Folk music: our window into crime and punishment from another age

An unusual new anthology shows the traditional folk ballad’s power to capture our transgressions and traumas

September 07, 2021
“Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard” in broadsheet form, dated late 17th century. The best-known version was performed by Fairport Convention. Image rights: the Bodleian Library
“Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard” in broadsheet form, dated late 17th century. The best-known version was performed by Fairport Convention. Image rights: the Bodleian Library

Stephen Sedley is a retired Appeal Court judge and former visiting professor of law at Oxford University. During his time as a QC, he specialised in human rights cases and in judicial review, and he has written authoritatively on the relationship between judges and parliament. He has also always been interested in folk music: not least as a result of his experiences as a young barrister defending travellers in Kent and listening to some of his clients’ performances. 

Martin Carthy is the doyen of English folk singers. He has performed as a solo artist, as part of two of the best-known folk-rock groups that emerged in Britain in the 1970s (the Albion Band and Steeleye Span) and as a duo with the late fiddle virtuoso Dave Swarbrick. He is married to Norma Waterson, who played in traditional folk group the Watersons, and he is the father of one of Britain’s most successful folk singers of the modern generation, Eliza Carthy. He has inspired generations of other performers, including teaching Paul Simon the song “Scarborough Fair.”

On the face of it, Sedley and Carthy are an unlikely pair of literary collaborators. But together they have written an unusual book which combines deftly their respective areas of expertise. Who Killed Cock Robin? is an examination of how the themes of crime and punishment were treated in traditional folk music in Britain.

In this book, they illuminate the unique nature of folk music itself. Of all the forms of musical expression, this is the one which is rooted in something deeper than just the sounds of performance. Folk music is an inherent part of a nation’s culture and identity. It is the music of its people, not of its rulers. It is a thread which binds generations together, which links our own experiences with those of our ancestors, and which exemplifies the enduring realities of the human condition.   

The structure Sedley and Carthy have adopted is to identify, chapter by chapter, a number of generic crimes (poaching, affray and riot, various forms of homicide, piracy, incest, arson, cheating and thieving, rape) and types of punishment (prison, hanging, deportation); and to illustrate them in each case with a few examples of songs which address the issue. 

Each chapter begins with a brief analysis of the state of the law, or of judicial practice, in relation to the crime or punishment concerned, followed by an account of how this has changed over the years. This in turn is followed by a description of the origin and context of the songs selected that reflect on the treatment of such crimes in traditional music. A musical notation is provided for each song to show the basic tune, together with a complete text and an explanation of any unusual or dialect words. 

The songs are all taken from one or other, or both, of the two classic repositories of British folk songs: the collection of 305 ballads published by Francis John Child in the second half of the 19th century, and the much larger index of 25,000 songs collected by Steve Roud from 1970 onwards. The English Folk Dance and Song Society, the governing body as it were of traditional English music, is a co-publisher of the new book and is the source of much of the background material on the songs themselves. 

Many of them are so-called broadsheet ballads: songs which were distributed widely, usually published on a single sheet of cheap paper in the period following the development of the printing press. They mostly originate from the 18th and 19th centuries. They are all from England or Scotland (and indeed many of the ones from England emanate from Northumberland or the border country). Welsh and Irish songs do not feature, although the Irish pub classic “The Black Velvet Band” is included in the chapter on cheating in a version which, though it is set in Belfast, was paradoxically collected in Kent. 

“Folk is the music of a nation’s people, not of its rulers”

There are other cases too where the form of the song cited is not the one which might be familiar to those who enjoy contemporary folk music. In the chapter on homicide, for example, the song “Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard” is included. It is the story of a young lad who seduces, or is seduced by, the wife of the local lord, who is then betrayed by her page when in her bed and is then killed, along with his paramour, when her husband returns. It is an honour killing. But the song is nowadays better known under the title “Matty Groves” in the versions recorded by Joan Baez and Fairport Convention. It might also have been worth observing that the 17th-century border ballad “Lord Randall” provided the tune and refrain for one of Bob Dylan’s early and best-known works, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.”

Traditional music can be enjoyed without its lyrics, but instead for the quality of its melodies and the artistry of its performers. But it is the words which give it its unique place in our heritage. The songs in this book are quite different to those of the French minstrelsy tradition or to the German tales of gloom and horror. They are not ballads of courtly love composed by troubadours for the delectation of royal courts or the ménage of the nobility. They are about the everyday experiences of ordinary people, many doubtless illiterate, for whom this was the only means of communicating across the generations. They are mostly stories based on incidents which may or may not have happened, but which reflect a lived world, not a realm of fantasy or imagination. They were sung either on their own or accompanied by a fiddle, pipe or hurdy gurdy, and were passed down via an oral tradition.

Most of the crimes featured in the book are ones which would, at the time the song was first performed, have been generally accepted as wrong, even if the punishment was by modern standards excessive. The one exception is poaching. The relevant chapter’s introduction explains how complex the law was and how, for many people living in the countryside, it had no legitimacy, but merely added to the resentment of those who viewed the ability to take game as a traditional right and an important source of food. In truth these artificial felonies introduced had a wider motivation: according to TheShooting Directory of 1804, they were implemented to “prevent popular insurrection and resistance to the government by disarming the bulk of the people.”

The songs relating to poaching reflect the underlying ambivalence about its gravity. It could result in the death penalty; or it could be viewed as little more than a game of wits between gamekeepers and residents. The songs relating to it thus exhibit a mixture of caution, penitence and bravado. The older ones, like “Johnnie of Cockerslee,” reflect a sense of doom in which the poacher is eventually killed. Others portray it as an activity full of joy and confidence. “The Lincolnshire Poacher,” probably the best-known poaching song of all (“for a shiny night is my delight in the season of the year”), is in this latter category.  

Unsurprisingly, given the focus of the book on crime and punishment, murder features prominently. In each of the cases referred to in the songs there is little doubt about the guilt of the individual concerned. The interest lies either in the circumstances, for example mistaken identity of the victim (the wrong officer in “McCaffrey” and a man’s true love instead of a swan in “Polly Vaughan”) or, as in many instances, the role of adultery or sexual jealousy. This chapter of the book also features one of the strangest folk songs of the English tradition, one which unusually includes an element of fantasy. “The Famous Flower of Serving Men” is a tale in which a mother destroys her daughter’s home (for unexplained reasons) and murders her child; the daughter escapes and passes as a boy, entering the service of a king who eventually recognises her and seeks vengeance on her behalf. When the mother is betrayed by a white hind and a dove—I said it was fantastical—the king burns her alive.

Women feature prominently in many of the crime stories, sometimes as victims of sexual assault or abduction (the son of Rob Roy MacGregor boasts in one of the songs of raping a young heiress), but often as instigators. In the chapter on cheats and thieves, three of the songs (“Maggie May,” “Tom’s Gone to Hilo” and “The Oyster Girl”) recount their ability to deceive naive men and take their money; in “The Black Velvet Band” it is a girl who slips a watch into a young man’s hand and then accuses him of stealing it. 

Many of the songs about crime have a cheerful element to them, or at least a happy ending. Those about punishment are uniformly gloomy. Transportation to Australia was a common punishment for poaching, and the final verse of “Van Diemen’s Land” summarises the feelings of those who suffered it: 

Come all you gallant poachers, give ear unto my song
I’ll give to you some good advice although it is not
Lay by your dog and gun and snare, to you I will
    speak plain                                                              
If you knew the hardships we endure you’d never poach again. 

The chapter on transportation also features the only song in the collection to have achieved the distinction of reaching number five in the pop music hit parade. “All Around My Hat,” the story of a young man who promises to wait for his lover to return, was recorded in 1975 by the folk-rock group Steeleye Span and is still featured in their repertoire. More bizarrely, one of the prison songs, “I Wish There Was No Prisons,” provided the tune for “Dixie,” the marching song of the Confederate States in the American Civil War. 

Most of the songs in this collection are still performed by folk singers today. Some have evolved into other forms of popular music or have provided the inspiration for musicians who have developed them in their own personal styles. English and Scottish traditional music contains no single defining epic poem, no Iliad or Odyssey, no Kalevala. Its richness and its singularity lies in songs like the ones in this book: tales of ordinary lives and ordinary human experiences, in this case the experiences of crime and punishment. What Sedley and Carthy have produced is not just a musical compendium. It is a bridge to our past. 

Who Killed Cock Robin? British Folk Songs of Crime and Punishment by Stephen Sedley and Martin Carthy (Reaktion, £14.99) is out now