Most disturbing folk songs in history
1. Died for Love
Matters of the heart have a habit of turning red, raw and bloody in traditional songs, and so it goes with Died for Love, also known as A Sailor’s Life, Sweet William, and Willie the Bold Sailor Boy (and performed by everyone from Fairport Convention to The Watersons). It’s a tale of a woman pining for her true love who has set out to sea and not returned. Desperate to find him, she sets out to sea herself and meets the Queen’s ship. She asks if they have seen William, and after some discussion over the cut and colour of his coat and hair, they tell her he has drowned.
Some versions of the song end here, but Died for Love (as performed here by Martin and Eliza Carthy) continues, with a verse in which her father enters her bedroom to find her “hanging by a rope”, with a note attached to her chest asking him to bury her with marble stones at her head and feet, with a snow-white dove in the middle, “just to let the world know that I died for love.”
2. The Cruel Mother
This queasy tale of infanticide has been sung by everyone from Cecilia Costello to The Dubliners (who recorded a version called Weile Weile Waile) and Nancy Kerr. It concerns a woman who kills her two new-born children with a knife. But the blade becomes unwashable – the more she wipes it, the “more red” it grows. She then meets two babies in the entrance to a church, and tells them she’d treat them wonderfully if they were hers. They turn out to be the ghosts of her children, who tell her that she’s bound for hell.
3. The Unquiet Grave
Also known as One True Love and Cold Blows the Wind (as performed above by Bellowhead), this is a song of mourning that takes a dark turn into gothic nihilism. A woman throws herself on the grave of her true love, desperate for one last kiss to relieve her grief. Her passion is such that, after a year-long graveside vigil, her man rises up to speak to her, so that he can truly rest in peace. She begs for a kiss, but he warns her that his lips are “cold as the clay” and that a kiss from him would end her life too.
In the Shirley Collins version, he then explains that their love, while it was once “the fairest flower that e’er was seen / Has withered to the stalk”, going on to add: “The stalk is withered dry, true love / So must our hearts decay / Then rest yourself content, my dear / Till God calls you away”. Which is the kind of stark message from the hereafter that you never really got in Ghost.
4. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll
This account of the death of a black hotel worker is drawn from contemporary history – Bob Dylan wrote it almost as soon as the court case had ended – and yet it has a theme that runs as far back through folk music history as the texts allow us to see. It’s about people in the higher echelons of society abusing those who are lower down and appearing to get away with it. In this case, it’s 24-year-old tobacco plantation owner William Zantzinger, who rapped Hattie Carroll with his cane for not serving his drink fast enough. She collapsed and died of heart failure, and he received a six-month jail sentence.
In this documentary, made by Howard Sounes, author of Down the Highway: The Life of Bob Dylan, we find out more about the case from first hand witnesses, and even hear from Zantzinger himself, who turns out not to be much of a Dylan fan.
5. Cold Haily Rainy Night
There are plenty of folk songs that warn young women against the reputation-shredding advances of lecherous men, from the direct O Soldier Won’t You Marry Me to the poetic Let No Man Steal Your Thyme. Cold Haily Rainy Night (or Cold Blow and a Rainy Night, Let Me In This Ae Nicht and even The Laird o’ Windy Wa’s) has retained its potency as a stark contrast between what people will say to get what they want, and how they will behave once they get it.
The song – as performed by Jeannie Robertson, Steeleye Span, Planxty and The Imagined Village – tells the story of a handsome soldier or traveller stuck outside the window of a young woman on a rotten evening. He begs to come inside to get warm (“oh my hat is frozen to my head, my feet are like two lumps of lead”), and despite the risk of discovery, she eventually lets him in and one thing leads to another. She proposes marriage, but he’s not interested, puts his hat back on and heads out into the storm, leaving her reputation in tatters.