> Nic Jones > Songs > The Bonnie Banks of Fordie

The Bonnie Banks of Fordie / Babylon

[ Roud 27 ; Child 14 ; G/D 2:199 ; Ballad Index C014 ; Mudcat 145007 ; trad.]

In spite of the innocent title, The Bonnie Banks of Fordie is a cruel ballad of senseless murder.

Dick Gaughan sang The Bonnie Banks of Fordie in 1972 on his Trailer album, No More Forever. He explained in his album's sleeve notes:

The Bonnie Banks o' Fordie has all the makings of a classic ballad… two cases of fratricide and a consequent suicide. It's also known as The Duke of Perth's Three Daughters, and is in the Child collection as Babylon, or The Banks of Airdrie. The climax comes in the penultimate verse with the revelation that the murderer is in fact, Babylon, the brother, and leads up to his inevitable suicide. I learned this in approved traditional fashion from my mother, who sang it as a child's skipping song.

Nic Jones sang an Americanised version (‘outlaw’, ‘rattlesnake’, ‘bank robber’) of The Bonnie Banks of Fordie in 1974 on The First Folk Review Record. Here the robber is not related to the three sisters, the third sister is rescued by her brother, and the robber gets hanged. This recording was later included on the Fellside anthology Ballads. According to Paul Adams' sleeve notes,

Nic collected this version from verses to be found in Child and the tune was inspired by the one in Dean Christie's Traditional Ballad Airs for The Laird of Drum. Child discovered five versions of this song and noted that the ballad could also be found in Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and the Faeroe Islands. Bronson reported eight versions including four from North America.

A live performance from the late 70's of unknown source is on Nic Jones' CD Game Set Match.

The Old Blind Dogs sang The Bonnie Banks o' Fordie on their 1992 CD New Tricks. Iain Clavey noted:

Based on the version sung by Dick Gaughan, this song lay in the recesses of Ian [F. Benzie]'s repertoire until the band got hold of it.

Pete Coe sang this song as Banks of Virgie in 2004 on his CD In Paper Houses. He noted:

This robber ballad is officially entitled Babylon, though it often appeared in Scotland as The Banks of Fordie. I know of only two versions which were collected in England, both from school children who'd turned this murder ballad into a playground game. It seems likely that the ballad is Scandinavian in origin although this version is based on the variants collected by Maud Karpeles in Newfoundland.

Debra Cowan sang Burly Burly Banks of Barbry-O—collected by Helen Hartness Flanders on 23 August 1951 from Jonathan Moses of Orford, New Hampshire—in 2005 on her album of songs from the Flanders Collection, Dad's Dinner Pail. She noted:

First appearing in Scots Magazine in 1803, this ballad is also known as The Bonnie Banks o Fordie (Child #14) and Babylon. At the beginning of the Second World War, it was discovered that a game-version of the song was played by some children in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Malinky sang The Bonnie Banks o Fordie to a traditional Swedish tune on their 2005 Greentrax CD The Unseen Hours. They noted:

A classic ballad scenario of a highway robber accosting three young women, and when they refuse his demand to be his wife, he murders them. Alas he discovers he has killed his sisters and in turn takes his own life. We've teamed this up with a Swedish tune supposedly written by a real-life penknife murderer in prison: from the playing of Olov Johansson, nyckelharpa master with the band Väsen. The ballad story is also, conveniently, well known across Scandinavia, although it has something of a second chapter. Usually involving three murderous robbers who were kidnapped from their family as boys, they seek lodging later that night and, upon trying to seduce the woman of the house, they find that they are in fact at their father's house, the woman is their mother, and they have killed their sisters. Beat that Jerry Springer! There is a Fordie in Perthshire, between Comrie and Crieff, although it's unlikely that's the location of the ballad, not least since it’s often found as The Bonnie Banks o Airdrie, as it appears in Gavin Greig's 1925 collection Last Leaves (after which our first record was named).

Jon Boden sang The Bonnie Banks of Fordie with verses nearly identical to Dick Gaughan's (except that he sings it in English rather than in Scottish) as the 28 May 2011 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. He noted in the project blog that he learned his version from Ian Giles at the Half Moon pub in Oxford.

Teresa Horgan sang this ballad as Fair Flowers of the Valley in 2015 on her and Matt Griffin's CD Brightest Sky Blue. She commented in their sleeve notes:

We heard this song from the great Irish American folk/bluegrass singer, Tim O'Brien. A thief confronts three sisters and attempts to steal them away, but there were fatal consequences at refusal and a very surprising ending. A classic murder ballad.

Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne sang Babylon in 2017 on his WildGoose CD Outway Songster. He commented:

This variant of the classic ballad (Child 14) comes from Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger’s Travellers’ Songs from England and Scotland. MacColl and Seeger collected it from John MacDonald, a Lanarkshire traveller, in 1969. The verse structure of John MacDonald’s text for Babylon seems to be unique; whereas most feature a refrain on lines two and four of the verses, MacDonald’s verses begin with two lines, followed by a repeat of line two and a refrain. I have managed to unwittingly change this song in the process of learning and performing it; the tune is slightly different to the one printed in Travellers’ Songs, but I have also added some extra verses (and lost a few others on the way), quite where they came from, I have absolutely no idea!

Alasdair Roberts sang Babylon on his, Amble Skuse and David McGuinness' 2018 CD What News. They noted:

This ballad appears in Child’s collection under the title of The Bonnie Banks o’ Fordie in addition to the present title. Our version was learnt from the singing of the late Aberdeenshire traveller singer and storyteller Stanley Robertson.

This video shows Alasdair Roberts and Kami Thompson singing The Bonnie Banks o Airdrie as part of Song East at the Marie Lloyd Bar, Hackney on 9 March 2010:

Lyrics

Dick Gaughan sings The Bonnie Banks of Fordie

There were three sisters lived in a bouer
An they aa went out for tae pu a flouer,
They aa went out for tae pu a flouer
Doun by the bonnie banks o Fordie-o.

An they hadnae pu'd a flouer but ane
Whan up thair steppt a banisht man,
Whan up thair steppt a banisht man
Doun by the bonnie banks o Fordie-o.

An he's taen the first ane by the haun
An he's turnt her roun an he's made her staun
etc.

“Oh it's will ye be a robber's wife?
Or will ye dee by my penknife?”

“Oh it's A'll no be a robber's wife
But A will dee by your penknife.”

So it's he's taen out his wee penknife
An thair he's twined her o her life.

An he's taen the saicant ane by the haun
An he's turnt her roun an he's made her staun.

“Oh it's will ye be a robber's wife?
Or will ye dee by my penknife?”

“Oh it's A'll no be a robber's wife,
A'd raither dee by your penknife.

So it's he's taen out his wee penknife
An thair he's twined her o her life.

An he's taen the third ane by the haun
An he's turnt her roun an he's made her staun.

“Oh it's will ye be a robber's wife?
Or will ye dee by my penknife?”

“Oh it's A'll no be a robber's wife
Nor will A dee by your penknife.”

“For A hae brither in yon tree
Gin ye kill me then he'll kill ye.

“Come tell tae me yer brither's name.”
i“y brither's name it is Babylon.”

“Oh sister hae I dune this ill tae ye
Hae A dune this dreadfu ill tae ye.”

An it's he's taen out his wee penknife
An it's thair he's taen his ain life.

Nic Jones sings The Bonnie Banks of Fordie

Oh there were three sisters lived in a bower
    Oh I am so bonnie
They've gone out for to pull all the flowers
    On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Fordie.

And they've not pulled a flower but one
Till by there came an outlaw man.

And he's gone up to the eldest one,
He's turned her around and he made her stand.

“Oh, will you be a bank robber's wife?
Or will you die with my little pen knife?”

“Oh, it's I'll not be a bank robber's wife,
But I'd sooner die with your little pen knife.”

And he's killed the girl and he's laid her by
To keep the red rose company.

And he's taken the second girl by her hand,
Turned her around and he made her stand.

“Oh, will you be a bank robber's wife?
Or will you die with my little pen knife?”

“Oh, it's I'll not be a bank robber's wife,
But I'd sooner die with your little pen knife.”

So he's killed the girl and he's laid her by
To keep the red rose company.

And he's taken the youngest by her hand,
He's turned her around and he made her stand.

“Oh, it's will you be a bank robber's wife?
Or will you die with my little pen knife?”

“Oh, I'll not be a bank robber's wife,
But I'd sooner die with your little pen knife.”

But her own brother John came a-riding by
And this bold robber he chanced to spy.

And he's gone up to his sister fair,
He's taken her up by her long yellow hair.

And he's sent out his page-boys three
To take this robber most speedily.

“Two of my sisters you took their life
All with your cruel and your bloody pen-knife.

For my sisters then you shall die.”
And they hanged him up on the gallows high.

They'd thrown him into a poisoned lake,
To feed all the toads and the rattlesnakes.

Debra Cowan sings Burly Burly Banks of Barbry-O

There was three sisters picking flowers,
    High and a lee and aloney-O!
They scarced but picked but one or two,
    On the Burly Burly Banks of Barbry-O.

It's there they spied a bank robber bold,
It's there they spied a bank robber bold.

He took the oldest by the hand,
He turned her 'round, he made her stand.

Saying, “Will you be a bank robber's wife?
Or will you die by my penknife?”

“No I shan't be a bank robber's wife,
I'd rather die by your penkife.”

Then he took out his penknife
And there he ended her sweet life.

He took the next one by the hand,
He hurled her 'round, he made her stand.

Saying, “Will you be a bank robber's wife?
Or will you die by my penknife?”

“No I shan't be a bank robber's wife,
I'd rather die by your penknife.

Then he took out his penknife
And there he ended her sweet life.

He took the youngest by her hand,
He hurled her 'round, he made her stand.

Saying, “Will you be a bank robber's wife?
Or will you die by my penknife?”

“Yes I will be a bank robber's wife
So I shan't die by your penknife.

“Oh I wish my two brothers was here,
You would not have killed my sisters dear.”

“Oh what did your two brothers do?”
“One was a minister, the other such as you.”

“And what was your two brothers' names?”
“One was John, the other was James.”

“Oh, what is this that I have done?
I have killed my sisters, all but one.

“And now I'll take out my penknife,
And here I'll end my own sweet life.”

Jon Boden sings The Bonnie Banks of Fordie

There were three sisters lived in a bower
And they went out for to pull a flower,
They went out for to pull a flower,
    Down by the bonnie banks o Fordie-o.

Now they had not pulled a flower but one
When up there stepped a banished man,
etc.

And he's taken the first one by the hand
And he's turned her round and he's made her stand,

“Oh, it's will ye be a robber's wife?
Or will you die by my pen knife?

“Oh, it's I'll not be a robber's wife!
I would rather die by your pen knife.”

So he's taken out his little pen knife
And there he's twined her of her life.

And he's taken the second one by the hand
And he's turned her round and he's made her stand.

“Oh, it's will you be a robber's wife?
Or will you die by my pen knife?”

“Oh it's I'll not be a robber's wife!
I'd rather die by your pen knife.”

So he's taken out his little pen knife
An there he's twined her of her life.

And he's taken the third one by the hand
And he's turned round and he's made her stand.

“Oh, it's will you be a robber's wife?
Or will you die by my pen knife?”

“Oh, it's I'll nor be a robber's wife
Nor will I die by your pen knife.

For I have a brother in yonder tree
And if you kill me then he'll kill thee!”

“Come tell to me your brother's name!”
“Oh, my brother's name it is Babylon.”

“Oh sister, sister, I've done you wrong,
Oh sister, sister, I have done you wrong!”

And he's taken out his little pen knife
And there he's taken his own sweet life.