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 Moira Cameron:  Special Feature
on Ballads and Balladeers


On this page, I am taking the opportunity to feature balladeers or ballads that I think are special in some way.  I also will periodically share articles on being a ballad singer.  If you have any comments or information on anything I've listed here, please let me know.  Email me at celtarctic@yk.com.


"Coming Back Through Ballads" | "Ballad Pilgrimage"


Duncan Williamson, Tommy Makem, Margaret MacArthur, Ed McCurdy


Tamlin, Four Green Fields, Black Jack Davy, Reynardine

For a special page dedicated to my most important source, see Stewart Cameron



Duncan Williamson telling a story to children

November 2007 - Duncan Williamson and "Tamlin"

This fall, fellow balladeer and friend, Lorne Brown, emailed me to tell me Duncan Williamson had just died.  I was lucky to meet Duncan once when he came over to Canada from Scotland to tell stories and sing ballads at the Toronto Storytelling festival.  I knew about him prior to meeting him because of the books he had published of traditional tales told by the travellers in Scotland.  But I had never heard him sing.

Duncan was born in 1928 to a family of Travelling people.  His family, mostly illiterate, had in its possession a wealth of stories and ballads, which were naturally passed on orally to Duncan.  Later in his life, his wife, Linda, convinced him to publish his enormous collection of traditional tales.  Duncan would often preface his performances with a comment on the importance of honouring one's sources:  "...when you tell a story, or sing a song, the person you heard it from is standing behind you..."  His stories were published in several books over the years.  By the time he came to Toronto, he was fairly well known as a storyteller.

However, it was his singing of Tamlin that I will always remember most.  It was the last evening of the storytelling festival.  Several of the performers were invited to share one piece each in the grand finale concert held at the Tranzac Club in Toronto.  Duncan got up and sang a ballad.  Although I had heard other renditions of Tamlin before, I heard Duncan's version as if I had never heard the story before.  It came across as fresh and real, as though the story were actually unfolding before me.  By the ballad's climactic end, I was moved to tears.  I was determined right then and there that I would learn Tamlin.

It was several years after that before I found a version of the ballad I felt inspired to learn.  Although my true source for the version I sing is Balladeer Frankie Armstrong, the person I think of each time I sing the ballad is Duncan Williamson.  So, because there's always two people standing behind me when I sing this story, I've included both versions below.  I recorded Frankie's version on my third album, Sands of the Shore.

LYRICS:  Tamlin

SOURCE:  Duncan Williamson

(recorded by Lorne Brown in his home)

SOURCE:  Frankie Armstrong

Oh Lady Margaret she sat in her high chamber

She was sewing her silken seam

She lookit West and she lookit East

And she saw those woods grow green, grow green,

She saw those woods grow green.


So taking up her petticoats

Beneath her Harlan gown,

And when she came to the merry green woods

There she let them down, down…


For she had not pulled one nut, one nut,

One nut no scarcely three,

When the highest Lord in all the countryside

Came riding through the trees, trees…


“How dare you pull those nuts, those nuts,

How dare you bend my trees,

How dare you come to my merry green woods

Without the leave of me…”


“But sir, one times those woods were mine,

Without the leave of yours,

And I can pull those nuts, those nuts,

And I can bend those trees…”


So he took her gently by the hand,

And he gently laid her down,

And when he had his will of her,

He rose her up again…


She said, “Now you’ve had your will of me,

Come tell to me your name.

And if a baby I should have,

I will call it the same…”


He said, “I am a young son from Carlisle,

And I owned all those hills so green,

But I was taken when I was small

By an evil faerie Queen…


But tomorrow night is Hallowe’en,

And all these nobles you could see.

If you were to come to the five mile gate

There you could set me free…


Oh first there will come some dark, some dark,

Then there will come some brown.

But when there comes a milk-white steed,

You may pull the rider down…


Oh first I’ll turn to a wicked snake,

And then to a lion so wild.

But hold me fast and fear me not,

I may be the father of your child…


And then I’ll turn to a naked man,

Oh an angry man I’ll be.

Just throw your mantle over me

And then you shall have me free.”…


So that night at the midnight hour

Lady Margaret made her way.

And when she came to the five mile gate,

She waited patiently…


First there came some dark, some dark,

Then there came some brown.

But when there came the milk-white steed,

She pulled the rider down…


First her turned to a wicked snake,

And then to a lion so wild.

She held it fast and feared it not;

He may be the father of her child…


Then he turned to a naked man,

And an angry man was he.

She threw her mantle over him,

And then she had him free…


Then cried the voice of the faerie Queen,

Oh an angry Queen was she,

“If I had of known yesterday

What I have known today,

I would have took out your very heart’s blood

And put in a heart of clay…


So Lady Margaret on the milk-white steed,

Lord William on his dappled grey,

With a bugle and a horn hanging down by his side,

It’s merrily they rode away

Lady Margaret, Lady Margaret, sewing of her seam

And she's all dressed in black

When a thought come to her head, she'd run into the woods

And pick flowers to flower her hat, her hat, pick flowers…


So she lifted up her petticoat a bit above her knee

And so nimbly she's run o'er the plain,

And when she came to the merry green wood,

She pulled them branches down, down...


And suddenly she spied a fine young man

Who stood underneath a tree

Saying, "How dare you pull those branches down

Without the leave of me, lady..."


She said, "This little wood, it is me very own;

Me father give it me,

And I can pull these branches down

Without the leave of you, young man..."


He's ta'en her by the lily white hand

And by the grass-green sleeve

And he's lain her down at the foot of a bush,

And he never once asked her leave, oh no...


And when it was done, she's turned herself around

To ask her true love's name;

But she nothing saw and nothing heard

And all the woods grew dim, they did...


Four and twenty maidens all in the court

Grew red as any rose

Excepting the young Margaret;

And as green as glass she goes, she goes...


Then up and spoke the first serving girl,

She lifted her head and smiled,

Saying, "I think me lady's loved too long

And now she grows with child, me dears..."


Then up and spoke the second serving girl,

"Ever and alas!" said she.

"I think I know a herb in the merry green wood

That will twine your babe from thee, Lady..."


So Margaret's taken up the silver comb,

Made haste to comb her hair

And she's away to the merry green wood

As fast as she can tear, can tear...


But she hadn't pulled a herb in that merry green wood,

A herb but barely one,

When by her came young Tamlin

Saying, "Margaret, leave it alone, me dear...


"Oh why do you pick that bitter little herb,

That herb that grows so gray,

To take away your sweet babe's life

That we got in our play, Lady..."


"Oh tell me the truth, young Tamlin," she said,

"If an earthly man you be."

"I'll tell you the truth, Lady Margaret," he said;

"I was christened the same as thee, Lady..."




"But as I rode out one cold and bitter day,

From off my horse I fell,

And the queen of Elfland, she took me

In yonder green hill to dwell, Lady..."


"But tonight it is the Hallowe'en

When the Elfin court must ride,

And if you would your true love win,

By the old mill bridge you must bide, my dear..."


"First will come the black horse, & then come by brown,

And then come by the white;

You must hold me fast and fear me not

And I will not you a-fright, my love..."


So Margaret's taken up the silver comb,

Made haste to comb her hair

And she's away to the old mill bridge

As fast as she can tear, can tear...


And at the dead hour of the night,

She heard the harness ring,

And, oh, that sound, it chilled her very heart

More than any mortal thing, it did...


First came by the black horse & then came by the brown

And then came by the white;

And she held it fast and feared it not

And it did not her a-fright, oh no...


Then the thunder rolled across the sky

And the stars, they blazed like day,

And the queen of Elflin gave a chilling cry:

"Oh young Tamlin's away, away..."


Then they have changed him all in her arms

To a lion that roared so wild,

But she held it fast and feared it not--

It was the father of her child, she knew...


Then they have changed him all in her arms

Into a loathsome snake,

But she held it fast and feared it not--

It was one of Gods own make, she knew...


Then they have changed him all in her arms

To a red hot bar of iron,

But she held it fast and feared it not--

And it did to her no harm, no harm...


And then they have changed him all in her arms

Into a naked man,

And she flung her mantle over him

Crying, "Oh my love, I've won, I've won..."


Then up and spoke the queen of Elfinland,

From the bush wherein she stood,

Saying, "I should have tore out your eyes, Tamlin,

And put into eyes of wood, of wood..."


Duncan Williamson, Margaret MacArthur, Ed McCurdy

August 2007 - Tommy Makem and "Four Green Fields": 

There are a few songwriters that stand out amongst others for writing one or more songs that are so important and well written they change how people think.  Tommy Makem was one such.   On August 1st, 2007, the folk music world mourned the loss of one of its most influential musicians.  I didn't know his music well, but I was very familiar with his work.  I learned one of his most famous compositions when I was about 10 years old, only vaguely understanding the issues alluded to in the song.  I learned the song from Toronto balladeer, Owen McBride, and even sang it as a duet with him years later at the Mariposa Folk Festival.

The song is political; its message shrouded in imagery.  It refers to what has recently become a shameful period of UK-Irish history.  Find out more about Makem and his legacy at http://www.makem.com/ .



Four Green Fields


SOURCE: Owen McBride

"What did I have?" said this fine old woman,

"What did I have?" this proud old woman did say.

"I had four green fields, each one was my jewel

Then strangers came and tried to take them from me.

I had fine strong sons, who fought to save my jewels

They fought and died, and that is my grief," said she.


"Long time ago," said this fine old woman,

"Long time ago," this proud old woman did say,

"There was war and death, plundering and pillage.

My children starved by mountain, river and sea,

And their wailing cries, they shook the very heavens,

And my four green fields ran red with their blood," said she.


"What have I now?" said this fine old woman,

"What have I now?" this proud old woman did say.

"I have four green fields; one of them's in bondage

In strangers' hands, that tried to take them from me.

But my sons have sons, as brave as were their fathers

And my four green fields will bloom once again," said she.


Duncan Williamson, Tommy Makem, Ed McCurdy

May 2006 - Margaret MacArthur and "Reynardine": 

I was very saddened to hear that my dear friend and fellow balladeer, Margaret, died May 23, 2006.  We only met face to face once, but the occasion was very memorable.  It was at the North American Folk Alliance Conference in Vancouver five years ago.  We shared a concert set with Paddy Tutty and swapped ballads from one to the other for an evening.  It was magical and inspiring for us as balladeers, and for the audience who came out to hear us.  Margaret and I kept in touch via email since then, but never managed to get together again.

When I heard she was ill, I rummaged through my tapes and found a rough recording someone had made of that wonderful evening in Vancouver.  On the tape was a version, sung by Margaret, of Reynardine.  I also sing a version of this, which I recorded on my first album, One Evening As I Rambled.  Margaret collected her version from Vermont, where she lives.  I am adding her version to my repertoire as a tribute to Margaret.






SOURCE: Margaret MacArthur

My thoughts and Impressions

One evening as I rambled, two miles below Pomroy,

I spied a pretty fair maiden all on the mountain high.

I said, "My pretty fair maiden, your beauty shines most clear,

And on this lonely mountain, I'm glad to meet you here."


I’m glad to meet you here

I’m glad to meet you here

And on this lonely mountain

I’m glad to meet you here.


She said, "Young man, be civil; my company forsake,

For to my great opinion, I fear you are a rake,

And if my parents knew of it, my life they would destroy,

For keeping of your company, all on the mountain high."


I said, “My dear, I am no rake, brought up in Venus' train,

But seeking for concealment, all in the judge's men.

Your beauty has ensnarèd me, I can not pass you by.

And with my gun I'll guard you, all on the mountain high.”

This pretty little fair maiden fell into amaze.

With her eyes as bright as amber upon me she did gaze.

Her ruby lips and cherry cheeks, they lost their former dye

And then she fell into my arms all on the mountains high


I had not kissed her once or twice when she came to again

And modestly she askèd me, “Sir, what is you name?"

“If you go to yonder forest, my castle there you’ll find.

Written in ancient history, my name is Reynardine."


I said, “My pretty fair maiden, don’t let your parents know,

For if you do, they’ll prove my rue, then Fate will overthrow.

When you come to look for me, perhaps you’ll not me find.

For I’ll be in my castle, just call for Reynardine.”


All you pretty fair maidens, a warning take by me.

Be sure you quit your roving, and shun bad company,.

For if you don’t, you'll surely rue until the day you die.

And beware of meeting Reynardine, all on the mountain high.

The tune Margaret uses is less melancholy than the one I recorded, but it doesn't jar with the story, as some tunes do.

I find it very interesting that until the last verse, this story is told entirely from Reynardine's perspective - it's all in first person.  I don't know if this was Margaret's own doing, or if she learned the ballad this way.  Most ballads of this type switch from first to third person.  In the version I recorded, you get the sense that the singer is a nosy bystander, listening in on the conversation between Reynardine and the girl, and offering his or her opinion on the former's shady character.


Duncan Williamson, Tommy Makem, Margaret MacArthur

May 2005 - Ed McCurdy and "Black Jack Davy": 

I've just recently learned this ballad off of a tape a friend sent me of Ed McCurdy singing ballads.  I don't know the origin of this particular version, although I suspect it comes from the United States, based on the phraseology.  Ed McCurdy was originally born un the US, but moved to Canada where he made a name for himself as a storyteller and ballad singer.  He recorded a number of songs originally collected by Canadian Maritime folklorist, Helen Creighton.


Black Jack Davy (Child Ballad #200)

SOURCE: Ed McCurdy

My thoughts and Impressions
Black Jack Davy came a-riding through the plain;
He sand so loud and clearly.
He made the green woods ‘round him ring
To charm the heart of the Lady
        To charm the heart of the Lady
“How old are you, my pretty little miss,
How old are you, my honey?”
She gave him an answer with a hug and a kiss – 
“I’ll be sixteen next Sunday…”
“Will you go with me, my pretty little miss,
Will you go with me, my honey?
I swear by the sword that hangs by my side
You never shall want for money…”
She took off her high-heeled shoes
All made of Spanish leather,
And she put on her low-heeled shoes,
And they rode off together…
The landlord he came home that night
Enquiring for his Lady.
The chambermaid made this reply:
“She’s gone with the Black Jack Davy…”

“Go bridle and saddle my little yellow mare;

The grey one’s not so speedy.

I’ve rode all day, but I’ll ride all night

And I’ll overtake my Lady…”


He rode ‘til he came to the dark blue sea –

It looked so dark and dreary.

There he spied his own dear bride

By the side of the Black Jack Davy…


“Will you forsake your house and home,

Will you forsake your baby?

Will you forsake your own married love

And go with the Black Jack Davy?


She took off her two blue gloves

All made of Spanish leather,

She gave him a wave with her lily white hand

And said ‘farewell’ forever...

I sing this song with autoharp accompaniment, although when I learned it, I began singing it acapella.  I noticed that the story of the ballad was subtly different when I added the instrumentation.  It was a difference I've not noted in a ballad before.

When I sing it unaccompanied, I take fewer  and shorter breaks in between lines and verses.  I tend to keep the rhythm more consistent without the instrument - which is ironic, because normally an instrument makes me more rhythmic, not less.

When I add the autoharp, I take little reflective breaks at certain key points in the story.

For instance, I take a break of a couple of measures between the 2nd and 3rd verses.  If I don't take this break here, it seems like Black Jack Davy decides to convince the lady to go with him without giving any thought to the idea.  With the break, I imagine him thinking quickly to himself, "I like this girl.  Maybe she'd like to come with me."

The difference may be subtle, but to my mind, the pauses, and what my imagination does to fill them, make the characters more realistic.  It was a pleasant discovery, even if it isn't a very noticeable one to my listeners.

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This page has been updated June 29, 2016