Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Dreadful Wind and Rain, and a Question

Two loving sisters were walking by the sea
Oh the wind and rain
One pushed the other off in the waters so deep
Cry oh the dreadful wind and rain.

She floated down to the miller's pond
Oh the wind and rain
She floated down to the miller's pond
Cry oh the dreadful wind and rain.

Out run the miller with his long hook and line,
Oh the wind and rain.
Out run the miller with his long hook and line.
Cry oh the dreadful wind and rain.

He pulled her in and took her gold ring
Oh the wind and rain
Then he pushed her in again
Cry oh the dreadful wind and rain.

An old fiddler saw her floating there,
Oh the wind and rain.
He made fiddle strings of her long black hair
Cry oh, the dreadful wind and rain.

He made fiddle screws of her long finger bones
Oh the wind and rain
He made fiddle screws of her long finger bones
Cry oh, The dreadful wind and rain.

The only tune that his fiddle would play
Oh the wind and the rain
Was I was killed by my sister Ellen
Cry oh the dreadful wind and rain.

This is one version of a ballad sung in many ways in many places and with many different words. Francis James Child called it "The Twa Sisters" and labeled it as ballad #10, but when it made its way to the mountains of the new world it was often called "Dreadful Wind and Rain," "The Two Sisters," another version calls it Binnorie, which Joseph Jacobs told in fairy tale form in one of his story collection. The list of titles and versions seems endless, but the story remains basically the same: two sisters fall for the same man; he courts the younger, who is killed by her older sister in a fit of jealousy. Depending on the version, the younger sister's bones are used to make a fiddle or a harp, and when played accuse the older sister of the murder.

As you can tell, it's been a popular song and story down through the years. I told it first as a story, then later learned to sing it as Dreadful Wind and Rain. Later still I learned a version called Binnorie.

This, like so many ballads, is a song that stood the test of time because it tells a compelling story. Which leads me to a question posed by Priscilla Howe on her blog:

What is better, a good story told badly, or a bad story told well? I thought her question was intriguing, and I've been thinking about it for the past day. Which is better? or is one just as bad as the other? I've heard good stories made deadly boring, and I have heard stories with no meaning or depth told extremely well.

If you had to choose, what would you say?

Here is Joseph Jacob's story version of the ballads, from his book (in the public domain) English Fairy Tales:

Once upon a time there were two king’s daughters lived in a bower near the bonny mill-dams of Binnorie. And Sir William came wooing the eldest and won her love and plighted troth with glove and with ring. But after a time he looked upon the youngest, with her cherry cheeks and golden hair, and his love grew towards her till he cared no longer for the eldest one. So she hated her sister for taking away Sir William’s love, and day by day her hate grew upon her, and she plotted and she planned how to get rid of her.

So one fine morning, fair and clear, she said to her sister, “Let us go and see our father’s boats come in at the bonny mill-stream of Binnorie.” So they went there hand in hand. And when they got to the river’s bank the youngest got upon a stone to watch for the coming of the boats. And her sister, coming behind her, caught her round the waist and dashed her into the rushing mill-stream of Binnorie.

“O sister, sister, reach me your hand!” she cried, as she floated away, “and you shall have half of all I’ve got or shall get.”

“No, sister, I’ll reach you no hand of mine, for I am the heir to all your land. Shame on me if I touch the hand that has come ’twixt me and my own heart’s love.”

“O sister, O sister, then reach me your glove!” she cried, as she floated further away, “and you shall have your William again.”

“Sink on,” cried the cruel princess, “no hand or glove of mine you’ll touch. Sweet William will be all mine when you are sunk beneath the bonny mill-stream of Binnorie.” And she turned and went home to the king’s castle.

And the princess floated down the mill-stream, sometimes swimming and sometimes sinking, till she came near the mill. Now the miller’s daughter was cooking that day, and needed water for her cooking. And as she went to draw it from the stream, she saw something floating towards the mill-dam, and she called out, “Father! father! draw your dam. There’s something white–a merry maid or a milk-white swan– coming down the stream.” So the miller hastened to the dam and stopped the heavy cruel mill-wheels. And then they took out the princess and laid her on the bank.

Fair and beautiful she looked as she lay there. In her golden hair were pearls and precious stones; you could not see her waist for her golden girdle; and the golden fringe of her white dress came down over her lily feet. But she was drowned, drowned!

And as she lay there in her beauty a famous harper passed by the mill- dam of Binnorie, and saw her sweet pale face. And though he travelled on far away he never forgot that face, and after many days he came back to the bonny mill-stream of Binnorie. But then all he could find of her where they had put her to rest were her bones and her golden hair. So he made a harp out of her breast-bone and her hair, and travelled on up the hill from the mill-dam of Binnorie, till he came to the castle of the king her father.

That night they were all gathered in the castle hall to hear the great harper–king and queen, their daughter and son, Sir William and all their Court. And first the harper sang to his old harp, making them joy and be glad or sorrow and weep just as he liked. But while he sang he put the harp he had made that day on a stone in the hall. And presently it began to sing by itself, low and clear, and the harper stopped and all were hushed.

And this was what the harp sung:

“O yonder sits my father, the king,
Binnorie, O Binnorie;

And yonder sits my mother, the queen;
By the bonny mill-dams o’ Binnorie,
“And yonder stands my brother Hugh,
Binnorie, O Binnorie;

And by him, my William, false and true;
By the bonny mill-dams o’ Binnorie.”

Then they all wondered, and the harper told them how he had seen the princess lying drowned on the bank near the bonny mill-dams o’ Binnorie, and how he had afterwards made this harp out of her hair and breast-bone. Just then the harp began singing again, and this was what it sang out loud and clear:

“And there sits my sister who drown├Ęd me
By the bonny mill-dams o’ Binnorie.”

And the harp snapped and broke, and never sang more.


Susan said...

That is a question, all right. I can see why you need a while to think about it!

I hadn't heard this story told in a very long time, and I've never heard it sung: thanks for sharing it both ways like this.

Matthew Burns said...

Oh the dreadful wind and rain. Love this song.

Joann Dadisman teaches "The Twa Sisters" in her Appalachian Folklore class at WVU. That is where I first learned of this song. You just gotta love Joann, she was my favorite teacher in all of my years of college, and the funny part wass the classes she taught weren't even close to my major. I took the class because I was told it was an easy "A", and it would fulfill an elective requirement. That was before I knew Joann. She has the uncanny ability to reach across across academic disciplines and get everyone involved on a personal level. It was in her class that I first really became proud of my Appalachian heritage...she was the first person to tell me that my family stories were unique and colorful (I still have the paper where she made that comment). So you can see why this song always reminds me of Joann.

Thanks Granny Sue for keeping the old songs alive. You do a great job.

Anonymous said...

There were two sisters side by side, sing-aye-dum, oh, sing-aye-day...

Thanks for that.


City Mouse said...

I much prefer a bad story told well ... but then again, I come from the world of theatre, where a good performance can fix anything.

bayouwoman said...

Never ever disrespect a good story by botching it!!! That's my motto!

Cathy said...

I love the old songs. A few years ago while I was working as the librarian at my daughters school I was told to toss out a set of West Virginia books that were in the opinion of the teachers outdated and taking up too much room. I immediately grabbed the West Virginia Song Bag. Edited and Published by Jim Comstock in '74, it is a treasure. It's full of so many songs I heard growing up. I wish I could have grabbed the rest of the set and ran. I'm glad there are people such as yourself out there keeping the stories and songs alive for our children.

Granny Sue said...

Andrea, your Irish version is so lovely, and sounds a bt more gentle than some. Would that all my readers could hear you and Amy singing it!

Matthew, that is a true tribute to Jo Ann. It is what all teachers strive for, but many lose the light after a few years. I think Jo Ann is an eternal flame.

Susan, there are so many sung versions of this ballad, and yet still it calls to new singers to try it. A testament to the depths the story touches, isn't it? A good story well-told lives forever.

I know that set of books, Cathy! I bought a set at a book sale some years ago and they are treasures. I don't have all of them--a few volumes missing. I think Mr. Comstock was quite the storyteller, and his opinion was free for the asking! But the books contain some state history that would be difficult to find otherwise.

Front Deck Text said...

Granny Sue:

This is one of the ballads (in both the Old World and New World variants) that I discuss in Stories from Songs: Ballads as Literary Fictions for Young Adults. It is included in a chapter on "Talking Birds, Singing Bones and Returning Revenants." I have adapted the findings of Paul Brewster into a table looking at various elements in the variants, discuss critical interpretations of the ballad and contemporary reworkings of this ballad in novels (Cruel Sister by Deborah Grabien) and short stories by a wide variety of authors in an even wider variety of genres.

I know this is not an answer to your posted question but I thought I would mention the exploration of this tale at this opportune time.

Granny Sue said...

Gail, I would love to review your book on my blog. I can imagine that many storytellers and writers would be interested in your exploration of the old songs.

Anonymous said...

Nothing like a jealous sister and a greedy miller!

Amy H.

Front Deck Text said...

Granny Sue, I contacted a sales rep at Libraries Unlimited (my publisher) to see if they would get you a review copy. Love to see/read/hear what you think of it.
Yours in stories,

Granny Sue said...

Oh yeah, Amy. But millers seem to be a little hard to come by these days! Except for the moth variety...

Gail, let me know if you cna get a review copy. I can put the review on other sites too--BlogHer, Storytell, Professional Storyteller.

solsticedreamer~laoi gaul~williams said...

how strange~last night i was listening to a podcast from druidcast and it featured this in the form of a folk song~i am going to have to go back and find out who performed it...

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