Apparently early versions of the ballad ‘Fair Annie’ travelled across Europe in the 13th century, but it was first collected and printed in Britain in the eighteenth century, in Scotland. Francis Childs recorded a number of different variants in his ‘English and Scottish Popular Ballads’, and you can consult them online here.
The basic story line of the song is as follows. Lord Thomas tells his mistress, Annie (with whom he has had seven sons) that he is going across the sea to collect a bride. ‘With her I will get gold and gear; with you I never got none’. He tells Annie that her new job will be to keep his house when he brings his bride home., and this she does with dignity.
However, the new bride (who is never named) turns out to be the hero of the story. When she arrives at the castle she notices the resemblance of her new maid, Annie, to her long-lost sister. She goes through her wedding with Lord Thomas and retires to his chamber with him. However, before her marriage is consummated she hears weeping through the wall; she goes to Annie and questions her about her parentage, and it turns out that Annie is indeed her long-lost sister who had been stolen away years before by a knight who came ‘o’er the sea’. So she gives her dowry to Annie and her children and returns home.
In 1983 Peter Bellamy recorded a version of ‘Fair Annie’ as the title track on a privately issued cassette of the same name; he apparently compiled his (Anglicised) version of the song from variants he found in Bronson’s ‘Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads‘. You can listen to Peter Bellamy singing his version of ‘Fair Annie’ at we7 here. Here is his version of the lyrics:
“Comb back your hair, Fair Annie,” he said,
“Comb it back into your crown.
For you must live a maiden’s life
When I bring my new bride home.”
“Oh, how can I look maidenlike
When maiden I am none?
For six fair sons have I had by you
And a seventh coming on?”
“Oh, you will bake my bread,” he said,
“And you will keep my home.
And you will welcome my lady gay
When I bring my bridal home.”
And on the door he’s hung a silken towel,
Pinned by a silver pin,
That Fair Annie she might wipe her eyes
As she went out and in.
Now, six months gone and nine comin’ on
And she thought the time o’er-long.
So she’s taken a spyglass all in her hand
And up to the tower she has run.
She has look-ed east, she has look-ed west,
She has looked all under the sun,
And who should she see but Lord Thomas
All a-bringin’ of his bridal home.
So she has called for her seven sons
By one, by two, by three,
And she has said to her eldest son,
“Oh, come tell me what you see.”
So he’s look-ed east, he has look-ed west,
He has looked all under the sun.
And who should he see but his father dear,
He was bringin’ of his new bride home.
So it’s, “Shall I dress in green?” she said,
“Or shall I dress in black?
Or shall I go down to the ragin’ main
And send my soul to wrack?”
“Oh, you need not dress in green,” he said,
“Nor you need not dress in black.
But throw you wide the great hall door
And welcome my father back.”
So it’s, “Welcome home, Lord Thomas,” she said,
“And you’re welcome unto me.
And welcome, welcome, your merry men all
That you’ve brought across the sea.”
And she’s serv-ed them with the best of the wine,
Yes, she’s serv-ed them all ’round.
But she’s drunk water from the well
For to keep her spirits down.
And she’s wait-ed upon them all the livelong day,
And she thought the time o’er long.
Then she’s taken her flute all in her hand
And up to her bower she has run.
She has fluted east, she has fluted west,
She has fluted loud and shrill.
She wished that her sons were seven greyhounds
And her a wolf on the hill.
Then, “Come downstairs,” the new bride said,
“Oh, come down the stairs to me.
And tell me the name of your father dear,
And I’ll tell mine to thee.”
“Well, King Douglas,it was my father’s name
And Queen Chatryn was my mother;
And Sweet Mary, she was my sister dear
And Prince Henry was my brother.”
“If King Douglas, it is your father’s name
And Queen Chatryn is your mother,
Then I’m sure that I’m your sister dear
As Prince Henry, he is your brother.”
“And I have seven ships out on the sea
They are loaded to the brim.
And six of them will I give to you
And one more to carry me home.
Yes, six of them will I give to you
When we’ve had Lord Thomas burned!”
This version has the advantage of being quite a bit shorter than those found in the Child Ballads; however, the disadvantage is that certain parts of the story (e.g. the fact that the new bride had a long-lost sister and noted Annie’s resemblance to her when she first arrived at Lord Thomas’ castle) are not as clear.
Martin Simpson has used Peter Bellamy’s version as the basis for his rendering of ‘Fair Annie’, which was recorded on his superb 2001 CD ‘The Bramble Briar‘. His lyrics are almost identical to Bellamy’s, but his tune (although based around the same chord structure as Bellamy’s) is somewhat different. Martin Simpson is of course a superb guitar player, but to my mind his guitar virtuosity distracts somewhat from the power of the story. Bellamy is not as good a singer as Simpson, but his simple melodion accompaniment allows the story to stay in the forefront. You can listen to Martin’s version at we7 here. There’s also a video of Martin performing the song at a guitar workshop in 2009 with a few extra verses which do not appear on his ‘Bramble Briar’ recording – although on this occasion he has difficulty remembering them all, something we traditional folk singers will find vaguely reassuring!
I sing Martin’s version of the ‘Fair Annie’ lyrics, with a much simplified guitar part, and I hope to put it on the CD I’m currently in the early stages of recording. To my mind it is one of the most beautiful and moving of the traditional folk ballads.