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

[ Roud 38 ; Child 49 ; Ballad Index C049 ; DT ROLLSTON ; Mudcat 47394 ; trad.]

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

Professor Child, writing about this song—it is No. 49 in his English and Scottish Popular Ballads—says: “All the Scottish versions were obtained within the first third of this (the 19th) century, and since then no others have been heard of.” Since 1955, however, several fresh versions have come to light, in Perthshire and in Aberdeenshire. Among these, Jeannie’s is outstanding for its fine text, and its measured elegiac grandeur.

In a number of variants, American as well as Scottish, The Twa Brothers is fused with another classical ballad, usually known as Edward (Child 13). Jeannie is quite firm that these are two distinct songs, and her own version of Edward—now world-famous—is called Son David.

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

This seems to me one of the best of the classical ballads. I learned it from Belle Stewart of Blairgowrie. Some 19th century commentators, without much evidence, believed the ballad originated in an actual event which took place in July 1589 when the elder son of Lord Somerville accidentally killed his brother while drying his pistol which was wet with dew. In the Ballad Minstrelsy of Scotland, 1871, Gardner writes that “if precedents are to be allowed to count for anything in such a case, we might turn to a much better known and earlier occurrence, the murder of Abel by his brother Cain”.

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 noted:

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 noted:

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 Toni Arthur sang Two Pretty Boys in 1970 on the BBC Radio series Folk on Friday, and Dave sang Monday Morning Go to School in 2010 on Rattle on the Stovepipe’s WildGoose CD No Use in Cryin’. They noted:

A fratricide ballad popular in Scotland from at least the early 1800s, and widely collected in America in the 20th century. Cecil Sharp came across fourteen versions of it when tramping the Appalachians in 1916-18 with Maud Karpeles. In Madison County, North Carolina, a remarkable hotbed of singers and storytellers, Sharp generously paid for clothes for the 13-year-old daughter of one of his singers so that she could attend a nearby mission school. The girl, Emma Hensley, repaid the debt some thirty-five years later when Karpeles was retracing Sharp’s earlier collecting trips in the mountains. As Mrs Emma Shelton she recorded, among others, Monday Morning Go to School, accompanied on the harmonium, which Dave heard in New York a few years ago. One of her verses that we’ve used as a chorus is almost identical to a verse collected by William Motherwell from the recitation of Widow McCormick in Scotland in 1825.

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 noted:

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 noted:

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 15 October 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.

Silly Wizard sang The Twa Brithers in 1978 on their second album, Caledonia’s Hardy Sons. They noted:

A ballad still sung in Perthshire about internal family conflict which leads to the “accidental” death of the older son at the hands of his younger step-brother. With his dying breath he curses his step-mother who, he realises, is responsible for plotting his death.

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

Blowzabella sang The Rolling of the Stones in 1983 on their Plant Life album In Colour. They noted:

Paul [James] learnt The Rolling of the Stones from a friend of his called Graham Jenkins who taped it off the radio.

Mick West sang Twa Bonnie Boys in 1995 on his Lochshore album Fine Flowers and Foolish Glances. He noted:

I came across this old Scottish ballad on a recording of Dave & Toni Arthur many years ago, I have speeded it up slightly and translated their English back into Scots.

Sue Brown and Lorraine Irwing sang Two Pretty Boys in 1997 on their WildGoose CD Call & Cry. They noted:

A version of The Twa Brothers (Child no. 49). The origin of the fetal dispute between the brothers is not explained here, but in the earliest versions of the ballad it appears to be incestuous jealousy, with both brothers in love with their sister.

Ellen Mitchell sang The Twa Brithers in 2002 on her Tradition Bearers album On Yonder Lea. She noted:

My favourite ballad sung by Lizzie Higgins. This is where I have to admit to cheating a little bit, but it was a long time ago and not too many people noticed even at the time. I remembered the tune she sang and of course the gist of the story but not all of the words. These words came from an old school poetry book, The Lanimer Book of Scottish Verse, which included several ballads by ‘anonymous’. I found the words fitted the tune I remembered Lizzie singing and there were not all that many major differences in the text, a fact I was relieved to find when Rod [Stradling] sent me the recording I mentioned earlier.

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

Tim Radford sang The Rolling of the Stones on his 2005 CD Home From Home. He noted:

A version of the ballad The Two Brothers (Child No. 49), with a tune learned via The Young Tradition, who sang a three verse version. My words were obtained only relatively recently from Maine, U.S.A., via the Internet! I had heard about and been looking for a full version of this song for many years—thank the Lord for technology.

Alasdair Roberts sang The Two Brothers in 2005 on his CD No Earthly Man. He noted:

This version of the ancient fratricide ballad is based on the singing of Belle Stewart and also her daughter Sheila Stewart of Blairgowrie. Part of the melody has been altered.

“A clear link connects this ballad with the early ritual practice of the Sacred King and his Tanist Brother and Successor. Although actual practices in specific times and places are known to have varied enormously, the general pattern was this: at a certain time of the year, one chosen man superseded the present ‘king’ usually by killing him. The victim represented the light part or waxing year, his successor the dark season, or waning year.” (Bob Stewart, Where is St George? Pagan Imagery in English Folk Song).

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. Emily Portman noted:

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 10 August 2010 entry of his project A Folk Song a Day. He noted:

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.

Diana Collier sang Two Brothers unaccompanied on her 2015 album All Mortals ar Rest.

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

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.

Lynne Heraud and Pat Turner sang The Two Brothers in 2019 on their WildGoose CD Watching for Winkles. They noted:

The sadness is in the telling and the singing, and your questions are never quite answered.

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

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, 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.

“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.” 𝄇

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. 𝄇

“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.” 𝄇

“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.” 𝄇

Nic Jones sings The Two Brothers

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?”

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.

“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.”

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.

“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.”

“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?”

Tim Radford sings The 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
And dance among them all?”

“I will not go to the rolling of the stones
Or the tossing of the ball,
But I will go and see pretty Susie
And 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?”

They hadn’t danced but a single dance
More than twice around
Before the sword at her true love’s side
Gave him his fatal wound.

They picked him up and carried him away,
For he was sore distressed.
They buried him all in the greenwoods
Where he was wont to rest.

Pretty Susie she came a-wandering by
With a tablet under her arm,
Until she came to her true love’s grave
And she began to charm.

She charmed the fish out of the sea
And the birds out of their nests,
She charmed her true love out of his grave
So he could no longer rest.

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

“I will not go to the rolling of the stones
Or the tossing of the ball
But I will go and see pretty Susie
And dance among them all..”


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