Old Folks: Katie Cruel

The first time I heard “Katie Cruel” was about two years ago, when I bought 1966, a release of a found tape that Karen Dalton recorded in a Colorado cabin forty-plus years ago. The song haunted me for weeks. I remember listening to it in my bedroom, on the subway, in my parents’ empty house where I found myself alone one weekend and therefore able sing it over and over again at full volume with only our family dog to hear me.

“Katie Cruel” is the lament of a woman who was once desired and has discovered that that is no longer true. (The first verse: “When I first came to town, they called me the roving jewel / Now they’ve changed their tune, call me Katie Cruel”). I, like many others who have been captured by Karen Dalton’s music, was taken by how much the song mirrored Dalton’s life. A fixture on the 1960s Greenwich Village folk circuit, she recorded two albums, released in 1969 and 1971. (“Katie Cruel” was released on her first album, In My Own Time.) Battling addiction issues for much of her life, she disappeared from the scene and died in 1993 under still murky circumstances.



Though I’ll always think of “Katie Cruel” as Karen Dalton’s song, it’s much older, possibly dating back to the time of the American Revolution. I’ve read a lot of conflicting accounts of the source material, but it seems to have been developed from a Scottish song called “The Lichtbob’s Lassie,” about a camp follower. (The best roundup I’ve found of recordings and sources is here.) Unlike many of the American folk songs we still remember, “Katie Cruel” never really became a standard. But it has been recorded widely, especially as more people have become acquainted with Dalton’s version more recently.

I’ve searched for recordings of the song and other versions pretty extensively and I always end up liking the ones influenced by Dalton the most.

Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes has covered the song quite a bit. I like this live version in particular.



I also like this cover by Danish singer-songwriter Agnes Obel.



Further reading:

Laura Barton, “The Best Singer You’ve Never Heard Of” (The Guardian)
Mairead Case, “Karen Dalton, Roving Jewel” (Bookslut)
Joel Rose, “Karen Dalton: A Reluctant Voice, A Voice Rediscovered” (NPR)

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.