Lady Maisery: ‘Willie’s Lady’

This is Child Ballad #6. The best known version is that originally created by Ray Fisher, who married the lyrics to a wonderful Breton drinking tune, and recorded it on her 1982 album Willie’s Lady. This version was recorded by Martin Carthy on his 1976 album ‘Crown of Horn’, and Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer have recently recorded an excellent version of it on their CD ‘Child Ballads’. But the version below by Lady Maisery features a tune written by Hazel Askew which is excellent, and also features a character called Billy the Blind who somehow got left out of Martin Carthy’s version.

Here are the lyrics as sung by Lady Maisery:

Oh Willie he’s crossed over the foam, He’s wooed a wife and he’s brought her home.

He wooed her for her golden hair, His mother thought her mighty care.

So wicked spells she’s cast on her, So from her babe she’d not be free.

But in her bower she sits in pain Whilst Willy mourns o’er her in vain.

So to his mother he has gone, That vilest witch of the rankest kind.

And says, “My lady has a cup With gold and silver set about.

“This goodly gift shall be your own If your relieve her of her bairn.”

“Oh of her babe she’ll not be free And she shall never lighter be.

“But she will die and turn to clay, And you shall wed with another maid.”

So Willy sighed and turned away, “I wish my life, I wish my life were at an end.”

“Oh go you to your mother again, That vilest witch of the rankest kind.

“And say your lady has a steed The like of which has ne’er been seen.

“For he has golden hooves before, And he has golden hooves behind.

“And just below that horse’s mane There hangs a bell on a golden chain.

“This goodly gift shall be your own If your relieve her of her bairn.”

“Oh of her babe she’ll not be free And she shall never lighter be.

“But she will die and turn to clay, And you shall wed with another maid.”

So Willy sighed and turned away, “I wish my life, I wish my life were at an end.”

“Oh go you to your mother again, That vilest witch of the rankest kind.

“And say your lady has a gown With rubies red all woven round.

“And every stitches made from gold The like of which is rarely seen.

“And at every golden hem Hangs fifty silver bells and ten.

“This goodly gift shall be your own If your relieve her of her bairn.”

“Oh of her babe she’ll not be free And she shall never lighter be.

“But she will die and turn to clay, And you shall wed with another maid.”

So Willy sighed and turned away, “I wish my life, I wish my life were at an end.”

Then up and spoke old Billy the Blind And he has spoken just in time,

Then up and spoke old Billy the Blind And he has spoken just in time:

“Oh go you down to the market place And there you’ll buy a loaf of wax.

“And shape a babe that is to nurse, An in it place two eyes of glass.

“And bid you mother to his christening day And you stand close by her right side.

“And never stray too far away But listen well to what she says.”

“Oh who has loosed the nine witch knots That were among this lady’s locks?

“And who has take the combs of care That hung among this lady’s hair?

“And who has killed the master kid That ran beneath this lady’s bed?

“And who has loosened her left shoe And let this lady lighter be?”

So Willie’s loosed the nine witch knots That were among this lady’s locks.

And Willie’s taken the combs of care That hung among this lady’s hair.

And Willie’s killed the master kid That ran beneath this lady’s bed.

And Willie’s loosened her left shoe And let this lady lighter be.

They from this witch’s curse be free And now they have their son so bonny. And many blessings, many blessings, Many blessings on all three.

Ray Fisher gives this explanation of the song in her original album notes:

I have set this magnificent ballad to a tune of a Breton drinking song [Son Ar Chistr or The Song of Cider]. The text is based entirely on the contents in Francis James Child’s massive collection, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. I have omitted, added, and ‘telescoped’ some of the verses.

For immediate understanding, the plot is as follows: Willie marries a young and beautiful girl. His mother, a witch, disapproves of the girl and curses her. The girl will never produce a child; she and the child will die in childbirth. Offers of gifts to the mother to lift the curse prove fruitless. Willie seeks and gets help from the servant, the Billy Blind. Willie follows the Billy Blind’s instructions and foils his mother’s scheme and eventually fathers a son.

The Billy Blind: Some Scottish households retained a non-working servant who possesses some disability, e.g. deaf, dumb, hare-lipped or blind. The belief was held that they had second-sight, wisdom, or some supernatural power to compensate for their disability. They were feared by many, mainly due to ignorance. A blind man may well develop an extra keen hearing capacity and a refined sense of touch, so the belief was reasonably well-founded. Thus, as a means of protection or insurance against evil, a household would shelter such a person. In this ballad he was blind.

A brief clarification of the curses: The knots in the girl’s hair (note the magic number, nine; 3 × 3 = powerful) symbolise the constricting elements—holding back the free-flowing birth of the child. Even today, in some parts of Scotland, during childbirth a girl’s garments are loose, unbuttoned, without pins or fastenings. The combs (kaims o’ care) of care were pressed through the long, golden hair, accompanied by a curse each time, and then left in the hair to hold in the curse. The hair is a powerful vehicle for curse-making. The master kid (a young goat) was the link between the forces of evil and the witch—the catalyst or carrier. This invariably is an animal—the witch’s cat being the most widely-known example. The woodbine is a clinging, constricting plant that holds on and winds around other plants and branches—holding in again is symbolised here. Lastly, the left-side shoe (leften shee) again has evil influence (i.e., Latin: sinister). This was tightly knotted to strengthen the curse. Finally, the advice from the Billy Blind to make a wax baby and invite the mother to the christening is a master stroke indeed. This results in the eventual birth of a son.

The mother really laid it on pretty heavily with the curses—any one would have done the trick! She must either have doubted her own skills or have feared the power of the love bond between her son and the girl.

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Tim Chesterton

Family man; pastor of St. Margaret's Anglican Church on Ellerslie Road, Edmonton; storyteller; traditional folk musician and occasional songwriter. Email me at timchesterton at outlook dot com.

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