Monday, 31 October 2011

30: Old Mother Lee


A suitably gruesome choice for halloween, this tale of infanticide is in fact a children's skipping song (hence the wonderfully cheerful and rhythmic tune). The Spinners recorded a version of this song on their 1974 recording "The Spinners at the London Palladium".

The Spinners' album notes explain how the song came to be collected: "The girls of Kirkdale, Liverpool, whose brothers at Major Street school gave this to Tony Davis, had certainly not heard of Professor Child. However, their skipping is unmistakeably based on the 'Cruel Mother' ballad substituting the grim realities of 'forty police', 'the magistrate' and capital punishment for the ghostly children and the 'fires of hell' of the older form of the story." Children always seem to appreciate a grizzly tale, and as suggested, the song does appear to have developed from 'The Cruel Mother', Ballad #20 in Francis J. Child's The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, in which a mother gives birth to an illegitimate child, kills it, and is subsequently damned.

(The picture I'm using above is indeed of a picture of the walnut tree (because of the recurring line 'down by the walnut tree'), though the tree is sadly not in Liverpool - I somehow doubt whether there are any, but correct me if I'm wrong?)

Old Mother Lee has a well known Irish relation 'Weela Wallia', and as a version of 'The Cruel Mother' is it #9 in the Roud folksong index.

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