Sad songs

There’s an old Scots song, “The Fairy Lullaby”, which I can’t find a good mp3 of. If anyone has one they can share, I would be grateful. In addition to being a lullaby, though, it’s a very sad piece of social commentary, if you think about what’s being said. First, the lyrics:

I left my darling lying here,
lying here, lying here,
I left my darling lying here,
To go and gather blaeberries.

I’ve found the wee brown otter’s track,
the otter’s track, the otter’s track
I’ve found the wee brown otter’s track
But ne’er a trace o’ my baby, O!

I found the track of the swan on the lake
the swan on the lake, the swan on the lake
I found the track of the swan on the lake,
But not the track of baby, O!

I found the track of the yellow fawn,
yellow fawn, yellow fawn,
I found the track of the yellow fawn,
But could not trace my baby, O!

I found the trail of the mountain mist,
the mountain mist, the mountain mist
I found the trail of the mountain mist,
But ne’er a trace of baby, O!

O! Hovan, Hovan Gorry og O,
Gorry og, O, Gorry og
O, Hovan, Hovan Gorry og O
I’ve lost my darling baby, O!

So: A young woman and her child, out in the woods to gather berries. The child is left sitting or lying among the tussocks, out of sight perhaps but easily in earshot. On the mother’s return, horror: The child is gone – the elves have taken it!

What is wrong with this picture? Well, apart from the tragedy of losing a child, the main problem is that elves don’t exist. And predators large enough to carry away a human child (wolves and bears, say) have been extinct in the Isles for hundreds of years, and in any case they are hardly untraceable – no need for “mountain mist” if a bear were to blame. So what’s with the wee brown otter?

The answer can be found in another song, rather more explicit:

She sat down below a thorn,
(Fine flowers in the valley)
And there she has her sweet babe born.
(And the green leaves they grow rarely)

Smile na sae sweet, my bonnie babe,
And ye smile sae sweet, ye’ll smile me dead.

She’s taen out her little pen-knife,
And twinn’d the sweet babe o its life.

She’s howket a grave by the light o the moon,
And there she’s buried her sweet babe in.

As she was going to the church,
She saw a sweet babe in the porch.

O sweet babe, and thou were mine,
I wad cleed thee in the silk so fine.

O mother dear, when I was thine,
You did na prove to me sae kind.

(Anyone thinking the old border ballads talking about mere raids and battles are bloody should have a look at what the Borderers sang to their children.) Back-alley abortions have a bad reputation, but they were actually a bit of an advance over their chief competition, to wit, infanticide. In this case, the child is perhaps illegitimate, hence giving birth in a lonely spot and burying it. “The elves took it” would be what you said about children publicly acknowledged, which nevertheless had disappeared. The woman could presumably expect some level of acceptance for her thin excuse – a face-saving exercise for everyone. Nobody wants to admit that they cannot feed their children, or that they accept infanticides. She might even come to half-believe it herself, as a protective measure against the sheer awfulness of abandoning a baby. In a poor community, understanding might be easy to come by; infanticide, after all, is an immemorial tradition – a natural form of birth control, if you will. Even chimpanzees practice it, in bad years. (Humans, it is true, rarely go as far as eating the bodies.) The Church tried unsuccessfully to stamp out the practice, although just what the crofters were supposed to do if there wasn’t enough food for every child was never clear – starve their way into Heaven, perhaps.

The elves were also a convenient explanation for another bane of a parent’s life: Various forms of retardation, especially autism. A child that can do nothing but sit in a corner and eat is now diagnosed as autistic; but in the old days, they would have called it a changeling. You can see how the theory arises: Autism sometimes takes the form of regression, where a child not only fails to learn to speak, but loses words it had already mastered. Clearly, somebody has swapped out the child with a poor imitation! (Or, in the modern version, clearly the regression was caused by the MMR shot, which occurred only a few weeks before we first noticed the problem. Looking for an external cause to to internal problems is not limited to our ancestors.) The old stories are fairly clear on the way to deal with a changeling: Since it is actually an elven child, maliciously placed in a human cradle to feed at human expense, you can induce the elves to take it back by beating it, or by placing it out in the woods.

Old, unhappy, far-off things. It is a point often made, but I don’t think many people feel it viscerally: Our ancestors, of even a very few generations ago, were poor. So poor that they sometimes had a choice between exposing a child, or dying of starvation. It’s hard to blame them for taking some of the burden off by believing in elves. Or gods.

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2 Comments

Filed under History, Old-unhappy-far-off-things

2 responses to “Sad songs

  1. Hundhedning

    Ah, so there it is, the thing that got you banned from religion threads before it was cool.

  2. kingofmen

    Fortunately, here it is I who have the power to ban and to loose. So I can blog about whatever I like. đŸ™‚

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