Friday, March 09, 2007

LILY OF THE WEST Murder Ballad x 10

Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy kills rival. But that's not the end of the story: "still I love my faithless Flora, the lily of the west." Boy, is this guy gone. In fact, soon he'll be executed. [SHE will be executed, too, in the case of the "lesbian" versions from Joan Baez and Rosanne Cash]

The setting for this well known "crime of passion" song is Louisville for American folksingers, but its origins are in the U.K. circa the 1830's. The Irish ballad cautioned against journeying South: "Twas when I came to England, some pleasures for to find..."
In the original, our hero merely loves and loses Flora:
"I courted her a fortnight, in hopes her love to gain, But soon she turn'd against me, which caused all my pain. She robb'd me of my freedom, she robb'd me of my rest, I roam, forsook of Flora, the Lily of the West."

Within a few decades, and with broadsheets popularizing murder ballads, the tune was revised to include mayhem. The upper class is blamed, since Flora falls for a "lord of high degree." Our hero sees red, and acts rashly. Or has a rash, and sees red:

"I walked up to my rival with a dagger in my hand, And seized him from my false love, and bid him boldly stand; Then, mad with desperation, I swore I'd pierce his breast, And I was betrayed by Flora, the Lily of the West."

(Yes, you can click the picture and see a larger version of the sheet about this broad Flora). As with "Stagger Lee" and "Tom Dooley," more than one musical setting can accompany these lyrics. The less popular version (the one resuscitated by Mark Knopfler, and the one used often by Irish traditionalists) seizes the melody more commonly associated with the old air, "Lakes of Pontchartrain." With this 10-version download you get "Lakes of Pontchartrain" with its own far less murderous original lyric, so you can compare it to the versions here that borrow from it. Over the years Flora's been re-named "Maire" or "Mary-O" or "Molly-O," but "Flora," after all, is more likely to be a "Lily" of the west.

Geography students can worry over how far "west" Flora might be in relation to Louisville.
Once the song was transplanted into a Kentucky ballad of the Old West, the slimeball that Flora was fooling with was changed from a "lord of high degree" to "a man of high degree" or, worse, "a man of low degree." Either way, Flora served most definitely as a witness for the prosecution! Which suggests the Groucho line, "I was fighting for your honor, which is more than you ever did." The song wouldn't be nearly so compelling if the guy didn't still love her, setting up over a century of similar (if not always lethal) songs of agony.

In American versions, the pain is that the gallows await while the singer woefully declares he still loves his "faithless Flora." One Irish version actually spares the wonder it isn't popular:

"I then did stand my trial, and boldly I did plea. A flaw was in my indictment found, and that soon had me free. That beauty bright I did adore, the judge did her address, He said "go you faithless Molly - O", the Lily of the West Now that I've gained my liberty, a roamin' I will go. I'll ramble through old Ireland, and travel Scotland o'er. Though she thought to swear my life away, she still disturbs my rest, I still must style her Molly - O, the Lily of the West."

That's the version from Alex Beaton and from The Chieftains with the Ponchartrain melody. In most others, the guy has been found guilty thanks to Flora's eye-witness testimony, and poor boy, he's gonna die. Whether you prefer Bert Jansch, Pentangle, Steve Forbert, Rosanne Cash, etc., a special doff of the hangman's cowl goes to Peter Paul and Mary who recorded it on their best-selling album "Moving." It gave the old number a fresh new audience and probably inspired most of the cover renditions. Their version may have a little extra resonance since it's the only one that, unintentionally, echoes the love triangle of the story. Peter and Paul harmonize like dueling rivals, while Mary's alluring refrains suggest how haunting Flora was, and how easy love lost became life lost.

1 comment:

Elaine said...

I'd kill for some of these versions, so thanks for putting them up!