From Ireland to England to the United States: 'Because I Did Murder That Poor Little Girl Whose Name Was Rose Connelly'
In this piece, I am looking at the popular trope of the murdered sweetheart, in a range of traditional British, Irish, American and Anglo-American ballads. I will look at the stories of the songs and the characters they contain, as well as the roles played by both men and women in not only a core set of songs (variously titled the Oxford Girl, the Wexford Girl and the Knoxville Girl), as well as a wider collection of songs containing The Banks Of The Ohio, and also Down In The Willow Garden/Rose Connelly.
I will look at notions of 'fact' and 'true life' in these songs, and I want to explore the relationships between the songs in the sample, and the essential differences between the various stories.
This 'core' set of songs takes the form of differing versions of the same story. A young man, a miller by trade, takes it upon himself to murder his young sweetheart, for reasons which are not immediately obvious (indeed, in many versions, not obvious at all). The song seems to have its origins in 18th century (or earlier) English broadsides (cheap street literature), which came into the oral tradition in a variety of ways. The young man's crime is not detected, and he carries on with his normal life, more or less.
The songs have proved hugely popular across folk, roots and country circles, and the variation in the lyrics of the traditional versions have been stabilized in cut-down forms of the story which have been popularized in recorded versions.
"The Banks of the Ohio" is another, related song, which follows the same basic story as the Oxford/Knoxville Girl. In Banks...the girl rejects his marriage proposal, a possible 'motive' for his undeniable cruelty.
"Down In The Willow Garden" (also known as "Rose Connolly") takes us from Ireland to the United States, and, although following on from the above songs, may have an American origin. Unlike some of its predecessors, it has a named character (Rose), and, rather gruesomely, some versions describe the murder in more detail. As well as being stabbed, as in Oxford... et al, she is poisoned and drowned for her sins.
One cannot help but reflect on the question of why these songs have proved so popular, so resolute in the tradition? There are so many versions which have been left to us from singers and communities across the generations. Sure, the story is a strong one, one which speaks to our humanity, but there must be more to it than that. There seems to be some voyeurism, some attraction to cruelty, a 'ritual misogyny', as Teresa Goddu has described it.
It is worth for a moment looking at the characters portrayed in the stories, and the roles which they play. We never seem to get much biographical information on the characters (perhaps symptomatic of traditional song), bar the fact that young Willie is an apprentice miller (as revealed in some takes on Oxford...). Of the woman, we know next to nothing, except that she is a tragic innocent who can act in nothing but deference to her man. She chooses nothing, has no agency. As we are more or less in the dark as to the male's motives (he may have been on the receiving end of some bad news, or a disagreement - hardly the stuff of murder, surely), we can only wonder at why he commits the heinous act.
And indeed, murder sometimes makes a hero of a man, or at least boosts his profile. But in all of the songs I am looking at, I can't help but think of him as something of a weakling, a man defined by his cruelty alone. We are looking at a cut-down version of a cut-down story, but it is still one which makes me think of a senseless crime with a bit-part victim and a weak and feckless perpetrator.
Down...does take his portrait further, as he realizes, when he is brought to justice, that the murder has had unforeseen consequences, and that he must face the hangman's noose. This contrition is certainly not found in every instance of the ballad.
'Fact' and 'true life' are notoriously difficult concepts to attach to traditional music, and, as much as it does reflect and reinforce everyday concerns, norms and experiences, it is still the result of the fictionalisation of real events. Willie and Rose, and their contemporaries, are versions of real people, their lives imagined (and re-told and re-contextualised). For songs to be 'successful' in tradition, for them to pass into, and through space and time, they have to be popular. They have to resonate with singers and audiences, and to do this, they have to be good stories. Songs have to hook people in, and grab their attention. This is to take nothing away from the tragic events of the songs, but simply to point out their strengths as songs and performances.
Traditional ballads take us on voyages through history, geography, social conditions and politics, and, in the case of "The Oxford Girl," "Down In The Willow Garden" and the like, gender relations. The situation of women is not something that is immediately considered when listening to the exploits of so many poor victims of male violence or misogyny, but is something which we should not ignore. I am the first to celebrate the beauty and poignancy of the form, but this appreciation should not be at the expense of the recognition of historical and contemporary malfeasance.