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Two Sisters (Child #10)
-
aka The Cruel Sister or Binnorie

- by Nick Caffrey Issue 48 June 2002




{graphic}

This strange tale of sisterly jealousy and murder has captured the imagination of many singers down the years. It has drama, tragedy, and in the earlier versions supernatural revenge. It stands amongst the more popular of the classic ballads. Francis James Child in The English and Scottish Popular Ballads tells us that the tale was just as strong in Scandinavia and Northern Europe and that the concept of supernatural retribution of a murder appears regularly in folk song and tales.

Background

The ballad tells of two sisters who are rivals for the same suitor; he loves the younger who is fair rather than the elder who is dark. One day as the two sisters pass the mill-dam the elder pushes her younger sister into the mill pool and refuses to help her out despite entreaties and promises of gifts. The girl's body is eventually discovered and pulled out of the water. A passing musician makes an instrument from her bones and strings out of her golden hair (usually three, sometimes four strings). When the instrument is played before the girl's family it begins to sing a greeting to her father, then to her mother and finally accuses the elder sister of the murder. In the Scandinavian tales the instrument is played at the wedding of the elder sister to the suitor but this seems to have been lost along the way from the British ballads. The earliest printing of the ballad "The Two Sisters" dates back to the 1650s when it appeared on a broadsheet, variations have regularly appeared in ballad collections ever since and has been widely collected throughout the British Isles and North America. The ballad appears to have died out in England by the twentieth century and was on its way out in Scotland but still fairly well known in America. The ballad framework has generally remained the same although some of the details have changed:

The English versions have usually kept the supernatural elements
Many Scottish and American variants end with the miller whose son is the suitor dragging out the body from the mill-dam.
A further variation has the miller and his son (or daughter) pulling out the girl whilst still alive, stripping her of her jewels and costly clothing then throwing her back into the pool.
The Berkshire Tragedy (or The Wytham Miller) appears to be a parody of this previous variation. It is apparently based on a real event that happened at Wytham near Oxford in 1744. The murderer, John Mauge was hanged at Reading.

Refrains

The significance of the refrains used in the different versions of "The Two Sisters" was tackled by Annie Gilchrist in an article in Folk Song Journal 1931:

She felt that the 'Bow down, Bow Down' refrain with its counterpart: 'I'll be true to my true love if my love'll be true to me' versions were probably linked to the original refrains. She goes on to explain the old custom of love divination that took place on St John's Eve in which two stems of the plant called orpine or livelong (Sedum Telephium) were planted into wet clay by young girls who wanted to find out if their love was true. The two stems represented the young girl and her lover. If in the morning the stems leaned towards each other then the lover was true but if they bent away from each other then he was untrue.

Miss Gilchrist then examined the other refrains:

She suggests that the 'Binnorie, Binnorie' and the 'Edinburgh, Edinburgh' refrains of the Scottish versions of the song may well have been held over from an earlier song from which the tune was adapted. These refrains suggest communal or working song pattern where a soloist sings a line and the refrain line is joined by the others in a call and answer performance.

Another type of refrain examined is the 'Hey my bonnie Nannie (or Annie) O' with its counterpart 'And the swan swims so bonnie'. She suggests that this may have been adapted from another ballad Isaac-a-bell and Hugh the Graeme because of the allusion to a swan given in some versions of "The Two Sisters" whilst the young girl swims about the mill pond trying to find a way out.

Tunes

The earliest recorded tune appeared in The Northumberland Minstrelsy by Bruce and Stokoe in 1882. The following tune is contemporary to that above but is used for the Scottish versions using the Edinburgh, Edinburgh refrain. You will also notice that it is longer than the former in order to accommodate the longer six line verses (with three refrain lines): music published in magazine.

Bertrand Bronson in his "The Singing Tradition of Child's Popular Ballads" tells us that the song is still in active traditional life, especially in those regions of the USA where the 'play-party' dancing custom has persisted. This is where the ballad forms part of a circle dance (or sometimes a play) in which the singer delivers the storyline and the audience joins in the refrain. A version collected by Frank Kidson from Miss Carr of Mosley, Yorkshire and printed in the Folk Song journal 1904 has strong melodic and rhythmic similarities to a version collected by John Jacob Niles in Kentucky 1933 from Miss Fugate and printed in "The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles". He remarked on the dance like quality of the Miss Fugate's version.

There are many variant tunes - too many to print here - I would urge the reader to follow up this fascinating ballad both in print and on record, you will find it very rewarding.

The following is a typical set of words incorporating the fullest known story line. This version comes from Sir Walter Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border 1802:

There was two sisters in a bower
O Binnorie, O Binnorie
There came a knight to be their wooer
By the Bonnie mill-dams of Binnorie

He courted the eldest with glove and ring
But he loved the youngest above a' thing

He courted the eldest with broach and knife
But he loved the youngest aboon his life

The eldest she was vexed sair
An sore envied her sister fair

The eldest to the youngest ane
Will ye go and see our father's ships come to land

She's ta'en her by her lily white hand
And led her down to the river strand

The youngest stood upon a stone
The eldest came and pushed her in

She took her by her middle sma
An dashed her bonnie back to the jaw

O sister sister reach your hand
An ye shall be heir to half my land

O sister I'll not reach your hand
And I'll be heir to all your land

Shame fa the hand that I should take
It twin'd me an my world's make

O sister sister reach me but your glove
And sweet William shall be your love

Sink on, nor hope for hand or glove
And Sweet William shall better be my love

Your cherry cheeks and your yellow hair
Garrd me gang maiden for ever mair

Sometimes she sunk and sometimes she swam
Until she came to the miller's dam

O father, father draw your dam
There's either a mermaid or a milk-white swan

The miller hasted and drew his dam
And there found a drowned woman

You could not see her yellow hair
For gowd and pearls that were so rare

You could not see her middle sma
Her gowden girdle was sae bra

A famous harper passing by
The sweet pale face he chanced to spy

And when he looked the ladye on
He sighed and made a heavy moan

He made harp from her breast bone
Whose sounds would melt a heart of stone

The strings he framed from her yellow hair
Whose notes made sad the listening ear

He brought her to her father's hall
And there the court assembled all

He laid this harp upon a stone
And straight it began to pay alone

O yonder sits my father, the king
And yonder sits my mother, he queen

And yonder stands my brother Hugh
And by him my William, sweet and true

But the last tune that the harp did play
Was ' Woe to my sister, false Helen.'

Recommended reading:
Although many of the following are currently out of print (OP) they can sometimes be found in the local library or second hand bookshops. I quote the most recently known editions, as it is likely that these can be still be picked up.

The English and Scottish Popular Ballads
ed. Francis James Child (5 volumes) (OP) Dover Publications paperback editions can still be found. The Two Sisters appears in Volume 1.

The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads
ed. Bertrand Harris Bronson (4 volumes) (OP). Princeton University Press, New Jersey. 1959 - 1972. An abridged one-volume edition was printed in 1976

Northumbrian Minstrelsy
ed. Bruce and Stokoe. Paperback edition in print from Llanerch Publishers, Felinfach, Lampeter, Ceredigion SA48 8PJ

Journal of the Folk Song Society
1931. (OP). Members of the English Folk Dance and Song Society can obtain photocopies of the Journals on a payment per sheet basis.

The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles.
Edition printed by Dover Publications Inc.1970. A more recent edition has been printed by Lexington: University Press of Kentucky 2000. John Niles gives a more human touch to the songs often lacking from the earlier song collections by describing the source singer and the circumstances in which the song was collected.

Links, further information and recordings: