Guest Post: ‘Avianthropy’ and the Sung Ballad in The Earl Of Mar’s Daughter

Avianthropy’ and the Sung Ballad in The Earl Of Mar’s Daughter

Adrian May

I first read the story of The Earl of Mar’s Daughter’ in Joseph Jacobs’ English Fairy Tales (1890).  I was at once struck by its strangeness and already had a hint of the kind of high magic the story contains. There was something exhilarating about it and a bookmark stayed in my copy of Jacobs for some years. The fact that it is not a story but a ballad and not English but Scottish did not put me off. I knew, from my folk music background, of the great anthology of ballads gathered together by the Reverend Francis James Child and quickly found the source for Jacobs’ perfectly good retelling, in ‘Child 270’, as the reference would be given. In the Roud folk song index it is number 3879. When I recently investigated the tune of this little-sung, forty-one stanza song and began to sing it myself, in an anglicised version, following Jacobs here, its curious high magic power began to work on me and make my admiration for it deepen and itself take flight.

The history and the music, the ‘avianthropy’ and the related bird-prince tales, together with the height of the flight all led me to performing the long ballad in public and leading a discussion of its motifs and power at the University of Essex’s Myth Reading Group on 28th November 2018.

Scottish poets were the prime collectors of ballads, rather than scholars like Child. Robert Burns, who was a collector, adapter and participant in traditional song, was the model for this. He died just before the end of the eighteenth century but his reach and model live on. Walter Scott published his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Borders in four volumes between 1802 and 1807, which included his own attempts at ballad poems. The Earl of Mar’s Daughter seems to have been first published by another poet, Peter Buchan, in his Ancient Ballads and Songs of 1828.

Buchan’s notes regret the passing of magic and he claims that nobles were taught magic on Grand Tours of Spain and Italy, citing the name ‘Florentine’ as the bird-prince’s name as evidence of its ‘highest claim to antiquity’, as well as the uncertainty of the location of Marr. Mar was part of Aberdeenshire in the middle ages, and I must admit that I left the name Florentine out of my version, but the fact that poets were involved in a kind of rediscovered tradition of balladry brings in the question of possible fakery. This is a question to which I will return.

The definitive Child ballad collection was published between 1882 and 1898 as English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Child was no poet and never visited these islands, but was an American vicar and academic and the anthologist of some 305 ballads in his great book. The story of the collecting of ballads was then one of gradual wresting away from their sources and from their music. The music of the Child ballads was not published, shockingly, until between 1959 and 1972, nearly three-quarters of a century later.

Joseph Jacobs published his retelling as a prose narrative in 1890 and says in his notes that the ballad is ‘clearly a fairy tale’ and again cites the name Florentine as proving its pre-Celtic origin. While I enjoy its questionable origins, I believe that restoring its tune and somehow bringing it back to itself as a song adds significantly to its power, not least in its musical aspects.

The first thing the music can tell us is that each verse of the sung ballad contained two stanzas of the printed version, turning it into twenty eight-line stanzas with a four line envoi. These structural shifts make the movements of the ballad clearer, its verbal and musical heights, so to speak, greater.

Another feature of the ballad tune, in common with other ballads, is that the melody is higher at the beginning of each verse, before settling for the second quatrain into a lower register. This is unlike most short songs which tend to build through each verse towards a higher cadence, sometimes in the repeated chorus. The effect of this high start is a driving on of the narrative, a beginning again and a heightened sense of the repetition in a long song, creating a trance-like state in performer and listeners, with a renewal of height appropriate to the ballad. The repeated phrases, another common element of ballads, and between ballads too, adds to this. For example, the lists of birds keep the ballad in the air, so to speak.

Common epithets, stock phrases and even whole verses, often called ‘floating verses’ (flying verses?) appear in many traditional songs and ballads. The Earl of Mar’s Daughter has much in common with The Gay Goshawk (Child 96), as the title of the latter appears, for instance, in the former. The Gay Goshawk features a talking bird messenger and is not nearly so high a subject, favouring to my mind the absurd above the high-flown love story in The Earl of Mar’s Daughter

In common with other performers of ballads, I use what is called an open tuning on the guitar as accompaniment, coupled with often modal chords. This means, at one level, chords which are neither straight major or minor in sound, which often have the third note of a chord absent. The effect of this is to repeat many notes as chords change, which also adds to the drone-like effect of the tune. This, I believe adds to the trance-effect which suspends the performer and listeners in a ‘once upon a time’ time and mental space, with the repetitions and high restarting mentioned above.

The length of the song and the time it takes to sing add again to this continuum. The various song lengths present in ballad collections and collections of other traditional songs show how song has been dominated by technology in recent times. Bob Dylan, another poet with a deep interest in the tradition, has notably broken this taboo in popular music with the hypnotic and building flight of Like A Rolling Stone (1965), which was a single of over six minutes, roughly twice the normal length. He also had Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands (1966), which covered the whole side of an LP record, lasting about twelve minutes. The Earl of Mar’s Daughter takes me about eighteen minutes to sing. Dance music DJs obviously know the trance-like nature of long mixes of various tracks and the ‘prog-rock’ cliché of the long ego-trip of a song must I hope give way to the suspension of the ego where, ideally, the singer and listeners get lost in the flight of the sung story.

The Earl of Mar’s Daughter is not often sung. I think this is partly because of its daunting length. Modern singers like the more realistic, dramatic, or even violent tales of song and the more harshly romantic tales. Its extraordinary nature makes it a bit forbidding as does its positive ending, I suspect. It might be too high, too absurd, and therefore too difficult to approach. It is, properly, a comedy, having a happy ending and teeters on the brink of absurdity in magical love and flying metamorphosis. Anyone interested in modern singers of ballads could do worse than to listen to June Tabor’s album An Echo of Hooves (2003) or Pete Morton’s Trespass (1998).

The fast-paced immediacy of ballads and their fantastic elements have been labelled ‘tabloid’ by some, but for me the immediacy and the familiar cadences of words and music have an extraordinary power which, in the case of this ballad, echo well its avianthropic intensity. These are all aspects of the height of its flight.

Its story is the opposite of Icarus and there are interesting relatives of its tale-type and motifs worth exploring, not insignificantly in the symbolism of flight. This is one of our most common images of imagination, even of achieved imagination, if we consider that the sky is full of our mechanical birds. Love and birds are also inextricably linked In folk song ‘turtle doves’ are often symbols of love and the bird and the nest are folkloric symbols of the male and female anatomy. The folksong The Cuckoo’s Nest is a traditional example. The fluttering of wings is that of hearts and sexual movement in symbolic form. One might fall into love but even that implies the flight of love to begin with, albeit perhaps unrealised. The bird is often the soul, or the mind, the flight of the intellect and of imagination. The element of air is nearer to the gods and the Holy Spirit is ‘blowing in the wind’. The flight offers ascent as well as descent, performing the metamorphosis in the heights and bringing it back down to earth, to live in the world transformed. The bird on the head is often a symbol, in the visual arts especially of the Holy Ghost descended. No other version of avianthropy has such a powerful flight, as we shall see.

The novel Sex and Sunsets (1987) by Tim Sandlin has a rescue from a dull marriage by her foolish lover hang-gliding and crashing into a barbeque. The whole atmosphere of this strong comic novel has a real rescue finally, but again, nothing can match The Earl of Mar’s Daughter for the height of the flown-ness of the tale, save perhaps that of Cupid and Psyche, in its supernatural elements, as discussed below.

The Arne-Thompson tale-type 432 is that of the Prince as Bird. ‘The Blue Bird’ is the classic one of this type and was, traceably, a literary fairytale by Madame d’Aulnoy, first published in 1697. It did not appear in English until 1892, however, but might have entered or derived from the oral tradition anyway. In this the Princess is called ‘Florine’, which might be the source of the ‘Florentine’ in the Earl of Mar’s Daughter, by whatever route. Princess Florine is locked in a tower and her blue bird Prince visits her at night, bringing eggs and singing together. In this tale, as in many versions of the motif, the theme is of imprisonment and of the bird himself being under a curse. The variant in our ballad is that no one is cursed. Coo-my-dove is threatened but that is all. The flight of love is again unsurpassed and the high, matriarchal magic is always going to win. The matriarchal magic might also be a better claim to its antiquity.

Other examples exist in fairytale across the world: the Russian ‘The Feather of Finest the Flacon’; the Danish ‘The Green Knight’; the Mexican ‘The Greenish Bird’ and the French play ‘The Blue Bird of Happiness’ (1909) are all variants.

Again, it is possible to see the French, literary and romantic sources as suspect, but arguably part also of a long tradition of tale and imagery. Another motif from fairytale and myth is that of the ‘the magic flight’. This is usually comic and shape-shifting but the outcome is an exuberant flight of escape and transformation, as in the tale of Taliesin. Here the pursued and pursuer keep changing form, like Proteus or Thetis, in a kind of contest.

For me this again elevates the Earl of Mar’s Daughter towards being a story of high love-magic. In the way myths often seems to be about myth, in that a myth is in meditation on itself within its narrative, so here in this ballad. The long song takes its form and enacts its purpose of courtship, maturation and freedom from confinements and is therefore a flight of high marriage in the power of the mythic realm. Though the bird-prince’s mother says ‘this things too high for me’, she knows where to go to get the height from, ‘an old woman /Who had more power than she’. Supernatural help is there until the ‘dancers’ and ‘minstrels’ are enabled, as the celebration builds.

The only other positive bird-as-prince tale I could find was Grimm’s 123, ‘The Old Woman in the Forest’, which is about a young girl who hides in the forest, while all her companions are murdered. She is then tended by a dove and by the trees. Tree and bird symbols are common to both. She visits the old woman of the title, having been told by the bird to take the plainest ring from the old woman’s house. She takes a bird-cage from the house, wherein the bird has a plain ring in its beak. She leans on a tree which embraces her before turning into a prince, which had been cursed by the old woman into a bird and tree. This is a wonderful story, but still contains a curse and is not a self-willed transformation, as in the Earl of Mar’s Daughter. But freedom through love is a shared motif, however.

Cupid and Psyche, as told within the magical Apuleius’ The Golden Ass, a work originally called ‘Metamorphoses’, similarly has a human girl, perhaps trapped by the world, who is, after many trials, made supernatural and united with her high-flown magical lover, who is the god Cupid. Her father wants her to marry someone unsuitable, in Psyche’s case a monster. Her real husband is the son of a similar matriarchal power: Venus. The occult loves of the couples are rescued by the supernatural. Both couples enact the stages of initiation: separation, initiation, return. This is the great love-work of the alchemists and, as St Thomas’s Gospel says, ‘When you make two into one/ Then you will enter the Kingdom’ where opposites are unified. The long flight of the sung ballad enters into this process.

There’s nothing fake about this for me: it is a high achievement of the ballad maker’s art. The possibility of a literary original, the posh names and the poet-collectors all seem to raise the possibility, as does doubt of scholars about the whole romantic field of folksong, but it is not so easy to fake traditional material convincingly. The whole idea of faking traditional material is also arguably a suspect one, as it assumes that traditional material is inert. The whole question of tradition meaning simply something passed on implies creativity. If the old singers were part of tradition, my own experience of such people is that they were creative people, not historians. I intend to discuss this more fully in other things I am writing at present.

The question of fakery is well addressed by a story told me by songwriter and traditionalist Roger Watson. Roger visited a folk club, some time in the 1970s, and heard a chap singing a song Roger himself had written. In the interval, he greeted the singer and told him that he was talking to the creator of it. ‘Get lost – it’s a traditional song!’ the chap said, or words to that effect. Roger told me he’d never been paid such a big compliment.

The time-refined tone of traditional material is not easily faked. Someone wrote it originally for sure; songs are written by people. But the language and tune of the song seem to me of a piece with other very old stuff. The ballad is exceptional, in my view, but only in the way that all good work is exceptional. The transcendent and fertile, metamorphic take on love takes its long flight in the air and finds its unity at the end, which was never in doubt. It has its own kind of authenticity, where it comments on itself that ‘this thing’s too high for me’, while it patently is not. A good song creates its own authenticity As the bird-prince says to the Ear’s daughter’s disbelieving rationalism, ‘Let all your folly be’. Rationality, including questions of what is fake, is folly in the mythic realm.

Sources and further listening

  • Child ballad collection:
  • The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, Bertrand Harris Bronson. Princeton University Press 1959-1972

Contemporary performers of ballads recommended albums

  • June Tabor, An Echo of Hooves (2003)
  • Pete Morton, Trespass (1998)

Appendix: Adrian May’s text used for his sung version.

The Earl of Mar’s Daughter

1. It was into a pleasant time,
All on a summer’s day,
The noble Earl of Mar’s daughter
Went forth to sport and play.
And as she did amuse herself,
      Beneath a green oak tree,
      There she saw a sprightly dove
      Sat on a tower so high.

2. ‘O Coo-my-dove, my love so true,
If you’ll come down to me,
You shall have a cage of good red gold
Instead of a simple tree:
‘I’ll put gold hinges round your cage,
      And silver round your wall;
      I’ll make you shine as fair a bird
      As any of them all.’

3. But she had not these few words well spoke,
Nor yet these words well said,
Till Coo-me-dove flew from the tower
And lighted on her head.
Then she has brought this pretty bird
      Home to her bowers and hall,
      And made him shine as fair a bird
      As any of them all.

4. When day was gone, and night was come,
About the evening tide,
This lady spied a sprightly youth
Stand straight up by her side.
‘From whence came you, young man?’ she said;
      ‘As if from out of nowhere;
      My door was bolted right secure,
      What way have you come here?’

5. ‘O hold your tongue, you lady fair,
Let all your folly be;
Mind you not your turtle-dove
Last day you brought with thee?’
‘O tell me more, young man,’ she said,
      ‘This does surprise me too;
      What country have you come from?
      What pedigree are you?’

6. ‘My mother lives on foreign isles,
She has no child but me;
She is a queen of wealth and state,
And birth and high degree.
‘Likewise well skilled in magic spells,
      As you may plainly see,
      And she transformed me to this shape,
      To charm such maids as thee.

7. ‘I am a dove the live-long day,
A sprightly youth at night;
This does make me appear more fair
In a fair maiden’s sight.
‘And it was but this very day
      That I came over the sea;
      Your lovely face did me enchant;
      I’ll live and die with thee.’

8. ‘O Coo-me-dove, my love so true,
No more from me you’ll go;’
‘That’s never my intent, my love,
As you said, it shall be so.’
‘O Coo-me-dove, my love so true,
      It’s time to go to bed;’
      ‘With all my heart, my dearest dear,
      It’ll be as you have said.’

9. Then he has stayed in the bower with her
For six long years and one,
Till six young sons to him she bore,
And the seventh she’s brought home.
But when every child was born
      He carried them away,
      And brought them to his mother’s care,
      As fast as he could fly.

10. And when he had stayed in bower with her
For twenty years and three;
There came a lord of high renown
To court this fair lady.
But still his offer she refused,
      And all his presents too;
      Says, I’m content to live alone
      With my bird, Coo-me-doo.

11. Her father swore a solemn oath
Among the nobles all,
‘The morn, before I eat or drink,
This bird I will go kill.’
The bird was sitting in his cage,
      And heard what they did say;
      And when he found they were resolved,
      Says, Woe is me this day!

12. ‘Before that I do longer stay,
And thus to be forlorn,
I’ll go unto my mother’s bower,
Where I was bred and born.’
Then Coo-me-dove took flight and flew
      Beyond the raging sea,
      And lighted near his mother’s castle,
      On a tower of gold so high.

13. As his mother was walking out,
To see what she could see,
And there she saw her little son,
Sat on the tower so high.
‘Get dancers here to dance,’ she said,
      ‘And minstrels for to play;
      For here’s my young and only son,
      Come here with me to stay.’

14. ‘Get no dancers to dance, mother,
Nor minstrels for to play,
For the mother of my seven sons,
The morn’s her wedding-day.’
‘O tell me, tell me, my dear son,
      Tell me, and tell me true,
      Tell me this day without a flaw,
      What I will do for you.’

15. ‘Instead of dancers to dance, mother,
Or minstrels for to play,
Turn four-and-twenty big strong men
Like storks in feathers gray;
‘My seven sons in seven swans,
      Above their heads to flee;
      And I myself a gay goshawk,
      A bird of high degree.’

16. Then sighing said the queen herself,
‘That thing’s too high for me;’
But she applied to an old woman,
Who had more skill than she.
Instead of dancers to dance a dance,
      Or minstrels for to play,
      Four-and-twenty wall-wrought men
      Turned birds of feathers gray;

17. His seven sons in seven swans,
Above their heads to flee;
And he himself a gay goshawk,
A bird of high degree.
This flock of birds took flight and flew
      Beyond the raging sea,
      And landed near the Earl’s castle,
      Took shelter in every tree.

18. They were a flock of pretty birds,
Right comely to be seen;
The people viewed them with surprise,
As they danced on the green.
These birds descended from the tree
      And lighted on the hall,
      And at the last with force did flee
      Among the nobles all.

19. The storks there seized some of the men,
They could neither fight nor flee;
The swans they bound the bride’s best man
Below a green oak tree.
They lighted next on maidens fair,
      Then on the bride’s own head,
      And with the twinkling of an eye
      The bride and them were fled.

20. There’s ancient men at weddings been
For sixty years or more,
But such a curious wedding-day
They never saw before.
For nothing could the company do,
      Nor nothing could they say
      But they saw a flock of pretty birds
      That took their bride away.

21. When the Earl of Mar he came to know
Where his daughter did stay,
He signed a bond of unity,
And visits now they pay.


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