nex (nextian) wrote,

a sorry box and a hillside

(This entire post was won by cmattg in the [community profile] help_pakistan auction. His prompt is spoilery for the Doctor Who finale so it's under the following spoiler text: 1800+ years, Rory must have inspired at least one artist, yes? I would therefore like THE BALLAD OF THE LONE CENTURION in your best faux-folk style. It can be slightly tongue-in-cheek but mostly serious, please. My post itself is probably only spoilery if you've seen episode twelve and not thirteen, but caveat lector.)

So as a lot of you know, I am a history major suffering through the first throes of thesis work, and last year I was very nearly pulled into a vortex of medievalism by a teacher who was really into the Ottoman Empire. He's teaching at Haverford now and he put up his booklist for the classes he's doing this fall, and on a whim I JSTORed the articles, and it kind of turns out that folk music is hilarious as a historical document because it comes from all over the place and all over the time.

For some reason I got really enamored of this one, even though it doesn't sound like anything really from the Childe ballads and is probably a contemporary invention. It might be because it baffles the crap out of the musicologists.

It's called "the Ballad of the Lone Centurion". It's based on this myth which I cannot believe I haven't read about before, completely localized to the north of England and Scotland in the 16th and 17th centuries. Apparently this dude (unnamed) guarded a massive iron vault, and he wasn't a fairy (I mean I assume that's what "not a gentleman" means in this context) but was immortal (??) and, of course, a centurion. Don't ask me why they knew about centurions in 16th century English folk music! Maybe he was wearing the helmet. Anyway there are all these variations of this melody, and there's another one in France from the Templar period which is really popular among the Holy Blood Holy Grail types (lots of vault imagery), which actually got repurposed in the revolution, but never mind that. Here is the probable original version.

there was a soldier from the north was coming home from war,
and he was tired and he was cold and he was dreadful sore,
he'd fought for england in the east and he would never yield
but now he was so hungry that he'd thought he'd lost the field

and on the hill a stranger called and offered him to dine,
and broke him bread and carved him cheese and poured him out his wine,
"oh stranger, you are kind, and that's the rarest thing to see,
for I am but a soldier, and none will mourn for me

and I am coming home, sir,
I am coming home,
but a battle-cry and a battlefield
are all I've ever known."

the stranger he was solemn and was clothed in all in red,
and while the soldier ate his meal, he never broke his bread.
"oh stranger, why do you talk so much, and eat no earthly crumb,
and why do you sit on the hillside and never shift a thumb."

"oh, I may eat when the world is new, and all the stars appear,
I talk because I'm all alone, and I am all I hear,
and I am on the hill because my charge is in the rye,
i guard a box with all my life, i'll guard it till I die."

he's never coming home, boys,
never coming home,
for a sorry box and a hillside
are all he's ever known

"oh stranger, you are sorrowing, your eyes are dropping low,
but what it is you sorrow for, well, I will never know,
for you have never seen the wars and never seen the dead,
and when I go to my sorry grave, you'll still be here instead."

"oh soldier, I have seen the dead, and I have seen the wars,
and I've been tired, and I've been cold, and I've been dreadful sore,
but I've no home to go and I'll soon be marching on,
for I am but a soldier, the lone centurion."

he's never coming home, boys,
never coming home,
for a sorry box and a hillside
are all he's ever known


And if you survived that, here's one that must be later, with a whole lot of unnecessary harping about hair color that implies to me that the bard in question had a thing for a redhead. This one is my favorite and I have recorded myself singing it and put it up on the YouTubes. It is a bit faster!

(This video has come down for privacy reasons. Sorry!)

there was a maiden fair who once was promised to a man
and sure to find a better one she swore to walk the land
her johnny was a brave boy and a honest boy and true
but he was but a soldier and that would never do

she'd heard a tale of a lonely man who stood a lonely guard
a scholar and a gentleman and oh, his life was hard,
she thought she'd go and find his side and stay there if she could
and when a maiden sets her mind it's all made up for good

i'm never coming home, girls,
never coming home
for a plot of land on the hillside
is all i've ever known

and when she'd been a-wandering in heather and in wood,
she found that she had lost her way and it was lost for good
and since the towns were far afield and she was all alone,
she sat her down on the hillside and sang herself a moan,

a stranger dressed in red came up and listened as she sang
his hands were thin and his cheeks were thin and his face was awful plain
but his voice was sweet, his manner meet, and he sat him down and smiled
and said "why do you sit on the hillside," and she was fair beguiled

oh she's never coming home, girls,
never coming home
for a plot of land on the hillside
is all she's ever known

"i searched the highlands all for you, and found you at your post,
I'm looking for a husband, and I think you'll suit me most.
For you will never leave me to go marching off to war,
and if you'll give me your hand, sir, I'll never leave you more."

"Oh maiden, with your hair of red, you tell me you will stay,
but soon you will be cold and dead and I will march away,
and if you're searching for gentlemen, you'll never be my bride,
for I am but a soldier, it cannot be denied."

and he's never coming home, boys,
never coming home
for a sorry box and a hillside
are all he's ever known

the maiden said, "what a lackaday that I have left my town
for it's to find a gentleman that I've gone up and down
but still I want a man who will not leave me at my gate,
and I'll still marry you if I can, for you know how to wait."

"Oh maiden, with your hair so red, you ought to be my brother,
for though you're fair as fair can be, I'm promised to another,
so do not toss your hair, my lass, nor tarry at the gate,
my love, she sleeps in iron walls, and it's all for her I wait."

and he's never coming home, boys,
never coming home
for a sorry box and a hillside
are all he's ever known

"tell me now, do you love your lad?" "oh yes, I love him so,
but that's no comfort in the night when he's beneath the snow."
"oh maiden, if you won't be left a-waiting on the shelf
then why not go for a soldier, and see it all yourself."

so back she went to her Johnny boy, and married him instead,
they had a pair of children with such bonny hair of red,
and when at last he was called away, a-marching in his wake,
came a pretty lad with hair of red, her soldier for to take

and they're never coming home, lads,
never coming home,
for a plot of land on the hillside
is all they've ever known


Obviously this raises lots of fun historical interpretations. He's King Arthur! He's Merlin! He's been bewitched by the fairy queen like Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer (this one seems unlikely to me because then surely there'd be that ballad? Where a lot more happens?) He's a metaphor for Jesus! (They're all metaphors for Jesus.) He is actually a woman, see the last bit of the ladyversion, and she's cursed to her vigil because she transgressed gender roles! He's the monarchy, and it's actually from the Glorious Revolution, and it's a metaphor for how terribly Oliver Cromwell is treating the country! I have read all these papers or forum posts.

It'd be easier if there were other supporting myths, but it really does seem to have arisen out of nowhere and faded into nowhere -- just this guy with an iron box, who crops up all over the world for like a hundred years and then disappears. amberdulen would say he's obviously a time traveler, or a ghost, or a robot ghost time traveler, but that's for Andrew Bird to decide.

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Tags: dork: historical, dork: who, music: mine

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