Aug 032022

Some covers are more equal than others. Good, Better, Best looks at three covers and decides who takes home the gold, the silver, and the bronze.

“Willie O’ Winsbury” is all about gender-fluidity, and it’s about the rejection of all things patriarchal. But it didn’t come out of some woke college campus; it’s a Scottish ballad that goes back to 1775, if not earlier. Some argue that the events it describes took place in the 13th century.

For those keeping score, “Willie O’ Winsbury” is Child Ballad #100. The Child ballads were not for children: the name comes from FC Child, the 19th century song-catcher who compiled hundreds of English and Scottish ballads from past centuries.

Even in the most modernized version of the song, its old-fashioned language isn’t easy to parse. You can listen carefully (like I did) and still miss the juicier implications and its revolutionary flavor (like I did, until I heard Scottish comedian Stewart Lee discuss it). Normally it’s best to let lyrics speak for themselves, but in this case I will write some notes in the margins:

  • The first shocker is not that the king’s unmarried daughter Janet became pregnant when he was away, or that the king rather brutally inspected her body in court in order to confirm this. The shocker is that she slept with Willie, a peasant. In feudal Europe you didn’t do this.
  • The next surprise is not that the king decides to hang Willie, but that upon seeing the strapping young man brought before the court the king’s heart melts. He admits he’d sleep with this hottie, too, if he (the king) were a woman. This king is kinky enough to realize his daughter was doing the right and natural thing after all.
  • The king invites Willie to marry his daughter and offers to make him a lord of the land. A pretty sweet deal, especially for someone being fitted for a noose.
  • Plot twist: Willie declines the offer. Oh, he’ll marry the king’s daughter all right, but it’s purely out of love, and he rejects anything to do with the king’s wealth or power. That’s the implication, anyway. The couple rejects the social order for a natural order. (Either their heads are full of early Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire and Rousseau, or they are too horny to think straight.)
  • When the couple gallops off into the sunset, the song’s narrator implies (in not so many words) that the couple have more wealth in the form of individual liberty than any knight or lord could claim.

Of course, all this is merely one reading of one version of a popular ballad. Variants of the song exist under various titles, with this verse or that inserted, deleted, or altered. In some versions, Willie is a man of wealth in peasant disguise.

So much for the story. The tune itself–the melody and chord progression–is also worth appreciating. How the chord sequence fails to resolve harmonically at any point, but circles back on itself like a staircase in an Escher print. It never seems to lose momentum. (Well, at least not in the arrangements I like.)

And speaking of arrangements I like…

Richard Thompson has a good one.
Pentangle has a better one.
Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer have the best cover of all.

Richard Thompson – Willie O’ Winsbury (Traditional cover)

Whistle the tune to “Willie O’ Winsbury” in certain settings, and folks will identify it as Fairport Convention’s “Farewell, Farewell.” And they’d be correct. It’s just that Fairport’s Richard Thompson borrowed the tune for his own original lyrics, and then gave it to the great Sandy Denny to sing.

After Denny’s death, Thompson took to performing “Willie O’ Winsbury” in place of “Farewell, Farewell.” Note that Thompson’s father is Scottish, so his Scots dialect on the Scottish ballad is no affectation. He delivers a stately uncomplicated version of a song with a complicated history–a history that Thompson himself is wrapped up in.

Pentangle – Willie O’ Winsbury (Traditional cover)

With two killer guitarists (John Renbourn and Bert Jansch) and the radiant vocalist Jacqui McShee, Pentangle defined the British folk rock movement in the late ‘60s (right along with Fairport Convention). They could breathe life into a traditional ballad and then launch into something by Charles Mingus. Doing covers of a modern American jazz hero reveals how seriously they took the “British folk rock” label.

On this live version of “Willie O’ Winsbury,” the real star is bassist Danny Thompson. He plays not quite like a man possessed, but like a man out to kick folk music’s ass. His playing is dark and lyrical, with growling lines that build the tension; his aggressive feel disrupts the renaissance faire vibe in the best of ways.

Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer – Willie O’ Winsbury (Traditional cover)

The Gold medal for “Willie O’ Winsbury” covers goes to Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer. Each is a gifted vocalist, but in harmony their voices attain yet another level of lovely. Nor is this performance a one-off. They recorded an entire album of Child ballads in 2013.

On their solemn duet from 2016, they shun most contemporary trappings without seeming trapped in faded tradition. I’m not sure how they do it. Anaïs Mitchell seems particularly skilled at intermixing past and present. Her musical “Hadestown” retells the ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Its Broadway run took home eight Tony awards in 2019, including best musical. A Grammy for best Musical Theater Album followed in 2020.

While Mitchell hit the big time, I want to end on a very small point about this version of “Willie O’ Winsbury”: that the singers change “Janet” to “Jane.” “Janet” ends in an unstressed syllable, so the five lines in the song that end in “Janet” have an unnecessary extra unit at the end, and a weak one at that. “Jane” cleans it right up, makes it metrically correct. A small detail, but getting these tiny things right gets you eventually to Broadway and Carnegie Hall.

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  6 Responses to “Good, Better, Best: Willie O’ Winsbury (Traditional)”

Comments (6)
  1. Great to hear these and thanks indeed are due to you for featuring the tune and the players. I haven’t heard or played this tune for a long time (but then subsiding hearing and arthritic fingers are a real bugger, I can tell you!). I haven’t heard Mitchell and Hamer before but must have seen Thomson a dozen times (with Fairport and without) and Pentangle/Jansch/Renbourn double that. Thus I’m more used to their approach but, to try and overcome my bias, I listened to the Mitchell/Hamer version over and over —- and I still don’t get it. Jacqui McShee is peerless on this. Her performance flows and that’s why she doesn’t have a problem with the ‘Janet’ (which is, I beg to differ, unlike ‘Jane’, in being an emphasised ending). Just listen to Renbourn and Danny in the background doing things with that space she gives them (while Bert, apart from chewing his plectrum, keeps the dulcimer light). Mitchell and Hammer don’t flow, they stutter around it (it’s a difficult tune for a guitarist used to standard rhythm) and, thus, not only lose the flow but they lose the story. Maybe it’s just me (dodgy hearing for one thing) but I would be hard-pressed to know what this is about if I came upon it for the first time in their version. Songs like this are stories, not just music and tempo, and that’s their fascination. Your right about the harmonic resolution and the need for the momentum to keep up (to match the story). For me, Mitchell and Hamer lose it and it becomes like a bicycle with an eccentric oval pedal gear. McShee just nails it. As for Richard: great though he is and great though his rendition is I think he sets up your thesis all too neatly – the first couple of Janets fit in fine but when Willie starts talking of her it’s too much for him (Willie that is!) and her name disappears in a classic RT mumble. The rest of the story is crystal clear in his hands though. So, thanks for featuring this wonderful tune and giving me the impetus to try working through it again. We won’t agree but who cares? Just great to hear Jacqui again – she and Sandy Denny shared what the greats have, the ability to blend melody. and words into a perfect song. And there are a good few others but, maybe not, in my opinion, your Gold Medalists! I’m looking forward to hearing you haul out Martin Carthy and (early) Christy Moore sometime. More power to your elbow (and mine)!

    • Dollar Park, I agree with you that we will disagree re Mitchell/Hamer. It’s fun to speculate as to why we hear it so differently, but in the end we just have to celebrate our differences, as you say. I do appreciate your open-mindedness–the willingness to listen more than once before you conclude that a piece of music is not for you. Also I want to thank you for your suggestion to dig into Martin Carthy and Christy Moore–eventually I will get to them, and your nudge is helpful.
      Keep listening and playing!

  2. Hi Tom. Thanks for taking the time. And you nail it – ‘celebrate our differences’. That applies to everything. I wonder how many violent, frightened bullies (at the political level (no names required!) or otherwise) really love and appreciate music? However, back to the music: your wonderful blog does just what the musicians need – now that I’m aware of Mitchell and Hamer I’ll be listening out for them! All the best.

  3. Have you istened to Ye Vagabonds play it. Brian Mac Gloinn sings it beautifully.
    There’s also a strand of the story that Willie was a french prince come to England to to seek alliances.

  4. Ye Vagabonds version is great. But check The Sweeney’s Men version and the inimitable Andy Irvine’s solo version. haven’t heard all in this article, but both of those i mentioned are outstanding

  5. and thanks for the fabulous article and comments!

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