The Blind Harper

This is a light rewrite of the old Scottish folk song ‘The Blind Harper’. The earliest version in Francis James Child’s ‘The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: Vol. IV’ (1890) dates back to 1791, but there are many other versions. Emily Smith sang the song in 2005 on her CD ‘A Different Life’. She says in her liner notes:

Another song from my home region of Dumfries and Galloway. This version dates back to the 1500s and tells the tale of a harper, in some versions a blind harper, who stole the King of England’s best horse, the ‘wanton broon”

Nic Jones did a rewrite of the song for his 1978 album ‘From the Devil to a Stranger’, anglicizing the Scottish brogue and shortening the story a bit. I’ve worked from Nic’s version but have also consulted some of the older versions, added some lines from then, and written a few of my own as well.

The biggest change is that all the older versions, including Nic’s, refer to King Henry’s horse as his ‘wanton brown’, but ‘wanton’ today means something different from what it meant when the song was written: ‘playful, frolicksome’. I’ve chosen ‘headstrong’ as a near equivalent that fits the lines well. Here’s my version (my changes from Nic’s version are in red):

The Blind Harper
Have you heard of the blind harper,
How he lived in Lochmaben town?
How he went down to fair England,
To steal King Henry’s headstrong Brown.

He thought him hard and thought him long,
And then unto his wife did go,
“One thing”, said he, “will make this work-
We’ll need a mare that has a foal”.

Said she, you have a good grey mare,
She’ll run o’er hills both low and high,
Go take the halter in your pack,
And leave the foal at home with me.

He’s up and off to England gone,
He went as fast as fast could be,
And when he got to Carlisle gates,
Who should be there but King Henry?

“Come in, come in you blind harper,
And of your music let me hear”,
But up and said the blind harper,
I’ll need a stable for my mare”.

The king looked over his left shoulder,
And said unto his stable groom,
“Go take the poor blind harper’s mare,
and put her beside my headstrong brown”.

Well then the harper played and sang;
‘til all the lords fell sound asleep,
Then quietly took off his shoes,
And down the stairway he did creep.

Straight to the stable door he’s gone,
With a tread as light as light could be,
And when he opened and went in,
There he found thirty steeds and three.

He took the halter from his pack,
And from his purpose did not fail,
He slipped it over the brown’s long nose,
And tied it to the grey mare’s tail.

He let her loose at the castle gates
O’er hill and dale she found her way,
And she was back with her own colt foal,
Three long hours before the day.

The harper’s wife rose up from sleep
Said she, “What do my eyes behold!”
“Upon my word!” then said the lass,
“Our mare has gotten a great big foal!”

King Henry’s groom rose with the dawn,
But at the stable he did stare,
“King Henry’s headstrong brown’s away,
And so is the poor blind harper’s mare!”

“And oh and alas”, said the blind harper,
“And ever alas that I came here!
In Scotland they only stole my foal,
But in England they did steal my mare!”

“Oh, hold your tongue!” King Henry said ,
“You have no cause to curse and swear;
Here’s thirty guineas for your foal,
And three times thirty for your mare”.

Again he harped and again he sang,
The sweetest music he let them hear,
He was paid for a foal he never lost,
And three times for the good grey mare.

Have you heard of the blind harper,
How he lived in Lochmaben town?
How he went down to fair England,
To steal King Henry’s headstrong Brown.

Here is Nic singing his version of the song, with a little instrumental added to the end.

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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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