Continuing our Nicfest, today we have a song that appeared on his famous 1980 album ‘Penguin Eggs’ – but in my opinion, this live solo version is much better (Nic says on the sleeve notes to one of his live albums that even Julia, his wife, didn’t like what he’s done to Clyde Water – under the title of ‘Drowned Lovers’ – on Penguin Eggs). Once again, it comes from Nic’s collection of live recordings ‘Game, Set, and Match’.
Nowadays this is often thought of as an English folk song because the versions by Nic Jones, Martin Carthy, and Kate Rusby have become so well-known. However, it has in fact never been collected anywhere other than Scotland, and all the traditional versions are written in Scots brogue; Nic Jones may have been the first to Anglicize the lyrics, and Kate Rusby certainly got her version from him. One interesting change that Nic introduced is that the earlier versions all state that Willie’s nose began to bleed (apparently an old superstition that your lover was being unfaithful to you), but Nic changed this to ‘He’s doubting on fair Margaret’s love, and his heart began to bleed’.
This song, under the name ‘The Mother’s Malison’ (i.e. curse) appears as Ballad #216 in Francis J. Child’s ‘The English and Scottish Popular Ballads’, and the earliest version he quotes dates back to 1802. However, Child collected written texts, not oral songs from singers, and the oral versions no doubt considerably predate the written texts. A discussion on various versions of the song appears on Mudcat Café here, and Mainly Norfolk has its usual summary of British recordings here.
By the way, Kate Rusby’s version is available on YouTube here. Martin Carthy also has a very fine version, sung to a completely different tune, but I can’t find it on YouTube; it’s available from Amazon.com here.