Here’s one of those songs I have been meaning to learn for years… well over 30 years, in fact having originally heard it in the early 1980s on the LP 1977 by Bob Davenport and the Rakes.
Bob Davenport learned it from the Scottish traveller singer and accordion player, Davie Stewart. You can find Davie’s version on Classic Ballads of Britain and Ireland Vol. 2, the Rounder Records reissue of the Caedmon / Topic anthology The Child Ballads 2 from the Folk Songs of Britain series (hint: it’s easier and considerably cheaper to buy this album as a download than an actual CD).
There are various theories about this song being based on actual people and events (see the song’s entry on the Mainly Norfolk website). But whether or not there’s any historical basis for the song is really irrelevant – it makes no difference to the power of the story and the song.
The verse which always caught my attention was
Her hair it was three quarters long
The colour of it was yellow
She’s wrapped it round his middle so small
And she’s carried him home from Yarrow.
The image of the grieving lover with her hair “three quarters long” is what always came into my head whenever I thought of this song, and it’s that which – finally – prompted me to learn the song.
Back in the autumn I had a conversation with an artist friend, Cathy Ward, about taking part in an exhibition she’ll be putting on at Conquest House in Canterbury, in May this year. Over the years Cathy has produced a number of astonishingly detailed drawings of, or inspired by, women’s hair. I’ve placed a couple of examples below, and you can see plenty more on her website at http://www.catharyneward.com/project/drawing-archive/. As far as I know, Cathy has never turned her hand to illustrating Child Ballads, but if she decides to give it a go, this song might be the obvious place to start.
Dowie Dens of Yarrow