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King Orfeo / Orfeo / Young Orphy

[ Roud 136 ; Child 19 ; Ballad Index C019 ; DT KNGORFEO ; Mudcat 91417 , 122008 ; trad.]

John Stickle from Lerwick, Shetland, sang King Orfeo on 28 April 1947 to Patrick Shuldham-Shaw. It was printed in the Journal of the English Folk Dance & Song Society Vol. 5:2 (1947) and in Bronson’s Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads. His BBC recording 18624 that was included on the anthology The Child Ballads 1 (The Folk Songs of Britain Volume 4; Caedmon 1961; Topic 1968) is dated February 1952, though. I don’t know if this is a second recording or a mis-dating of the first one. Anyway, this album’s booklet noted:

It is a common experience to hear songs and tales in Gaelic about persons kidnapped by the little people, but such ancient lore has almost disappeared in other parts of the west. According to Bronson (p. 275), this melody is also very ancient. “That a tune in the midst of the 20th century be recovered for this whisper from the Middle Ages was as little to be expected as that we should hear a horn from elfinland blowing…” Child printed one version only of the ballad, but when Patrick Shaw went to the Shetland to look for songs he was shown the following text that had appeared in the Shetland Times, written down from the recitation of Bruce Sutherland of Turf House, North Yell, in 1865. The refrain was clearly derived from the Scandinavian original which runs…

Skoven arle grön – Early greens the wood
Hvor hjorten han gar arlig – Where the hart goes yearly

Still no tune has ever been recorded for the ballad. Then one day Mr Shaw was visiting John Stickle in the island of Unst and the two began talking about nonsense songs. “Have you ever,” said Mr Stickle, “heard anything as nonsensical as this?” Mr Stickle then proceeded to sing him the song here reproduced, and he failed to understand how his London friend could be so excited over a bit of nonsense that he had never been able to get out of his mind.

Archie Fisher sang Orfeo as the title track of his 1970 Decca LP, Orfeo. He noted:

I first heard this version of the Orpheus and Eurydice story from the singing of John Stickle of Unst, on a recording made for the E.F.D.S.S. by Pat Shuldham-Shaw. With the valuable assistance of Martin Carthy I have reconstructed the ballad round the original fragment. The second and fourth lines of the verse are all that remains of what is said to have been its middle Danish origins. Translated they mean “Early greens the wood” and “Where the hart goes yearly”. The atmosphere of the melody was what first attracted me. There is no 3rd or 6th in the scale, as in the calm, noon raga Brindabani Saranga of Gujerat. It was this similarity that suggested the pulsing pedal drone. I felt that the highly narrative text would benefit from a backdrop of saga-strings which would bring out the powerful qualities of the melody. The instrumentals are an Irish-Scottish hybrid completing the trans-ethnic effect, and linking the Aryan-Celtic passage of folk music and folk-tale.

Steeleye Span recorded Orfeo together with the tune Nathan’s Reel in 1976 for the last album with their “classic” line-up, Rocket Cottage. Maddy Prior sings in duet with herself.

Frankie Armstrong sang the ballad in 1996 as Young Orphy on her ballads album Till the Grass O’ergrew the Corn. The sleeve notes commented:

The ballad of King Orfeo stems from a medieval retelling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, in which Eurydice, instead of dying and descending to Hades, is carried of by the King of Elfland, from whose unwelcome attentions she is successfully rescued by her husband’s virtuoso musical skills. It has only ever been found in the Shetlands and that infrequently and in very fragmentary form. Astonishingly enough, two tunes for what Bronson describes as “this whisper out of the Middle Ages” were recovered in the middle of the present century, a circumstance, he said, “as little to be supposed as that we should hear “the horns of Elfland faintly blowing”. Brian Pearson thought that there were too few ballads about musicians to let this one disappear altogether, and rebuilt the text into the sort of shape it might have had before its almost terminal battering by time. The sprightly tune is that collected from John Stickle of Baltasound, Unst, by Patrick Shuldham-Shaw in 1947.

Alva sang King Orfeo in 2002 on their Beautiful Jo album Love Burns in Me. They noted:

The classical legend of Orpheus and Euridice is retold with a Celtic twist in this ballad from the Shetland Islands. Pluto appears as the King of the Fairies, the underworld becomes a fairy hill, and Orfeo plays a reel on the bagpipes to win back his love. The refrain is in the ancient Scandanavian language of Norn, and says: “The wood is green early. The hart returns yearly.”

Alison McMorland sang King Orfeo in 2003 on her Tradition Bearers album with Geordie McIntyre, Ballad Tree. In their liner notes they again refer to the newspaper text and to John Stickle’s tune.

Malinky sang King Orfeo in 2005 on their Greentrax CD The Unseen Hours. They noted:

The folk version of the tale of Greek lovers Orpheus and Euridice, this ballad was only found in recent memory on the Shetland island of Unst, the most northerly isle; Child collected this from a printed version which appeared in the local press in 1880. The tune we use here was collected by the late Patrick Shuldham-Shaw (folklorist and co-editor of the Greig-Duncan Folk Song Collection) from the singing of John Stickle of Unst in 1952, an amazing discovery after some 70 years, since the tune was considered lost. It is said that Stickle’s grandfather was at one time the best fiddler in all of Shetland and composed a number of the popular Shetland tunes played today. Apparently Stickle himself thought the song to be something of a nonsense lyric and was totally unaware of its rarity. The ballad tune scholar, Bertrand Bronson, wrote: “That a tune should in the midst of the twentieth century be recovered for this whisper from the Middle Ages was as little to be expected as that we should hear a horn from elfin-land blowing.” The Norn (Shetland dialect) refrain is fairly close to a mish-mash of modern Scandinavian “skogen arla grøn / hvor hjorten han går årlog” — “early greens the wood, where the stag (hart) goes yearly”. We sing a more Scotticised version than the original Norn, from the singing of Alison McMorland.
(Notes with reference to the Alan Lomax collection Classic Ballads of Britain and Ireland Vol 1 on Rounder Records.)

Barbara Dickson sang King Orfeo in 2011 on her Greentrax album Words Unspoken.

Fay Hield’s Orfeo score
Fay Hield’s Orfeo score

Fay Hield sang Sir Orfeo in 2012 as the title track of her CD with the Hurricane Party, Orfeo. She noted:

The ballad of Sir Orfeo stems from a medieval retelling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, dated to the late 13th or early 14th century. Representing a mixture of the Greek myth with Celtic mythology and folklore concerning fairies, it was introduced into the English culture via the Old French Breton lays. I’ve found versions recorded by Archie Fisher (1970), Steeleye Span (1976) and Frankie Armstrong (1996), however, I only discovered these after we put together and recorded this one. Here Jon [Boden] and I returned to a translation made by Tolkien (published posthumously in 2003) along with various condensed retellings of the story. The tune was written in the under-used Lydian mode. The “bonny apple tree” is not a species which often appears in this common refrain, but I thought it appropriate as orchard trees are typically grafted—the graft being significant as a point of entry into the otherworld.

Emily Smith sang a shortened version of Malinky’s King Orfeo in 2014 on her CD Echoes. She also released it on a single with a variant spelling, King Orpheo.

Anna & Elisabeth sang Orfeo on their eponymous 2015 album Anna & Elisabeth. They noted:

We found a fragment of this in the Child ballads. The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice—placed in a world with fairies under the hill, and Orfeo a piper. We pieced a few versions together, and brought piper Joey Abarta down to play it with us. He’s a kindred spirit.

Josie Duncan sang King Orfeo on her and Pablo Lafuente’s 2018 album The Morning Tempest. They noted:

Recorded by Archie Fisher in 1970, this Scots ballad comes from the northern-most Shetland Isle, the Isle of Unst, with refrains in Norn. The tale is a retelling of the story of Greek lovers Orpheus and Eurydice (late 13th or early 14th century). In this folk tale, Eurydice does not die but is captured by the King of Elfland. Seven years later her husband, who has been grieving the whole time, wins her back with his wondrous harp playing.

Harpans kraft

Folk och Rackare sang a related Swedish song, Harpans kraft, in 1979 on their album Anno 1979. They noted [my translation]:

Harpans Kraft has been sung throughout the north. It’s available in an early Swedish collection, Petter Rudebeck’s Smålendske Antiqviteter from the 17th century. The text in our version is of a later date.

Harpans Kraft probably is a popular rendition of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Similar rewrites are also found in England, Scotland and the Faroe Islands. There the harp is consequently replaced by the bagpipe and the neck [water spirit] in the Nordic variant has become the “Elf King”, King of Fairies.

In this story you can really talk about the power of music. Sir Peder has really got himself into a fix. He has only one way out—the neck’s own weapon—the music.

Kalabra sang Harpans kraft on their 2001 album Folka. They noted:

Sir Peder is betrothed to little Kerstin, and they are very much in love. However, Kerstin is sad becouse both of their sisters have been taken by the neck, a supernatural being, and she knows that it is just a matter of time before she will also be spirited away. When this happens Sir Peder can only save his beloved by playing his golden harp so that the spell is broken and the neck looses his power.


John Stickle sings a fragment of King Orfeo

Will ye com in into our ha’?
    Scowan earl grey,
Ye will come in into your ha’,
    For yetter kangra norla.

And we’ll come in into your ha’,
And we’ll come in among you a’.

First you played the notes o’ noy,
And then you played the notes o’ joy.

And then you played a good old gabber reel,
What might ha’ made a sick hairt heal.

Steeleye Span sing Orfeo

There was a King lived in the West,
    Green the woods so early,
Of all the harpers he was the best,
    Where the hart goes yearly.

The King he has a-hunting gone
And left his lady all alone.

The King of Faerie with his dart
Has pierced the lady to the heart.

So after them the King has gone
Until he came to a large grey stone.

And he took out his harp to play.
First he played the notes of pain,
And all their hearts were weary,
Then he played the Faerie reel,
And all their hearts were cheery.

The King of Faerie, with his rout,
Has gone to hunt him all about.

“Come ye into the Faerie hall,
And play your harp amongst us all.”


“Oh what shall I give you for your play?”
“Oh let me take my lady away.”

The Faerie King said “Be it so,
Take her by the hand and go.”


Frankie Armstrong sings Young Orphy

Young Orphy was a piper man,
    Down along the valley
Never a better in the land!
    Where the green leaves they grow rarely.

He could play a fish out of the stream
And make hares dance in the meadows green.

He could charm an otter from the flood
And the wolf from out of the wood.

Oh so sweet his notes did run,
He could make the moon dance with the sun.

Young Orphy’s gone out to the west;
He’s courted Suzy who he loved best.

She’d lips as sweet as honeycomb;
He’s gained her love and brought her home.

Young Orphy’s to the greenwood gone
and left his new bride all alone.

The King of Elfland he rode by,
On her he cast a lingering eye.

And with his keen and wanton dart
He’s pierced this lady to the heart.

He’s took her off despite her will
To live with him beneath the hill.

And when young Orphy he’s come home,
His servants made a bitter moan.

“Oh weary day that you did ride!
For the Elf King’s stole your bride!”

Young Orphy tore his yellow hair:
“Oh what is life without my dear?”

He’s dressed himself in beggar’s clothes
And off to seek his love he goes.

He searched high, he searched low,
Through dreary rain and winter snow,

Till at dead of night he’s come
To a great way by a great grey stone.

He’s tuned his pipe and played a reel
Whose notes would make the sick heart heal.

He’s played a jig, he’s played a slide,
He’s played the King’s gates open wide.

“Come ye down into out hall,
Come you in amongst us all!”

He’s gone down into their hall
Amongst the lords and ladies all.

The King of Elfland he sat there
And by him sat young Suzy fair.

Out spoke the King of Elfinland,
“What want ye here, old beggar man?”

“I’m just a poor old piper man;
I’m come to please you if I can.”

He’s took out his pipes to blow,
Bur sore his heart with grief and woe.

He’s played fleet, he’s played sweet,
He’s played the dancers off their feet.

He’s played the stars out of the sky,
He’s made the tears fall from their eyes.

And last he’s played that ranting reel
Whose notes would make the sick heart heal.

“Now beggar man come name your fee!
What e’er it is we’ll give it thee!”

“That pretty lass sits by your side,
I’ll take her now to be my bride.”

“Oh a wickeder thing it cannot be
For her to wed with a beggar like thee!

She’s as fair as a summer day,
You’re old and ragged, lean and grey!”

“A wickeder thing, so have I heard,
For a king to break his given word!”

“Then take her off and go you home,
Be King of the Beggars over all your own!”

He’s let his dirty rags down fall
And shines the brightest of them all!

He’s took fair Suzy by the hand
And then he’s off to his own land.

How sweet the birds sang in the grove
For Orphy and his own true love!

But oh how sweeter was the play
When these two in one bed did lay!

Malinky sing King Orfeo

There lived a lady in yon Haa
    Scowan erla grae
Her name was Lady Lisa Bell,
    Far yorten han grun orla

The king, he has a-huntin’ gane
An’ left his lady all alane.

The Elfin King wi’ his dairt,
Pierced his lady tae the hert.

When the king cam hame at noon
He spiered for Lady Lisa Bell.

His nobles untae him they said,
“My lady was wounded, noo she’s deid.”

“Noo they’ve taen her life frae me
But her corpse they’ll never hae.”

The king, he’s ca’d his nobles a’
Tae waltz her corpse intae the ha’.

But when the lords were fa’n asleep
Oot o’ the ha’ her corpse did creep.

Noo awa tae the woods he’s gane
An’ there he sat upon a stane.

He sat there for seiven years
’Til a company him drew near.

Some did ride and some did ging,
He saw his lady then amang.

The company, they then made their way
Tae a ha’ upon a hill.

Noo he set him doon fu’l wae,
He’s taen oot his harp tae play.

First he played the notes o’ noy,
Then he played the notes o’ joy.

An’ then he played the guid gabber reel
That would mak a sick hert heal.

There cam a boy frae oot the ha’,
“Ye’re bidden tae play amangst us a’.”

The Elfin King tae him did say,
“What will you hae for a’ yer play?”

“For my play I will ye tell,
I’ll hae my Lady Lisa Bell.

“My sister’s son, the unworthy thing,
The morn he will be crowned king.”

“Noo ye can tak yer lady hame
An’ you’ll be king a’ on yer ain.”

Fay Hield sings Sir Orfeo

Sir Orfeo was a valiant knight,
A knight of high degree,
He fell in love with a lady fair
Beneath the orchard tree.

He played upon his harp so sweet,
His voice was pure and true,
And she has fallen deep in love
With brave Sir Orfeo.

As it fell out all on a day,
The sun was riding high,
This lady took a pleasant sleep
Beneath the orchard tree.

But as she lay a-sleeping there
She dreamed a dreadful dream:
The King of the elves stole her away
To take her for his queen.

The oak and the ash and the bonny apple tree
All blossom and bloom in my own country.

Sir Orfeo is a-hunting gone
Down in the woods so green,
A-picking flowers and berries so sweet
To take unto his queen.

And as the sun was setting low
To the garden he’s come home,
A-calling for his own true love
But true love he found none.

A-searching high and searching low
For fifty days went he
Until at last he wept and mourned
Beneath the orchard tree.


Sir Orfeo is a-wandering gone
Down in the woods so green,
A-weeping long and weeping sore
For his poor lost stolen queen.

No costly robes upon his back,
No signs of wealth and pride,
Nought but rags and leather bags
And his harp down by his side.

Sir Orfeo is a-wandering gone
Through ice and rain and sleet;
His beard has grown so long and grey
That it twists about his feet.

His nails are grown like ravens’ claws,
His hair like knotted oak,
For years he wept and sang his song
But not one word he spoke.


One day as he played on his harp so sweet
And sang his sad refrain
There came a host from Elfinland
All in their fairy train.

The King of Elfland blew his horn
To make the elf train go,
But as they passed a fearful sight
Saw brave Sir Orfeo.

For in the midst of the elfin host
Locked in a cage so strong
He saw his love imprisoned there
All among the elven throng.

And filled with fear and love and hope
And hatred for his foe
To follow that deadly elven train
Rode brave Sir Orfeo.


There’s fifty lords and ladies fair
Stood in the elven hall.
There’s not one soul can please the King
When he for music calls.

There’s not one soul can please the King
When he calls for a song.
Up stands our brave Sir Orfeo;
I won’t detain you long.

He played upon his harp so sweet,
His voice was pure and true,
The finest song in all the land
Played brave Sir Orfeo.

“Your music so entrances me,
The gift I must repay.
Name now your prize in all this land:
Your choice I must obey.”

“I’ll take not land, nor jewels nor gold,
Nor yet your steed to ride.
But this fair lady I do claim
For she is my love and bride.”


Sir Orfeo is a-riding gone
With his bride all by his side.
They rode till they came to his castle wall,
“Our Lady’s home,” he cried.

There’s twenty guards drew fast around
To lift the lady down;
They’ve dragged our brave Sir Orfeo
To be locked fast underground.

There’s not one soul believes his tale
Or sees through his rough disguise;
They’ve locked him fast in prison strong
Despite his lady’s cries.

Then up and stepped a little foot page
To test the tale so true,
He gave him a harp and bid him play
Sir Orfeo’s own tune.

He’s played upon his harp so sweet,
His voice was pure and true,
Up spoke the court in one accord
To greet Sir Orfeo.

They filled the hall with music fair,
The tables weighed with food.
For fifty days and fifty nights
They blessed all that was good.


Emily Smith sings King Orfeo

There lived a lady in yon Haa
    Scowan urla grun
Her name was Lady Lisa Bell,
    Whar giorten han grun oarlac

The king, he has a-huntin’ gane,
Left his lady aa alane.

The Elfin Knight took oot his dart,
Pierced poor Lisa tae the heart.

When the king cam hame at noon
He asked for Lady Lisa Bell.

His nobles unto him they said,
“She first was wounded, noo she’s dead.”

He’s awa intae the wood
Til hair grew o’er him where he stood

He sat there for seven years
Til a company to him drew near.

Some did ride and some did ging,
He saw his lady them amang.

He sat doon so full o’ wae
And he took oot his pipes to play.

First he played the notes o’ noy
And then he played the notes o’ joy

Then he played the gaber reel
That would make a sick heart heal

The Elfin Knight to him did say,
“What will you hae noo for your pay?”

“For my pay I will thee tell
I’ll hae my Lady Lisa Bell.”

“You can take your lady hame
And you’ll be king o’er aa yer ain.”

Folk och Rackare sing Harpans kraft

Herr Peder han rider sig söderunder ö.
Där fäster han sig vid så vänan en mö.
Min hjärtans allra käraste vad sörjer du då.

Inte sörjer jag att vägen är lång
Och inte sörjer jag, att sadelen är trång
Min hjärtans allra käraste vad sörjer du då.

Inte sörjer jag för sadel eller häst
Inte sörjer jag, att du haver mig fäst
Min hjärtans allra käraste vad sörjer du då.

Inte sörjer jag för det att jag är ung
Att bära gullkronan, hon är inte tung.
Min hjärtans allra käraste vad sörjer du då.

Jag sörja, jag sörja, jag sörja väl då
Jag vet ju så väl, hur det mig lär gå.
Min hjärtas allra käraste vad sörjer du då.

Utanför den bredan bro
Där miste jag mina systrar två
Min hjärtans allra käraste vad sörjer du då.

Jag ska göra den bron så bred
Även om hon kostar mig tolvtusen träd
Min hjärtans allra käraste vad sörjer du då.

Jag ska göra den bron så stark
Även om hon kostar mig tolvtusen mark
Min hjärtans allra käraste vad sörjer du då.

Själv så ska jag bredvid dig rida
Fem av mina män på var och en sida
Min hjärtans allra käraste vad sörjer du då.

När som de komma till borgaregrind
Där dansade en hjort, där spelade en hind
Min hjärtans allra käraste vad sörjer du då.

Å männen såg nu på djuren bara
Ensam lät de den jungfrun fara
Min hjärtans allra käraste vad sörjer du då.

När som hon kom å den bredan bro
Där stapplade hästen på fyra guldskor
Min hjärtans allra käraste vad sörjer du då.

Fyra guldskor och fem guldsöm
Den jungfrun föll i stridan ström
Min hjärtans allra käraste vad sörjer du då.

Herr Peder han talte till sin lille smådräng
Och hämten mig hit min gullharpesträng.
Herr Peder, han spelade så ljuvligt
Att fåglarna på kvistarna de dansa därvid.

Han spelade barken av hårdaste trä,
Han spelade barnet ur moderns knä,
Han spelade vattnet ur bäcken,
Han spelade ögonen ur näcken.

Herr Peder, herr Peder du spela ej så hårt
Du skall så gärna din unga brud få
Min hjärtans allra käraste vad sörjer du då.

Min unga brud henne kan jag väl få
Men jag vill också ha hennes systrar två
Min hjärtans allra käraste vad sörjer du då.

Och där blev glädje och mycken fröjd
Och systrarna voro med svågern nöjd
Min hjärtans allra käraste vad sörjer du då.