Unintended pregnancy in folk songs

I’ve been listening to a lot of the Watersons and Waterson:Carthy this week. It’s reminded me how absolutely full British folk music is of songs about unintended pregnancy.

Most commonly the result is unhappy motherhood:

“But if I had kent that I now ken
And taken my mother’s bidding o
I wouldn’t be sitting by our fireside
Crying hushabye my bairnie-o.

It’s hushaba for I’m your ma
but the Lord knows who’s your daddy-o
So it’s girls take care and you beware
of the ploughboys in the gloaming-o.”
– “When I was noo but sweet sixteen

Sometimes extremely unhappy motherhood:

“The rain wets my yellow locks, the dew wets me still
The babe is cold in my arms, love — Lord Gregory, let me in.”
Lass of Loch Royal

(His mother turns her away and suggests she drown herself, resulting in predictable tragedy.)

There’s occasionally a responsible father, as in “Bogie’s Bonnie Belle“, but this one is also thwarted by disapproving parents:

“When the full nine months were gone and past, she brought to me a son
And it’s then that I was sent for to see what could be done
And once more I said I’d marry her, but no that wouldn’t do
‘For you’re no match for my bonny belle, and she’s not a match for you.’
And I took my young son in my arms, and joy to him I’ll bring
And maybe he’ll mean as much to me as the girl that I adore.”

(I wonder if that last more tender couplet was maybe added in the 70s by Robin and Barry Dransfield, as I don’t see it in other versions.)

Tam Lin” includes a memorable description of morning sickness:

There’s four and twenty ladies all in the court
Grown red as any rose
Excepting for young Margaret
And green as glass she goes, any grass,
Yes green as glass she goes.

Outten spoke the first serving girl,
She lifted her head and smiled
“I think me lady’s loved too long
And now she goes with child, me dears
Now she goes with child.”

And outten spoke the second serving girl
“Oh ever and alas,” Said she
“I think I know a herb in the merry green wood
That’ll twine the babe from thee, Lady
That’ll twine the babe from thee.”

Margaret’s lover interrupts her as she’s picking the abortifacient herb and reveals that he’s been absent because of being kept captive by the fairies (an unusual excuse). He tells her how to rescue him, and they go on to have one of the few happy endings in balladry.

Unhappy parenthood is the most common plot outcome, but there’s also infanticide, as in “The Cruel Mother“:

“She leaned her back against a thorn
And there she had two little babes born

She took her penknife keen and sharp
And pierced those two babes to the heart.”

(This one ends with haunting and damnation.)

And homicide, as in “The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter.” After a courtship goes on longer than convenient, the man invites his lover to the woods and murders her. Pregnancy isn’t mentioned until the last line when the vengeful ghost returns:

“She ripped him and stripped and tore him in three,
Saying, ‘That’s for the murder of my baby and me.'”

As a teenager when I first heard a lot of these ballads, they seemed like they were about unhappy, sometimes melodramatically unhappy love. I didn’t quite get just how many unhappy long-term situations must have resulted from lack of reliable birth control.

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2 thoughts on “Unintended pregnancy in folk songs

  1. maxkwallace

    Reading this post made me think of the one time my high school English teacher played Springsteen’s The River for the class, which also hinges on an unintended pregnancy, and couldn’t help shedding a tear in front of us. He was the only one. I don’t think anyone in the class at the time had the experiential maturity nor understanding of the working class context to feel the song that way on an emotional level.

    I’m sure this just reflects my listening habits but all the other references to unwanted, unintentional, or father-unknown pregnancies in contemporary music I can think of come from hip hop. I can’t help but wonder how common these stories are across other cultures and other eras.

    Reply
    1. Julia Post author

      Yeah, it’s interesting how this varies by genre. In some ways songs like “When I was noo but sweet sixteen” are a Scottish version of the blues, but actual African-American blues doesn’t seem to mention pregnancy (though I might be missing it). The plots of songs by Bessie Smith and the like are more often along the lines of “Please don’t leave this ongoing relationship” than “Oh shit, I just had sex with a stranger and now he’s putting on his trousers and leaving” which is more common in British folk songs.

      Reply

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