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Twa Corbies / Two Ravens

[ Roud 5 ; Child 26 ; Ballad Index C026 ; words trad., music R.M. Blythman]

Ray Fisher sang this bleak ballad, accompanied by her brother Archie on guitar, in 1962 on their EP Far Over the Forth; it was included in 1975 on the famous 4 LP compilation Electric Muse and later on its CD version New Electric Muse, and in 2009 on Topic's 70th Anniversary anthology Three Score and Ten. The original EP's sleeve notes comment:

When is a ballad not a ballad? Answer—when it isn't sung. The Twa Corbies has for long been regarded as one of the most flawless as it is one of the grimmest of all our ballads; but it wasn't being sung. No tune appeared to survive in oral tradition and attempts at setting it remained literary, academic and dead. Then R.M. Blythman (the Scots poet “Thurso Berwick”) set it to this marvellously sombre old Breton tune, An Alarc'h, The Swan, learned from the Breton folk-singer Zaig Montjarret. The result was astonishingly right and The Twa Corbies has passed into the repertoire of our younger folk-singers. It is related to the English Three Ravens.

The Ian Campbell Folk Group (then with Dave Swarbrick) sang The Twa Corbies at an evening at the Jug of Punch folk club at the Crown, Station Street, Birmingham. This concert was published in 1962 on the Topic EP Ceilidh at the Crown.

Steeleye Span recorded Twa Corbies in 1970 for their very first album Hark! The Village Wait and more than 25 years later for their album Time, this time with the shorter title Corbies. A live recording from The Forum, London on September 2, 1995 was released on the CD The Journey. The original recording's sleeve notes commented:

... otherwise known as the Two Ravens, and sometimes called The Three Ravens. First printed in Motherwell's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border in 1803 it is one of the most popular of the Scottish ballads. For those unused to the dialect the two birds are discussing the pros and cons of eating a newly slain knight. Ashley Hutchings: “This goes back to the 13th Century at least, and it was recorded at Tim's suggestion.” Why is it particular about a knight? Why not a footsoldier? “Songs that go back a long way are usually about Lords and Ladies, possibly because they were a great source of interest to the people, rich and poor.”

[Note: There is a slight confusion about the source: Actually, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (Edinburgh, 1802/03) is by Sir Walter Scott; William Motherwell wrote Minstrelsy Ancient and Modern (Glasgow, 1827). Thanks to Jim McLean for pointing this out in an e-mail to me.]

And the Time sleeve notes commented:

Scraggy feathered, mean beaked carrion crows tearing at the tender flesh of a dead, deserted knight. As an image of impermanence there is no equal.

This is from the Time video that was released by Park Records in addition to the CD:

In between both studio albums, Steeleye Span's singer Maddy Prior recorded Twa Corbies in 1993 for her solo album Year. She commented in the sleeve notes:

Reflection on death in its physical reality is known to the Buddhists and Hindus, but in the West only in Medieval times was it dealt with directly and evoked by skeletons carved on graves and gruesome images of Death the Reaper. In these more antiseptic times there is little in this line and flowers, wreaths and gentle doves cloud the unacceptable thought of our mortal destination. This song dates from earlier times and is for me a brilliant examination of decay.

[R.M. Blythman] set the stark old Scottish words to this moody Breton tune and we have amplified its Gothic atmosphere.

‘Corbies’ means ‘carrion crows’ and ‘hause bane’ is a ‘breast bone’.

Marie Little sang The Twa Corbies in 1971 on her Argo album Factory Girl. This track was also included in the same year on the Argo anthology The World of Folk.

Folque did a wonderful Norwegian version of Twa Corbies—which they called Ravnene—in 1974 on their eponymous debut album, Folque.

Barry and Robin Dransfield sang The Two Ravens in 1977 on their Free Reed album Popular to Contrary Belief; this was also included in 1997 on their Free Reed 2CD anthology Up to Now.

Rhiannon sang Twa Corbies in 1985 on their Fellside album The Birds of Rhiannon.

Folly Bridge sang Twa Corbies in 1991 on their WildGoose cassette All in the Same Tune. Claire Lloyd commented:

Two crows are discussing what to have for dinner, and decide on a knight recently killed in battle. An earlier form of this ballad, Three Ravens, dates back to at least 1611, but no tune ever was found. The old Breton tune that is commonly used today for this Scottish dialect version was added by Scots poet R.M. Blythman.

Magpie Lane sang Two Ravens in 1998 on their CD Jack-in-the-Green.

Janet Russell and Linda Adams sang The Twa Corbies in 1998 on the Fellside CD Fyre & Sworde: Songs of the Border Reivers. They commented in the liner notes:

The image of two ravens / crows discussing a corpse is one of the most stark and evocative of all the songs associated with the Borders. It conjures up images of the bleak Border fells with its underlying themes of betrayal and murder. The text is stripped bare and its simplicity coupled with the un-accompanied treatment given here reinforces the sheer desolation. We have given the song one Scottish and one English corbie.

The Maerlock sang Twa Corbies, “an Anglicised version of the Scottish song Twa Corbies” [sleeve notes], in 2008 on their Fellside CD Sofa.

Pinkie Maclure sang Twa Corbies in 2011 on the Woodbine & Ivy Band's eponymous album, The Woodbine & Ivy Band.

John Roberts and Debra Cowan sang The Twa Corbies in 2015 on their CD Ballads Long & Short. They commented in their liner notes:

Of the ballads included in the Child anthology, Twa Corbies, first published in Ravenscroft's Melismata in 1611 as The Three Ravens, is perhaps the oldest. Morris Blythman (d.1981), a seminal figure in the development of the Scottish folk ‘scene’, set this Scottish version of the poem to a Breton tune, An Alarc'h (The Swan), and Norman Buchan included it in his 1962 collection, 101 Scottish Songs (the best Scottish songbook ever!). We have anglicized it slightly.

Phønix with SangKo sang De to ravne on their 2017 Danish/Chinese CD Groovy Guzheng.

Lyrics

Ray Fisher sings Twa Corbies Steeleye Span sings Twa Corbies

As I was walkin' all alane
I heard twa corbies makkin a mane;
Tha tain unto the other ane say-o,
“Where sall we gang and dine the day-o,
"Where sall we gang and dine the day?”

As I was a-walking all alane
I heard twa corbies makkin a mane;
And tain untae the tither did say-o,
“Where shall we gang and dine the day-o
Where shall we gang and dine the day?”

“It's in ahint yon auld fail dyke
I wot there lies a new-slain knight;
And naebody kens that he lies there-o
But his hawk and his hound and his lady fair-o,
Hawk and his hound and his lady fair.”

“In behind yon auld fail dyke
I wot there lies a new-slain knight;
And naebody kens that he lies there-o
But his hawk and his hound and his lady fair-o,
His hawk and his hound and his lady fair.”

“His hawk is tae the huntin gane,
His hound tae bring the wildfowl hame;
His lady's ta'en another mate-o
Sae we mun mak our dinner sweet-o,
Sae we mun mak our dinner sweet.”

His hound is tae the hunting gane,
His hawk tae fetch the wildfowl hame;
His lady's ta'en anither mate-o
So we may mak our dinner sweet-0,
We may mak our dinner sweet.”

“It's ye'll sit on his white hause-bane
And I'll pike oot his bonny blue een;
Wi ae lock o his gowden hair-o
We'll theek our nest when it grows bare-o,
Theek our nest when it grows bare.”

“Ye'll sit on his white hause-bane
And I'll pike out his bonny blue een;
Wi' many a lock of his golden hair-o
We'll theek our nest when it grows bare-o,
Theek our nest when it grows bare.”

“There's mony a ane for him maks mane
But nane sall ken where he is gane;
And o'er his bones when they lay bare-o
The wind sall blaw for evermair-o,
The wind sall blow for evermair.”

“Many a one for him maks mane
But nane shall ken where he is gane;
O'er his white bones when they are bare-o
The wind shall blow for evermair-o,
The wind shall blow for evermair.”

(hause-bane = breast bone
theek our nest = feather our nest)

Folque sing Ravnene Translation

Der jeg meg så ene i vang monne gå,
Jeg hørte to ravner at holde råd.
Den ene seg til den annen vendte:
“Hvor skal i dag vi vår føde hente?”

When I saw one of them, I was allowed to go,
I heard two ravens keeping council.
The one turned to the other:
“Where are we going to get our food today?”

Bak gresstorv-diket det gamle hist
Der ligger en nyslagen ridder forvisst,
Og ingen vet at han ligger der
Enn hans høk, hans hund og hans hjertens kjær.

Behind the grass-dike, the old wall
There is a newly slain knight lying for sure,
And nobody knows he's lying there
But his hawk, his hound and his heart's dear.

Hans hund den jager i vilden skov,
Hans høk den søker bak sky sitt rov.
Hans frue har givet en annen sin tro
Så vi kan ete vår mat i ro.

His hound is hunting in the wild wood,
His hawk it seeks behind the clouds.
His wife has given to another her faith
So we can eat our food in peace.

Hans hvite halsben kan du sitte på
Så hogger jeg ut hans øyne blå.
Og med en lokk av hans gule hår
Vi dekker vårt rede neste vår.

His white neck-bone you can you sit on
Then I peck out his eyes blue.
And with a lock of his yellow hair
We'll thatch our nest next spring.

Phønix sing De to ravne

Da jeg så ene i vang monne gå,
Jeg hørte to ravne der holdt et råd.
Den ene sig mod den anden vendte,
“Hvor skal i dag vi vor føde hente?”

Hist ude på vang bag ved grønnen vold
En slagen ridder ligger under skjold
Slet ingen ved at han ligger dér
End hans hund, hans høg og hans hjertenskær

Hans hund den jager i vilden skov
Hans høg den søger bag sky sit rov
Hans frue har givet en anden sin tro
Så vi kan æde vor mad i ro

De hvide brystben kan du sidde på
Så hugger jeg ud de øjne blå
Og med en lok af hans gyldne hår
Tækker vi vor rede til efterår

Så mangen én vil for ham da kvide
Hvad der er hændt ham skal ingen vide
Men over de hvide og tørre ben
Blæser for evigt den barske vind

Acknowledgements

Thank you very much to Jack Eden for correcting Steeleye Span's lyrics.