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The Wife of Usher's Well

[ Roud 196 ; Child 79 ; Ballad Index C079 ; trad.]

Peggy Seeger sang The Wife of Usher's Well in 1957 on her Topic album Eleven American Ballads and Songs. This album was reissued in 1996 as part of her Fellside CD Classic Peggy Seeger. Alan Lomax commented in the original album's sleeve notes:

This British ballad (Child No. 79) has been found much more in America than in the British Isles. It is one of the great favourites among mountain women, who feel deeply the cruelty of the mother who ‘sent her babes way off yonder over the mountains to study their grammer”. Actually, “grammaree” is an ambiguous term, sometimes referring to general education and sometimes to the practice of magic, and in several versions of the song, the children return wearing (birch) bark caps, which is a sure sign of magic.

Hedy West sang The Wife of Usher's Well in 1965 on her Topic album Old Times & Hard Times. She and A.L. Lloyd commented in the liner notes:

“This is basically the version that Nan Perdue of Fairfax, Virginia, learned from her mother-in-law Eva Samples (born in 1906 near Carrollton, Georgia). I've combined this variant with a similar one from my grandmother. It was a popular ballad in the Gilmer County community, and it was part of Etta Mulkey's repertoire.”

Altogether this ancient and mysterious song has persisted far better in America than in the land of its origin, whether England or Scotland. The last version of it found in the British Isles was noted down in 1883 from an elderly fisherman at Bridgworth, Shropshire, but in the United States it has turned up repeatedly, especially in the South and Midwest.

Nott's Alliance sang The Wife of Usher's Well in 1972 on their Traditional Sound Recordings album The Cheerful 'Orn.

Pete and Chris Coe sang The Wife of Usher's Well in 1972 on their Trailer album Open the Door and Let Us In. Pete Coe recorded it again in 2010 for his CD Backbone..

Steeleye Span recorded this ghostly ballad in 1975 for their album All Around My Hat. A live recording from the Rainbow Theatre between 1975 and 1977 was released on the UK version of the 2 LP collection Original Masters.

Frankie Armstrong sang The Wife of Usher's Well in 1996 on her ballad album Till the Grass O'ergrew the Corn. The sleeve notes commented:

The coldest of all the ballads and the most stark, a song in which the world seems bound tight by the glacial cold of the bereaved mother's implacable longing for her dead children. There is something very Scandinavian about her, some kinship to those fierce, enduring women from the Icelandic sagas. The ballad seems to have died out in Britain, but has been dear to the Appalachian singers in the present century. Frankie has anglicised the beautiful text published by Walter Scott “from the recitation of an old woman residing near Kirkhill, in West Lothian” and added some stanzas from other versions. Cecil Sharp collected the lovely tune from Mrs Zippo Rice, Rice Cove, Big Laurel, NC, in 1906.

John Roberts and Tony Barrand sang The Wife of Usher's Well in 1977 on their Folk-Legacy album Dark Ships in the Forest. Their version was collected as There Lived a Lady in Merry Scotland by Ralph Vaughan Williams from Mrs. Loveridge at the Homme, Dilwyn, Herefordshire, in 1908. It was published in Ella Leather: The Folk-Lore of Herefordshire in 1912.

Martin Carthy sang The Wife of Usher's Well on his 1998 album Signs of Life. He played guitar and Eliza Carthy played fiddle. This track was also included in 2001 on the English folk anthology And We'll All Have Tea. Martin Carthy commented in his album's sleeve notes:

[…] A huge tragedy told in such matter-of-fact terms as to make you ache all over. The matter-of-fact is a cloak donned by many songs the better to carry such ideas. Similarly, certain conventions are there in song, the better to help the subject of the song to cope with things like dead. Such as the notion fuelling The Wife of Usher's Well, that one should mourn the dead for one year and one day and then let go, or else the dead will return—but then, sometimes such things make not a scrap of difference to the plummeting, consuming grief that the wife feels. The tune is Basque and bent slightly from that taught to me by Ruper Ordorika and Bixente Martínez of Hiru Truku and it's called Bakarrik Aurkitzen Naz [it can be found on the CD Hiru Truku II, and Martin Carthy is playing on this track, too; -Ed.]

A video of Martin and Eliza performing The Wife of Usher's Well can be found on YouTube. Unfortunately I can't embed it here.

Alasdair Roberts sang The Wife of Usher's Well in 2001 on his CD The Crook of My Arm.

Alison McMorland sang The Wife of Usher's Well in 2003 on her and Geordie McIntyre's Tradition Bearers CD Ballad Tree. Geordie McIntyre commented in the liner notes:

The depth of the mother's grief will not allow the dead to rest. The revenants, in this and other ballads, are substantial flesh and blood, living corpses. The ghosts wear hats of birk to protect them from the influence of the living. They must return from where they came at sunrise or cock crow. This is the ‘A’ text from Scott's Minstrelsy (1802).

Jim Eldon sang this ballad as Farewell Stick and Farewell Stone in 2004 on his CD Home from Sea.

Paul and Liz Davenport sang The Old Wife of Coverdale in 2006 on their Hallamshire Traditions CD Under the Leaves. They noted:

This Yorkshire sword dance tune seems to be more mentioned in calling-on-songs than it is actually played. The tune is written in both 6/8 and 9/8 with some other oddities. This version of The Wife of Usher's Well recounts the superstition that excessive mourning ties the soul of the dead to the earth and does not allow rest for the deceased. The song has some interesting links with The Unquiet Grave and the revenant broadsides such as The Bay of Biscay and The Grey Cock.

Karine Polwart sang The Wife of Usher's Well in 2007 on her CD Fairest Floo'er.

Bellowhead recorded The Wife of Usher's Well in 2012 for their CD Broadside.

Sue Brown and Lorraine Irwing sang Lady Gay, “a remarkable ballad on the theme of persistent grief and tears disturbing the sleep of the dead”, in 2012 on their RootBeat CD The 13th Bedroom.

Martin Simpson sang Lady Gay in 2013 on his Topic CD Vagrant Stanzas. He commented:

Also in Child's collection is The Wife of Usher's Well, which appears here as Lady Gay. I learned this in the most part from Hedy West. The song has only two versions in Child's collection, but it thrived in the USA, and there are nine different texts in the North Carolina Folklore, Ballads collection alone.

The Askew Sisters sang The Wife of Usher's Well in 2014 on their RootBeat CD In the Air or the Earth. They commented in their liner notes:

Many of the songs on this album deal with that most human fascination with life, death and the boundaries in between. The Wife of Usher's Well is the tragic story of a woman who loses her three sons. Most versions of this song were collected in America, where it often gained a Christian context. Our version is based on an older text collected from an old woman in Kirkill, West Lothian, and published by Sir Walter Scott in 1833, which hints that the wife has more mystical powers. These old ballads don't dwell on emotion and are often told in the plainest terms, yet somehow every line of this song aches with the wife's agonising grief and desperation to bring her sons back.

False Lights sang The Wife of Usher's Well Live at Folk East on August 17, 2014, and recorded it in 2015 for their CD Salvor.

Lyrics

Heady West sings The Wife of Usher's Well John Roberts & Tony Barrand sing
The Wife of Usher's Well

There was a woman and she lived alone
And babies she had three.
She sent them away to the north country
To learn their grammarie.

There lived a lady in merry Scotland,
And she had sons all three,
And she sent them away into merry England,
To learn some English deeds.

They'd not been gone but a very short time,
Scarcely six weeks to the day,
When death, cold death spread through the land
And swept them babes away.

They had not been in merry England
For twelve months and one day,
When the news came back to their own mother dear,
Their bodies were in cold clay.

She prayed to the Lord in Heaven above,
Wearing a starry crown:
“Oh, send to me my three little babes,
Tonight, or in the morning soon.”

“I will not believe in God,” she said,
“Nor Christ in eternity,
Till They send me back my own three sons,
The same as they went from me.”

It was very close to Christmas time;
The nights was long and cold.
And the very next morning at the break of day
Them babes come a-running home.

Old Christmas time was drawing near,
When the nights are dark and long,
This mother's own three sons came home,
Walking by the light of the moon.

She set the table for them to eat,
Upon it spread bread and wine.
“Come eat, come drink, my three little babes;
Come eat, come drink of mine.”

And as soon as they reached to their own mother's gate,
So loud at the bell they ring,
There's none so ready as their own mother dear
To loose these children in.

“Oh, mother, we cannot eat your bread,
Neither can we drink your wine,
For tomorrow morning, at the break of day,
Our Saviour we must join.”

The cloth was spread, the meat put on;
“No meat, Lord, can we take;
It's been so long and so many a day
Since you our dinner did make.”

She made the bed in the back-most room,
Upon it she spread a sheet,
Upon the top a golden spread
For to help them babes asleep.

The bed was made, the sheets put on;
“No rest, Lord, can we take;
It's been so long and so many a day
Since you our bed did make.”

“Rise up, rise up,” said the eldest one,
“Rise up, rise up,” said she,
“For tomorrow morning, at the break of day,
Our Saviour must we see.

Then Christ did call for the roasted cock,
Feathered with His holy hands,
He crowed three times all in the dish,
In the place where he did stand.

He crowed three times all in the dish,
Set at the table head,
“And isn't it a pity,” they all did say,
“The quick should part from the dead.

“Cold clods of clay roll o'er our heads,
Green grass grows on our feet,
And thy sweet tears, my mother dear,
Will wet our winding sheet.”

“So farewell stick, farewell stone,
Farewell to the maidens all,
Farewell to the nurse that gave us suck,”
And down the tears did fall.

Martin Carthy sings The Wife of Usher's Well Steeleye Span sing The Wife of Usher's Well

There lived a wife in Usher's Well
And a wealthy wife was she;
She'd three fine and stalwart sons
And sent them o'er the sea.

There lived a wife in Usher's Well
A wealthy wife was she;
She had three stout and stalwart sons
And sent them o'er the sea.

They'd not been gone a week,
And a week but barely one,
When death sweeping over the land
Took 'em one by one.

They had not been from Usher's Well,
A week but barely one,
When word came to this carlin wife
That her three sons were gone.

And they'd not been gone a week,
A week but barely three,
When word come to that young girl
Her babes she'd never see.

“I wish the wind would never blow
No fish swim in the flood
Till my darling babes are home,
They're home in flesh and blood.”

“I wish the wind may never cease
Nor flashes in the flood
Till my three sons return to me
In earthly flesh and blood.”

And there about the Martinmas,
Nights are long and dark,
Her three kids come to her door
Their hats were made of bark.

It fell about the Martinmas,
The nights were long and dark,
Three sons came home to Usher's Well
Their hats were made of bark

And the tree never grew in any ditch
Nor down by any wall
But at the gates of Paradise
Grew strong grew tall.

That neither grew in forest green
Nor on any wooded rise,
But from the north side of the tree
That grows in Paradise.

“Blow up the fire, my maidens all,
Bring water from the well,
Since my darling babes are home
They've come home safe and well.”

“Blow up the fire, my merry merry maidens,
Bring water from the well
For all my house shall feed this night
Since my three sons are well.”

So she has laid the table
With bread and with wine,
“Come eat and drink, my darling babes,
Eat and drink of mine.”

“We may not eat your bread mother
Nor may we drink your wine,
For cold death is lord of all,
To him we must resign.

“The green grass is at our head
And the clay is at our feet,
And your tears come tumbling down
And wet our winding sheet.”

So she has made the bed for them,
Spread the milk-white sheet.
She's laid it all with cloth of gold
To see if they could sleep.

And up and crew the red cock,
Up and crew the grey,
And the youngest to the eldest says,
“Brother, we must away.”

Then up and crowed the blood red cock
And up and crowed the grey,
The oldest to the youngest said,
“It's time we were away.

And the cock had not crowed once
And clapped his wings for day,
When the eldest to the youngest says
“Brother, we must away.

“For the cock crow the day dawn,
The chunnering worm chide,
And if we're missed out of our place
Then pain we must bide.

“For the cock does crow and the day doth show
And the channerin worm doth chide
And we must go from Usher's Well
To the gates of Paradise.”

“Farewell, farewell, my mother dear,
Farewell to barn and byre,
And farewell the sweet young girl
Kindling my mother's fire.”

“I wish the wind may never cease
Nor flashes in the flood
Till my three sons return to me
In earthly flesh and blood.”

Alison McMorland sings The Wife of Usher's Well Paul and Liz Davenport sing The Old Wife of Coverdale

There lived a wife at Usher's Well,
And a wealthy wife was she,
She had three stout and stalwart sons,
And she sent them o'er the sea.

They hadna been a week frae her,
A week but barely ane,
When word cam tae the carline wife
That her three sons were gane.

They hadna been a week frae her,
A week but barely three,
When word came to the carline wife
That her sons she'd never see.

“I wish the wind may never cease,
Nor fashes in the flood,
Till my three sons come hame tae me,
In earthly flesh and blood!” -

It fell about the Martinmas,
When nights are lang and mirk,
The carline wife's three sons cam hame,
And their hats were o' the birk.

It neither grew in syke nor ditch,
Nor yet in ony sheugh;
But at the gates o' Paradise,
That birk grew fair enough.

“Blow up the fire, my maidens fair,
Bring water frae the well!
For a' my hoose shall feast this nicht,
Since my three sons are well.” -

And she has made tae them a bed,
She's made it large and wide;
And she's ta'en her mantle her about,
Sat down at their bedside.

Up then crew the reid reid cock,
And up then crew the gray;
The eldest to the youngest said,
“'Tis time we were away.” -

The cock he hadna craw'd but once,
And clapp'd his wings at a',
The youngest to the eldest said,
“Brother, we must awa.

“The cock doth craw, the day doth daw,
The channerin worm doth chide;
Gin we be missed oot o' oor place,
A sair pain we maun bide.

“Fare ye weel, my mother dear!
Fareweel tae barn and byre!
And fare ye weel, thou bonny lass
That kindles my mother's fire.”

There lived an old wife in Coverdale
    Merrily turns the Wheel
There lived an old wife in Coverdale
Children she had three
She sent them away to northern lands,
She sent them away for to learn their grammerye

Sad news came to her at Martinmas
    Merrily turns the wheel
Her children had sickened and died
And buried they were all three
My curse on the moon and the stars she cried
My curse upon God, he that took them away from me

The moon it rose high on Coverdale
    Merrily turns the wheel
The old wife she wept bitter tears
As she lay in her narrow bed
And there in the doorway her children stood
Their hats were of birch and their eyes as grey as lead

She arose to prepare a feast for them
    Merrily turns the wheel
And all the while tears down fell
And so bitterly she did weep
We want none of you meat or your ale mother
But let us return to our graves for to take our sleep

The cock it crows loud in Coverdale
    Merrily turns the wheel
The sun it rose red as blood
And the Moon it fled to the west
The worm it is calling us home mother
And all of your tears they will not let us rest

Acknowledgements and Links

Transcribed from Martin Carthy's singing by Garry Gillard.

See also the Mudcat Café thread Origins: Wife of Usher's Well: Carthy version.