Judy Cook, Folksinger

Two Sisters

Author: trad [Child 10]

Source: Friends' singing. Probably from Pentangle 1970

Notes: The Twa Sisters / The Two Sisters / The Bows of London / The Wind and Rain / The Berkshire Tragedy / Binnorie / Minorie [ Roud 8 ; Master title: The Twa Sisters ; Child 10 One of the most widely distributed of all British traditional ballads, The Two Sisters has proved excellent material for detailed study. Of 27 texts published by Child, the earliest is a broadside dating from the middle of the 17th century, though it may have been sung in Britain at an earlier date. In an extensive study of the ballad, Paul G. Brewster [The Two Sisters, Helsinki, 1953, FFC #147] comes to the conclusion that it is definitely Scandinavian in origin; starting in Norway prior to the 17th century, the ballad spread from there to other Scandinavian countries and then to Scotland and England. Archer Taylor has made a strong case for his belief that American versions of the ballad derive from English rather than Scottish tradition. Pentangle sang Cruel Sister as the title track of their 1970 Transatlantic album Cruel Sister. According to Phil Edwards in the Mudcat Café thread Wind and the Rain (NOT Two Sisters), it’s a version recorded, and probably rewritten, by the Appalachian autoharpist (John) Kilby Snow. Dave Arthur with Pete Cooper and Chris Moreton (later known as Rattle on the Stovepipe) sang Oh Death in 2002 on their WildGoose CD Return Journey. This was reissued in 2010 on their compilation So Far, So Good. Dave noted on the first album: The story of the man who courts two sisters, and chooses the youngest, thus precipitating her murder by the elder, is well known throughout Northern Europe and America. In the older European versions there is a supernatural element, missing in many American texts, where parts of the victim’s body are used to make an instrument. On being played the harp/fiddle/pipe denounces the murderess, who is punished for the crime. Although undoubtedly a much older tale, the Two Sisters first appears in 1656 as a broadside entitled The Miller and the King’s Daughter. From then on it achieved widespread popularity in a variety of forms, from the Berry Fields of Blair, Perthshire, to Detroit, Michigan. As a folktale and cante-fable it is known across east and west Europe. A common element in the folktale, but missing from the ballad, is the resurrection of the girl brought about by the breaking of the instrument.