English Fairy Tales Binnorie Illustration Twa Sisters Two Sisters Minorie Cruel Sister Bows of London Berkshire Tragedy

Singing Bones, Part 1: “The Twa Sisters” and Related Murder Ballads

As an introduction to the next set of tales (which I kind of introduced in the last post), how about some music?

Appropriately for a tale type known as “The Singing Bone” (ATU type 780), it comes not only in prose, but many, many musical variants of a murder ballad under the general name of “Child 10″/”The Twa Sisters.”

(Yup, as if  ATU types weren’t enough, with folk songs we’ve got some new jargon. “Child 10” means this is the 10th traditional ballad/type in a collection of 305 ballads and variants known as the Child Ballads, named after the folklorist who anthologized them, Francis James Child.)

If you want a great in-depth look at this song and its hundreds of variants, I recommend this article: How 2 Sisters and 1 Murder Inspired 500 Songs.

If you prefer something more video-oriented, then keep scrolling, because I’ve collected a sampling of variants and musical interpretations, along with the lyrics and (just because I felt like it) comparisons to the 21 variants originally collected by Francis Child.

Binnorie

Artist: Custer LaRue

Minus a few verses, almost identical to Child 10C.

Click for lyrics

There were twa sisters sat in a bow’r
Binnorie, O Binnorie
There cam a knight to be their wooer.
By the bonnie mill-dams of Binnorie.

He courted the eldest wi’ glove and ring
But he lo’ed the youngest aboon a’thing.The eldest she was vexed sair
And sore envied her sister fair.

The eldest said to the youngest ane:
“Will you go and see our father’s ships come in”

She’s ta’en her by the lily hand
And led her down to the river strand.

The youngest stude upon a stane
The eldest cam’ and pushed her in.

“Oh sister, sister reach your hand
And ye shall be heir of half my land”

“Oh sister, I’ll not reach my hand
And I’ll be heir of all your land.”

“Oh sister, reach me but your glove
And sweet William shall be your love.”

“Sink on, nor hope for hand or glove
And sweet William shall better be my love.”

Sometimes she sunk, sometimes she swam
Until she cam to the miller’s dam.

The miller’s daughter was baking bread
And gaed for water as she had need.

“O father, father, draw your dam!
There’s either a mermaid or a milk-white swan.”

The miller hasted and drew his dam
And there he found a drown’d woman.

Ye couldna see her yellow hair
For gowd and pearls that were sae rare.

Ye coldna see her middle sma’
Her gowden girdle was sae braw.

Ye couldna see her lily feet
Her gowden fringes were sae deep.

A famous harper passing by
The sweet pale face he chanced to spy.

And when he looked that lady on
He sighed, and made a heavy moan.

He made a harp o’ her breast bone
Whose sounds would melt a heart of stone.

The strings he framed of her yellow hair
Their notes made sad the listening ear.

He brought it to her father’s ha’
There was the court assembled there.

He layed the harp upon a stane
And straight it began to play alane.

“O yonder sits my father the King
And yonder sits my mother, the queen.”

“And yonder stands my brother Hugh
And by him, my William, sweet and true.”

But the last tune that the harp played then
Was: “Woe to my sister, false Helen”

Minorie

Artist: Ewan McColl

Similar to Child 10M.

Click for lyrics

There lived twa sisters in ain bower
Minorie o Minorie
And there come a young man to be their wooer
On the bonnie dam sides a’ Minorie.

He coorted the eldest wi a’ his land
Minorie o Minorie
He coorted the youngest wi his recht hand
On the bonnie dam sides a’ Minorie.

He gied the eldest a brooch and ring
Minorie o Minorie
But he looed the younger aboon a’ thing
On the bonnie dam sides a’ Minorie.

He coorted the elder wi’ his pen knife
Minorie o Minorie
But he looed the youngest aboon his life
On the bonnie dam sides a’ Minorie.

“Oh sister oh sister you’ll gang to the broom,”
Minorie o Minorie
“To hear the blackbird change his tune,
And we’ll maybe see the lads o’ Minorie”

They walk’ed up and they walk’ed doon
Minorie o Minorie
And thrice the blackbird changed his tune
But they never saw the lads o’ Minorie

“Oh sister oh sister ye’ll gang to the dam,”
Minorie o Minorie
“To see oor faither’s ships be comin’ in
To the bonnie dam sides a’ Minorie.”

They went to the dam and they stood on a stain
Minorie o Minorie
And the elder danged the youngest in
To the bonnie dam sides of Minorie

Oh she swam up and she swam doon
Minorie o Minorie
Till she swam te whaur her sister did stand
On the bonnie dam sides o’ Minorie.

“Oh sister oh sister tak me by the hand,”
Minorie o Minorie
“An’ ye’ll get the miller lad and a’ his land,
He’s the bonnie miller lad o’ Minorie.”

“It wasne for that that I danged ye in,”
Minorie o Minorie
“But ye was fair and I was dun,
And ye’ll droon in the dams o’ Minorie.”

The miller’s ae dochter’s gaed to the dam
Minorie o Minorie
For water to wash her faither’s hand
By the bonnie dam sides o’ Minorie.

“Oh Faither, oh Faither fish in the dam,”
Minorie o Minorie
“For there’s either a maid or a milk white swan
Has drooned in the dams o’ Minorie.”

There was nain o’ them a’ kent her face sae fair
Minorie o Minorie
But weel kent the miller by her bonnie yellow hair
Twas his ain bonnie lass o’ Minorie.

The Cruel Sister

Artist: Pentangle

Click for lyrics

There lived a lady by the North Sea shore
Lay the bent to the bonnie broom
Two daughters were the babes she bore
Fa la la la la la la la la la

As one grew bright as is the sun,
So coal black grew the elder one.

A knight came riding to the ladies’ door,
He’d travelled far to be their wooer.

He courted one with gloves and rings,
But he loved the other above all things.

“Oh sister will you go with me
To watch the ships sail on the sea?”

She took her sister by the hand
And led her down to the North Sea strand.

And as they stood on the windy shore
The dark girl threw her sister o’er.

Sometimes she sank, sometimes she swam,
Crying, “Sister, reach to me your hand!”

“Oh Sister, Sister, let me live,
And all that’s mine I’ll surely give.”

“(It’s) your own true love that I’ll have and more,
But thou shalt never come ashore.”

And there she floated like a swan,
The salt sea bore her body on.

Two minstrels walked along the strand
And saw the maiden float to land.

They made a harp of her breastbone,
Whose sound would melt a heart of stone.

They took three locks of her yellow hair,
And with them strung the harp so rare.

They went into her father’s hall
To play the harp before them all,

But when they laid it on a stone
The harp began to play alone.

The first string sang a doleful sound:
“The bride her younger sister drowned.”

The second string as that they tried:
“In terror sits the black-haired bride.”

The third string sang beneath their bow:
“And surely now her tears will flow.”

The Wind and the Rain (Two Sisters)

Artists: Gillian Welch and David Rawlings

Combines various elements from different variants; the refrain, “Oh, the wind and the rain / Oh, the dreadful wind and rain” doesn’t show up in Child’s variants, but does appear in other folk songs.

Click for lyrics

There were two sisters of County Clare,
Oh, the wind and rain
One was dark and the other was fair
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain

And they both had a love of the miller’s son
Oh, the wind and rain
But he was fond of the fairer one
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain

So she pushed her into the river to drown
Oh, the wind and rain
And watched her as she floated down
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain

And she floated till she came to the miller’s pond
Oh, the wind and the rain
Dead on the water like a golden swan
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain

And she came to rest on the riverside
Oh, the wind and the rain
And her bones were washed by the rolling tide
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain

And along the road came a fiddler fair
Oh, the wind and rain
And found her bones just a lying there, cried
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain

So he made a fiddle peg of her long finger bone
Oh, the wind and the rain
He a made a fiddle peg of her long finger bone, crying
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain

And he strung his fiddle bow with her long yeller hair
Oh, the wind and the rain
He strung his fiddle bow with her long yeller hair, cried
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain

And he made a fiddle, fiddle of her breast bone
Oh, the wind and rain
He made a fiddle, fiddle of her breast bone, cyring
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain

But the only tune that the fiddle could play was
Oh, the wind and rain
The only tune that the fiddle would play was
Oh, the dreadful wind and rain

 Two Sisters

These two versions most closely resemble Child 10R.

Artist: Clannad

Click for lyrics

There were two sisters side by side
Sing I-dum, sing I-day
There were two sisters side by side
The boys are born for me
There were two sisters side by side
The eldest for young Johnny cried
I’ll be true unto my love if he’ll be true to me

Johnny bought the youngest a gay-gold ring (x3)
He never bought the eldest a single thing

Johnny bought the youngest a beaver hat (x3)
The eldest didn’t think much of that

As they were a-walking by the foamy brim (x3)
The eldest pushed the youngest in

Sister, oh sister, give me thy hand (x3)
And you can have Johnny and all his land

Oh sister, I’ll not give you my hand (x3)
And I’ll have Johnny and all his land

So away she sank and away she swam (x3)
Until she came to the miller’s dam

The miller, he took her gay-gold ring (x3)
And then he pushed her in again

The miller, he was hanged on the mountain head (x3)
The eldest sister was boiled in lead

.

Artist: Jim Moray

Click for lyrics

A farmer, he lived by the Northern Sea,
Bow away down
The farmer, he lived by the Northern Sea,
Bow and balance to me,
The farmer, he lived by the Northern Sea,
And he had daughters one two and three,
But I’ll be true to my love,
If my love will be true to me.

The young man he came a courting there, (x3)
And he made the choice of the youngest fair.

He bought the youngest a beaver hat, (x3)
The oldest sister didn’t like that.

As they walked down by the water’s brim, (x3)
The oldest she pushed the youngest in.

Oh sister, oh sister lend me your hand, (x3)
And you may have my house and my land.

She floated on down to the miller’s dam, (x3)
The miller he pulled her back to dry land.

And off of her fingers took five gold rings, (x3)
Then into the water plunged her again.

Bows of London

Artists: Martin Carthy and Eliza Carthy

Overall, most similar to Child 10H, though the chorus seems to be a corrupted version, as in Child 10F.

Click for lyrics

There were two little sisters a-walking alone
Hey the gay and the grinding
Two little sisters a-walking alone
By the bonny bonny bows of London

And the eldest pushed her sister in
Pushed her sister into the stream

Oh she pushed her in and she watched her drown
Watched her body floating down

Oh she floated up and she floated down
Floats till she come to the miller’s dam

And out and come the miller’s son
“Father dear, here swims a swan.”

Oh they laid her out on the bank to die
Fool with a fiddle come a-riding by

And he took some strands of her long yellow hair
Took some strands of her long yellow hair

And he made some strings from this yellow hair
Made some strings from this yellow hair

And he made fiddle pegs from her long fingerbone
Made fiddle pegs from her long fingerbone

And he made a fiddle out of her breastbone
Sound would pierce the heart of a stone

But the only tune that the fiddle would play
Was, “Oh, the bows of London.”
The only tune the fiddle would play
Was, “The bonny bonny bows of London.”

So the fool’s gone away to the king’s high hall
There was music dancing and all

And he laid this fiddle all down on a stone
Played so loud it played all alone

It sang,, “Yonder sits my father the king,
Yonder sits my father the king.

“And yonder sits my mother the queen
How she’ll grieve at my burying.

“And yonder she sits my sister Anne
She who drownded me in the stream.”

.
The Bonny Bows of London Town

Artist: The Askew Sisters

This variant is structurally like 10F, but specific verses strongly resemble parts of other of Child’s variants, namely E, B/C/F, and the last few verses are the same as version A, though with one verse fewer.

Click for lyrics

There were two sisters lived in a bower
Hey with the gay and the grandeur o,
And the youngest was the fairest flower
At the bonny bonny bows of London town.

There came a squire from the west,
And he courted them both and the youngest the best.

Then it fell out upon a day,
That the eldest to the youngest did say,

“Oh sister let’s go to yon sea strand
For to see our father’s ships come to land.”

And when they reached the river’s brim,
The eldest pushed the youngest in.

“Oh sister oh sister will you take my hand,
And I’ll make you lady of all my land.”

“Oh sister did you think I’d push you in,
Oh, just for to pull you out again?

“Your cherry cheeks and yellow hair,
They’d have kept me a maiden forevermore.”

Sometimes she sank, sometimes she swam,
Until she came to the miller’s dam.

And the miller’s daughter was out that eve,
And she seen this lady floating in the stream.

“Oh father, father, in our mill-dam,
There’s either a lady or a milk-white swan.”

So the miller he hastened and he drew his dam,
And there he found this drowned woman.

They laid her on the ground to dry,
And an old blind fiddler came riding by.

He’s made a fiddle from her breastbone
Whose sound would melt a heart of stone.

He’s taken three strands of her yellow hair
And he’s made them into strings for his fiddle fair.

He’s taken her fingers both long and small,
And he’s made them into pins for his fiddle oh.

He’s taken the fiddle to her father’s hall,
And there were the court assembled all.

And then up spoke the treble string,
“O yonder sits my father the king.” <

And then up spoke the second string,
“O yonder sits my mother the queen."

And then up spoke the strings all three,
“O yonder is my sister who drowned me."

The Berkshire Tragedy

Artists: Ange Hardy & Lukas Drinkwater

This corresponds closely to Child 10R. Unlike the other variants, here the sister is still alive when the miller pulls her out, but after taking the 10 guineas she offers so he’ll take her home, he just pushes her back into the water. Because I guess he’s really really busy or something. Enough so that avoiding a few hours’ journey is worth murder.

Click for lyrics

A farmer lived in the west country
With a hey down bow down
A farmer lived in the west country,
And he had daughters one, two, three.

As they walked the river’s brim,
As they walked the river’s brim,
The eldest pushed the youngest in.

I’ll be true to my love,
I’ll be true to … me,
I’ll be true to my love if my love be true to me.

“Sister, sister give me your hand,”
With a hey down bow down,
“Sister, sister, give me your hand,
I’ll give you both house and land.”

“Well I’ll neither give you hand nor glove,”
With a hey down bow down,
“I’ll neither give you hand nor glove,
Unless you give me your true love.”

I’ll be true to my love,
I’ll be true to … me,
I’ll be true to my love if my love be true to me.

So down she sank and away she swam,
With a hey down bow down,
Oh, down she sank and away she swam,
Until she came to the miller’s dam.

Well, the miller he fetched his pole and hook,
With a hey down bow down,
Oh, the miller he fetched his pole and hook,
And fished the fair maid from the brook.

I’ll be true to my love,
I’ll be true to … me,
I’ll be true to my love if my love be true to me.

“Miller, I’ll give thee guineas ten,”
With a hey down bow down,
“Oh, miller, I’ll give thee guineas ten,
If you’ll fetch me back to my father again.”

Well the miller he took her guineas ten,
With a hey down bow down,
Well the miller he took her guineas ten,
And pushed the fair maid in again.

I’ll be true to my love,
I’ll be true to … me
I’ll be true to my love if my love be true to me.

Sidenote on “guineas ten”

Depending on where you place this narrative chronologically — let’s say, between 1264 and 1983, during which period the guinea was in circulation — the “guineas ten” the girl offers comes out to anywhere between £11,358.55 ($16,213.19) and £32.22 ($45.99), respectively. It works out if you suppose it’s set in, say, 1970 or later, when 10 guineas = £143.62 ($205.01) — still a large amount to carry around, but not totally ludicrous (though if we place it around the 1850s, when Child recorded variant 10R, it comes out to over $1,000 in today’s money). [Values calculated using this guineas/modern currency converter (1 guinea = £1.05) and the USD/GDP exchange rates from the opening of 2016, the year this song’s album came out]

Why might this be? Well, in earlier versions — as you can see in Child 10R, line 11 — the girl would have given the miller a “golden chain,” which would originally have rhymed with “again” (pronounced “agayn”). But — I infer — that was changed to “guineas ten” in this version to rhyme with the singer’s pronunciation of “again” (“agen”).

Without looking up the conversions from guineas to 2016 money (the year the album came out), there’s no reason anyone today would know the value of a currency discontinued decades ago. And anyway, even supposing the composer/singer got that far into it, they could still figure a) no one would notice/care enough to look it up, and/or that b) the rhyme was more important than perfect verisimilitude on what amount of an obsolete currency a farmer’s daughter would reasonably have in her pocket. Which are fair enough reasons, and I’m not complaining or anything — sometimes (all the time?) I enjoy being tediously thorough, is all.

Further Reading

History of ‘The Wind and Rain’? – Links to lyrics of variants as well as discussion topics surrounding Child 10, on mudcat.org, an site/online community where people can find and contribute lyrics and information about folk songs. (Currently links to a cached version — the site hasn’t been loading since yesterday. I’m hoping it’ll be fixed soon.)

The Two Sisters / The Bows of London / The Wind and Rain / The Berkshire Tragedy / Binnorie – An extensive listing of the many modern renditions of these songs.


Looking back,  a lot of my posts feature tales of murderers brought to justice, and this one is no different. It makes sense, though, because one topic kind of leads to another, and it would take a while to exhaust the supply of tales and songs with this theme. I think I’ll move on to something different soon.

But first, I have to at least mention the tales corresponding to these songs, though I don’t think it’ll be an overview format — those get to be a bit much. Instead, I want to focus more on the practical aspects of making instruments from corpses.

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