This is a proper traditional ballad where all the main characters end up unhappy and/or dead. Just for once, it features a young lady whose parents approve of her choice of life-partner but, needless to say, there’s a fly in the ointment. In this case it’s her brothers, who want her to marry a rich young lord. They promise to kill her unsuitable suitor, and are as good as their word, inviting him a to a fair, then doing him over with a couple of sticks (although in the interests of efficiency, and preserving the internal rhyme scheme, they might have done better to have used knives).
I learned this from an Irish traveller, Josie Connors, via the VWML cassette Early in the Month of Spring. This cassette presented recordings of Irish travellers made by Jim Carroll and Pat Mackenzie in various unromantic locations (e.g. an illegal camp underneath the Westway flyover in North Kensington) in and around London – Josie Connors, I think was recorded at Langley, near Slough. Most if not all of those recordings are now available on the Musical Traditions CD From Puck to Appleby.
The notes to that CD say
The plot of The Constant Farmer’s Son was used in the 14th century by Boccaccio in The Decameron and later made the subject of poems: by Nuremberg poet Hans Sachs in the 16th century and, in the early 19th century, by John Keats in his Isabella and the Pot of Basil.
Based on an older song, The Bramble Briar or Bruton Town, which has been described as ‘probably the song with the longest history in the English tradition’, it owes its continued popularity to its appearance on nineteenth century broadsides. A version from Hertfordshire in 1914 gives it as ‘Lord Burling’s (or Burlington’s) Sister or The Murdered Serving Man.
As well as being found widely in England, it is very popular in Ireland, though it has only appeared in print there a couple of times. It is included in the Sam Henry Collection which gives four sources and, more recently it was included in Fermanagh singer John Maguire’s autobiographical Come Day, Go Day, God Send Sunday. Josie learned it from her mother, a Dublin Traveller.
About twenty years ago I sang this song in a ballad session at Sidmouth. The collector Keith Summers was sitting near me. When I’d finished the song he just leaned across and said “You got it boy”. That’s one of those cryptic remarks which I may well have misinterpreted, but I’ve always taken it as a huge compliment from a man who had spent an enormous amount of time in the company of traditional singers.
The Constant Farmer’s Son