Oxford Girl: Songs of Murder & Betrayal
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Audio CD, September 4, 2012
Oxford Girl (3:18)
Oh the Wind & Rain (3:54)
Bruton Town (3:04)
Young Edmund (3:13)
Pretty Polly (3:34)
‘Lectric Chair Blues (2:44)
Love Henry (2:19)
Willie Moore (3:59)
Total running time, 31:35
“Oxford Girl” is a set of nine songs dealing with murder and betrayal. Some of these songs are so familiar as to be part of the accepted tradition. A few of them may be a little more obscure.
“Oxford Girl” emanates from a tradition beginning with “The Bloody Miller,” written in 1684. This song appeared in Ireland as “The Wexford Girl,” and in America as “The Lexington Miller.” In all cases, a young man apprenticed in the miller’s trade gets a young woman pregnant and then cudgels her to death.
“Oh the Wind & Rain” is a variant on the Child Ballad “Twa Sisters,” first known to have appeared on a broadside in 1656 as “The Miller and the King’s Daughter.” Sexual jealousy motivates the elder of two sisters to kill the younger. The murdered girl’s body floats ashore and is fashioned into a fiddle, or in some variants a harp.
“Stagolee” (also “Stagger Lee,” “Stacker Lee,” and “Stack O’Lee”) is based on the murder of William “Billy” Lyons by Stagger Lee Shelton. Herb Wiedoeft and his band recorded the song in 1924. I like this version because it doesn’t end with the execution of Stagolee. He goes on to raise hell with the Devil himself.
The song “Bruton Town” is often referred to as “The Bramble Briar.” Two brothers murder a servant boy who wants to marry their sister. It is the re-telling of a 14th century tale called “Isabella and the Pot of Basil,” from Boccaccio, though the tale may even pre-date that.
“Young Edmund” is also called “The Driver Boy,” “The Drover Boy,” “Young Edwin in the Lowlands,” and “Young Emily.” In an earlier variant, Young Edmund was a sailor returning home with his fortune, having “ploughed the Lowlands Low.” The girl’s father murders the returning sailor for his money. The ballad was already known in 1839.
“Pretty Polly” is also known as “The Gosport Tragedy” or “The Cruel Ship’s Carpenter.” In earlier versions, it is a ship’s carpenter returning from sea, who promises to marry Polly but murders her when she becomes pregnant.
“ ’Lectric Chair Blues” comes from the work of American blues singer Bessie Smith (1894 – 1937), one of the most popular female blues singers of the 1920s and 30s.
“Love Henry” is a traditional folksong, Child Ballad #68, originating in Scotland and often referred to as “Young Hunting.” The motive for the murder is sexual jealousy. After the woman kills her lover, for teasing her that he is in love with someone else, she is taunted on the way home by a bird in a tree. I first learned this song from a recording by Kentucky balladeer Logan English.
“Willie Moore” was recorded in 1927 by the hillbilly band Burnett and Rutherford. A young woman wants to marry, but her parents shun her intended husband. She kills herself, while he wanders away to die of a broken heart. Dick Burnett also wrote the country classic “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow.”
Dean Rathje: voices, guitars, dobro, mandolin, banjo, piano, bass.
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