“The Twa Sisters”

Alternate titles: “The Bows of London”; “The Cruel Sister”; “Rolling a-Rolling”; “The Wind and Rain”; “The Swan Swims Bonnie”; “The Old Lord by the Northern Sea”; “Bowie, Bowerie”; “The Little Drownded Girl”; “Lay the Bent to the Bonny Broom”; “Old Man from the North Countree”; “The Youngest Daughter”
Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1656 (broadside)
Keywords: courting homicide music minstrel sister drowning
Found in: Britain(Scotland,England(All)) US(Ap,MA,MW,NE,SE,So) Canada(Newf)

Description

A knight woos two (three) sisters, choosing the younger. The older drowns the younger. Her body is recovered and made into an instrument by a passing miller/musician. As the knight prepares to wed the older sister, the instrument sings out the truth.

Notes

The refrains sung with this ballad vary tremendously, but virtually all versions have a refrain of some sort. - PJS

And generally a lyrically attractive one ("the swan swims bonnie," etc.), as has been pointed out by several scholars. I wonder if there isn't something about this ballad that encourages variation; Jean Ritchie reports that, even though they presumably learned the song from the same source, her family had twelve distinct versions. - RBW

The Kilby Snow recording is an unusual one; it contains every element of, "The Twa Sisters" except the sisters; the murderer in this case is the girl's lover. Snow reconstructed the song from early childhood memories of his grandfather (a Cherokee) singing it, though, so it may have diverged at that point. - PJS

Compare the first verse lines of Child 10.H to Opie-Oxford2 479, "There were three sisters in a hall" (earliest date in Opie-Oxford2 is c.1630)

Child 10.H: "There were three sisters lived in a hall, ... And there came a lord to court them all...."

Opie-Oxford2 479 is a riddle beginning "There were three sisters in a hall, There came a knight amongst them all ...." - BS

This item is also found as Baring-Gould-MotherGoose #702, p. 275, but this appears to be simply a greeting rhyme unrelated to the various rather murderous ballads (notably Child 10 and 11) using these lines. - RBW

Cross references

Recordings

References

  1. Child 10, "The Twa Sisters" (25 texts, 3 tunes) {Bronson's #79, #12, #14}
  2. Bronson 10, "The Twa Sisters" (97 versions plus 6 in addenda)
  3. Stokoe/Reay, pp. 8-9, "Binnorie; or, The Cruel Sister" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #7}
  4. BarryEckstormSmyth pp. 40-46, "The Two Sisters" (5 texts plus 2 fragments, one from the same informant as one of the texts, 1 tune) {Bronson's #68}
  5. Belden, pp. 16-24, "The Twa Sisters" (6 texts, 3 tunes) {Bronson's #38, #46, #30}
  6. Randolph 4, "The Miller's Daughters" (8 texts, 5 tunes) {A=Bronson's #66, C=#32, E=#70, F=#94, G=#51}
  7. Randolph/Cohen, pp. 18-21, "The Miller's Daughters" (1 text, 1 tune -- Randolph's 4C) {Bronson's #32}
  8. Ritchie-Southern, p. 57, "Bow Your Bend to Me" (1 text, 1 tune)
  9. Eddy 4, "The Twa Sisters" (1 short text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #78}
  10. Gardner/Chickering 2, "The Two Sisters" (2 texts, 2 tunes, but the "B" text is "Peter and I Went Down the Lane") {A=Bronson's #22}
  11. Flanders/Olney, pp. 209-210, "The Two Sisters" (1 text, 1 tune)
  12. Flanders-Ancient1, pp. 150-170, "The Twa Sisters" (5 English texts plus a fragment; also two variants of a Polish text plus tune and translation; 4 tunes for the English versions) {A=Bronson's #96, B=#54}
  13. Davis-Ballads 5, "The Twa Sisters" (9 texts plus 2 fragments, 6 tunes entitled "The Old Lord of the North Country, or The Three Sisters," "The Old Woman of the North Countrie," "The Two Sisters, or Sister Kate, or The Miller annd the Mayor's Daughter," "The Two Sisters"; 2 more versions mentioned in Appendix A) {Bronson's #25, #71, #40, #55, #27, #39}
  14. Davis-More 6, pp. 35-50, "The Twa Sisters" (10 texts, 7 tunes)
  15. BrownII 4, "The Two Sisters" (3 texts plus 2 fragments)
  16. Chappell-FSRA 3, "The Two Sisters" (1 short text)
  17. Hudson 3, p. 68, "The Two Sisters" (1 text)
  18. Scarborough-SongCatcher, pp. 164-165, "The Twa Sisters" (1 text, locally titled "The Two Sisters")
  19. Brewster 6, "The Two Sisters" (4 texts plus a fragment, 1 tune) {Bronson's #44}
  20. Greenleaf/Mansfield 3, "The Twa Sisters" (1 text)
  21. Peacock, pp. 179-180, "The Bonny Busk of London" (1 text, 1 tune)
  22. Leach, pp. 74-78, "The Twa Sisters" (3 texts)
  23. McNeil-SFB2, pp. 150-156, "The Two Sisters"; "The Two Sisters (Wind and Rain) (2 texts, 2 tunes)
  24. OBB 23, "Binnorie" (1 text)
  25. Warner 98, "The Two Sisters That Loved One Man" (1 text, 1 tune)
  26. Niles 7, "The Twa Sisters" (3 texts, 3 tunes)
  27. Gummere, pp. 171-173+343, "The Twa Sisters" (1 text)
  28. SharpAp 5 "The Two Sisters" (14 texts, 14 tunes) {Bronson's #91, #55, #27, #39, #74, #73, #50, #34, #45, #63, #59, #47, #65, #41}
  29. Sharp/Karpeles-80E 6, "The Two Sisters" (1 text, 1 tune -- a composite text) {Bronson's #45}
  30. Lomax-FSNA 90, "The Two Sisters" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #67}
  31. Hodgart, p. 32, "The Twa Sisters" (1 text)
  32. DBuchan 3, "The Twa Sisters" (1 text, 1 tune in appendix) {Bronson's #79}
  33. JHCox 3, "The Twa Sisters" (3 texts, 1 tune) {Bronson's #43}
  34. JHCoxIIA, #2A-B, pp. 10-13, "There Was an Old Farmer," "All Bow Down" (2 texts, 1 tune) {Bronson's #69}
  35. Ord, pp. 430-432, "The Bonnie Mill-Dams o' Binnorie"; pp. 459-460, "Hey the Rose and the Lindsay, O" (2 texts, 1 tune)
  36. MacSeegTrav 3, "The Twa Sisters" (1 text plus two variant verses, 1 tune)
  37. TBB 9, "The Twa Sisters" (1 text)
  38. HarvClass-EP1, pp. 54-56, "The Twa Sisters" (1 text)
  39. Abrahams/Foss, pp. 20-24, "The Two Sisters"; "The Two Sisters (The Wind and Rain)" (2 texts, 2 tunes)
  40. LPound-ABS, 4, pp. 11-12, "The Two Sisters"; pp. 12-13, "The Old Man in the North Countree" (2 texts)
  41. Darling-NAS, pp. 56-59, "The Two Sisters"; "Rollin' a-Rollin'"; "Wind and Rain" (3 texts)
  42. Silber-FSWB, p. 224, "The Two Sisters" (1 text)
  43. DT 10, BINNORI* TWOSIS* TWOSIS5* WINDRAIN* SWANSWIM* TWOSIS8 TWOSIS9 TWOSI10 TWOSS11
  44. ADDITIONAL: Walter de la Mare, _Come Hither_, revised edition, 1928; #427, "The Twa Sisters" (1 text)
  45. Roud #8
  46. BI, C010