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The Unquiet Grave
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The Unquiet Grave / Cold Blows the Wind
; Child 78
; Ballad Index
; VWML CJS2/9/227
A.L. Lloyd sang The Unquiet Grave in 1956 on his and Ewan MacColl's Riverside album of Child ballads, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads Volume I. Editor Kenneth G. Goldstein wrote in the album's booklet:
Aside from its exquisite poetry and music, this ballad is notable for its exhibition of the universal popular belief that excessive grief on the part of mourners disturbs the peace of the dead.
It is possible that this is only a fragment of a once popular longer ballad. In the form we have it today, no text has been reported earlier than the 19th century. The ballad is little known in Scotland and is quite rare in America. It is still current in England, however.
The text and tune sung by A.L. Lloyd were collected by Cecil Sharp from William Spearing of Ile Bruers, Somerset, excepting the last two stanzas, which were from Mrs. William Ree of Hambridge, Somerset.
See Child (78), Volume II, p. 78ff; Coffin, p.82; Dean-Smith, p.113.
Shirley Collins recorded this ballad in 1959 for her second LP, False True Lovers, a second time for her Collector EP English Songs Vol. 1, and a third time in 1967 for her album The Power of the True Love Knot. She commented in the first album's notes:
From Cecil Sharp's English Folk Songs. This is one of the classic pieces of English folk song literature. From one point of view it is a feminine fantasy or a wish, perhaps for the death of a lover, perhaps for a way of arranging a night visit by the lover, perhaps for a way of showing how strong her love is, perhaps of a feeling of guilt. Certainly, it is a ghost story designed to delight the imagination of young women. Finally, it shows the survival of ancient and widely distributed primitive beliefs about the treatment of the dead.
The rowdy Irish wake is the only one example of the common folk custom of a gathering in which ceremonial banqueting and games were indulged in to show honour to the dead person. The shade was given a great send-off to the other world. Sometimes guns were fired to send him skittering away in fear. Sometimes a special door was cut in the side of the wall so that the coffin could be taken out by that route; and then this hole was walled up so that the ghost could not find his way back into the house again.
In Scotland and Ireland it was believed that excessive grief prevented the dead from resting; that the tears shed by the mourners pierced holes in the corpse. In Persia they held that the tears shed by humanity for their dead flowed into a river in which the souls floated and drowned. Similar beliefs were held by the Greeks and Romans, and from mediaeval times throughout Germany and Scandinavia.
Sharp says that in England a belief was current that if a girl was betrothed to a man, she was pledged to him if he died, and was bound to follow him to the spirit world unless she solved certain riddles, or performed certain tasks, such as fetching water from a desert, blood from a stone, milk from the breast of a virgin…
and in the The Power of the True Love Knot album notes:
This song is a tender and magical expression of an ancient community belief: a very proper belief that when the mourning of a lover's death started to drain life from the living, love was being misused. Tears flowed into the Styx, and the river swelled and became impassable, so the dead come back and warn the quick. On this track and elsewhere I play an instrument made for me by John Bailey, which is a dulcimer with a five-string banjo neck.
Derek Sarjeant sang The Unquiet Grave on his 1962 EP Folk Songs Sung By Derek Sarjeant and as Cold Blows the Wind on his 1970 album Derek Sarjeant Sings English Folk.
The Ian Campbell Folk Group with Dave Swarbrick sang The Unquiet Grave in 1963 on their album This Is the Ian Campbell Folk Group. This track was included in 2005 on their anthology The Times They Are A-Changin'.
Alex Campbell sang The Unquiet Grave in 1966 on his album Yours Aye, Alex; this track was included in 1966 on his compilation CD Been on the Road So Long.
Sandy and Caroline Paton sang The Unquiet Grave in 1966 on their Folk-Legacy album Folksongs and Ballads.
Hedy West sang another American version of The Unquiet Grave in 1967 on her Topic album Ballads. Her (or A.L. Lloyd's) sleeve notes commented:
There's widespread and ancient belief that excessive grieving over the dead disturbs their rest. The Greeks and Romans thought so, and the idea is as common in the Far East as in Western Europe. In Ireland as in Roumania it was thought that inordinate tears would burn a hole in the corpse, and in several ballads the dead complain that they cannot sleep because the tears of the living have wet their winding sheet. This ballad, of a restless ghost who confronts and reproaches the mourner, is probably a fragment broken off some longer, more complicated narrative. Though it's been relatively common in England till recent times, it seems very rare in America, and has turned up only in a scattered handful of versions from Newfoundland, Virginia and North Carolina (which is where the present version comes from, collected by the indefatigable Frank C. Brown).
Jon Raven sang The Unquiet Grave in 1968 on the Broadside album The Halliard : Jon Raven.
Dave & Toni Arthur sang this ballad as Cold Blows the Winter's Wind in 1969 on their Topic album The Lark in the Morning. The sleeve notes commented:
The ballad, usually called The Unquiet Grave, concerns a person who feels bound to sit and mourn by his (sometimes, her) lover's grave for a period of time. In nearly all versions, the corpse complains of being disturbed, illustrating the ancient belief that excessive grief interferes with the peace of the dead. In archaic folklore, a constant concern, when faced with a death, is to try to ensure that the corpse makes a pleasant and reassured transit from the land of the living to the world of the dead. Otherwise the dead may return, uneasy and vengeful, to plague the living. Hence for instance the jollification at Irish wakes, intended to cheer and embolden the dead. Singers have ended our ballad in various ways, sometimes heartbroken and disconsolate, sometimes more or less lightheartedly as: “But since I have lost my own true love, I must get another in time.” Our tune is from Fred Hamer's collection Garners Gay. The words are from Alfred Williams's Folk-Songs of the Upper Thames.
Frankie Armstrong sang The Unquiet Grave in 1971 on her Topic album Lovely on the Water. A.L. Lloyd commented in the sleeve notes:
A woman laments long over the grave of her sweetheart, till he speaks from the grave and reproaches her for disturbing his rest. Usually in the ballads the setting and the characters are named, but here we know neither the who nor the where, and the supernatural climate is further charged with mystery on that account. The tale is old, like the belief that too much grief disturbs the dead, though to this day, in Eastern Europe, some peasants believe that mourner's tears make an unhealing burn if they chance to light on a corpse. In some versions the dead person threatens to tear the living one to pieces (the favourite revenge of ghosts!) unless absolute fidelity can be sworn to. But Frankie's version is milder, more consolatory, as fits her gentle character. By and large, the tune she uses is one recorded by Vaughan Williams at Dilwyn, Herefordshire.
George Dunn sang Cold Blows the Wind to Bill Leader in December 1971. This recording was released in 1973 on his eponymous Leader album George Dunn. Another recording made by Roy Palmer on 14 July 1971 was included in 2002 on Dunn's Musical Tradition anthology Chainmaker. Roy Palmer and Rod Stradling commented in the accompanying booklet:
“If yo were troubled about the dead after they'd gone, yo'd give the dead no rest” : so George Dunn explained the song, which came from his father. The reference in verses 4 and 5 to fetching a ‘note from a dungeon so deep’—rather than the more conventional ‘nut’ of other versions—is curious, since the broadside version issued by William Pratt of Birmingham between 1845 and 1861 has the same peculiarity. It also has ‘rest’ (verse 3), where the rhyme requires ‘repose’. […] These are trifles.
George's singing is at its most majestic in this ballad known to Child as The Unquiet Grave. Surprisingly, no version antedates the nineteenth century, but it is just possible that a moralising carol of the late fifteenth century, beginning “There blows a cold wynd todaye, todaye”, could have been based on Cold Blows the Wind—so says B H Bronson in The Singing Tradition of Child's Popular Ballads (Princeton, New Jersey, 1976), p.203..
Equally surprisingly, despite its popularity and Roud's 115 instances—mostly English—there appears to have only ever been one sound recording made of a traditional singer—George Dunn. What is more, George seems to be the only British source since Sharp's 1921 collections from Kathleen Williams and Thomas Taylor (in Gloucestershire and Herefordshire respectively).
Union Folk sang The Unquiet Grave on their 1971 Traditional Sound album Waiting for a Train.
John Kirkpatrick and Sue Harris sang this ballad as Cold Blows the Wind in 1976 on their Topic LP Among the Many Attractions at the Show Will Be a Really High Class Band and John Kirkpatrick did it again in 2007 on his Fledg'ling CD Make No Bones. He commented in the latter album's sleeve notes:
When I moved to Shropshire in 1973 and started looking at the local folk music, the singing of May Bradley was a glorious revelation. I never saw her in the flesh, but Fred Hamer's recordings of her in Ludlow during the 1960s proved to be a real treasure chest of wonderful songs wonderfully sung. She was the daughter of Ester Smith, a gypsy singer that Vaughan Williams had collected from in Herefordshire at the beginning of the century, and had some of her mother's songs as well as plenty of others. This is her tune for what is sometimes known as The Unquiet Grave—Child Ballad no. 78. I've sung this before in a past life, but in revisiting the song I have added a few lines from other versions to fill out the sense of the words.
Two books of the songs Fred Hamer collected were published by EFDS Publications Ltd., and you can see this in the first one from 1967, Garners Gay. Or a much better option is to hear [May Bradley] singing it herself on the EFDSS LP Garners Gay issued in 1971, EFDSS LP 1006.
May Bradley's version can also be found on her Musical Traditions anthology Sweet Swansea (2010).
Brian Peters sang The Unquiet Grave on his 1989 Harbourtown album Fools of Fortune. He commented in his sleeve notes:
The Unquiet Grave is based on the belief that excessive mourning prevents the dead from resting; the song appears in Richards and Stubbs' The English Folksinger, though I first heard it from Gill McKay.
Jo Freya sang The Unquiet Grave in 1992 on her Saydisc album Traditional Songs of England. The liner notes commented:
It is a popularly held belief that excessive grieving over the deceased destroys their peace and that tears wet the shroud or even, as reported in Ireland, pierce a hole in the dead. This widespread supernatural ballad is commonly is associated with two tunes, both of which are beautiful.
Sandra Kerr sang The Unquiet Grave in 1970 on the Argo Voices anthology series, Second Book, Record One (Argo DA96). Her daughter Nancy sang it in 1993 on the CD Eliza Carthy & Nancy Kerr. She referred in her sleeve notes to Evelin Wells' The Ballad Tree, and to her mother singing this version on Voices.
Louis Killen learnt The Unquiet Grave from Brian Ballinger and sang in on his 1993 CD A Bonny Bunch.
Steeleye Span sang One True Love in 1998 on their CD Horkstow Grange, and they recorded The Unquiet Grave in 2009 for their CD Cogs Wheels and Lovers. Tim Harries commented in the former album's notes:
The sources for [One True Love] are The Unquiet Grave, (spooky old English song), Lovely Joan, and a small fragment of Lowlands of Holland. The inspiration came largely from Borrowed Time by Paul Monette, a book you may be familiar with.
Kate Rusby couldn't let the dead sleep on her 1999 CD Sleepless. She returned to this ballad in 2012 on her anniversary album Twenty.
Tom and Barbara Brown sang The Unquiet Grave in 2000 on their WildGoose CD of “songs with a West Country flavour”, Where Umber Flows. Tom Brown commented:
One of the classic ballads—Child N8 78 for those to whom it's important. This is a collated version of two tunes that crept up on Barbara when I was ‘messing about’ on the guitar. A warning about the power of love—and absolutely overflowing with folk-lore: plants, riddles, ghost, revenant, excessive grieve, but above all it's the images the song creates that are so extraordinary.
Isambarde sang The Unquiet Grave in 2004 on their CD Brunel's Kingdom.
Lau sang Unquiet Grave on their 2007 CD Lightweights & Gentlemen.
Paul and Liz Davenport sang The Unquiet Grave in 2008 on their Hallamshire Traditions CD Songbooks.
Like John Kirkpatrick, Jon Boden learned Cold Blows the Wind from the singing of May Bradley. He sang it with Bellowhead in 2010 on their CD Hedonism, and he sang it unaccompanied as the 29 December 2010 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. This video is from Bellowhead's farewell tour:
The Jones Boys sang The Unquiet Grave on their 2010 album Like the Sun A-Glittering. Gordon Jackson noted on their website:
Ghosts do not appear that often in English folksong (although, of course, there is one in The Fowler). However, the belief that excessive grieving disturbs the dead is as old—and widespread—as the proverbial hills. Roud and Bishop make the entirely valid point in The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs (2012) that just because a folkloric belief is old, and because that belief is featured in a song, we shouldn’t assume the song is likewise old. They suspect the song itself dates from the early nineteenth century.
One of the things I like about folksongs and folksingers is that the singer is gender-neutral, in so far as whether the narrator of the song is male or female, it may be sung by a man or a woman regardless. (One thinks of how the feminine-gendered Then He Kissed Me by the Crystals was covered by The Beach Boys, but reworked to Then I Kissed Her, but I digress.) The Unquiet Grave (also known as Cold Blows the Wind) is found in tradition in both the masculine and feminine voice. So while Lucy Broadwood (English Traditional Songs and Carols, 1908) had three ‘masculine’ versions, Sabine Baring-Gould (Songs of the West, 1891) and Cecil Sharp (One Hundred English Folksongs, 1916) had ‘feminine’ versions. F.J. Child (The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Vol. II, 1885) had both. So, on this occasion, I’m a man!
Now for my confession: I absolutely can’t remember, nor find, our version! It’s not in any of the books mentioned above (all on my bookshelf!), so maybe I put together a composite version—I really don’t know, it was a decade ago…
Barbara Dymock sang The Unquiet Grave on her 2011 CD Hilbert's Hotel. She noted:
Child Ballad #78 which is thought to date from 1400. In it the occupant of the grave reproaches the mourner for not getting on with life. It feels like a fragment of some longer, more complicated story. There are many different versions of this ballad. Hedy West used this tune for an American version in 1967 on her Topic album Ballads.
Peter and Barbara Snape sang The Unquiet Grave on their 2011 CD Revel & Rally. Barbara Snape noted:
There are many versions of this song found all over the British Isles. The words are from The Seeds of Love, collected in Dorset/Herefordshire. The tune, however, is that from Child Ballad 56, Dives and Lazarus. Gill Burns, a friend of mine and a very fine singer and guitarist, set the song to this tune. The superstition is that the dead are tormented and cannot rest until the living stop mourning.
Rob Williams sang The Unquiet Grave on his 2012 CD Outstanding Natural Beauty of songs collected in Spring 1905 from Jane Gulliford of Combe Florey, Quantock Hills, by the brothers Henry and Robert Hammond.
Andy Clarke and Steve Tyler sang Cold Blows the Winter Wind in 2013 on their WildGoose CD Wreck off Scilly. Andy Clarke noted:
The words were collected in 1893 by Baring-Gould from Jane Jeffrey in Dunterton on the river Tamar near Tavistock, Devon [ VWML SBG/3/1/42 ] . There was no tune so I set the song to one from Sharp’s collection from Somerset.
The Askew Sisters sang The Unquiet Grave in 2014 on their RootBeat CD In the Air or the Earth. They noted:
[…] The Unquiet Grave is a similar story of loss, but this time between a girl and her lover. We were struck with the beautiful melody collected by Cecil Sharp from Lucy White of Hambridge, Somerset, in August 1904, and have added some additional text from other sources. It's an old folkloristic belief that prolonged grief can disturb the dead and mourning for more than a year might bring back their ghost. Somehow this song manages to intertwine that idea with both the Christian belief that you are called away by God and the certainty that all things must decay and die.
This video shows the Askew Sisters at Twick Folk Club, Twickenham, Middlesex, on 21 September 2014:
Sam Kelly sang The Unquiet Grave in 2015 on his EP Spokes.
Rachel Newton sang The Unquiet Grave on The Furrow Collective's 2015 EP Blow Out the Moon. She noted:
I took the words for the well known ballad The Unquiet Grave from Child no. 78a; and the melody I use is based on a version I learned from the singing of Shirley Collins.
Daoirí Farrell sang The Unquiet Grave on his 2016 CD True Born Irishman. He noted:
I used to attend The Belgard Sunday Session which was run by Dermot and Gavin Whelan in Tallaght, Dublin. It was here where I heard a wonderful version of this song sung by my good friend Alan Doherty's father, Ned. Occasionally, he would join the session and sing this song.
Hannah Sanders and Ben Savage sang The Unquiet Grave in 2016 on their CD Before the Sun.
Siobhan Miller sang The Unquiet Grave on her 2017 album Strata. This video shows her, accompanied by Kris Drever, at The Queen's Hall, Edinburgh in February 2017:
Nick Dow sang The Unquiet Grave on his 2018 album of unaccompanied traditional folk songs, Far and Wide. He noted:
From the Gardiner collection, sung by James Brown of Basingstoke 1906 [ VWML GG/1/17/1052 ] . This is an unusual 6/8 tune, with its refrain. I gleaned that from Sam Richards The English Folksinger.
John Smith sang Unquiet Grave in 2018 on his CD Hummingbird.
Cath and Phil Tyler sang Finest Flower on their 2018 CD The Ox ad the Ax. They got the words from Michael Walker and the tune from the Sacred Harp (Cooper edition), credited to David Walker.
Anna Tam sang The Unquiet Grave on her 2021 CD Anchoress. She noted:
Words from a girl in Sussex, collected by Miss Charlotte Latham in 1868 (edited a little); and tune sung to Sabine Baring-Gould by J. Woodrich, blacksmith, Thrustleton in 1889. I love how this tender dialogue mixes the supernatural aspect of the ghostly visitation with its pragmatic advice, and how the spirit encourages his sweetheart to release herself from mourning and live.
|George Dunn sings Cold Blows the Wind||A.L. Lloyd sings The Unquiet Grave|
Cold blows the wind over my true love,
“Cold blows the wind to my true love,
But I'll do as much for my true love
“I'll do as much for my true love
When a twelve month and one day had passed
When the twelve month and one day was o'er,
“Go fetch me a note from the dungeon so deep
“How can I fetch a note from the dungeon so deep
“Give me a kiss from your clay-cold lips
“There's one thing more I want, sweetheart,
“If you have a kiss from my clay-cold lips
“My lips are cold as clay, sweetheart,
“Don't you remember the garden gate,
|Shirley Collins sings The Unquiet Grave||Nancy Kerr sings The Unquiet Grave|
“Cold blows the wind tonight, true love,
“The wind doth blow today, my love,
“I'll do as much for my true love
“I'll do as much for my true love
Now the twelve-month and a day being gone,
The twelve months and a day being done,
“It's I, my love, sits by your grave
“'Tis I, your love sits on your grave
“But lily, lily are my lips,
“Your breath is as the roses sweet,
“'Twas down in yonder garden green,
“'Tis down in yonder garden green,
“The stalk is withered dry, true love,
“The stalk is withered and dry, sweetheart,
“Mourn not for me, my own true love,
|Bellowhead sings Cold Blows the Wind||Steeleye Span sing One True Love|
“Cold blows the wind over my true love,
“I'll do as much for my true love
But when twelve months they were up and gone
“One kiss, one kiss from you lily-white lips,
“These lips they are as cold as clay,
“Oh, don't you remember the garden grove,
“Go fetch me a flower from the dungeon deep,
“Go dig me a grave both wide and deep,
Cold blows the wind o'er my true love,
I'll do as much for my true love
One kiss, one kiss from your sweet lips,
And your lips, they are not sweet my love
And down beyond the garden wall,
(repeat first verse)
|Rob Williams sings The Unquiet Grave|
How cold the wind doth blow, sweetheart, fast falls the drops of rain,
I'll do as much for my sweetheart as any poor girl may.
The twelvemonth and one day was up, this ghost began to speak,
There is one thing more I want, sweetheart, and that pray let me have,
“My lips is cold as clay, sweetheart, my breath is quite agone,
Let my time be long or short, sweetheart, ay! then today or tomorrow,
O! Don't you see the fire, sweetheart, where you and I have walked,
Are withered to the stalk, my love, and so must you and I,*
Transcribed from the singing of Nancy Kerr by Kira White.