Babylon / The Bonnie Banks Of Fordie


Jon attributes this “As sung by Ian Giles at the Half Moon. I’m not sure where he got it from but I’m using a mixture of words remembered from him and words from Dick Gaughan, which seem pretty close to Ian’s version. As to the story, good riddance I say (to him, not the sisters.)”

Some of you may be familiar with Nic Jones’ version which you’ll find at Mainly Norfolk. This is another of the Child Ballads #14 in this case and very much of the senseless murder variety although not realising it’s your own sisters you’re slaying, as some of the versions including Jon’s have it, is very careless indeed. In the some of the variants the third sister is saved by a brother. It’s interesting to note that this is another of the epics that seem to be widespread across Europe, although I wonder which is the more common storyline. It’s also appeared across the Atlantic and it’s interesting to see Nic’s version transcribed at Mainly Norfolk concluding with the baddy being fed to the rattlesnakes, which immediately identifies that as from the USA. I ran across a Mudcat thread that debated the ‘wee pen knife’ that seems to be a common enough weapon of choice for the murderously minded. I must admit it seems a curious description for the fatal implement, but realistically appears too often to be any sort of mis-translation. Wiki here to see the variations as collected by Child.



20 Responses to “Babylon / The Bonnie Banks Of Fordie”

  1. Shelley says:

    What a fantastic song. That’s going on the Bailey Sisters’ “to learn list”!

  2. Nick Passmore says:

    Nic Jones amusingly commented, prior to performing it at the Whitstable Folk Club back in the 1970s, that the villain of the piece had acquired a deodorant while the song was on its journey to America, and the original “rank robber” had now become a “bank robber” in his version of the song…

  3. Reinhard says:

    Jon’s words are nearly identical to those that Dick Gaughan sang in 1972 on No More Forever,
    only in the last two verses there are some different phrases. What a cruel but noble murderer!

  4. John Phipps says:

    It seems if he went to the third sister first he would have had a happy family reunion and it would have been a cheerier song. On the other hand if the first sister had been more obliging it would have gone from a murder ballad to an incest ballad. Deuced tricky folk music.

  5. Reinhard says:

    I wonder why Nic Jones’s robber wasn’t the sisters’ brother. Are the Merkins so prude that even a hint of a possibilty of incest is taboo?

  6. Adam says:

    Looking at the Child collection, I see that his E version, from “Kinloch’s Ancient Scottish Ballads”, has for verse 18 “Then for their life ye sair shall dree; / Ye sall be hangit on a tree, / Or thrown into the poisond lake, / To feed the toads and rattle-snake.” So it seems that the presence of the rattlesnake does not necessarily signify an American origin.

    And turning my collection of songbooks from New England, the robber is indeed the brother of his victims in most if not all of the versions.

    Interesting to see that in some of Child’s versions the baddy is a banished lord and not just a common robber.

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

    I’m sorry folks….I must be missing something here.
    This is the worst folk song I have ever come across.
    No tune and repetitive, rubbish words.
    In Jon’s version there is nothing to say that the “ne’er do well” is the brother, which would have added an “oooer missus” moment.
    The other version at least has a gallant brother coming to the rescue.
    I would have been happy if the loathsome fellow had twined his own life with his wee pen knife in the first verse!

  8. John Biggs says:

    I am with muzza all the way on this one. If only he had gone to the third sister first, he could have completed his gruesome task and we could have been spared a great deal of twining. I cant visualise it going down a storm at our local’s ‘sing out’ session so it is not going on my ‘to learn’ list I’m afraid.

  9. Diana says:

    Sorry, did not care for this song at all – much too mournful as well as tragic.

  10. John Biggs (Welsh Marches) says:

    The body count must rival that of an episode of ‘Midsummer Murders’

  11. Diana says:

    How right you are but not so entertaining.

  12. Terry McDonald says:

    I’ve just learned an American version from the singing of Tim O’Brien and I think it has a great melody. He calls it Fair Flowers of the Valley and it can be heard on MySpace.

  13. Peter Walsh says:

    I believe it’s on Tim’s album Fiddler’s Green, thanks for spotting that Terry! I agree with Muzza that the song is very repetitive, but I like the ending in Jon’s version. On the whole, though, it doesn’t ‘float my boat’ as Janie would say….

    Speaking of Teddo, I must thank her for treating me to Phil Beer unplugged on my birthday; that was something very special. Phil is hoping to find more venues that will lend themselves to performance with no amplification, for a longer unplugged tour next year. I wish him luck. It’s probably easy to find small halls where it works, but if you’re looking for one with capacity for a few hundred people, that could be tricky!

  14. Jane Ramsden says:

    Well, I am less struck by the ‘why didn’t he go to the third sister first’ than why didn’t the other two say summat to him first?!! Did they not know what the third sister knew? And where was the ‘brother in yonder tree’ while all that sister-killing was going on? Or was that when he shinned up the tree? Beggars belief! Hahahahahahaha! Clearly, t’was just a device to make & resolve a good ol’ folky murder ballad. Having said that, I rather like it… even if it does not wholly ‘float my boat’ as I am repuTed to say!

    Mr Beer at Otley Courthouse, however, did… Unplugged he may have been, but electric nonetheless. A fine one-man performance despite the heat of the night, with much life-is-funnier-than-jokes humour, Phil-osophy and an education on sources of songs.

    In particular, he mentioned the late great Levon Helm who died 19 April this year. I expect many people on here know of and about him, but I didn’t. Here is a Wiki-link for those in the same (floating) boat as me:

    I did not realise that was whom Elton John named his son after, nor that The Band had played so extensively with Bob Dylan, including on my favourite album of his (that no-one else seems to rate much) ‘Planet Waves.’ Phil Beer played ‘Arcadian Driftwood’ – one of a list of great songs I never knew came from The Band, such as ‘The Weight,’ ‘This Wheel’s on Fire,’ ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ & ‘Up on Cripple Creek.’ Lots of Levon to listen to on YouTube, playing with many other musicians including (Ringo’s) All Star(r) Band:

  15. Jane Ramsden says:

    Another American country music singer-songwriter Phil Beer covered was Mac McAnally (Wiki here: whose catchy song ‘Volcano’ played out the first half of the gig:

    Not to forget what has now become something of a Phil Beer signature tune, Hoyt Axton’s ‘Blind Fiddler.’

    On his 1975 album ‘Southbound,’ Axton awas accompanied on fiddle by John Hartford, who released an album of traditional American fiddle music in 1998 called ‘The Speed of the Old Long Bow: A Tribute to Ed Haley.’ It is a tribute to the legendary Kentucky/West Virginia old-time fiddler, Blind Ed Haley. Sample here:

    Phew! That’s all, folks!

  16. Mark says:

    Really surprised by all the downers on this one – I think it’s great! Interesting to hear a different version to Nic Jones’. Mind you I’ve always been keen on the bleak stuff.

  17. Jane Ramsden says:

    I understand my Wiki-link about Mac McAnally above doesn’t work correctly so here’s a replacement:

  18. OldMuzza (N.W Surrey-UK) says:

    Just read all the comments and so didn’t listen again…wot a pleb I am!

  19. Old Muzza (NW Surrey) says:

    Mothers and Fathers……………don’t give your children penknives…ends in tears…
    off to Exeter till Tuesday and will have to catch up…I’ll probably be able to write a new folk song called ‘Stuck in traffic at Stonehenge on the old 303’ (with many verses)

  20. Old Muzza(NW Surrey UK) says:

    Oh how right I was…………an hour of slow moving Stonehenge traffic as we did the usual…two lines of traffic filtering into one- over three miles……..but glorious weather in Devon……..I believe my home in lil ol Surrey is having a few wet patches!

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