Cecil Sharp's Note 11 (1916)

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No. 11. The Outlandish Knight

Child, speaking of this ballad (English and Scottish Ballads, No. 4), remarks: “Of all the ballads this has perhaps obtained the widest circulation. It is nearly as well known to the southern as to the northern nations of Europe. It has an extraordinary currency in Poland." This ballad is widely known throughout England, and I have taken it down no less than thirty-six times. Although very few singers could “go through” with it, I have recorded several fairly complete sets of words, from which that given in this book has been compiled. As a rule the versions vary but little, although I have heard only one singer sing the seventh and eighth stanzas of the text. One singer, however, used the word “croppèd,” instead of the more usual “droppèd,” in the ninth stanza, and this may have been a reminiscence of the “nettle” theme. None of the printed copies contain these verses except one in the Roxburghe Collection, in which the following lines occur:

Go fetch the sickle, to crop the nettle,
⁠That grows so near the brim;
⁠Far fear it should tangle my golden locks,
⁠Or freckle my milk-white skin.

The Rev. S. Baring-Gould has collected a similar verse in Devonshire.

As “May Colvin,” the ballad appears in Herd’s Scottish Songs (volume i, p. 153), in Motherwell’s Minstrelsy (p. 67, tune 24), and in Buchan’s Ancient Ballads and Songs of the North of Scotland (volume ii, p. 45). Buchan also gives a second version of the ballad entitled “The Gowans sae Gay” (volume i, p. 22). In the latter, the hero appears as an elf-knight, and the catastrophe is brought about by the heroine. Lady Isabel, persuading her false lover to sit down with his head on her knee, when she lulls him to sleep with a charm and stabs him with his own dagger. None of the English versions introduce any supernatural element into the story. They all, however, contain the “parrot” verses.

The expression “outlandish” is generally taken to mean an inhabitant of the debatable territory between the borders of England and Scotland. In other parts of England, however, “outlandish” simply means “foreign,” i.e., not belonging to the county or district of the singer.

One singer gave me the first verse as follows:

⁠There was a knigla, a baron-knight,
⁠A knigks of high degree;
⁠This knight he came from the North land,
⁠He came a-courting me.

Child points out that the ballad has some affinity with “Bluebeard,” and, possibly, also with the story of “Judith and Holofernes” in the Apocrypha.

For versions with tunes, see the Journal of the Folk-Song Society (volume ii, p. 282; volume iv, pp. 116–123); Traditional Tunes (pp. 26 and 172); English County Songs (p. 164); and a Border version in Northumbrian Minstrelsy (p. 48).

The tune is nearly always in 6⁄8 time, and is usually modal. The second air, however, in Traditonal Tunes and a variant collected by the Rev. S. Baring-Gould in Devon and printed in English Folk Songs for Schools, are both in common measure.

The singer varied his tune, which is in the Dorian mode, in nearly every verse.