> Martin Carthy > Songs > The Devil and the Feathery Wife

The Devil and the Feathery Wife

[ Roud 12551 ; DT DEVFEATH ; Mudcat 123801 ; trad.]

According to Ian Spring: The Devil and the Feathery Wife, in: Folklore, Vol. 99 No. 2 (1988), pp. 139-145, an early version of this song of the devil being set aghast by a wife disguised as a tarred and feathered “beast” was collected by the Aberdeenshire ballad collector Peter Buchan in the early 1800’s and added to his Secret Songs of Silence. This manuscript was bought by F.J. Child and is now at the Houghton Library, Harvard.

A.L. Lloyd slightly altered The Devil and the Feathery Wife to more mundane wording and fixed it up with a tune. Martin Carthy sang and played this version of The Devil and the Feathery Wife on his 1982 album Out of the Cut, accompanied by John Kirkpatrick on accordion. It was re-released in 1993 on Rigs of the Time: The Best of Martin Carthy. Martin Carthy performed a solo live version of this at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 1999 which can be found on the CD Cambridge Folk Festival 1998-99. He also sang it live at Ruskin Mill in December 2004 and recorded it live in studio in July 2006 for the DVD Guitar Maestros. Martin Carthy commented in the first album’s sleeve notes:

Secret Songs of Silence is the title of an unpublished manuscript dated 1832 and deposited in the Harvard Library, containing songs of the North East of Scotland collected together by Peter Buchan, many of them from a blind itinerant fiddle player called Rankin.

Incurable romantics among us whose imaginations work overtime on hearing such a title might be disappointed on discovering that the songs were considered unsuitable for publication—because many of them were too blunt and would not be cheered up by the thought that The Devil and the Feathery Wife is surely about the demonstration of true love. Indeed, if it is not, it might be hard to find a song that is. Learned from A. L. Lloyd, who brushed it up and fitted a tune.

Nick Dow sang The Devil and the Feathery Wife in 1978 on his Dingle’s album Burd Margaret. He noted:

A.L. Lloyd supplied me with this little ditty, which I think is very amusing.

Maclaine Colston and Saul Rose sang The Devil and the Feathery Wife on their 2008 CD Sand & Soil. They noted:

Saul has been listening to Martin Carthy sing this song for a long time. Something of a Girl Power song this one; a wife rescues her husband with a ‘cunning plan’, which involves rolling naked in manure and feathers. We’re big fans of the ‘cunning plan’.

Compare to this the loosely related The Devil and the Farmer (Roud 160; Child 278) as sung by Waterson:Carthy on their album A Dark Light. Both feature the farmer, his wife and the devil but the stories turn into quite different ways.


The Devil and the Feathery Wife in Secret Songs of Silence

By a’ the plagues that’s on the earth,
And ever Man Befall,
Hunger and a scolding wife,
They are the worst of all.
In our town there lived
A man of mean degree,
And these two plagues him troubled much,
The worst of luck had he.

As he was in the forest once,
Betwixt hope and despair
The devil he started from a bush,
And stood before him there.
O what’s the matter, the diel he said,
Ye look sae discontent,
Sure ye want money to buy some bread,
Or pay some landlord’s rent?

Deed, kind sir, ye read me right,
The Cause of my disease;
Tell me your name, kind sir, said he,
O tell me’t if you please.
My name is Duncan, said the diel,
I unto thee do tell;
Although that I be wandering here,
My dwelling is in hell.

What will ye gie, the diel he said,
I’ll end all you debate,
Ye shall hae meal an’ cattle eneuch,
And never want of meat.
I’ve naething to gie, the poor man said,
Nae thing under my hand,
But any thing that I can do,
Shall be at your command.

I’ll make a bargain with you then,
A bargain sure to stand,
Ye’ll bring me a beast at seven year’s end,
I cannot tell its name.
But if the beast I name aright,
(Mark well what I you tell)
Then ye must go with me, he said
Directly down to hell.

The poor man then went home again,
Turn’drich in each degree,
And all his neighbours wonder’s much,
Sae poor’s he used to be.
When seven years were come and gane,
And all full gone and spent,
The poor man full of sorrow grew,
And sorely did Lament.

O what’s the matter? his wife did say,
Ye look sae discontent,
Sure ye hae got some whore wi’ bairn,
And seems for to repent.
Indeed, kind wife, ye wrong me much,
It’s not so, I declare,
I’ve made a bargain wi’ the diel,
It puts me in despair.

I’ve made a bargain with him then,
A bargain sure to stand,
To bring him a beast at seven year’s end,
He cannot tell its name.
And if he name the beast aright,
(Mark well what I do tell),
Then I must go with him, forthwith,
Directly down to hell.

Never mind it husband now, she says,
You cattle feed and keep,
For women’s wit is very good,
Sometimes in present need.
Get me bird lime here, she says,
Lay it upon the floor,
Stark naked I will strip mysell,
Anoint my body o’er.

Then get to me a tub of feathers,
And set them me beside,
And I will tumble o’er in it,
Till not a spot be freed.
When she had tumbled o’er in it,
Frae her neck unto heel,
Then merry said he, ye’re a strange beast,
You look just like the diel.

Then tie a string about me neck,
And lead me to that place,
And I will keep you frae the diel,
If I am granted grace.
When in the sight o’ the diel he came,
He looked brazen bold,
Merry, quoth he, strange is your beast,
Your bargain seems to hold.

How many more hae ye o’ them?
How many o’ this kind?
I hae seven more o’ these beasts,
That in this world do run.
If ye’ve seven more o’ these beasts,
That in this world ye tell,
Ye fairly hae defeat me now,
And a’ the diels in hell.

Martin Carthy sings The Devil and the Feathery Wife

Now there was an old farmer lived over the hill,
And a poor old fellow they say,
He was plagued by hunger and a scolding wife,
The worst misfortune that day.

And as he cut wood in the forest one day,
Between dark doom and despair
The devil himself, he jumped out of the bush,
And he stood before him there.

“O, what’s the matter?” the devil he cried,
“You look so discontent,
Haven’t you got any money to buy your food
Or to pay your landlord rent?

“What would you give me?” the devil he cried,
“If I should end your debate,
And I gave you money and gear enough,
So you’d never more want for meat”

“But I’ve nothing to give you,” the old man cried,
“I’ve nothing right here to my hand.
But if you would do what you say for me
I’ll be at your command.”

“Right then I’ll make you a bargain,” the devil he cried,
“It’s a bargain you just couldn’t miss:
You bring me a beast at seven years’ end,
I’ll try to say what it is.

“But if that beast I name aright,
(You mark what I do tell)
You’ve got to toddle along with me
For to view the ovens of Hell.”

So the old man prospered and prospered well,
It was all gained and spent,
Till he come to the end of seven long years;
Sorely he did lament.

“Oh, what is the matter?” his wife she cried,
“You look so discontent.
Sure you’ve got some silly young girl with child,
Making you sore lament”

“No, I’ve made a bargain with the devil,” he cried,
“It was a bargain I just couldn’t miss:
I’ve got to bring him a beast at seven years’ end
He’s got to say what it is.

“But if that beast he names aright
(You mark what I do tell)
I’ve got to toddle along with him
For to view the ovens of Hell.”

“Oh, never you worry,” his wife, she cries,
“For your cattle, your keep, or your feed,
For the wit of a woman, it comes in handy
At times in an hour of need.

“Go and fetch me the droppings from all of our chickens
And spread them all over the floor.
Stark naked I will strip myself
And I’ll roll in it all over and o’er.

“And fetch me the basket of feathers,” she cries
“Of the beast we had for our tea
And I’ll roll and I’ll roll all over in them
Until never an inch be free”

So she rolled and she rolled in feathers and droppings
from her head down to her navel.
“By Christ”, he says, “what an horrible sight,
You look far worse than the devil.”

Then the devil himself come in,
He began to for steam and to hiss.
“By Christ,” he said, “What an awful sight,
I’m damned if I know what it is.”

He started to shake and he started to quake,
Saying, “Have you any more of these at home?”
“Yes,” he cries, “I’ve got seven more
That in my forest do roam.”

“If you’ve got seven more of these beasts
That in your forest do dwell,
I’ll be as good as my bargain and I’m off home
For she’s worse than the demons in Hell.”


Transcribed from the singing of Martin Carthy by Garry Gillard.