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Lizie Wan / Lucy Wan / Fair Lizzie

[ Roud 234 ; Master title: Lizie Wan ; Child 51 ; Ballad Index C051 ; Old Songs LizieWan ; VWML GG/1/20/1262 ; Mudcat 11518 , 19418 ; trad.]

David Herd: Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs, Heroic Ballads, etc. Frank Purslow: Constant Lovers, John Jacob Niles: The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles Ralph Vaughan Williams and A.L. Lloyd Penguin Book of English Folk Songs.

This incest and murder ballad was collected by F.J. Child as #51 and was included by Ralph Vaughan Williams and A.L. Lloyd in their Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. Their source are Ella Bull and W. Percy Merrick who collected it in 1904 from Mrs Charlotte Dann of Cottenham, Cambridgeshire.

Martin Carthy learned Lucy Wan from A.L. Lloyd and sang it unaccompanied in 1967 on his and Dave Swarbrick's album Byker Hill; This was also reissued on their compilation album Selections. Carthy sings very similar words, but to a different tune, on his and Dave Swarbrick's 1992 album Skin and Bone; this track was also included on the 4CD anthology The Carthy Chronicles. They also played Lucy Wan on their 1992 video 100 Not Out.

Martin Carthy commented in the Byker Hill sleeve notes:

There is a rather dreamlike ballad called Two Brothers (Child 49) in which two start wrestling in play and one is accidentally stabbed by the other's dagger and dies. Earlier versions suggest that in fact the brothers were quarrelling over possession of a bit of land, but in earlier versions still the implication is that they were each jealous of their sister. The bloodstained killer is interrogated and at first makes evasive answers but finally confesses to the deed. In the ballad called Edward also the young man makes excuses about the bloodstains on his clothes but eventually admits to having killed his brother after an argument about the “breaking of a little bush that should have been a tree”—this was explained to Cecil Sharp as meaning the de-flowering of a girl. Lucy Wan is close to the form of the original story on which the two later ballads are based. It is a powerful reflection of the intuitive (or neurotic) horror of incest so persistent in the primitive mind. The dialogue form of the ballad is very ancient; likewise the curious rigid tune, in the Fa or Lydian mode. Possibly the tune came to us from Ireland where the Fa mode is more common than in England but in any case belongs to the general old European stock of melodies (although Fa is now very uncommon except in parts of Spain, one district in Slovakia, and some Cantons of Switzerland) and there is reason to believe that in former times it was the general peasant mode par excellence. A.L. Lloyd, from whom the song was learned, says that in the course of singing it over some thirty years he has emphasised the Lydian starkness of the tune and has also mildly adapted the original (and somewhat scrappy) text.

and on Skin and Bone:

Lucy Wan is from A.L. ‘Bert’ Lloyd. The song is one of those rare birds in the British Isles tradition which deals with the great taboo of incest, and it does so bluntly and succinctly. The attitude in most parts of our society is still one of hiding and not talking about it as evinced in the very recent BBC decision to cut love scenes from the Australian soap opera "Neighbours" between actors playing a half brother and sister. I remember when I first started singing the song twenty five years ago, a friend who was a social worker—very excited at hearing a song on the subject—telling me that of all the problems he had to deal with, incest was far and away the most common, and any attempt to move discussion into the mainstream is still firmly resisted. The tune is one of the type that Bert favoured, being cast in one of the very unusual modes. I have not the slightest idea where Bert got it, or indeed if he made it up, but I declare that I don't give a toss, because the feel it generates is, for me, unforgettable (sounds like a cue for a song).

Hedy West recorded Lucy Wan in 1967 too for her Topic album Ballads.

The London Critics Group sang Lucy Wan on their 1970 album Living Folk.

Dave Burland sang Lizzie Wan in 1972 on his eponymous Trailer album, Dave Burland.

Mick Ryan sang Lucy Wan in 1978 on his and Jon Burge's Transatlantic/Leader Tradition album Fair Was the City.

Whippersnapper (with Dave Swarbrick again) sang Lizzie Wan in 1985 on their album Promises and recorded it live sometime between 1984-1988 for These Foolish Strings.

Martin Simpson played the tune of Lucy Wan on his 1989 instrumental album, Leaves of Life.

Frankie Armstrong sang her own version Fair Lizzie in 1997 on her Fellside album Till the Grass O'ergrew the Corn, and in 2021 on her CD Cats of Coven Lawn. Brian Pearson noted on the first album:

Surprisingly—or perhaps not, considering what contemporary research has uncovered—several ballads deal with incest between brother and sister. The Bonny Hill and Sheath and Knife are instances, but Lizie Wan is perhaps the best known. Although it has not been collected very often, Bronson comments that the tunes suggest a continuous and unbroken tradition and speculates that it may be more widespread than we know, being kept close from casual collectors—strangers at best. The tune and some of the words Frankie sings here were collected from Mrs Alice Slayton Sicily of Vermont in 1933. She has stirred them together with an eighteenth century Scottish text (Child A).

Sara Grey sang Rosianne in 2002 on her Tradition Bearers CD Boy She's a Daisy. She noted:

Written by Bob Coltman in 1989; a dark wonderful contemporary version of Lizzie Wan. Quite an extraordinary incest ballad, the original was first print in Herd's Scottish Songs in 1776, Borrowed from the ballad of Edward. Bob has an uncanny way of contemporising an old ballad and giving it a text and tune that both takes you back in time and focuses you in the present.

Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman sang Rosie Anne in 2003 on their album 2..

John Spiers and Jon Boden recorded Lucy Wan in 2005 on their album Songs and Jon Boden sang it as the 16 July 2010 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. They noted:

One of a number of songs that Bert Lloyd mysteriously “found”. Traditional versions of the text have been widely collected but Lloyd's haunting Lydian melody is possibly too good to be true. Whatever its parentage it has been lovingly adapted by Martin Carthy and our version owes a good deal to his performance on Byker Hill.

Mary Humphreys and Anahata sang Lucy Wan in 2006 on their WildGoose CD Fenlandia. Mary Humphreys noted:

A.L. Lloyd in the Penguin Book of English Folk Songs changed the order of the last three verses ‘for coherence’. In my view the song makes perfect sense in the original order, bearing in mind that most farming families were patriarchal and therefore the climax of the questioning is “what will you do when your father comes to know?” There seems no good reason to omit the repeated third and fourth lines so I have kept to the version as collected from Charlotte [Few]. The song becomes much more of a country song in this format. One wonders if this sort of misfortune was not unusual in Fenland families. I sing every word that Charlotte gave to Ella [Bull], but, like the Penguin book, I have added the first two verses Anglicised from Child and have written a line to allow the story to flow from Charlotte's first collected line—“And what did he do…” Interestingly Charlotte sang “gang to some far country”, which is not a turn of phrase normally found in Cambridgeshire. Ella surmised that some of Cromwell's Scots mercenaries in the English civil war who had encamped at Huntingdon on Cromwell's estates may have brought the song with them.

Paul and Liz Davenport sang Lucy in 2008 on their Hallamshire Tradition album Songbooks. They noted:

This dark tale could almost be found in a modern news report. Not only is it a story about taboos, it also involves the notion of the so-called ‘honour killing’. After the obligatory three questions the brother confesses to his crime but does not intend to be punished for it since he has solved the problem for the family.

Brian Peters sang Lucy on his 2008 album of Child Ballads, Songs of Trial and Triumph. He noted:

A version of this ballad, allocated the title Lucy Wan (cf. Lizie Wan in Child) appeared in The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. This was based on the fragmentary version recorded in 1932 from Mrs. Dann of Cottenham, Cambs., to which the authors (specifically A.L. Lloyd, one suspects) had added three and half verses from Child’s A text. These served to set the scene, making it clear that Lucy’s baby was the result of incest with her brother, and supplying a gory description of poor Lucy’s body being cut into three pieces.

Another fragmentary text, collected by George Gardiner from Frank Harrington of Bartley, Hampshire, in 1908 [ VWML GG/1/20/1262 ] , and kindly communicated to me by Bob Askew, had a tune that I found more interesting, and three intriguing verses: essentially, 3 and 9 below, plus a jumbled verse consisting of the first half of v4 and the second half of v8. These put a slightly different slant on the story, with Lucy confessing her misdeed not to her father (as in Child), nor her brother (as in some North American versions and Penguin), but to her sister. The conversation is overheard by the brother who then (I infer, since the Harrington song doesn’t mention the fact) plots her murder—or conceivably an abortion that goes horribly wrong.

To make some kind of sense of the events, I collated the Harrington fragment with the two Scottish texts in Child and two detailed and coherent versions collected in Vermont by Helen Hartness Flanders. I begin with two verses common to Child and the American variants, with the sister substituted for father or brother. V3 (“O’er field….”) is from Harrington, with an imported final line pointing the finger of guilt at the brother; v4 uses Harrington’s two floating lines and is completed with lines of my own; v5 is from Vermont.

The “What’s that blood?” sequence is common to Child 13, Edward, and the range of vengefully-slaughtered household pets used to excuse the tell-tale stains in variants of the two ballads includes greyhound, grey goose, grey horse, grey mare, yellow dog, “gross hog”, guinea pig and “English crow”. I chose to use the “greyhound” verses, before closing my ballad with stanzas from Harrington.

It’s a commonplace that Edward and Lizie Wan are related ballads, and comparison of the versions collected in the 20th century suggests that they are very closely intertwined. I draw your attention to the song, filed under Edward and collected by Peter Kennedy in the 1950s, which has a tune strikingly similar to Mrs. Dann’s Lucy and an essentially similar text, except that in the former the blood is that of the “mother of three”. Quite what this signifies I’m not sure, but it’s an entertaining snippet of trivia at the very least.

Jim Moray sang Lucy Wan, in an interpretation made together with Guinean rapper Bubbz, on his 2008 CD Low Culture. This video shows him live at Shrewsbury folk festival 2011. Unfortunately the camera is a bit wobbly:

Chris Sherburn and Denny Bartley sang Lucy Wan in 2009 as the title track of their Noe album Lucy Wan. They noted:

A Child Ballad classic, made famous by the singing of Carthy and Swarbrick. It was Martin's prompting that finally got Denny to record this song.

Broom Bezzums sang Lucy Wan on their 2011 album Wine from a Mug.

You Are Wolf (Kerry Andrew) sang Lucy Wan on her 2011 EP Hunting Little Songs.

Hannah Sanders sang Lucy Wan in 2013 on her download EP Warning Bells.

Chris Foster sang Rosie Ann in 2017 on his CD Hadelin. He noted:

I found this version of the Lucy Wan ballad in Constant Lovers, a little songbook edited by Frank Purslow in the 1970s. It was sung to George Gardiner by Frank Harrington of Cadnam, Hampshire, in 1908. Apparently, he only sang the last verse and then said words to the effect, “You know the brother was the father of his sister's child” thus revealing the identity of the song. Frank Purslow compiled the rest of the text from broadside sources. I have moulded it a bit more, and so the song lives on.

Compare to this ballad Child 13, Edward, as sung by Nic Jones on Nic Jones and Steeleye Span on Back in Line.

Nick Hart sang Lucy Wan on his forthcoming 2022 album Nick Hart Sings Ten English Folk Songs.

Lyrics

Martin Carthy sings Lucy Wan

Fair Lucy she sits at her father's door
Weeping and making moan,
And by there come her brother dear,
“What ails thee, Lucy Wan?”

“Oh I ail and I ail, dear brother,” she cries,
“And I'll tell you the reason why:
For there is a child between my two sides
That's from you, dear brother, and I.”

And he's drawn out his good broadsword
That hung low down by his knee,
And he has cutted off poor Lucy Wan's head
And her fair body in three.

And outen then come her thick heart's blood
And outen then come the thin,
And he is away to his mother's house,
“What ails thee, Geordie Wan?”

“Oh what is that blood on the point of your sword?
My son come tell to me.”
“Oh that is the blood of my greyhound,
He would not run for me.”

“But your greyhound's blood it was ne'er so red,
My son come tell to me.”
“Oh that is the blood of my grey mare,
She would not ride with me.”

“But your grey mare's blood it was ne'er so clear,
My son come tell to me.”
“Oh that not the blood of my grey mare
But 'tis the blood of my sister, Lucy.”

“Oh what will you do when you father comes to know?
Son come tell on to me.”
“Oh I will set forth in the bottomless boat
And I will sail the sea.”

“And when will you come back again?
My son come tell to me.”
“When the sun and the moon dance on yonder hill
And that may never be.”

Kathryn Roberts sings Rosie Anne

Fair Rosie sits all by the door,
Weeping and making moan,
When along there came her father,
Saying, “What ails you Rosie Ann?”

“Oh pity, my father,
For good reason do I cry.
There is a child by my brother John
That lies between my sides.”

Her brother John was standing by
And Rosie's cries he heard.
He's gone straight to his sister's side
And cursed her with these words:

“Oh you have told our father dear
How I did make you cry!
Now I must draw my sharpened sword
And on it you must die.”

“What blood is that upon your sword?
Son John, come tell to me.”
“Oh mother dear it is my horse
As you can plainly see.”

“Your horse's blood is not so red,
Son John come tell to me.”
“Oh I have slain fair Rosie,
Her body I've cut in three.”

“What will you tell your father dear?
Son John, come tell to me.”
“I will take his finest sailing ship
And go accross the sea.”

“And when will you come home again?
Son John, come tell to me.”
“When sun and moon meet in the skies,
And that will never be.”

Spiers & Boden sing Lucy Wan

Fair Lucy she sits in her father's garden
Weeping and making moan,
And by there come her brother dear,
“What ails thee, Lucy Wan?”

“I ail, I ail, dear brother,” she cried,
“And I'll tell you the reason why:
For there is a child between my two sides
That's by you, dear brother, and I.”

He's taken out his long broadsword
That hung low down by his knee,
And he has cut off fair Lucy Wan's head
And her fair body in three.

And outen there come her thick heart's blood
And outen there come the thin,
And he is away to his mother's house,
“What ails thee, Geordie Wan?”

“Oh what's that blood on the wide of your sword?
My son come tell to me.”
“Oh that is the blood of my greyhound,
He would not run for me.”

“Oh, your greyhound's blood was ne'er so clear,
My son come tell to me.”
“Oh that is the blood of my grey mare,
She would not ride for me.”

“Oh your grey mare's blood it was ne'er so red,
My son come tell to me.”
“Oh that not the blood of my grey mare
It's the blood of my sister, Lucy.”

“Oh what will you do when you father comes to know?
My son come tell me.”
“Oh I will set forth in the bottomless boat
And I will sail the sea.”

“And when will you come back again?
My son come tell to me.”
“When the sun and the moon dance on yonder hill
And that may never be.”

Brian Peters sings Lucy

Fair Lucy was sitting in her father’s hall
Weeping all alone,
When who should come by, but her own sister dear,
“What makes fair Lucy mourn?”

“I’ve reason enough to weep,” she said,
“I’ve reason enough to mourn,
For there is a baby between my two sides
And I wish it should never be born.

“O’er field, o’er field, dear sister,“ she cried,
“Oe’r field I will have for to roam,
For this little baby between my two sides
It is our brother’s own.”

Now her brother was sitting in the very next room
And heard what she did say,
And he has gone to fair Lucy’s room
In the evening of the day.

He’s taken her by the lily-white hand
And led her through the wood.
And what he did there, I never can declare,
But he shed poor Lucy’s blood.

“Oh what is that blood upon your shirt?
Son John, come tell to me.”
“Oh that is the blood of my greyhound,
He would not run for me.”

“Your greyhound’s blood was ne’er so red,
Son John, come tell to me.
Oh that’s your sister Lucy’s blood
As I can plainly see.”

“What will you do when your father comes to know?
Son John, come tell to me.”
“Oh, I will take his best riding horse
And ride as far as I can see.”

“And when will you return home again?
Son John, come tell to me.”
“When the sun it goes down in yonder shady bower
And that will never, never be.”

Notes

There are two threads on the Mudcat Café about this song, Lyr Req: Lucy Wan (from Martin Carthy), and Penguin: Lucy Wan. Both include other transcriptions; the second has many learned notes and additional links, thanks to Malcolm Douglas.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Wolfgang Hell for transcription of Martin Carthy's singing.