Old Folks: Henry Lee

A few years ago, I decided that I wanted to write a cycle of stories based on a number of the Child Ballads. This isn’t the most original idea as the Child Ballads, which are hundreds of English and Scottish traditional folk songs collected and published by Francis James Child in the mid-nineteenth century, have inspired storytellers for ages. However, I wanted to focus on tales of women scorned or misled by lovers and to set the stories in the early to mid-nineteenth century.

I was first drawn to the Child Ballads after discovering Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music when I was in college. Released in 1952, the Anthology is seen as highly influential in the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s. Many of the songs included in the first, aptly titled volume, “Ballads,” were based on Child Ballads. A few of them just really stuck in my mind, so much that I wanted to know more about how they came to be.

The first song that captured my attention and imagination was “Henry Lee.” Conveniently, it’s the first song in the first volume of the Anthology of American Folk Music. “Henry Lee” is performed by Dick Justice. (All of the recordings in the Anthology were recorded between 1926 and 1933.)

The song is the story of a woman who murders her lover, Henry Lee, after he reveals that he’s in love with another woman. She enlists the help of the women of her town to hide his body in a well and afterward, is threatens to capture and keep a bird, who in turn threatens to reveal her secret.  “Henry Lee” is based on Child Ballad number 68, known as “Young Hunting.” (If you want, you can read the text of the ballad here.) The ballad itself is a bit more gruesome than the song, though the general stories are the same. In “Young Hunting,” after the woman kills “Young Hunting,” she denies that she has seen him when questioned. She later admits that she murdered him and is burned at the stake.

In “Henry Lee,” as far as the listener knows, the woman gets away with it. In “Young Hunting,” she’s punished with death. Perhaps the listener of “Henry Lee” is to assume that the woman will be punished eventually, whether or not the truth comes to light in her lifetime. As an amateur but enthusiastic music-listener and American cultural historian, that seems appropriate in light of where and when the song would have developed. (Appalachia and the nineteenth century, respectively.)

Justice’s “Henry Lee” is probably the most famous modern variant of “Young Hunting.” It’s also by far my favorite, though there are more versions out there than I’ve ever had the patience to wade through. I thought I’d highlight a few more.

Nick Cave recorded a version of “Henry Lee” with PJ Harvey for the 1996 Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds album, Murder Ballads. The song was an album single. The duet is more melodramatic and sinister than the Justice version.

There’s also this version called “Love Henry” by 1960s folk singer Judy Henske. I’m not sure if I like this one or am just really intrigued by the Jefferson Airplane vibe.

And then there’s this much more recent version of “Love Henry” by Jolie Holland, which I like a lot. I’m particularly glad she kept the line “Til the flesh falls off your bones,” because again, I like that this story is sad and terrible and gruesome.

There are many, many more versions of this song. Bob Dylan even did one, though I’m not sure this should surprise you. The related English and Scottish ballads are titled “Earl Richard” and “The Proud Girl,” neither of which I’ve researched very much, though I do know there are many twentieth century recordings of both. (I found a pretty good overview on this English Folk Music site, Mainly Norfolk, which has an overwhelming amount of information.)

Though I’m still working on my own version of this story, I’m very happy to geek out about its evolution for now. If you’ve never heard any of this before, I hope you enjoy it. I’m looking forward to writing some more things like this, so let me know if you have any suggestions.