Note: place cursor on red asterisks for footnotes.
Article MT164, part 27 - newly written for MT.
The Riddle Song: Roud 330, ODNR 4780
The meanings, evolution and relatedness of the various riddle songs and ballads have been comprehensively dealt with elsewhere. See for instance the headnotes in Child's The English and Scottish Popular Ballads to Child 1, 2 and 46, and pages 73 to 77 in Boklund-Lagopoulou, I Have a Yong Suster, Four Courts press, 2002.
It might seem like an obvious statement but I make it anyway, where these songs and ballads have riddles in common they need to be considered as commonplaces. We are dealing here with songs that have been in existence for at least 6 centuries, and the riddles themselves probably more, so that the recycling of some of the riddles is not at all surprising.
American collectors of the first half of the 20th century often presented collected versions of The Riddle Song under the umbrella title of Captain Wedderburn's Courtship, Child 46. We now know this was grossly inaccurate and also that the former is very likely much older than the Child ballad. No extant datable version of Child 46 is any older than 1776 when it was written in Herd's Manuscripts. In the late 18th century there were many garland versions printed under the title The Lord of Roslin's Daughter, the earliest datable being 1783. All of these late 18th, early 19th century versions vary very little from the standard 18-stanzas and there is no reason to believe they are any older than this. As Child states, there were indeed various Wedderburns who had come courting the daughters of the Sinclairs of Roslin at various points in history. By the mid-19th century a shortened version titled The Lover's Riddle or Stock and Wall of 11 stanzas was being printed on broadsides, no doubt with some input from oral tradition.
It is worth at this point quoting from Bertrand H Bronson's The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads in his headnotes to Child 46:
there is nothing to prove that the British ballad is very old. If it is so, it must have been thoroughly overhauled in quite modern times. Even in the earliest texts (Scottish, of the later eighteenth century), the talk of livery-men and butlers' bells ringing for supper has certainly a very incongruous sound mixed with the lady's primitive riddling conditions. In View of the proven antiquity of these riddles and their independent use in folk-song, it seems possible that the whole extant narrative frame is a recent (and highly inartistic) concoction, on the analogy of Child 1 and 2, but in more modern dress. The early texts are in much too sound a condition to have been long independent of writing, and we may suppose that broadside-makers are the persons who would concern themselves with this kind of manufacture.'
With a nod perhaps to earlier collectors he included The Riddle Song as a separate entry in an appendix to Child 46, and several scholars since then have asserted that The Riddle Song and Child 46 are not related1 so at this point we can leave aside Child 46, but before we do, it might be useful to look at which riddles they have in common along with other ballads mentioned.
Child 1, Riddles Wisely Expounded, or to give it its 15th century title Inter Diabolus et Virgo, has 14 riddles of which 3 are found among Child 46's 10 riddles:
What is greener than the grass?
The Riddle Song has no riddle in common with Child 1, but there are 3 possible links between the song and Child 46:
What is higher than the tree?
What is deeper than the sea?'
The cherry without a stone,
And possibly 'The ring without a rim' which might be related to 'What is rounder than a ring?' in Child 46.
The chicken/dove without a bone,
Now we turn to what we know about the history and evolution of The Riddle Song. Considering the great age of the song it has remained remarkably stable over the 6 centuries, despite having attracted at least 3 sets of extra stanzas. The earliest extant version comes from the Sloane Manuscript of the early 15th century.2 It has been much anthologised and in some cases translated into modern language, but I make no excuse for printing the original here as it is easily understood with a little glossing.
I have a yong suster fer beyondyn the se
We then have to jump 2 centuries to find our next extant version. Just one stanza is given in the back of a manuscript dating from the mid-17th century at Edinburgh University.3
Many be the drowryis that che sente me (drowryis = presents)
Che sente me the cherye withoutyn ony ston
And so che dede dowe withoutyn ony bon (dowe = dove)
Sche sente me the brere withoutyn ony rynde (brere = briar, rynde = bark)
Sche bad me love my lemman withoute longgyng
How xuld ony cherye be withoute ston
And how xuld ony dowe ben withoute bon
How xuld ony brere ben withoute rynde
How xuld y love myn lemman without longyng
Quan the cherye was a flour: than hadde it non ston
Quan the dowe was an ey: than hadde it non bon (ey = egg)
Quan the brere was onbred: than hadde it non rynd (onbred = still a seed)
Quan the maydyn hast that che lovit: che is without longyng.
My love gave me a Cherry a Cherry without a stone
However, it does have a tune.
My love gave me a Chicken a Chicken without a Bone
My love gave me a Ringe a Ringe wthout a rim
My love gave me a Child wench a Child wench a Child wench
A Child without mourning.
The main alteration with the riddles is in line 3 where the briar with no bark has become a ring with no rim, but it is also worth noting that the dove has become a chicken as in most later versions.
We then jump more than a century to the Mansfield Manuscript4 from about 1780, again from Edinburgh. What is remarkable is that the first stanza has remained intact for some 250 years. We don't know what print versions might have added to this stability over that time but it is still impressive. The Sloane text was not published until about 1830 so it's unlikely that Elizabeth St Clair, who wrote down the song of the later text, had seen it.
I had a sister over the sea
This 18th century version marks the first extant appearance of the nonsense/pseudo-Latin refrain which continued in oral tradition in some versions up to the present day. The refrain is fairly stable over 2 centuries which could well be due to the influence of Halliwell's published version in Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales of 1849 in which the 'sister over the sea' has become 'four sisters beyond the sea'
Parle me Dickson a Domonee
And mony braw things she sent to me
With partem creptam merrydays templem
Derry merry Dickson a Domonee.
She sent me the blankets wanting the threed
She sent me the Bible no man could read
She sent me the cherry wanting the stone
She sent me the Dove wanting the Bone
She sent me the ring wanting the Rime
She sent me the Babe that could not mourn
How could a blanket be wanting the thread
How could the Bible be no man could read
How could the cherry be wanting a stone
How could the Dove be wanting the Bone
How could the ring be wanting the Rime
Or how could the Babe be that could not mourn
When the Blankets in the wool the wool wants thread
& the Bible that's unprinted no man can read
When the Cherrys in bloom the Cherry wants the stone
When the Doves in the Egg the Dove wants the Bone
When the rings in the Coome the Ring wants the Rime
And the Babe that's unborn it cannot mourn.
I have four sisters beyond the sea,
In subsequent versions the 'para-mara' of the refrain becomes 'perrie merrie' and 'dictum' is in some versions 'dixi'. The 'partum quartum' is quite stable with a few minor variations as is 'paradise' or sometimes 'paradisi', and 'tempum' is more often 'tempore'
Para-mara, dictum, domine!
And they did send four presents to me
Partum, quartum, paradise tempum,
Para-mara, dictum domine!
The first it was a bird without e'er a bone;
The second was a cherry without e'er a stone;
The third it was a blanket without e'er a thread;
The fourth it was a book that no man could read;
How can etc.
How can etc.
When the bird's in the shell, there is no bone;
When the cherry's in the bud, there is no stone;
When the blanket's in the fleece, there is no thread;
When the book's in the press, no man can read;
That these words can all be likened to Latin words need not be greatly significant and I have been warned by greater scholars like Steve Roud and Bob Waltz that trying to translate or rationalise the refrain here can lead us into realms of romanticism. However, it could be an interesting exercise I must leave to those with the necessary linguistic knowledge. If no-one else takes up the challenge I might put some ideas in an appendix at a later stage.
One of the characteristics of simple iterative songs like this one is that they readily attract stanzas from other songs and this one is no exception.
By the early 19th century the song appears on broadsides as The Riddle but it has been rewritten to include 4 stanzas taken from elsewhere, 3 at the beginning and a concluding stanza.
Over hills and lofty mountains long time have I been,
I have 3 printings of this ballad all printed in London in the early 19th century but the earliest is easily datable to before 1819 as it was printed by John Pitts at his earlier address. Here the cherry/chicken/ring/child sequence is joined for the first time by the more obscure apple/house/palace/key sequence and indeed this ballad might be the original of this. It is somewhat scarce in oral tradition turning up in a Dorset version and one from Nova Scotia.
Through bushes and briars by myself alone,
Through bushes and briars being void of all care
Over hills and lofty mountains for the loss of my dear.
'Tis not your long absence I value a straw,
But to leave my dearest jewel the girl I adore,
There's nothing will grieve nor trouble my mind,
But to leave my dearest jewel sweet Kilkenny behind.
Kilkenny is a fine place and shines where it stands,
The more I look upon it the more my heart's won,
Was I but at Kilkenny I should think myself at home,
For there I've got a true love, but here I've got none.
I will give my love an apple without e'er a core,
I will give my love a house without e'er a door,
I will give my love a palace wherein she might be,
That she might unlock it without e'er a key.
I will give my love a cherry shall have ne'er a stone,
I will give my love a chicken without e'er a bone,
I will give my love a ring shall have never a rim,
I will get my love a pretty child without any crying.
How can there be an apple without e'er a core,
Or how can there be a house love without e'er a door,
Or how can there be a palace wherein I might be,
That I might unlock it without e'er a key.
Or how can there be a cherry without e'er a stone,
How can there be a chicken without e'er a stone,
How can there be a ring love without e'er a rim,
And how can there be a child got without any crying.
My head is the apple it's got ne'er a core,
My heart is the house love it's got ne'er a door,
My mind is the palace wherein you might be,
That you might unlock it without e'er a key.
When a cherry is in full blossom it has never a stone,
When a chicken is hatching it has ne'er a bone,
When the ring is a running it has ne'er a rim,
When a child is a getting there's but little crying.
So you lords and you dukes now of high renown,
Kings, princes, or Emperors, or any of you all,
The king can but love you and I do the same,
I will crown you my shepherdess and I'll be your fond swain.
The first stanza is a commonplace found in a number of ballads and it can be traced back at least to a 17th century black-letter broadside The Wandring Maiden, or, True Love at Length United issued by Jonah Deacon at the Angel in Guiltspur Street, London, where it is also the first stanza.5
All 4 of the new stanzas can also be found in The Dublin Garland6 titled The Young man's Lamentation for Leaving his Love in Dublin, of the late 18th century. Undoubtedly this is the source, either directly or indirectly, of the ballad above and indeed the most likely source of the much-printed and collected The Boys of Kilkenny (Roud 1451) as it contains all of the stanzas usually found in that song. However the song in the above form with these extra 4 stanzas doesn't appear to have survived in oral tradition.
By the middle of the 19th century The Riddle Song appeared on broadsides in yet another form. It has just the basic cherry/chicken/ring/baby stanza with questions and answers in sequence but has had tagged onto it a very early stanza Go no more a rushing, which according to William Chappell in Popular Music of the Olden Time7 goes back to at least c.1610 where the tune appears in a manuscript virginal book of William Byrd's arrangements and compositions. The broadside was printed by Henry Disley, one of Pitts' successors.
Go no more a Rushing
This variant survived in oral tradition in Somerset and Sussex.
Go no more a rushing, maids in May,
Go no more a rushing, maids I pray;
Go no more a rushing, or they will catch you blushing
Bundle up your rushes and haste away.
You promised me a cherry without a stone
You promised me a chicken without a bone;
You promised me a ring without a rim,
You promised me a baby without squalling.
How can etc.
When the cherry is a growing there is no stone in,
When the chicken it is hatching there is no bone in
When the ring it is melting there is no rim,
When the baby it is getting there is no squalling.
The most common oral variant, found more in America, has none of the extraneous stanzas and most often just consists of the cherry/chicken/ring/baby 3-stanza sequence, although as previously mentioned a Dorset version and one from Nova Scotia have 6 stanzas starting with the apple/house/palace sequence.
Another rewritten version exists in John Clare's manuscripts, undoubtedly a love song a la Burns written by Clare.8 The 7 x 6-line stanzas include the common 3-stanza sequence, but the riddles are selected from the 7 available to give apple/cherry/palace. As this has not affected any other versions I have not included it here.
An interesting study would be to compare all of the extant tunes of the related pieces. Bertrand Bronson has made a strong start on this already in the aforementioned appendix to Child 46 in his The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, p.376.
Dungbeetle - 27.11.17
0. Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes by Iona and Peter Opie. It has some very well researched background info, a lot relating to ballads.
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1. Ancient Ballads traditionally Sung in New England, Compiled and edited by Helen Hartness Flanders, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1960, Vol. 1, pp299-300. Folk Songs of the Catskills, Cazden, Haufrecht, Studer, State University of New York Press, 1982, p.469.
2. Sloane Manuscript, no.29. See further comment at: 'I have a yong suster' Popular Song and the Middle-English Lyric, Karin Boklund-Lagopoulou, Four Courts Press, 2002, pp.73-74.
3. Edinburgh University Manuscript, DC.1.69, No.2 (at back of Manuscript) (repeated in Bronson, Vol. 1, p.377).
4. The Mansfield Manuscript, An old Edinburgh Collection of Songs and Ballads, Ronnie Clark, The Glasgow Ballad Workshop, 2015, p.253.
5. The Pepys Ballads, ed. W G Day, D S Brewer, 1987, Vol.3, p.165.
6. British Library, TC 6a. 8, Vol.2, The Dublin Garland.
7. Popular Music of the Olden Time, William Chappell, FSA, Cramer, Beale & Chappell, 1855, p.158.
8. John Clare and the Folk Tradition, George Deacon, Sinclair Browne, London, 1983, p.80.