Cruel Mother


Jon attributes his source to Martin Carthy, who recorded it on his album Landfall released in 1972. A wiki entry notes,   “This is Carthy at his simplest — no overdubs, no vocal gymnastics and no syncopation.” Jon here, by contrast, uses concertina  accompaniment again. The usual Mudcat information is available here and this link is also quite interesting. We have been contacted by EFDSS who are also very keen to support this project and site and I will start to add links to their library as they are provided.

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47 Responses to “Cruel Mother”

  1. Annie Dunn says:

    Very nice interpretation of this song, and the concertina is lovely.

  2. Annie Dunn says:

    annoyingly, when you submit a comment it cuts off the music – grr

  3. GavDav says:

    Nice one. Keep up the good work!

  4. Amy Casterson says:

    Hi all. I stumbled across this site quite by accident and have to say it’s no wonder that the traditional English folk music scene is in the state it’s in. Keep your dusty old tomes locked up in a crappy box, sing them badly and then show everyone on the internet how backward your tradition is. As long as this kind of thing carries on English society as a whole will never embrace it’s own heritage (like the Scots/Irish/Brazilian/French etc) – actually maybe that’s just what you want……..

  5. muzza says:

    Amy………….each to his/her own…………
    Many of these songs were written following a local tragedy or as a moral lesson…………I suspect that infanticide was a temptation when food/money/social compassion was short in those days.
    I’m happy with dusty old tomes from crappy old box and am grateful that somebody sings them
    Keep on stumbling

  6. Nick Hallam says:

    Strange comment Amy. The point is that Jon isn’t claiming to be sing the definitive version of the song – just A version in its purest form. There are hundreds versions of this song that have been collected and recorded over the years. If you were remotely aware of the current music scene you would also be aware that the English Folk music scene is the most healthy it has been for decades.

    .. and actually as these ‘dusty old tomes locked up in a crappy box’ are, whether you like it or not, our English heritage, you will find that more and more people are embracing them.

  7. Phil says:

    The accompaniment works really well, but even so I wish you’d stick to unaccompanied song – there’s altogether too few of us about.

  8. edith lewis says:

    Another great version. Have to agree with Phil though and I don’t know here Amy has been lately.

  9. Jane Ramsden says:

    I’m with Nicky on this. Such songs and renditions are our heritage, like it or no. I am not sure what Amy thinks our heritage is, if this isn’t it? Such a view reinforces the idea that the English have no culture, which is just borne out of lack of exposure. Today we have so many other cultural and cross-cultural influences, we may just lose our own when they have their place too. Listen to Steve Knightley’s Roots!
    With reference to Cruel Mother, I heard this sung by Wendy Arrowsmith at the Otley Folk Festival last year, accompanied on guitar to great effect. I love the unaccompanied voice some of the time, especially when you encounter some fabulous voices like June Tabor, Maddy Prior, Steve Knightley, Miranda Sykes and Dead Can Dance’s Lisa Gerrard. Got to be honest, for me, a session of nothing else but unaccompanied voice can be a little samey. I love stuff that falls into the category of acoustic roots. But by no stretch of the imagination can you say today’s song was badly sung as Amy suggests. I came to Jon’s singing via his Painted Lady (unopened in a charity shoppe! I took the chance the donor obviously didn’t, was blown away and have since seen Bellowhead live.) And again for me, Jon’s voice stacks up – esp resoundingly so (so far at least!) on song 7, Rose in June.

  10. Nick Hallam says:

    More about Cruel Mother from the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at the English Folk Dance and Song Society.

    Like yesterday’s Barbara Allen, Cruel Mother is another very well sourced song with 205 records from all over the UK and the ‘new world.

    When searched on Round No. This rises to 296 with titles including All Alone, All Alonie, The Babes in the Greenwood, Down by the Greenwood Side and The Duke’s Daughter’s Cruelty.

    If you wish to see more detail on each record, change the ‘output’ to ‘record’ and press ‘submit query’.

    There are 6 records of the song in the Take Collection from the collections of Hammond, Gilchrist and Collinson including a version called There Was a Lady Drest in Green collected from Southport Girl’s Orphanage by Anne Gilchrist in 1915.

    To find these go to enter the name of the song into the first empty field, select ‘Title’ from the drop down menu ‘all fields’ and press ‘submit search.

    We use the Roud index and the Take 6 online collections in the search for information on Jon’s selections.

    For more information, or to carry out your own search for songs, please visit
    If you need any help accessing the library online or have any questions, please contact the VWML on 020 7485 2206 or

  11. admin says:

    Ladies and Gentlemen please welcome Nick from EFDSS. They have offered support and encouragement and promised to reference anything they can, so I’ll add links to the EFDSS library as they are provided. If you trawl back through the songs you’ll see more of the above has been added into the comments. I hope it helps with further exploration.

  12. admin says:

    As for Amy, unless she is motivated by wanting to cause offence, she won’t be around to read your replies as she clearly doesn’t like what she found here. I’m sure lot’s of people won’t, but who cares? I like it and I guess the vast majority on this site will also.

  13. Mike Powis says:

    Good news about EFDS interest. Well deserved. This is a great project and marvellous to hear these songs sung as Jon does and as I remember them from the 60s and 70s. Keep it up Jon and never mind about Amy.

  14. Shelley says:

    As a collector of dusty old tomes (nicknamed “mouldy music” in our house), I have to say that they are the place to look for hidden gems. Thanks to Jon for a fantastic project, and I might even be tempted to upload the odd recording, as he has suggested!

  15. Hilary says:

    I’m in awe of this undertaking, and its sheer generosity of spirit. I’m absorbing every word of the notes on provenance and tradition that comes with each one – fascinating stuff. I just want to put this in the scale to help outweigh the comments from those who a) don’t like the music and b) are not in any way curious to find out about it (and c) don’t think a whole lot of those of us who do).

    In short, thank you, Jon, for having the inspiration to do this wonderful thing (and thank you admin for the notes, and Nick/VWML/EFDSS for even more notes).

  16. Sarah says:

    Perhaps 7am was a little early for Amy to be listening to such a sad song! I’m sure that there are many of us who are becoming interested in our heritage, perhaps through family history research. Certainly I have never heard any of these songs before and will be listening every day. (I liked the accompaniment by the way)

  17. OxfordClareB says:

    After hearing many, many versions of this great ballad over the years, I have to state that this is the most beautiful and moving I have ever heard. I sing ‘Hind Horn’ to the tune Jon uses, but feel that it works even better with the CM! This had me in tears throughout, utterly awe-inspiring.

    May I also say welcome to Nick – i’m delighted that EFDSS are showing their support and sharing knowledge!

    Thankfully, ignorant and offensive people like Amy Casterton (whoever, wherever and – god help us- *why*ever you are) are in the minority here, and it’s brilliant to see so many people who are as enthralled and thrilled by this project as I am.

  18. Nick says:

    Am very much enjoying this series. There’s a lot to learn and a lot to admire so thank you Jon!

    @Annie Dunn “when you submit a comment it cuts off the music”. Hello! and grr indeed … but you could try this: click the right-mouse button on the Comments and then choose “Open In a New Window”. This will give you a new page for the comments and also keep the original page open so the music should carry on.



  19. OxFox says:

    I’m with Clare and the overwhelming majority here. In general, what Jon’s doing for us is both priceless and inspiriational: the man deserves a medal! I’ve heard several versions of Cruel Mother, and always thought it a great song – but this is the first that’s made ME want to sing it.

    I’m not placing much store by Amy’s critique. She is of course entitled to her opinion, and I respect that at least. But what she seems to be rejecting is England’s – no, Britain’s – *proper* heritage, not some jingoistic propaganda or nursery rhymes. We have a sordid and barbaric past – as do most nations – and songs like Cruel Mother should be kept alive to remind us just how bad “man’s inhumanity to man” can be!

  20. Carole Garland says:

    This was the most beautiful version of this old song. I have listened to, and sung, these old songs since the sixties, and generally accompaniment has to be carefully done or it all sounds too bandboxy and faux. Jon now has a full, flexible and mature voice and a great skill in accompaniment.
    I am deeply touched to hear my secret vice (folkmusic) so well served by project.

  21. Jane Ramsden says:

    Yes, it’s nice not to have to be a ‘closet folk fan’ for fear of the ‘finger in the ear’ accusations! Hahahaha! And I was wondering what EFDSS stood for – English Folk Dance & Song Society – now in my Favourites. I can see why you might not have chosen ‘Song & Dance’ Society…. Hahahaha! Thanks, Nicky, for your notes. I was wondering whether my reference to English heritage and songs was wholly correct. But what I meant was standing alongside other folk songs like Scottish, Irish, Welsh etc (so British combined) as well as other world music. I like it all together and with separate identity, but feel the English songs have sometimes got lost or forgotten. Then again, Wendy Arrowsmith is Scottish, I believe, and when she sang Cruel Mother, I am sure she alluded to a Scottish version. If not, it crossed a border as she had, so whose song is it? Many similar tales crop up many different cultures. And it was very much a tale of covering up illicit love with a person of ‘lower standing’ (so the Duke’s Daughter idea) and destroying the babes as evidence – not of being unable to feed extra mouths due to poverty – society no doubt being hard on such affairs in that day.

  22. Mzz.Beee says:

    Be lovely to see this kind of idea of a ‘folk song blog’ take off more widely among enthusiasts for traditional song. Hopefully I’ll find some gems to steal too..

  23. gordon potts says:

    damn, that was good. And i can play it again..

  24. Andy says:

    I LOVED this one, concertina, dark subject matter and all. Nice one. Got the feeling I’ve heard it somewhere else recently, but can’t think where. Wasn’t Martin Carthy.

  25. Julia Taylor says:

    The rendition of this reminds me of Pete Coe of old. Nice, quavering, tender voice.

  26. Jo Breeze says:

    This is lovely – my favourite so far. (Well, possibly ‘lovely’ isn’t quite the word – but I’m of the school that it ain’t folk without death and doom!)

  27. Paul Arrowsmith says:

    Jane Ramsden mentions my wife’s version of this song above which she heard live at Otley accompanied by Wendy on guitar. Here’s Wendy’s recorded version with Congas and fiddle as well as guitar. It’s the first track on the player:

    I guess this is a fairly modern interpretation.

    Keep up the good work Jon, love the blog!

  28. Jane Ramsden says:

    Thanks for posting your wife’s version of Cruel Mother, Paul. I bought one of her CDs at Otley, but gave it to a friend as a birthday gift, so good to have the chance to listen again here. I nearly trod on your banjo at Otley – which, as Wendy said, would have cost me more dearly – so I reckon I could treat myself to another CD! May catch you again live if you play the Topic at the Irish Centre in Bradford. I know Wendy’s played there before.

    There is a track on Tim Hart’s and Maddy Prior’s solo recordings called Babes In The Wood, which I know is also the title of a version of Cruel Mother. Can’t remember without playing it whether it’s the same story, but think it is.

  29. forex robot says:

    Wow this is a great resource.. I’m enjoying it.. good article

  30. Elly says:

    Ooh, gorgeous. I’m found of “Cruel Mother” anyway, but this is a particularly excellent tune. *makes mental note to learn this one*

    Jon’s voice and the concertina playing fabulous as always. Wrt Amy: I guess you can’t please everybody. And it probably would not be nearly such an excellent project if you were!

  31. Elly says:

    @Paul Oh, your wife’s recording is also excellent! Thank you for sharing it!

  32. Jane Ramsden says:

    Terribly sad song…

  33. muzza(s.e.England) says:

    Listening to this again…I was “enchanted” or perhaps “lulled” by Jon’s performance …………….if only the bally story wasn’t so horrific and graphic!

    @ref Nick’s tip above…..6July 2010 10pm…..(now he tells me…. I wish I’d known this a year ago!)……..I.E..’to hear the music while reading the comments..put cursor on “comments”, then click right mouse button and select “open as new page”..

  34. John Bryson says:

    Just catching up with the above comments, and as regards the criticism above then the comment ‘each to one’s own’ is appropriate.
    Personally I have enjoyed and learnt so much about folk music from this project, and still do, and in Jon and his team (with all the links) we have outstanding tutors.
    Just a plug for Wendy Arrowsmith if I may – Wendy was the guest artist at Bishop’s Stortford Folk Club about three months ago and presented an impressive set – including performing whilst members of the Royal British Legion, our venue, did urgent work on the door! Wendy’s is an act well worth catching.

  35. Paul Parkinson says:

    Hi Jon
    I just love what you’re doing with these songs – thank you so much.

    I’m leaving this comment for another reason too – the iTunes feed is borked (again). The last six songs show in the feed but do not download. Any chance one of your team could fix it please? Many thanks


  36. muzza(s.e.England) says:

    Hi Paul……….Just to reconfirm Simon’s previous reply to your previous request in the comments column of “Blackwaterside”………..

    Simon says:
    July 5, 2011 at 11:22 am
    Paul just to be clear there are no pod casts. I’m sorry there is too much work involved in resetting them and we have decided that the streams will be available again, but that will be it I’m afraid.

  37. Phil says:

    I did this one, unaccompanied, way back last September:

    The Cruel Mother (52fs)

    Same tune as Jon’s, slightly different words.

  38. Old Muzza(NW Surrey-UK) says:

    Such a sad song but for me…again….Jon’s rendition and the accompanying concertina lift it to where you can block out the words and just listen to the tune as a whole.

  39. Diana says:

    I am intrigued by the number of times murder has been accomplished with the use of all things a penknife. Surely there were other knifes more suitable. Like it has been said before an extremely sad song but a pleasant tune. Surprised at last years nitpicker what on erth was she expecting – the title of the programme says it all.

  40. Old Muzza(N.W.Surrey-UK) says:

    Jane Ramsden says:

    July 9, 2010 at 4:03 pm

    Thanks for posting your wife’s version of Cruel Mother, Paul. I bought one of her CDs at Otley, but gave it to a friend as a birthday gift, so good to have the chance to listen again here. I nearly trod on your banjo at Otley

    REF JANE’S COMMENT copied above…………..It’s taken me SIX YEARS to smirk at the phrase/euphemism……….. ‘I nearly trod on your banjo’!……what delights young Paul just missed from the Yorkshire cat botherer!
    (surely this comment will tempt her down from the hills…what say you Lindy Lou?)

  41. Peter Walsh says:

    I’ll tell Janie that you’re trying to tempt her back to commenting, Muzza! Just lately the songs have started to autoplay for me, not complaining, just wondered if that happens to you Muzza or have I managed to select that option somewhere?!

  42. Old Muzza(N.W.Surrey UK) says:

    Yes Peter…technology has moved on and the songs now autoplay……..Janie still not tempted down from the hills ….need the promise of raw meat and 100 cans of cat food to do that!

  43. Old Muzza (NW Surrey-UK) says:

    ooooooer Janie….and the rest of the gang…where art thou!

  44. OldMuzza*NWSurey UK) says:

    Wonder if Janie the cat botherer has trodden on anybody’s banjo lately!
    I haven’t for years!

  45. OldMuzza(NWSurrey UK) says:

    Nope…..not a meow to be heard!!!

  46. Jane (Maryland) says:

    I agree with many others that this is an awful story sung fabulously well to a really beautiful tune.

    Since the myspace link doesn’t seem to work, here’s Wendy Arrowsmith on YouTube

  47. OldMuzza(NWSurreyUK) says:

    Wendy Arrowsmith….WOW…what a strident and powerful voice…..but…didn’t hear a word of the song though!

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