This article has been newly written for MT.

The Cruel Mother Revisisted

a follow-up to Dungheap article 6

Having analysed the majority of the extant texts of Child 20 and closely compared them stanza by stanza I herein present further findings, mainly covering those motifs not found in the Deacon broadside version reprinted in Pepys Vol.5, p.4; Osterley Park Ballads p.150; and Roxburghe Ballads (Ebsworth) Vol.9, part 1, lvi.

First though, further thoughts on the continental analogues described by Child.  It is apparent that some American editors of anthologies of the interwar period had not read Child's notes to the ballad thoroughly in that several of them misquote Child claiming that the ballad had been found in Denmark and Germany.  Child does state that four versions of the ballad had turned up in Denmark, but not before 1870.  He states that the two versions found in Jutland 'approach surprisingly near to Scottish tradition'.  However he fails to link this with his statement two pages later that Grundtvig translated and collated several Scottish versions and published two versions in his Engelske og Skotske Folkeviser in the 1840s.  It is surprising how quickly literary ballads and translations enter oral tradition, often helped by reprintings in other anthologies.  Twenty-five years, in oral tradition, is a long time.

As for the German connection, any similarity between German ballads and The Cruel Mother is rather stretched.  As Child states himself 'the resemblance is rather in the general character than in the details': In fact the plot of the German ballads is much closer to Child 21 The Maid and the Palmer as Child acknowledges in a later volume.

In Dungheap 6 I stressed the fact that nearly all versions that have the appropriate introductory stanza follow the broadside in setting it in York, or a derivative of it (New York, Newark, Lurk), but a few versions go further than this and echo the broadside in that the mother is a duke's daughter of York; a single stanza found by Greig (Greig -Duncan Collection, Vol.2, p.31) and a Massachusettes version traced back to the early nineteenth century (Flanders' Ancient Ballads Traditionally Sung in New England Vol.1, p.236, version D).  In Child's I version (Buchan) she has become a minister's daughter of New York and in a Scottish version found in Wiltshire she has become a minister's daughter in the North.  Kinloch (Child D) is alone in placing her in London and Crawfurd transposes New York into Newark (Crawfurd's Collection, Lyle, 1975, Vol.1, p.36 and Vol.2, p.92).

Stanzas not found in the broadside version appear to have been introduced at a later stage, some developments or extensions of what was already there, but Scottish versions particularly, and about half of the North American versions, end with anything upto six stanzas of the penances found in Child 21 The Maid and the Palmer.  None of the English versions contain these stanzas which usually replace the broadside stanzas in which the ghostly babes deny the mother entrance to heaven and condemn her into hell.

Two more stanzas, seemingly lifted directly from the blood-stained hands scene acted out by Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth, are also found in a few widely dispersed versions (not Scottish), (See Williams Folk Songs of the Upper Thames p.295, stanzas 4 and 5; and Child Q from Shropshire Folklore stanza 4).  The mother wipes the murder weapon, a penknife, in the sludge or a river then unsuccessfully tries to wash the blood from off her hands.  This intrusion also occurs in some versions of the Dublin/Liverpool children's version.

Some versions have introduced the commonplace idea that having disposed of the babes she could then return home a maid, as shown in Child's D version (Kinloch) stanza 6, and the I version (Buchan) stanza 6.  In Child 21 the murderess can become a maid again only when she has completed the abovementioned penances.

Often linked into this stanza, though more common on its own, is the unlikely but popular idea of her burying the babes beneath a marble stone, instead of the green grass coverlid of the broadside.  The idea that a desperate pregnant girl should go out secretly into the greenwood to kill her babes and then have access to a marble stone rather stretches the imagination, but of such things ballads are made and marble stones are almost synonymous with burials in the ballad world so it is natural that this should have crept in.

In three Scottish versions, Child A (Herd) and B (Johnson/Scott) and Duncan's F version (Greig-Duncan Collection Vol.2, p34, stanza 7) is a stanza in which she asks the babes not to smile at her as it will kill her.  As these are the only versions of this it is probable that the other two derive from Herd.  This single stanza was expanded by one of the Scottish poets into a ballad all of its own (See Child Vol.1, p.227).

Four American versions name the children as Peter and Paul (Two Maine versions, B and C in Flanders Vol.1, pp.234-5; and a Georgia version B and a North Carolina version L in Sharp and Campbell English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians Vol.1, p.56 and p.62).  This is echoed in another literary remake of the plot Lady Anne found in Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border and elsewhere (See Child Vol.1, p.227).  A glance at Child's O version (wrongly designated as N) from the Percy papers shows 'Peter and Paul' as likely to be a corruption of 'purple and pall'.  Curiously in this version she kills her two pretty babes but then on arriving home sees not two but three babes playing at ball, two clothed and one naked.  Presumably the two clothed ones must be hers.

In a few versions, e.g., Child C (Motherwell) and N (Campbell) the everpresent stanzas 'babes, if you were mine, I'd dress you in silks so fine' and the response that they are her children and she had her chance, have spawned repetitious extensions of these ideas, usually 'I'd dress you in silk and wash you in milk' which is a ballad commonplace.

There are other intrusions into the general stock of motifs that only occur in a single version, but as these have not gained a foothold on the tradition I have ignored them.  Of course another avenue of study would be the versions of the children's game and street versions of Dublin and Liverpool.

Anyone interested in an analysis of the tunes need go no further than Bronson The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads Vol.1.

Dungbeetle - 13.2.07

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