"The Wife of Usher's Well
" is a traditional ballad
A ballad is a form of verse, often a narrative set to music. Ballads were particularly characteristic of British and Irish popular poetry and song from the later medieval period until the 19th century and used extensively across Europe and later the Americas, Australia and North Africa. Many...
, catalogued as Child Ballad 79, originally from Britain
The former Kingdom of Great Britain, sometimes described as the 'United Kingdom of Great Britain', That the Two Kingdoms of Scotland and England, shall upon the 1st May next ensuing the date hereof, and forever after, be United into One Kingdom by the Name of GREAT BRITAIN. was a sovereign...
, and is more particularly considered a Scottish ballad, but also popular in North America
North America is a continent wholly within the Northern Hemisphere and almost wholly within the Western Hemisphere. It is also considered a northern subcontinent of the Americas...
. No complete original version has survived, but the song has been "remade" in America in a cohesive form.
The ballad concerns a woman from Usher's Well, who sends her three sons away, to school in some versions, and a few weeks after learns that they had died. The woman grieves bitterly for the loss of her children, cursing the winds and sea.
- "I wish the wind may never cease,
- Nor fashes in the flood,
- Till my three sons come home to me,
- In earthly flesh and blood."
The song implicitly draws on an old belief that one should mourn a death for a year and a day, for any longer may cause the dead to return; it has this in common with the ballad "The Unquiet Grave
"The Unquiet Grave" is an English folk song in which a young man mourns his dead love too hard and prevents her from obtaining peace. It is thought to date from 1400 and was collected in 1868 by Francis James Child, as Child Ballad number 78....
". When the children return to their mother around Martinmas it is as revenants
In traditional belief and fiction, a ghost is the soul or spirit of a deceased person or animal that can appear, in visible form or other manifestation, to the living. Descriptions of the apparition of ghosts vary widely from an invisible presence to translucent or barely visible wispy shapes, to...
, not, as she hoped, "in earthly flesh and blood", and it is a bleak affair. They wear hats made of birch
Birch is a tree or shrub of the genus Betula , in the family Betulaceae, closely related to the beech/oak family, Fagaceae. The Betula genus contains 30–60 known taxa...
, which is said to protect the dead from the influences of the living, from a tree that grows at the gates of Paradise. The mother expects a joyous reunion, in some versions preparing a celebratory feast for them, which, as subjects of Death, they are unable to eat. They consistently remind her that they are no longer living; they are unable to sleep as well, and must depart at the break of day.
- "The cock doth craw, the day doth daw,
- The channerin worm doth chide;
- Gin we be mist out o our place,
- A sair pain we maun bide."
The most popular versions in America have a different tone, and an overtly religious nature. They return at Christmas
Christmas or Christmas Day is an annual holiday generally celebrated on December 25 by billions of people around the world. It is a Christian feast that commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ, liturgically closing the Advent season and initiating the season of Christmastide, which lasts twelve days...
, rather than Martinmas, and happily return to their Savior at the end. Indeed, Jesus may speak to her at the end, telling her she had nine days to repent; she dies at that time and is taken to heaven.
The ballad has much in common with some variants of The Clerk's Twa Sons O Owsenford
-Synopsis:The clerk's two sons seduce the two daughters of a mayor. The mayor sentences them to hang. Their father comes to plead for them, but is unsuccessful...
. The Christmas appearance has been cited to explain why, in that ballad, the two sons are executed, but their father tells their mother they will return at Christmas; the father may mean they will return as ghosts.
A version of the ballad by folk-rock pioneers Steeleye Span
Steeleye Span are an English folk-rock band, formed in 1969 and remaining active today. Along with Fairport Convention they are amongst the best known acts of the British folk revival, and were among the most commercially successful, thanks to their hit singles "Gaudete" and "All Around My Hat"....
can be heard on their 1975
-January–April:*January 2 - New York City U.S. District Court Judge Richard Owen rules that former Beatle John Lennon and his lawyers can have access to Department of Immigration files pertaining to his deportation case....
album All Around My Hat
Andreas Scholl is a German countertenor, a male classical singer in the alto vocal range. He is noted as a specialist in Baroque music.-Childhood:...
performs the song on the album "Wayfaring Stranger: Folksongs" (2001).
2010 Quondam Play
In autumn 2010 Quondam toured an Arts Council England
Arts Council England was formed in 1994 when the Arts Council of Great Britain was divided into three separate bodies for England, Scotland and Wales. It is a non-departmental public body of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport...
supported "new play with songs" called "The Wife of Usher's Well" to 27 venues. Inspired by the border ballard, this reprised the historic text in a new setting of a mother's losing her son in the war in Afghanistan (cover image of programme). The writer was Jules Horne and the cast was Helen Longworth
Helen Longworth is a British actor. She has appeared in many radio plays including playing Zofia in two series of On Mardle Fen, Susie Dean in The Good Companions and Marina in Pericles...
, Danny Kennedy, Ruth Tapp and Andrew Whitehead.