Child's Ballads

Week 12: England - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Two Brothers (Child 49)

Listening time: (3 minutes)

CHILD 49 versions A-H. This is another version of rivalry between two brothers, with a fatal outcome. Max Hunter collected many versions of this: in one version the boys are on their way to school; in one version the boy is supposed to go to New Orleans; some versions focus on the mother rather than the sister; and in some the boys' names are Johnny and Willie. The original ballad appears to be based on a historical incident, as Lesley Nelson-Burns comments: "The story is said to be based on an incident in 1589 that occurred near Edinburgh. One of the Somervilles accidentally shot and killed his brother. According to Child another possible origin for the story took place in 1682 when a thirteen year old boy killed his brother because his brother had been pulling his hair."


And he came before his own parents door
His long yellow hair, for ta comb
Say brother, can you toss th ball
Or can you roll a stone
No, say brother, I'm to little and I'm to young
Go'way and let me alone

He pulled his knife, all from his side
And he pierced it into his little brothers side
And out th blood did pour

He tore his shirt off from his back
He ripped it from gore to gore
And he bound up those bleeding wounds
But still they bled th more

Say brother, go and dig my grave
Go dig it long and deep
There a marble stone to my head and feet
Where none, no sound, no sleep

Say brother, now when you go home
My Father will ask for me
O say, tell 'im I'm alone with my little school mates
So early I'll be at home

Say brother, now when you go home
My Mother will ask for me
O say, tell 'er I'm gone to England
My long, long lesson for ta learn

Say brother, now when you go home
My sister will ask for me
O say, tell 'er I'm lying in my own grave cold
So, no more she'll see of me

She'll harve th birds all from their nest
And th mulberrys off of th tree
And she'll harve little fishes all out of th sea
And her own brother out'a his tomb

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • why does the older brother kill his little brother?
  • what does the little brother say to his older brother?
  • what is the older brother supposed to say to the rest of the family?

Source: From The Max Hunter Folksong Archive (weblink) and Lesley Nelson's Child Ballad website (weblink). See also Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-1898). Weblink.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM