Cecil Sharp's Note 13 (1916)

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No. 13. The Cruel Mother

The story, which is not quite clear in this version, is of a woman who contracts an illicit alliance with her father’s clerk, and secretly gives birth to twin babes “down by the green wood side O.” She murders the infants, who afterward appear before her “all dressed in white,” that is, as ghosts. They proclaim their identity by calling her “Mother,” curse her for her cruelty to them, and say that they live in heaven, but that she will suffer in hell for her misdeeds.

The earliest published form of the ballad is in Herd’s Scottish Songs (volume ii, p. 237, ed. 1776). Other Scottish versions are given in Motherwell’s, Kinloch’s, and Buchan’s collections; see also “Lady Anne” in Scott’s Minstrelsy, and “Fine Flowers in the Valley” in Johnson’s Museum (volume iv, ed. 1792). The tune given in the latter, although quite regular in rhythm, is very similar to the air given here.

Kinloch also quotes a tune which, however, has little or nothing in common with the Mixolydian air in the text.

In the Percy Papers there is a version very similar to this one. It begins:

⁠There was a duke’s daughter lived in York,
⁠All alone and alone a,
⁠And she fell in love with her father’s clarke,
⁠Down by the green wood side a.

Child points out that the ballad has affinities with “The Maid and the Palmer,” and quotes two Danish ballads which are closely allied to the British song.

Four versions with tunes are printed in the Journal of the Folk-Song Society (volume ii, p. 109; volume iii, pp. 70–72), the first one of which was recorded by Miss Esther White, of New Jersey, who writes that “lately she heard it again, sung by a poor ‘mountain-white’ child in the North Carolina Mountains.”