good, dark = bad.

Kirsty Potts sang Binnorie on her 2015 album The Seeds of Life. She noted:

This version is a fusion of three Scottish variants that I have absorbed over the years. It is perhaps better known as The Twa Sisters. The story is known worldwide—the gist being that the bones of the corpse are fashioned to make a musical instrument, be it fiddle or harp, which then sings out the identity of the murderer in the gathering.

Robyn Stapleton sang The Two Sisters on her 2015 album of songs of the Scottish and Irish folk traditions, Fickle Fortune. She noted:

Once upon a time, this dark ballad was paired with a very lively tune—and it makes an interesting combination! There are many versions of The Two Sisters found all around the world—I first heard this version from Irish folk group, Clannad.

Stick in the Wheel sang The Bows of London on their 2015 CD From Here. The words are nearly the same as Martin Carthy’s leaving out the last three verses the fiddle sang.

Ange Hardy and Lukas Drinkwater sang The Berkshire Tragedy in 2016 on their CD Findings. Lukas Drinkwater noted:

This is our interpretation of a traditional song that has inspired countless recordings and variations. As far as we’ve been able to establish this version of the song is called The Berkshire Tragedy and is one of many variations of The Two Sisters.

It’s easy to confuse it with Roud 263—another song also called The Berkshire Tragedy which also features a miller and a murder but appears to have an entirely different history!

Steeleye Span sang Two Sisters in 2017 too on their CD Dodgy Bastards. They summarised:

There are many versions of this tale. In this one the elder sister, witnessing a suitor’s preference for her younger sister, pushes her into the water and the younger drowns. On finding her body, the King’s harpist, who happens to be passing, decides (in true ballad style!) to make her corpse into a harp. He takes his instrument to court to play for the assembled royalty but the harp starts to play of its own. We realise that the two sisters are the daughters of the King and Queen and the younger’s dead, but now the harp incarnation proceeds to reveal the elder’s foul deed.

Kim Lowings & the Greenwood sang Oh the Wind and Rain in 2017 on their CD Wild & Wicked Youth.

Will Noble sang Two Sisters on his 2017 Veteran CD It’s Gritstone for Me. Brian Peters and John Howson noted:

English versions of this old ballad (Child 10) all have the “Bow Down” refrain instead of the Scots “Binnorie”, and none includes the magical transformation found in some older examples by which the deceased sister’s body parts are used to construct a tell-tale harp.

“In 1982 I was asked to Crewe and Nantwich Folk Festival to fill in for Arthur Howard. who wasn’t well enough to attend. There I met the lovely singer George Fradley from Derbyshire, and got on well with him. It’s from George that I learned this great song.”

Iona Fyfe sang The Swan Swims on her 2018 CD Away From My Window. She noted:

I met Pete Coe at The Star Folk Club in Glasgow in 2016 and was taken aback by the similarities, differences and links between English and Scottish folksong. I discovered his project with Alice Jones, The Search for Five Finger Frank, and was drawn to their version of The Swan Swims So Bonny. The melody was collected by Frank Kidson from Alfred Mooney of Liverpool. This version is relatively close to the version which was taught to me by Fiona Hunter at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

One of the most popular ballads, The Twa Sisters is found in several song traditions the world over. Child was given twenty-seven versions of this ballad from Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland,—the largest number he obtained of any ballad. The ballad has several different titles, The Twa Sisters, Binnorie, The Swan Swims Sae Bonnie, The Wind and Rain, Bows of London. A muckle ballad, many source singers of Aberdeenshire such as Betsy Whyte, Elisabeth Stewart, Lucy Stewart and John Strachan have recorded a variant of the ballad. The earliest record of the ballad in Britain is a broadside from the 17th century. Paul Bewster is of the opinion that the ballad originated in Norway prior to the 17th century and travelled to other Scandinavian countries before reaching Scotland and England.

Found in Northumbrian Minstrelsy, Greig’s Last Leaves, Greig-Duncan 2:213, Child 10, Roud 8

This video shows Iona Fyfe singing The Swan Sings for her album crowdfunding campaign in early 2017:

Cath and Phil Tyler got the words for The Two Sisters “from The New Green Mountain Songster (1939), edited by Helen Hartness Flanders”, and sang it on their 2018 CD The Ox ad the Ax.

Rachael McShane sang Two Sisters in 2018 on her Topic album with The Cartographers, When All Is Still. She noted:

This song of sibling rivalry is found all over the British Isles and further afield. In many versions the drowned sister’s body is found by a passing luthier who turns it into a fiddle or a harp, which then plays itself and sings of the injustice that has been done. I used to love that magical element to the song but the cynic in me decided that life’s not like that, sometimes things are just a bit rubbish. I decided to give her a more grizzly ending, apologies if you’re having your tea.

Joshua Burnell sang Pastime with Good Company on his 2019 album The Road to Horn Fair. He noted:

A ghastly tale of a poor girl whose family and neighbours are just complete pants. What were the father and third sister doing all the time? Were they just watching?

The song is also known as Two Sisters and Binnorie and has sprung up in various forms all over England and some parts of Scandinavia, presumably renamed to make it seem like it was a local story each time.

I heard this particular melody from James Fagan & Nancy Kerr. James told me they heard it “from Nancy’s mum Sandra Kerr, who recorded a version of it with John Faulkner in the 1960s”. They added some intriguing timing features to their version, to which I have now added a few of my own, making it almost impossible to dance to.

Nick Hart sang The Two Sisters in 2019 on his CD Nick Hart Sings Nine English Folk Songs. He noted:

Most of the words for this come from a 17th century printed version which I found in Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads. The refrain is from a Scots version, found a couple of pages later in the book, and the melody is my own, but perhaps owes something to Danny Brazil’s An Old Man Came Courting Me.

The Dovetail Trio sang Two Sisters on their 2019 CD Bold Champions. Rosie Hood noted:

We found this version of Two Sisters in an excellent charity shop find—Eighty English Folk Songs, a book of songs and tunes collected by Cecil J Sharp & Maud Karpeles in the Southern Appalachians. There are hundreds of other versions of this song across many traditions and in some the drowned sister’s body is made into a fiddle that sings the story of the girl’s death, though in this version the eldest sister and miller are caught immediately and both sentenced to death.

Mike Wilson sang Wind and Rain—the version where the girl is murdered by her lover—on his 2019 album Taking Shape. He noted:

I learnt this song by osmosis from the late, great, Johnny Collins, who, along with his performing partner, Jim Mageean, was a significant influence on my formative years as singer.

Marisa Jack & Davy sang Bows of London on their 2019 EP Bring Us In.

Piers Cawley learned The Two (or Three) Sisters from Cath Tyler. He sang it on his 2020 download album Isolation Sessions #3 where he noted:

This song has more titles and variants than you can shake a stick at. You’ll find it called The Two Sisters (even though there are almost always three sisters mentioned at the start of the song), Binnorie, The Bows of London, The Wind and Rain, The Berkshire Tragedy, The Cruel Sister… and then there’s what happens to the body. The first version I heard was Martin Carthy and Lou Killen singing it at Peter Bellamy’s memorial. There was a ballad session in the afternoon and Lou (who had come over from America) and Martin disappeared into a huddle where they sang it through together very quickly to make sure they had the same tune and refrain. Then they delivered a blistering performance complete with the girl body being turned into a harp that, when it was taken to the King’s hall sang the story of her betrayal by her sister, who ends up being hung.

This is not that song. It’s from an American source, via Cath Tyler. It’s a truism that American versions of English and Scottish ballads tend to have the magic stripped out (they usually get their mysteries in other ways, usually by leaving you to work out the backstory, or what happened next) and this version definitely lives up to cliche and drives home the commonplace that you millers are the very personification of greed and not to be trusted.

Swedish group Garmarna sang Två Systrar in 2020 on their CD Förbundet.

The Haar sang Two Sisters in 2020 on their eponymous first album, The Haar.

Siobhan Miller sang The Swan Swims on her 2022 CD Bloom.

Filkin’s Ensemble performed Wind & Rain on their 2023 EP Live From ‘The Folk’.

The Shackleton Trio sang The Bows of London on the 2023 anthology Sing Yonder 1. They noted:

The dark imagery and obvious links to our instrumentation drew us to learn The Bows of London. Our rendition borrows melodically from various versions, and we chose to condense some of the verses from the text as it appears in the Roud Index. This was a great fun song to work on together and to record live.


John Strachan sings Binnorie, o Binnorie

There were two sisters lived in a glen,
Binnorie, o Binnorie,
And the bonny millart laddie cam a coortin o them
By the bonny mill-dams o Binnorie.

“O sister, o sister, will you take a walk,
Roon be the dams o Binnorie.
For to hear the blackbird whistle oer his notes,
By the bonny mill-dams o Binnorie.”

They walked up and sae did they doon,
And roon be the dams o Binnorie,
Till the elder stepped aside and dang the younger in
Tae the deep mill-dams o Binnorie.

“O sister, o sister, stretch oot your hand,
Binnorie, o Binnorie,
And ah’ll gie you my gold and a fifth o my land,
For the bonny millart laddie o Binnorie.”

“It wasnae for your money that I dang you in,
Binnorie, o Binnorie,
It’s you bein so fair, love, and I so very grim,
And for the bonny millart laddie o Binnorie.“

“O millart o millart, rin oot your dam,
Binnorie, o Binnorie,
For there’s some grand lady or some deid swan
Floatin up and doon the dams o Binnorie.”

Betsy Whyte sings The Two Sisters

Dear sister, dear sister, wad ye take my hand
Hee ho an sae bonnie O,
An put your foot on that marble stone?
An the swan swam so bonnie O.

Dear sister, dear sister, wad ye go a walk with me,
Hae ho an sae bonnie O,
And I will show you wonders before you return
And the swan swam so bonnie O.

For thae was two sisters lived in a mill,
Hae ho and so bonnie O,
For the younger sister pushed the older sister in
An was drowned in the dams o’ Binnorie-O.

Oh miller, oh miller, come stop your dam,
Hae ho an sae bonnie O,
For I do see a maiden or a white-milk swan,
An the swan swam in Binnorie O.

For the miller hastened, he stopped up his dam
Hae ho an so bonnie O,
And it’s then they took her and hung her up tae dry,
An the swan swam in Binnorie O.

For thae was three fiddlers passing this way
Hae ho and so bonnie O,
There was one of them taen her fore-finger
For to make a fiddle-pin,
And anither of them taen three links of her yellow hair
For to make some fiddle strings,
And the ither of them taen her breast-bone
For to make a fiddle that wad play a tune its lone,
And the swan swam in Binnorie O.

Ewan MacColl sings Minorie

There lived twa sisters in ane bower,
   Minorie, o, Minorie;
There cam’ a young lad to be their wooer,
   By the bonnie damsides o’ Minorie.

He coorted the eldest wi’ a’ his land,
   Minorie, o, Minorie;
He coorted the youngest wi’ his right hand.,
   On the bonnie damsides o’ Minorie.

He gied the eldest a brooch and ring,
   Minorie, o, Minorie;
But he lo’ed the youngest abune a’ thing
   On the bonnie damsides o’ Minorie.

He coorted the eldest wi’ his penknife,
   Minorie, o, Minorie;
But he lo’ed the youngest abune his life,
   On the bonnie damsides o’ Minorie.

“O, sister, sister, ye’ll gang to the broom,
   Minorie, o, Minorie;
To hear the blackbird change his tune,
   And we’ll maybe see the lads o’ Minorie.”

They walked up and they walked doon,
   Minorie, o, Minorie;
And thrice the blackbird changed his tune,
   But they never saw the lads o’ Minorie.

“O, sister, sister, ye’ll gang to the dam
   Minorie, o, Minorie;
To see our father’s ship be coming’ in
   To the bonnie damsides o’ Minorie.”

They went to the dam and they stood on a stane,
   Minorie, o, Minorie;
And the eldest dang the youngest in,
   To the bonnie damsides o’ Minorie.

O, she swam up and she swam doon,
   Minorie, o, Minorie;
’Till she swam to whar’ her sister did stand
   On the bonnie damsides o’ Minorie.

“O, sister, sister, tak’ me by the hand,
   Minorie, o, Minorie;
And ye’ll get the miller lad and a’ his land,
   He’s the bonnie miller lad o’ Minnrie.”

“It wasna for that that I danged ye in,
   Minorie, o, Minorie;
But you was fair and I was dun,
   And ye’ll droon in the dams o’ Minorie.”

The miller’s ae dochter gaed oot to the dam, 
   Minorie, o, Minorie;
For water to wash her father’s hands,
   By the bonnie milldams o’ Minorie.

“O, faither, o, faither, ye’ll fish the dam,
   Minorie, o, Minorie;
For there’s either a maid or a milkwhite swan,
   Has drooned in the dams o’ Minorie.”

There was nane o’ them a’ kent her face sae fair,
   Minorie, o, Minorie;
But weel kent the miller by her bonnie yellow hair,
   ’Twas his ain bonnie lass o’ Minorie.

Lucy Stewart sings The Swan Swims So Bonnie O

Oh, there were twa sisters lived in this place
    Heigh ho, my nannie O,
Een was fair an the ither was deen,
    An the swan swims so bonnie O.

“Oh dear sister, dear sister, wid you take a walk,
Wid ye take a walk down by the miller’s dam?”

“Dear sister, dear sister, put your foot on yon marble stone,”
An so slyly as she pushed her in.

“Dear sister, dear sister, lend me your hand,
An I will gie ye my gowd an my land.”

“Oh I didna come here to lend you my hand,
I come here for to see you drown.”

Noo, the millert had a daughter an she bein’ the maid,
She came down for some water for to bake.

“Dear father, dear father, swim in your milldam
Either a maid or a white milk swan.”

[Her father took a click, an he clickit her out,
He laid her on the dyke for to drip or to dry.]

The king’s three harpers, they been passin’ by,
They ta’en three locks o her bonnie yellow hair.

Frankie Armstrong sings The Two Sisters

There were two sisters lived in a bower
    Heigh ho my nannie O
There came a knight to be their wooer
    And the swan swims sae bonnie O

He courted the eldest with glove and rings
But he loved the youngest above all things

This grieved the eldest sister sair
And so she envied her sister fair

The eldest said to the youngest one
“Let’s go see our father’s ships come in”

The youngest stood all on a stone
The eldest came and pushed her in

“Oh, sister, give to me your hand
And I’ll give you both house and land”

“Oh, I’ll give you neither hand nor glove
Unless you give me your own true love”

So down she sank and away she swam
Until she reached the miller’s dam

“Oh, miller, miller, come and draw your dam
It’s either a mermaid or a swan”

You couldn’t see her yellow hair
For gold and jewels that were so rare

A famous harper passing by
Her pale dead face he chanced to spy

He made a harp of her breast bone
Whose notes would melt a heart of stone

He framed the strings of her yellow hair
Whose notes made sad the listening ear

He took this harp to her fathers’s hall
Where therein the court was assembled all

He laid this harp all on a stone
And there it began to play alone

“Oh yonder sits my father the King
And by him sits my mother the Queen

“And yonder sits my brother Hugh
And by him William, my love true”

And the very last thing the harp played then
Was “Woe to my sister, false Ellen”

Folk och Rackare sing De Två Systrarna

Där bodde en bonde vid sjöastrand,
    Blåser kallt kallt väder över sjön,
Och tvenne döttrar hade han,
    Blåser kallt kallt väder över sjön.

Den ena var vit som den klara sol,
Den andra var svart som den svartaste kol.

“Vi tvättar oss bägge i vattnet nu
Så blir jag väl som viter som du.”

“Å tvättar du dig både nätter och dar
Så aldrig du blir som viter som jag.”

Och som de nu stodo på sjöastrand
Så stötte den fulaste sin syster av sand.

“Kära min syster du hjälp mig i land
Och dig vill jag giva min lille fästeman.”

“Din fästeman honom får jag ändå,
Men aldrig ska du mer på gröna jorden gå.”

Där bodde en spelman vid en strand,
Han såg i vattnet var liket det sam.

Spelemannen henne till stranden bar
Och gjorde av henne en harpa så rar.

Spelemannen tog hennes guldgula hår
Harporsträngar därav han slog.
Spelemannen tog hennes fingrar små
Gjorde harpan tapplor på.
Spelemannen tog hennes snövita bröst
Harpan hon klinga med ljuvelig röst.

Så bar harpan i bröllopsgård
Där bruden hon dansar med gulleband i hår.

Trenne slag uppå gullharpan rann:
“Den bruden har tagit min lille fästeman.”

Om söndan så satt hon i brudstol röd,
Om måndan hon brändes i aska och dö.


There lived a farmer by the seashore,
    (There’s) Blowing cold cold weather over the sea,
And two daughters he had,
    Blowing cold cold weather over the sea.

One of them was as white as the bright sun,
The other was black as the blackest coal.

“We both wash ourselves in the water now
So I will most likely become as white as you.”

“Even if you wash yourself both day and night
You’ll never be as white as me.”

And as they stood there on the seashore
The ugliest of them pushed her sister off from land.

“You, my dear sister, help me up to land
And then I will give you my sweetheart.”

“Your sweetheart, I will get him anyway,
But you’ll never wander upon the green earth again.”

There lived a fiddler by the shore,
He looked into the water where the body floated.

The fiddler carried her onto the shore
And of her he made a sweet harp.

The fiddler took her golden hair
And built harp strings from it.
The fiddler took her small fingers
And decorated the harp with them.
The fiddler took her snow white breasts
And the harp she rang with a lovely tone.

And the harp was carried to the wedding spot
Where the bride was dancing with ribbons in the hair.

And three strokes on the golden harp was played:
“That bride has stolen my sweetheart.”

On Sunday she sat in a bridechair red,
On Monday she was burnt in ashes and death.

Johnny Collins and Friends sing Wind and the Rain

’Twas early one morning in the month May,
    Oh the wind and the rain,
Two lovers went walking on a hot summer’s day,
    Crying in the dreadful wind and rain

Well he said, “O my lady, will you marry me?
And my sweet wife you will always be.”

But she said, “O no, that can never be,
For you are much too poor for the support of me.”

So he spun her around and he stabbed her to the ground
Threw her in deep water where he knew she would drown.

But she floated on down to the miller’s mill-pond,
Floated on down to the miller’s mill-pond.

And the miller fished her out with a long fishing-line,
The miller fished her out with a long fishing-line.

And he’s made fiddle-pegs out of her long finger-bones,
He’s made fiddle-pegs out of her long finger-bones,

And he’s made a fiddle-bow out of her long yellow hair,
He’s made a fiddle-bow out of her long yellow hair.

But the only tune that fiddle could play was
    Oh the wind and the rain,
The only tune that fiddle could play was
    Crying in the dreadful wind and rain.

George Fradley sings The Two Sisters

Two sisters walked by the river brim,
    Bough down, bough down
Two sisters walked by the river brim,
    The bough shall bend to me
Two sisters walked by the river brim,
The elder one pushed the younger one in.
    Singing I’ll prove as true to my love
    As my love proved true to me.

“Oh Sister, sister lend me thy hand
And thou shalt have both houses and land.”

“I’ll neither give thee hand nor glove
until thou giv’st me thy true love.”

At first she sank and then she swam
Until she came to a mill dam.

The miller he came with his rod and his hook
And fished the fair damsel out of the brook.

“Oh miller I’ll give thee guineas ten.”
He took them and then he pushed her in again.

The miller was hung on yonder gate
For drowning the farmer’s daughter Kate

Martin Carthy sings The Bows of London

There were two little sisters a-walking alone
    Hey the gay and the grinding
Two little sisters a-walking alone
    By the bonny bonny bows of London

And the eldest pushed her sister in
Pushed her sister into the stream

Oh she pushed her in and she watched her drown
Watched her body floating down

Oh she floated up and she floated down
Floats till she come to the miller’s dam

And out and come the miller’s son
“Father dear here swims a swan”

Oh they laid her out on the bank to die
Fool with a fiddle come a-riding by

And he took some strands of her long yellow hair
Took some strands of her long yellow hair

And he made some strings from this yellow hair
Made some strings from this yellow hair

And he made fiddle pegs from her long fingerbone
Made fiddle pegs from her long fingerbone

And he made a fiddle out of her breastbone
Sound would pierce the heart of a stone

But the only tune that the fiddle would play
    Was oh the bows of London
The only tune the fiddle would play
    Was the bonny bonny bows of London

So the fool’s gone away to the king’s high hall
There was music dancing and all

And he laid this fiddle all down on a stone
Played so loud it played all alone

It sang, “Yonder sits my father the king
Yonder sits my father the king

“And yonder sits my mother the queen
How she’ll grieve at my burying

“And yonder she sits my sister Anne
She who drownded me in the stream”

Roger Wilson sings The Two Sisters

There lived an old lord by the Northern Sea,
    Bow wee down
There lived an old lord by the Northern Sea,
    Bow and balance to me
There lived an old lord by the Northern Sea
And he had daughters one, two, three.
    I’ll be true to my love if my love’ll be true to me

A young man came a courting there
And he made a choice of the youngest fair.

He brought the youngest a beaver hat,
The oldest sister didn’t like that.

As they walked down to the waters brim
The oldest pushed the youngest in.

“Oh sister, oh sister, lend me your hand
And you may have my house and land.”

She floated down to the miller’s dam,
The miller drew her safe to land.

And off of her fingers took five gold rings
And into the water he plunged her again.

Niamh Parsons and Anne Parsons-Dunne sing Two Sisters

There were two sisters side by side,
    Sing I-dum, sing I-day
There were two sisters side by side,
    The boys are bound for me
There were two sisters side by side,
The young one for young Johnny cried.
    I’ll be true on to my love if he’ll be true to me

Johnny bought the youngest a beaver hat,
The eldest didn’t think much of that.

Johnny bought the youngest a gay gold ring,
He never bought the eldest a single thing.

As they were walking by the stony brim,
The eldest pushed the youngest in.

“Oh sister oh sister give me your hand,
And you can have Johnny and all his land.”

“Oh sister I will not give you my hand,
And I will have Johnny and all his land.”

So away she sank and away she swam
Until she came to the Miller’s dam.

The miller he took her gay gold ring,
And left her without a single thing.

The miller he was hanged on a mountain head,
The eldest sister was boiled in lead.

The Witches of Elswick sing The Two Sisters

There were two sisters lived in a bower,
    Oh the wind and rain,
There were two sisters lived in a bower,
    Oh the dreadful wind and rain.

Johnny courted the eldest with a gay gold ring,
But he loved the youngest above all things.

Johnny courted the eldest with a brooche and knife,
But he loved the youngest with all his life.

Oh the eldest envied the sister fair
For her pretty little face and her long flowing hair.

“Now sister, sister, come to yon sea strand,
And see our father’s ships a-coming home to land.”

And the eldest pushed the youngest in
For she knew, her sister, she could not swim.

Some times she sank, and some times she swam,
Until she came to the miller’s dam.

Oh the miller standing at his door
And he saw her drowning by the shore.

“Oh miller, I’ll give you this gay gold chain
If you bring me back to my father again.”

And the miller took that gay gold chain
And he pushed her back in the water again.

Her father’s knight he came riding by
And this fair maid’s body chanced to spy.

Oh he took three locks of her long yellow hair
And with them strung a bow so fair.

And what did he do with her breast bone?
He made it a fiddle to play upon.

And what did he do with her veins so blue?
He made fiddle strings to play a tune.

And what did he do with her fingers slight?
He made little pegs to hold them tight.

And the only tune that the fiddle would play
Was oh the wind and rain,
And the only tune that the fiddle would play
Was oh the dreadful wind and rain.

(repeat last verse)

Steeleye Span sing The Three Sisters

Chorus (twice and after each verse):
I’ll be true unto my love
My love’ll be true to me
My love’ll be true to me

There was a king of the north country
    Bow down, oh bow down
There was a king of the north country
    Bow down, oh bow down
There was a king of the north country
And he had daughters, one, two three

To the eldest he gave a beaver hat
And the youngest she thought much of that

To the youngest he gave a gay gold chain
And the eldest she thought much the same

These sisters were walking on the byrne
And the eldest pushed the younger in

Away she sank, away she swam
Until she reached the miller’s dam

The miller, he took the gay gold chain
Then he pushed her into the water again

The miller was hanged on his high gate
For drowning our sister Kate

Kate Fletcher sings Cruel Sister

There lived a Lord in the North Country
    With a down down derry down
And he had daughters one, two, three,
    With a down down derry derry down.

A young man came a-courting there
And he won the heart of the youngest fair

He gave the youngest a golden ring
But he didn’t give the eldest anything.

“O sister come let us walk out
And see the ships that sail about.”

As they walked down by the salty brim
The eldest pushed the youngest in.

“O sister lend to me your hand
And I will give you house and land.”

“I’ll neither lend you hand nor glove
But I will have your own true love.”

There she floated like a swan
And the salt sea bore her body on.

A harper walked along the strand
And he saw her body float to land.

He made a harp of her breast bone
And its song would melt a heart of stone.

Then he came to her father’s hall
To play the harp before them all.

But as he laid it on a stone
The harp began to play alone.

The first string sang a doleful sound
Of how the bride her sister drowned.

The second string, when he tried
In terror sits the guilty bride.

The third string sang beneath his bow
And surely now her tears will flow.

Emily Portman and Rachel Newton sing Two Sisters

Two little sisters living in a bower
    Oleander yolling
The youngest was the fairest flower
    Down by the waters rolling

A noble knight came riding by,
Two little sisters caught his eye.

And he courted the eldest with diamonds and rings
The other he loved above all things.

“Sister, sister, come down to the broom,
We’ll hear the black birds change their tune.”

So she took her sister by the hand
And led her down to the river strand.

And as they stood at the river’s brim
The eldest pushed her sister in.

“Sister, sister, reach me your hand
And you’ll be the heir to my riches and land.”

“Oh Sister, sister, that will never be
Till salt and oatmeal grow of a tree.”

“Oh sister, sister, lend me but your glove
And you shall have my own true love.”

“It’s your own true love I’ll have and more,
    Oleander yolling
But you shall never come to shore,
For your cherry cheeks and your long yellow hair
    Oleander yolling
Made me a maid for evermore.”

Sometimes she sank, sometimes she swam,
    Oleander yolling
Till she came to a millers dam
    By the waters rolling

The miller and his daughter stood at the door
    Oleander yolling
And watched her body floating to shore
    Down in the waters rolling

“Oh father, father, draw your dam,
For it’s either a mermaid or a swan.”

The miller he dragged her out on to the shore
And he stripped her of all that she wore.

He laid her body on the bank to dry,
A minstrel he came riding by.

And he made a harp of her breast-bone
Whose sound could melt a heart of stone.

He took three locks from her long yellow hair
With them strung a harp so rare.

And he took the harp to the king’s high hall
There was the court assembled all.

And he laid the harp there upon a stone,
The harp began to play alone.

But the only tune that the harp would play was,
    Oleander yolling
The only tune that the harp would play,
    Down by the waters rolling

It sang, “Yonder sits my love the king,
    Oleander yolling
How he’ll weep at my burying,
    By the waters rolling

“And yonder sits my sister the queen,
    Oleander yolling
She drowned me in the cold, cold stream,
    Down in the waters rolling

Iona Fyfe sings The Swan Sings

There bade a lord in the North Country
    Hey o, my bonnie o
He had twa dochters, ane fair ane mean
    And the swan swims sae bonnie o

A young man cam a wooin’ them
An’ he made the choice o‘ the youngest fair.

The sisters went to see the boats cam in
And they walked till they cam tae the waters brim.

The eldest sister pushed the youngest in
For she kent her sister she couldna swim.

“Sister sister lend tae me yer glove
And ye shall hae my ain true love.”

“I’ll ne’er lend you neither haun nor glove
But I will hae yer ain true love.”

Sometime she sank, sometime she swam,
Till she cam tae rest in the millers dam.

The miller drew her body to the shore
And there he stripped her of all she wore.

He made a harp oot o’ her breist bane,
The soond could o’ melted a hairt o’ stane.

He cut locks oot o’ her yalla hair
An wi them he strung the harp sae rare.

He’s taen the harp tae the lords high haa
An’ there was the faimily assembled all.

It wis the eldest sister’s waddin’ day
But the only tune that the harp would play:

“There dis sit my faither the king,
And there dis sit my mither the queen.

“There dis sit my false sister, Anne,
Fa’s droont me all in sake o‘ a man.”

The miller wis hung upon the gallows high
And the sister wis burnt at the steak nearby.

The Dovetail Trio sing Two Sisters

There lived a lord in the North County,
    Bow down
There lived a lord in the North County,
    Bow down to me
There lived a lord in the North County
And he had daughters, one, two, three.
    I’ll be true to my love if my love be true to me

A young man came a-courting there
And he made choice of the youngest there.

He gave the youngest a gay gold ring,
He never bought the oldest a single thing.

“Oh sister dear, let us walk out
To see the ships sailing about.”

As they walked out to the salty brim
The oldest pushed the youngest in.

“Oh sister dear, lend me your hand
And I will give you my house and land.”

“I’ll neither lend you my hand nor glove
But I will have your own true love.”

Oh down she sank and away she swam
Into the miller’s fish-pond she ran.

The miller came out with his fish-hook
And he fished the fair maid out the brook.

He robbed her of her gay gold ring,
Back to the brook he pushed her in.

The miller was hung at his mill-gate.
The oldest sister was burned at the stake.

Piers Cawley sings The Two (or Three) Sisters

There lived an old man by the northern sea,
    Bow down!
There lived an old man by the northern sea,
    Bow and balance to me
Oh, there lived an old man by the northern sea
And he had daughters one, two three.
    I’ll be true to my love if my love’ll be true to me

A young man he came a-courting there,
He fell in love with the youngest fair.

He bought the youngest a beaver hat,
Eldest daughter didn’t like that.

As they were a-walking down by the brim
The eldest pushed the youngest in.

“Oh sister, oh sister lend me your hand
And you shall have my house and land.”

“Your houses and land I’ll have and more
And your own true love to keep me warm.”

Sometimes she sank and sometimes she swam
Until she came to the miller’s dam.

The miller he took from her five gold rings
Then pushed her back in the stream again.


The Bows of London was transcribed by Garry Gillard, who thanks Wolfgang Hell. Roger Wilson’s Two Sisters lyrics are from the record’s sleeve notes. Ewan MacColl’s lyrics are from his and Peggy Seeger’s book The Singing Island.