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Lizie Wan / Lucy Wan / Fair Lizzie

[ Roud 234 ; Child 51 ; Ballad Index C051 ; trad.]

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.

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

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.

Frankie Armstrong sang her own version Fair Lizzie in 1997 on her album Till the Grass O'ergrew the Corn. Brian Pearson commented in the liner notes:

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).

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 July 16, 2010 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. They commented in their CD notes:

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.

A more recent interpretation is Jim Moray's Lucy Wan on his 2008 CD Low Culture. This video shows him live at Shrewsbury folk festival 2011. Unfortunately the camera is a bit wobbly:

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

You Are Wolf sang Lucy Wan on her 2011 EP Hunting Little Songs.

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.

Lyrics

Martin Carthy sings Lucy WanSpiers & Boden sing 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?”

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?”

“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.”

“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.”

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.

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 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?”

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 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.”

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

“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 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?
Son come tell on to me.”
“Oh I will set forth in the bottomless boat
And I will sail the sea.”

“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.”

“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.”

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.