Not that he’s ‘hammering’ a point here, but Jon says, “I’m very interested in the idea that this might be a remnant of a shape shifting myth, rather than a song about bad eyesight and interesting in reference to blacksmith ballads and the lay of Volundr (Wiki link here.)” It’s certainly a common enough story line going back to antiquity and the Greek myth of Cephalus, who shoots his wife having mistaken her for a deer is another example. Jon got this from Martin Carthy and this version is closest to his lyrically as you’ll see on this informative Mainly Norfolk thread here, which also quotes Carthy’s original sleeve notes, as well as A.L. Lloyd’s notes from Anne Briggs recording. The former again make reference to the many cultures in which women are transformed from or to swans, doves, (and also deer.) This Wiki link is interesting for a fairly exhausting (possibly exhaustive) list of recordings. I’m not convinced by the suggestion that this is anything but a retelling of the ancient myth, however. Mind you, having said that I found this from the Canadian Journal For Traditional Music via Mudcat referring to Molly Bawn (one Irish variant of the title), which is thorough to say the least and although rather long, if you have the time is well worth a read. I think the suggestion that there is some historical fact in the song is more likely a contemporary updating or recasting of the song to give it relevance. After all, that Wiki link makes the Mailí Bhán (Gaelic for fair Mary) shift look fairly obvious, nice though the idea of a conspiracy or cover up (explanation) of a murder (accidental death) might be. Given the number of versions of this, with apart from the usual suspects and sources, Bob Dylan, Martha Tilston, Alison Krauss (with The Chieftains and on her own), Alasdair Roberts, Bella Hardy, The Oysterband and many more having recorded this, I’m sure some of you will already be very much in-the-know. Your thoughts please.
You can buy the August digital album now from all good download stores: