Cruel Knife


You’ll find a version of this on Spiers & Bodens Songs and Jon says, “There’s a preponderance of girlfriend murdering songs and this is my contribution to the canon. The words are from The Viking/Penguin Book Of Folk Ballads Of The English Speaking World, but I had to tweak them a bit (sweet Florilla seemed a little improbable as the heroine’s name) and I nicked the tune from The Flying Cloud, one of Louis Killen’s big numbers.” Viking was, I believe, the original publisher in the USA in 1956 (which would explain the book’s title) and Penguin followed suit with the UK edition. I’m wondering whether the song is also American as I’ve drawn a total blank with my usual web searches and it might also explain the victim’s original name of sweet Florilla. It seems to share much in common with Banks Of Red Roses, although violets are the flower here. Once again it seems the evil hand is motivated by the threat of being tied to his lover, with discussing impending wedlock the lure that leads the hapless Nancy (as Jon calls her) to her doom.  I’d be grateful for anything you can add. Perhaps there’s a title variant that I can’t find.

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24 Responses to “Cruel Knife”

  1. Keith Maguire says:

    The notes in the Penguin Book of Folk Ballads cite an article “Native Balladry in America” by Phillips Barry from 1909 in the Journal of American Folklore (Vol 22, p.371) as the source for the text. You can see that article here:

    The Penguin book points as well to another article by Barry from 1928 called “Fair Florilla” where he discussed the history of the words of the song. Unfortunately I could only find a JSTOR link to this, there doesn’t seem to be a freely available version:
    He talks about it coming from an English broadside “The Murder of Betsy Smith”

    There’s a bit of discussion on Mudcat about the song — searching for “florilla” or “jealous lover” gets (among other discussions) :

    I have to say I much prefer the way Jon has Nancy condemn rather than forgive her murderer!

  2. Simon Dewsbury says:

    How many violent deaths have we had so far? I reckon about 10? Mostly murders but also the odd military execution and death at sea. Probably compares unfavourably with gangsta rap. How long til the Daily Mail has a moral panic about this site?

  3. Caroline Jefford says:

    does this add anything to the mix?;ttJLSLOVR4.html

  4. Susan Churchman says:

    Here’s another variant, also American – a recording by Eugene Jemison in which you can hear the fate of Fair Forilla at the hands of William and his fateful knife, following talk of their wedding day. She too forgives him – were American female victims of treacherous murderers more tolerant than their English counterparts?

  5. Phil says:

    Powerful stuff – and another one for Now That’s What I Call Motiveless Violence!

  6. Jo Breeze says:

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

    There are no records of Cruel Knife in the Library. However, when we searched on the unusual name Florilla, we found 9 records.

    We used the Roud number to cross reference against different titles for the song. When searched on Roud No. 500, this rises to 323 records! Songs in this family go by a multitude of titles including ‘Alice’s Jealous Lover’, ‘Blue Eyed Ellen’, ‘Down by the Weeping Willow’, ‘Fair Ella’, ‘Fair Floella’ and many more. It has been collected from all over the USA and Canada, but not – on a quick glance through all 323 records – from the UK or Ireland.

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

    There are no records of the song in the Take 6 archive.

    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

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

    Young Boden has captured the old “Folk-singer’s -warble” several times in the first verse…e.g. “she died all broken hear-r-r-r-rted”…………but then reverts to his usual strong, smooth voice for the rest of the song, with hardly a tremor.
    How long before he starts putting his finger in his ear!

  8. Jane Ramsden says:

    Sonnet 63 of Shakespeare’s Fair Youth sequence mentions Time’s cruel knife etching wrinkles on youthful beauty, which the bard immortalises in the writing of a poem (as opposed to through procreation in say, Sonnet 2):

    Against my love shall be, as I am now,
    With Time’s injurious hand crush’d and o’er-worn;
    When hours have drain’d his blood and fill’d his brow
    With lines and wrinkles; when his youthful morn
    Hath travell’d on to age’s steepy night,
    And all those beauties whereof now he’s king
    Are vanishing or vanish’d out of sight,
    Stealing away the treasure of his spring;
    For such a time do I now fortify
    Against confounding age’s cruel knife,
    That he shall never cut from memory
    My sweet love’s beauty, though my lover’s life:
    His beauty shall in these black lines be seen,
    And they shall live, and he in them still green.

    Shakespeare was writing about a young man, but I just found it thought-provoking that a real ‘cruel knife’ stops Time etching lines on the girlfriend’s beauty, and it may be because the procreative route to immortality has perversely caused her death (depending whether one subscribes to the baby/forced wedding or the jealous lover theory ref the story.) Either way, the cruel knife has prevented her from ageing and she is now immortalised in a ‘little song.’

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

    @Jane…..good to see the “Lemsip kid” is back on form…………I eagerly await some murderer sayng in his defence…”I did it me Lud to stop her growing old!”
    Ps:-…’Time’ used a meat cleaver when he etched the lines on me!

  10. Jane Ramsden says:

    @ Muzza: Not totally back on form, but trying… no puns, please! But I am only awake now because I fell asleep and spilt a whole mug of tea I was holding all ovver missen. *Sighs*

    PS Don’t know about the meat cleaver, Muzza. You still look pretty ‘chipper’ to me on HewTube… HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

  11. Diana says:

    Another knife and another Nancy – these recurring crimes and maidens is quite astonishing. Well sung though by Jon who always does a good job. Can’t say it is one of my favourites nevertheless.

  12. Diana says:

    For general information for anybody interested, and I am sure there will be lots, Bellowhead’s new album “Broadside” out on Monday 15th October.

  13. Linda says:

    @Diana, looks like the Bold Robber didn.t make it How about Black Beetle Pie?
    @ Muzza only just spotted your comment, but it only takes a sailor to get me back on deck!

  14. Diana says:

    @Linda :It does sound horrible if one had to eat it, but I sure Bellowhead’s version will be tasty. Shame about the Bold Robber – we could have dueted on that so well!!!

  15. Linda says:

    @Diana Not a good idea!!!! Trust me

  16. Diana says:

    @ Linda: We shall never know – perhaps just as well for humanity!. Have pre-ordered the CD – I am sure you have had the same idea.

  17. OldMuzza(NWSurrey UK) says:

    Ok….Lindy Lou…..I give up……where does Black Beetle pie come into this comment stream.

  18. Linda says:

    Sorry Muzza Black Beetle Pies is a track on Bellowheads Broadside CD which Diana had mentioned 2012………

  19. OldMuzza (NWSurrey UK) says:

    I’m so relieved Lindy Lou…thought I was going a bit dippy…..wonder if Diana is using the secret recipe and serving it ….up there

  20. Linda says:

    If you get the chance watch the Paul Sartin Tribute concert from Sidmouth folk on Folkscape Live free to view for twelve months……it was a beautiful concert……Do hope you can find this Muzza

  21. OldMuzza (NW Surrey-UK) says:

    Never heard of folkscape Lindy Lou…don’t suppose you have a link.
    Ref the song above………reminds me of that lil ole lad’s y comment on being told of another referendum “Oh Lordy…not ANOTHER one!”
    Who will rid us of these murderous songs…
    oh dear…tomorrow is Nostradamus and it appears that a whole host of his predictions have come true…and another scary one is foreseen in the near future!
    Hang on everyone!

  22. Linda says:

    try failing that try searching for Sidmouth folk festival and try to link from there

  23. Linda says:

    Assuming the link works when you get onto site click on Sidmouth and a list should drop down part way down is Paul Sartin Tribute click on that then hopefully you will get instruction to watch Hope it works

  24. Jane Ramsden says:

    Thank you for the link re Paul Sartin, Lindy Lou.
    A sad loss, and I shall listen to the concert later.

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