November 15, 2011


edited by Charles Sinclair
96 pages, Goblinshead

Review by Hereward L.M. Proops

When most people think of British folk music the images that form in their minds are those of twee songs about flowers, bearded men in sandals with acoustic guitars, and Scarborough bloody Fair. Even with the rise of nu-folk artists such as Mumford and Sons or Laura Marling, telling someone that you like folk music can still provoke a response akin to telling someone you collect roadkill which you then stuff and mount on your wall. Sure, people will nod and smile politely, but nine times out of ten they'll be thinking, “What a weirdo.”

However, those who are willing to look a little bit harder and listen a bit more attentively will notice that there are more than a few British folk songs that are incredibly, unbelievably dark. Murder, incest, rape, betrayal, vengeance, infanticide, torture, bloodshed... some old folk songs make the “Saw” movies seem like a trip to the nursery.

Scotland's Bloody Ballads” is a small book published by independent press Goblinshead. The book collects twenty one of the grisliest, nastiest ballads originating from Scotland. Opening with the charming “The Twa Corbies” (which tells the story of two crows discussing which parts of a dead knight they will feast on), the book then plunges on through tales of child murderers, jilted lovers, suicides, mutilations, drownings, disease and rotting corpses. My personal favourite in the collection is “The Daemon Lover”, a delightful song detailing the horrid fate of a woman who leaves her husband and children for another man who just happens to be the devil.

Each song is accompanied with detailed notes explaining the historical background as more than a few of the ballads are based on true stories. The text is also accompanied with a handy glossary for those who aren't so familiar with the more archaic terms or whose understanding of the Scots dialect is somewhat shaky. There's also a very readable introduction written by the editor, Charles Sinclair. The introduction provides a little more detail about the origins of the ballads and the shared themes of many of them.

All of the songs in this collection have been taken from Francis James Child's comprehensive collection “The English and Scottish Popular Ballads” (essential reading for those with an interest in folk music but copies of it are increasingly hard to come by). Looking at Sinclair's selection, it is clear why he chose the ballads he did. They are all short, accessible, rhythmic and universally unpleasant.

Those with a taste for the macabre will find this short collection an absolute delight. Those who are already acquainted with Child's original collection of Ballads might not discover anything new but this remains a great little book which throws some light on the darker side of folk music.

Hereward L.M. Proops

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