Cruel Mother

From a painting by
Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale, 1905

The Cruel Mother (Child 20) is sung throughout the English speaking world in countless variations. It is full of the haunting images and symbols that show up in other songs: the while marble stone (see Young Collins), the oak and thorn, the un-cleanable blood stain (think of Lady Macbeth), the unquiet grave.

Perhaps the strangest variation is a children's game song. According to A.L. Lloyd, a folklorist saw the game being played in a Lancashire orphanage in 1915:

The song describes how the lady kills her baby with a pen-knife, tries to wash off the blood, goes home to lie down, is aroused by three “bobbies” at the door, who extract a confession from her and rush her off to prison, and “That was the end of Mrs. Green”. It is a ring game. Two children in the middle impersonate Mrs. Green and the baby, following the action of the song. The children in the ring dance round, singing the refrains, until the “bobbies” rush in and seize the mother, when the ring breaks up.

These words come, mostly, from the old Oak Publications book 'Folk Songs of Peggy Seeger.' Cruel Mother is almost invariably sung unaccompanied. Ian and Sylvia sang an electrifying version in Gregorian counterpoint no less. But this is me and, of course, I accompany myself on the banjo. The mountain minor tuning seems to work well.


There was a lady lived in York
All alee and loney
Fell in love with here father’s clark
Down by the greenwood sidey

She loved him up she loved him down
Loved him ‘til he filled her arms

She leaned her back against an oak
First it bent and then it broke

She leaned her back against a thorn
There she had two fine babes born

She pulled down here long yellow hair
Bound it around their feet and hands

She pulled out a wee pen knife
Stabbed those two babes to the heart

She wiped her pen knife on her shoe
The more she wiped the more red it grew

She laid them under a marble stone
Then she turned as a fair maid home

One day she was sitting in her father’s hall
Saw two babes come playin’ at ball

Oh babes, oh babes, if you were mine
I’d dress you up in scarlet fine

Oh mother, oh mother, it’s we was yours
Scarlet fine was out own hearts blood

Oh babes, sweet babes it’s heaven for you
Mother oh mother it’s hell for you