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The Two Brothers / Two Pretty Boys / The Rolling of the Stones

[ Roud 38 ; Child 49 ; Ballad Index C049 ; trad.]

Jeannie Robertson sang The Twa Brothers in 1959 as the title track of her Collector EP Twa Brothers.

Isabel Sutherland sang The Two Brothers in 1966 on her Topic album Vagrant Songs of Scotland.

Heather Wood sang a fragment of The Two Brothers called The Rolling of the Stones (Bronson: Child 49 variant 14) in 1968 on The Young Tradition's last LP, Galleries. She commented in the album's sleeve notes:

This is a fragment of a longer ballad, and was learned from the singing of Oscar Brand.

Peter Bellamy sang Two Pretty Boys unaccompanied in 1969 on his third solo album, The Fox Jumps Over the Parson's Gate. A.L. Lloyd commented in the liner notes:

Francis James Child called this ballad The Two Brothers, and it's No. 49 in his great compilation. As is often the case, there is more to this ballad than meets the ear. The songs has its relatives not only in Britain but on the continent too, and tracing its sundry versions we find that it concerns not merely a violent bit of schoolboy horseplay but a murderous quarrel over a patch of land, and beyond that, in the oldest versions of all, we find that the root of the dispute is in incestuous jealousy, with both brothers enamoured of their sister.

Peter Bellamy learnt the song from a recording by Lucy Stewart of Fetterangus, Aberdeenshire (see: The Child Ballads 1 (The Folk Songs of Britain Vol. 4; Caedmon 1961, Topic 1968)).

Dave and Tony Arthur sang Two Pretty Boys in 1970 on the BBC Radio series Folk on Friday.

Nic Jones recorded this ballad with its customary title, The Two Brothers, and with somewhat different lyrics in 1971 for his eponymous second album, Nic Jones. He commented in the album notes:

The motive for the murder is not given in this ballad but other versions include the possibility of jealousy on the elder brother's part. Superstition and the supernatural rear their ugly head in the last verses of the song as the buried man explains that he cannot sleep peacefully in his grave while his love weeps and mourns. It seems to me to be highly predictable that supernatural elements should appear in folk songs, for superstition has obviously played a massive role in the mental attitudes of the imaginative, but largely uneducated mass of people. It is only when education and reason begin breaking through, that the old superstitions begin to die out until some social upheaval again plunges people in insecurity and a world of primeval phantoms and witches. Perhaps we shall never be quite rid of it, at least, not as long as folk songs are still sung!

Lizzie Higgins sang The Twa Brothers in 1975 on her Topic album Up and Awa' Wi' the Laverock. Peter Hall commented in the album's sleeve notes:

This is one of the ballads which many scholars had thought had passed from the folk memory, but is in fact retained on the tongues of a number of Scots travellers. It has obvious connections with another song in the repertoire of the late Jeannie Robertson, My Son David (Child 13) and I have written elsewhere pointing out the underlying characteristics of a number of similar ballads in the traveller’s repertoire (“Scottish Tinker’s Songs”, Folk Song Journal 1975). The song was not found in North East Scotland by Gavin Greig nor any of his co-workers who were collecting at the opening of the century. Most versions found prior to the discoveries of the School of Scottish Studies are from the early 19th century and from further south. The piece probably moved into the area from outside and of course none are better placed than the members of the travelling community to act as distributors.

Belle Stewart sang The Twa Brothers in a recording made by Fred Kent in Blairgowrie, Perthshire in May 1976. This was released a year later on her album Queen Among the Heather and in 1998 on the Topic anthology O'er His Grave the Grass Grew Green (The Voice of the People Series Vol. 3). Her daughter Sheila Stewart sang it in a recording made by Doc Rowe in Blairgowrie, Perthshire on October 15, 1998 that was released in 2000 on her Topic CD From the Heart of the Tradition.

Jake Walton sang The Rolling of the Stones in 1976 on his, Roger Nicholson and Andrew Cronshaw's Leader album Times and Traditions for Dulcimer.

Alison McMorland and Peta Webb sang Two Pretty Boys in 1980 on their Topic album Alison McMorland & Peta Webb.

The Demon Barbers learned Two Brothers from Nic Jones' album. They sang it in 2005 on their CD Waxed.

Jim Causley sang Rolling of the Stones in 2007 on his WildGoose CD Lost Love Found. His former Devil's Interval partner Emily Portman sang it a year later with Rubus on their CD Nine Witch Knots. She commented in their liner notes:

Not a heavy rock anthem but a ballad of sibling rivalry better known as The Two Brothers. It can be found in Bronson’s The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, sung by Mrs. Mary E. Harmon of Cambridge, Mass. When collating my favourite parts of British and American variants, I came across a beautiful version from Scottish traveller Lizzie Higgins and decided to sing both Scottish and American tunes interchangeably. Remarkably I have found that these two melodies, from opposite sides of the Atlantic, harmonise with each other. In some versions Susie charms her true love out of his grave with her banjo, or even “small hoppers”, but tempting as it was, I found I couldn’t sing either of these with a straight face! Some versions end with Susie’s “charm”, but I wanted to find out what happened next. At this point the story transforms into another ballad: The Unquiet Grave. The song shows that it can be a risky business waking the dead after a year and a day have passed.

Elizabeth Stewart of Fetterangus (the niece of Lucy Stewart) sang The Twa Brothers at the Fife Traditional Singing Festival in Collessie, Fife, in May 2007. This recording was published a year later on the festival's CD Nick-Knack on the Waa (Old Songs & Bothy Ballads Vol. 4).

Former Witch of Elswick, Fay Hield learnt Two Brothers from Peter Bellamy's recording and sang it in 2010 on her first solo CD, Looking Glass.

Jon Boden sang Two Pretty Boys as the August 10, 2010 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. He commented in the project blog:

From Bellamy again. Strange tune—I wonder if Bellamy wrote it. It’s great though and a really dark song. I think the implication may be that the step mother has instructed big brother John to stab his step brother, and he’s done so despite loving his brother like… er, a brother. Horrific really, or maybe it’s just an accident.

Granny's Attic sang Two Brothers in 2016 on their WildGoose CD Off the Land. They commented:

Child ballad 49, a classic ballad of sibling rivalry and murder. The text is an amalgamation and tune is also something of an amalgamation. Cohen [Braithwaite-Kilcoyne] put together this song after finishing early in an A level music exam, perhaps the only half decent piece of music to come out of an A level music exam? We all have brothers but we’ve not made any plans to wrestle or stab them…yet.

Other Two Brothers songs

Mike Waterson sang the burlesque song The Two Brothers (Roud 6360) in 1977 on his eponymous LP, Mike Waterson.

Isla Cameron sang the American Civil War song Two Brothers on the album Songs from ABC Television's “Hallelujah”.


Heather Wood sings Rolling of the Stones

Will you go to the rolling of the stones
Or the dancing of the ball?
Or will you go and see pretty Susie
Dance among them all?

Will you drink of the blood,
The white wine and the red?
Or will you go and see pretty Susie
When that I am dead?

Susie charmed the birds from the sky,
The fish from out the bay
And there she lay in her true love's arms
And there was content to stay.

Peter Bellamy sings Two Pretty Boys Nic Jones sings The Two Brothers

Two pretty boys was going to school,
All in the evening coming home,
Said the biggest boy to the littlest boy,
𝄆 “Oh, can you throw a stone?” 𝄇

Well it's of two brothers a-going to school,
A-going to the very same school.
And one of them to the other said,
“Can you take a wrestle and fall?”

“Well, I can either throw a stone
And a little can I play at the ball,
But if you come down to yon green wood
𝄆 I will try you a wrestling fall.” 𝄇

So they're away to the merry greenwood
For to try a wrestling fall,
But big brother John's drawed his little penknife
And stabbed William to the ground,
He stabbed William to the ground.

And the very first fall the eldest gave,
He fell into the ground.
And he's taken out his little penknife
And he's given him a deadly wound.

“Oh, you'll pull off my white linen shirt
And tear it from gore to gore,
And wrap it all around my wound
𝄆 That the blood may flow no more.” 𝄇

“Take me up, take me up all in your arms
And carry me to yonder church ground.
And dig a grave both wide and deep
And gently lay me down.”

So he's pulled off his white linen shirt
And he tore it from gore to gore,
And wrapped it round his brother's wound
𝄆 But the blood came ten times more. 𝄇

O he's took him up all in his arms
And he's carried him to yonder church ground.
And he's dug a grave both wide and deep
And gently laid him down.

“Oh what will your dear father think
Tonight when I come home?”
“Just tell him I'm away to the London school,
𝄆 And a good boy I'll return.” 𝄇

“And what shall I tell my mother dear
This night when I go home?”
“Just tell her I'm running in yonder green wood,
A-bringing my school books home.”

“But what will your dear step-mother think
Tonight when I come home?”
“Just tell her that the last prayer she's prayed for me
𝄆 Was that I might never return.” 𝄇

“And what shall I tell your Susie dear
This night when I go home?”
“Just tell her I'm down in yonder churchyard,
A-buried beneath the ground.”

But she's wept and she's cried so bitterly,
She's wept from door to door.
And she's wept him away from his own gravestone
For rest he could find no more.

“And why do you weep my Susie dear,
And why do you weep for me?”
“It's just one kiss from your clay lips
That's all I ask of thee.”

“Then go home, go home, my Susie dear,
Go home and leave me be.
And don't stay here to weep and mourn
For my body you'll never more see.”

Well it's of two brothers a-going to school,
A-going to the very same school.
And one of them to the other said,
“Can you take a wrestle and fall?”


Thanks to Garry Gillard for his good ears and his help with Peter Bellamy's version.