Henry Lee

"Henry Lee" is one of a family of songs related to "Young Hunting" - Child #68. Pretty much the whole story you will hear in this rendition is contained in other variations, "Love Henry", "Earl Richard", “The Proud Girl.” And bits of the plot, scraps of lyrics and roughly related ideas cross fertilized still more songs like "Lady Margaret" and "Lost Henry."

The tunes vary widely. A common version in the U.S. (see Dick Justice's "Henry Lee" in the Anthology of American Folk Music) has the same melody as "The Storms are on the Ocean" by the Carter Family.

You will find a nice collection of recordings of different versions of “Henry Lee” on “The Old, Weird America” web site: http://oldweirdamerica.wordpress.com/2008/11/20/1-henry-lee-by-dick-just...

This version comes to us from Peggy Seeger, with some verse alterations based on John Jacob Niles. I think Peggy used this remarkable banjo tuning that she describes in her banjo instruction booklet, “The five-string Banjo: American folk styles”, as a dulcimer tuning. The second and first strings are tuned in unison. Peggy: “This produces a spare sound characteristic of the dulcimer. The melody can then be played on one string against the drone of all the others.” To my ear it sounds almost Arabic, more like the oud than a dulcimer. I have not encountered these tunings elsewhere and I wonder if they are Peggy’s invention. She has never gotten enough credit for being one of the most creative banjo players of our time.

Like most complicated murder ballads, this song goes on for a bit. Please think of it as a very short story rather than a long song.


Come in, come in my own true love
And stay with me this night
And you have my candle and coal
And my fires burning bright
(repeat last line of each verse)

I won’t come in, no, I can’t come in
I can’t come in at all
There’s a lady ten times fairer than you
Waiting for me in Barnet’s hall

He’s bended over her soft pillow
To get a kiss so sweet
With a little pen knife so keen and sharp
She’s wounded him full deep

I will come in, I must come in
I will light down says he
There is no lady in Barnet’s hall
That I love more better than thee

Oh live, oh live, Lord Henry she said
For an hour or two or three
And all cords from about my waist
I would freely give to thee

Oh all the cords from about your waist
They’d do no good to me
For can’t you see my own heart’s blood
Come a twinklin’ by my knee

She took him by his long yellow hair
And also so by his feet
She’s thrown him in her cool dark well
Full fifty fathoms deep

Lie there, lie there my love Henry
I know you cannot swim
That lady that’s ten times fairer than me
She’ll never see you again

Fly down, fly down, you pretty little bird,
Alight on my right knee.
Your cage will be of purest gold
And not the willow tree.

Oh keep your cage of beaten gold
I’ll keep to my willow tree
A girl who would murder her own true love
Would surely kill a little bird like me

I wish I had my bow to bend
An arrow and tuneful string
I’d shoot my dart so nigh your heat
That you’d no longer sing

But you don’t have your bow to bend
To shoot me as I wing
I’ll fly away to Barnet’s Hall
And you’ll always hear me sing

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Note: You may wonder how this gentle lady got hold of his hair and his feet and threw him in the well. You'll find the answer in other versions of the story where she enlists accomplices - other sympathetic young women who have been used and abused by the local gentry. In some tellings the bird is a parrot - a much more likely snitch.