Twa Corbies / Two Ravens
Ray Fisher sang the bleak ballad Twa Corbies, accompanied by her brother Archie on guitar, in 1962 on their EP Far Over the Forth; this recording 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 EP's sleeve notes commented:
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 [in ca 1956] 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.
Jean Redpath sang Twa Corbies in 1962 too on her album Scottish Ballad Book. She noted:
Proof that not all of the “big ballads” are big in both form and feeling, Twa Corbies owes much of the power of its impact to its very brevity. In contrast to the more hopeful Three Ravens—that form of the ballad which is more widely known—this version presents in five compact stanzas its hard and cynical comment and captures the very spirit of the Anglo-Saxon fatalism, especially in the terrible finality of the last two lines. In this form the ballad is rare in Britain, has no European analogies and is practically unknown in Canada. The popularity of The Three Ravens and its variants in America has been attributed to minstrel stage burlesque. Since it is difficult to explain how such apparently restricted oral tradition has resulted in such a perfect and unique poem, it has been suggested that Twa Corbies is in fact a formal composition, perhaps from the pen of Motherwell. Whatever its origin, this ballad, start and desolate as it is, remains one of the most arresting I know.
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's recording was published in 1962 on their 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 2 September 1995 was released on the CD The Journey. The first recording's sleeve notes commented:
... otherwise known as the Two Ravens, and sometimes called The Three Ravens. First printed in [Scott]'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.”
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 noted:
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’.
Folque did a wonderful Norwegian version of Twa Corbies—which they called Ravnene—in 1974 on their eponymous debut album, Folque.
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.
Old Blind Dogs sang The Twa Corbies on their 1993 album Close to the Bone. Ian Benzie noted:
The Old Blind Dogs seem to have a penchant for the macabre (listen to Bedlam Boys on their previous CD). This song has two crows talking about the fate of the corpse they have found. If there is a true story behind it I would love to hear it.
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 of songs of the Border reivers, Fyre & Sworde. They noted:
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.
Lynne Heraud and Pat Turner sang Twa Corbies in 2007 on their WildGoose CD September Days. They noted:
This ballad is a variant of The Three Ravens which dates back to 1611. It tells the tale of a dead man whose wife, hawk and dog have all deserted him and left his body to the mercy of the crows.
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.
The Macmath Collective sang The Corbie and the Craw on their 2015 CD Macmath: The Silent Page. They noted:
This version of the better known Scots song The Twa Corbies was shared with [William] Macmath in 1893 by John Christison who learnt it from his father, Robert, when he was a boy. His father had heard it sung at the Maxwells' house Portrack in Dumfries.
John Roberts and Debra Cowan sang The Twa Corbies in 2015 on their CD Ballads Long & Short. They noted:
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.
Young Scots singer Rose Byers found The Corbie and the Craw on the Macmath album and sang it at home in April 2020:
|Ray Fisher sings Twa Corbies||Steeleye Span sings Twa Corbies|
As I was walkin' all alane
As I was a-walking all alane
“It's in ahint yon auld fail dyke
“In behind yon auld fail dyke
“His hawk is tae the huntin gane,
His hound is tae the hunting gane,
“It's ye'll sit on his white hause-bane
“Ye'll sit on his white hause-bane
“There's mony a ane for him maks mane
“Many a one for him maks mane
(hause-bane = breast bone
|Folque sing Ravnene||Translation|
Der jeg meg så ene i vang monne gå,
When I saw one of them, I was allowed to go,
Bak gresstorv-diket det gamle hist
Behind the grass-dike, the old wall
Hans hund den jager i vilden skov,
His hound is hunting in the wild wood,
Hans hvite halsben kan du sitte på
His white neck-bone you can you sit on
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
The Macmath Collective sing The Corbie and the Craw
The Corbie wi his roupie throat
Cad frae the leafless tree,
“Come ow'r the loch! Come ow'r the loch!
Come ow'r the loch tae me!”
The Craw pit up her sooty heid,
Looked frae whaur she did lay
And gied a fluff wi' her roustie wings and cried,
“Whaur tae, whaur tae?”
“To fyke a deid man lying there
Ahint yon mickle stane.”
“"Oh is he fat. oh is he fat?
If no we'll let him alane.”
“He's come frae merry England
Come to steal oor sheep and deer.”
“I'll come, I'll come for an Englishman
Is aye the best o cheer!”
“We’ll breakfast on his bonnie breest
And on his back we'll dine,
For his love has gane tae her ane countrie
An'll ne’er come back sin-syne.”
Thank you very much to Jack Eden for correcting Steeleye Span's lyrics.