Everything I Needed To Know I Learned From English Folk Songs

by Belle Waring on September 7, 2005

Jim MacDonald (over at Making Light) offers us a compendium of vital life advice gleaned from folk songs. Number one is, if someone says to beware of Long Lankin, then totally beware of him, for real. More:

If you are an unmarried lady and have sex, you will get pregnant. No good will come of it.

If you are physically unable to get pregnant due to being male, the girl you had sex with will get pregnant. No good will come of it. You’ll either kill her, or she’ll kill herself, or her husband/brother/father/uncle/cousin will kill you both. In any case her Doleful Ghost will make sure everyone finds out. You will either get hanged, kill yourself, or be carried off bodily by Satan. Your last words will begin “Come all ye.”

Going to sea to avoid marrying your sweetie is an option, but if she hangs herself after your departure (and it’s even money that she’s going to) her Doleful Ghost will arrive on board your ship and the last three stanzas of your life will purely suck.

If you are a young gentleman who had sex it is possible the girl won’t get pregnant. In those rare instances you will either get Saint Cynthia’s Fire or the Great Pox instead. No good will have come of it….

Have nothing to do with former boyfriends who turn up and say it’s no big deal that you’re now married to someone else and have a child. If their intentions are legit, that’s got to be a problem. If it’s not a problem, their intentions are not legit.

You are justified in cherishing the direst suspicions of a suddenly and unexpectedly returned significant other who mentions a long journey, a far shore, or a narrow bed, or who’s oddly skittish about the imminent arrival of cockcrow.

If you are a young lady and you meet a young man who says his name is “Ramble Away,” don’t be surprised if, by the time you know you’re pregnant, it turns out he’s moved and left no forwarding address.

I’d just like to add a few words based on American folksongs (probably derivative of the English ones): if you do kill your pregnant lover by drowning her in the cold, cold sea, the odds are good that someone will find her body and make a fiddle bow of her long black hair, and pegs of her white finger bones, and then the only song that fiddle will play will cry your guilt out to the world. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.



jet 09.07.05 at 10:09 am

This has to be the best blog on the net.


Alan 09.07.05 at 10:36 am

agree with the last post with…..a hey nonny nonny….


Matt 09.07.05 at 10:45 am

If the lady of the mannor tells you it’s okay to come home and sleep with her since her husband it out in the far feilds and won’t know, don’t believe her.


abb1 09.07.05 at 11:45 am

What exactly are the odds that someone will find her body and make that fiddle – compare to the ‘going to sea/she hangs herself’ option?


Teresa Nielsen Hayden 09.07.05 at 11:51 am

These and many other bits of timely advice (“If you’re in bed, and are threatened by an armed and angry man who says he can’t kill you while you’re naked, do not get up and get dressed”) have been much discussed in the comment thread following the original post.

I admire Jim’s use of gruesome traditional ballads to teach prudence and morality. I’ve been saying for years that if you want proof that “Just Say No” doesn’t work, you need look no further than trad ballads, whose dramatis personae will have been repeatedly warned (with accompanying threats of Dire Consequences) to not dally in haylofts with attractive young men, stay away from those New York Girls who haunt the waterfront, and don’t believe promises made by grenadiers whose units are moving out tomorrow. Clearly, if “Just Say No” warnings were sufficient, none of these ballads would exist.

Much more educational, then, to contemplate the universe of traditional ballads, where drinking leads to vulnerability, sex invariably has consequences, protestations of undying love don’t necessarily survive the discovery of pregnancy, promises not witnessed by third parties are unenforceable, and personable strangers who want you to come with them to some lonely spot do not have your best interests at heart.


Mrs Tilton 09.07.05 at 12:49 pm

Hmm. I have always wondered whether ‘In the Pines’ was about a jealous man who kills his girl (and possibly himself), or about a camping trip in bad weather. I suppose now I shall have to take the darker view and go with the former.


dsquared 09.07.05 at 2:26 pm

the main message of Welsh folk songs is that whatever you do, you’re going to die and it’s the Saxons’ fault.


LizardBreath 09.07.05 at 2:40 pm

Isn’t that also the main theme of Welsh history?


Jake 09.07.05 at 3:02 pm

And don’t ever visit boys at night if you’re a girl– or as Robbie put it, “I read ye recht, gaen ne’er at necht”.


Sally 09.07.05 at 3:02 pm

Other things I have learned from English (and Irish and Scottish) folk songs:

If my boyfriend is forced to join the Navy and, while away, falls for another girl, I should dress up like a man, enlist in the Navy, get myself assigned to his ship, and shoot him. No one will mind.

If my boyfriend joins the Navy (or any other branch of the armed forces) and is missing in action for many years, I should by no means get on with my life. If I marry someone else, he will come back, blame me for abandoning him, and I will die of grief. If, on the other hand, I am chaste and true, he’ll come back and bring me expensive presents.

Just as it is possible to make a fiddle out of various body parts, it is possible to make a harp out of a human breastbone. I should avoid murdering my sister, in case someone makes such a harp out of her corpse and it reveals my crime.


dsquared 09.07.05 at 5:10 pm

I think that the message of American folk songs is that if you’re fundamentally good at cards, don’t expect your armed opponents to be good losers.


ben wolfson 09.07.05 at 5:21 pm

And watch out for the Jack of Diamonds. He’s shifty.


Shelby 09.07.05 at 5:45 pm

If you are physically unable to get pregnant due to being male, the girl you had sex with will get pregnant. No good will come of it. You’ll either kill her, or she’ll kill herself, or her husband/brother/father/uncle/cousin will kill you both. In any case her Doleful Ghost will make sure everyone finds out. You will either get hanged, kill yourself, or be carried off bodily by Satan. Your last words will begin “Come all ye.”

Why is it you never get good advice until it’s too late?


JR 09.07.05 at 9:36 pm

If you get a girl pregnant, do not sign up with the British army for a tour of duty in Ceylon. If you do, you’ll come back a legless, boneless, chickenless egg.


Gene O'Grady 09.07.05 at 11:04 pm

I kinda prefer Hardy’s take on all this in “The Ruined Maid.” May have been Victorian, but I suspect he knew more of the ballads and what was behind than a whole pride of blog posters.


epist 09.08.05 at 1:22 am

Don’t forget this trenchant lesson from the American tradition: For some people, the harder you work, the deeper into debt you go.

Oh, and don’t come crying to me about they’re gonna hang ya, mr. Dooley. What the hell did ya stab her for, anyhow?


Harald Korneliussen 09.08.05 at 1:54 am

Don’t kill yourself, even if a lot of other people kill themselves.

There’s a danish/norwegian folk song called “Adolf var av stand velboren” (“Adolf was from a good family”). My friends who have studied folkloristics assure me that it’s not ironic.

In the first verse, Adolf is rejected by Nora, so he throws himself from a big tower in Copenhagen. In the next verse, Nora hears the news, and promptly commits suicide by drinking “a schaps of vitriol” or sulphuric acid, as it is commonly known. Next verse, the father kills himself – the mother was already dead, we hear.

In a couple of verses, random strangers on the street hear the awful story and start killing themselves, too.

It’s the most hilarious folk song I’ve heard. To think that a century ago, they probably cried.

(s/verse/stanza/g if you want to be correct about it)


MFB 09.08.05 at 5:51 am

Not a folk song, but Herman Charles Bosman’s “Old Transvaal Story”: if you do eventually get around to murdering your wife and burying her under the frontroom floor, no sooner will you have finished smearing the cattle-dung to make the ground nice and smooth than all your neighbours will arrive with peach brandy and concertinas and have a surprise party on her grave.

‘Strue. Happened to me more than once.


winna 09.08.05 at 7:34 am

Whiskey is better than women, at least in Irish folk songs.

Also, improving your elocution will break your lover’s heart.


Belle Waring 09.08.05 at 7:55 am

I should also advise you all never to have anything to do with fairies, ever. they will fuck you right up.


Belle Waring 09.08.05 at 9:17 am

also, jet likes us! he really likes us!


Teresa Nielsen Hayden 09.08.05 at 11:18 am

Mr. Korneliussen, the comment thread over at Making Light would appreciate anything further you could tell us about “Adolf var av stand velboren.”


Jake 09.08.05 at 11:33 am

Oh yes. If you glitter as you walk, do not, I repeat, do not go home if you keep a loaded gun there.


Tracy W 09.08.05 at 4:51 pm

Of course NZ and Australian folksongs deal with much more terrible tragedies than anything listed above:

The Day the Pub Burned Down

The Pub With No Beer


Chris Corrigan 09.09.05 at 6:48 pm

And now…

Everything I know I learned from Celtic Folktales…


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