Saturday, 8 May 2010

A Murder Ballad

The Oxford Girl
I fell in love with an Oxford girl
She had a dark and a roving eye.
But I feel too ashamed for to marry her,
A-being so young a maid.

I went up to her father's house
About twelve o'clock one night,
Asking her if she's take a walk
Through the fields and meadows gay.

I took her by the lily-white hand
And I kissed her cheek and chin,
But I had no thoughts of murdering her
Nor in no evil way.

I catched a stick from out the hedge
And I gently knocked her down,
And blood from that poor innocent girl
Came a-trinkling to the ground

I catched fast hold of her curly, curly locks
And I dragged her through the fields,
Until we came to a deep riverside
Where I gently flung her in.

Look out, she go, look out, she floats,
She's a-drowning on the tide,
And instead of her having a watery grave
She should have been my bride.

A striking song. No explanation - even the perpetrator doesn’t seem to know why he did it – and so quick, not long after they first meet, when they appear to fancy each other. Why? The first stanza gives a hint, but is not at all clear. Then there’s the ending. So dispassionate: there doesn’t appear that much difference between a wedding and a drowning. Maybe he has a mild regret?

In the liner notes Shirley Collins says, “I am always struck by the tenderness underlying this murder ballad.” The second stanza? And because he “gently knocked her down”, and “gently flung her in”? This is also true, and adds to the unease: unexpected violence mixed up with love and coolness.

The structure of the song is interesting: it describes a sudden, inexplicable act of murder, but within the description of the act the reader is warned that is about to take place (he has no thoughts of murder as he’s picking up the stick). Thus the act is immediate, while the song creates some suspense, but both an encompassed in the same description.

To get this effect Shirley and Dolly Collins substantially edited this folk song. Carthy Waterson provides the explanation in her version; losing the mystery, and its power.

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