Behind the Song: Henry Lee

For some years now I have had a fascination with folk songs, particularly with the American ballads and songs that originated in the 19th into early 20th centuries. There is something about the stories behind these songs, the universal themes they meditate upon, that I find so very intriguing. Some originate with the tale of a jilted lover, others from children’s games, and still more concern cult figures or even bloody revenge. Over the years these songs have been reinterpreted and rerecorded a great many times and it pleases me greatly that they have not been forgotten, that their power and their simplicity can still captivate subsequent generations.

The song “Henry Lee” belongs to the sub-genre of folk songs often referred to as “murder ballads.” These songs concern a murder and/or its consequences and the subjects can be both real and imagined. A particular favourite of mine is the ballad, “Henry Lee.”

“Henry Lee” basic arrangement via Remembering the Old Songs

A variant on the Scottish folk song, “Young Hunting” (see Francis James Child’s Child Ballad #68), the song concerns the murder of the eponymous character Henry Lee by his jilted lover. In the original song the woman is with child and is told by Young Hunting that he cannot be with her as he is in love with another woman who is far more beautiful. Overcome with jealousy, she gets Hunting drunk and after one last seduction then stabs Hunting to death. As can be seen in the lyrics below, this story is used as a basis for “Henry Lee.” However, one can’t help but note that the song takes on the status of an anthem for jilted women everywhere; a rallying call for help in the disposal of Henry Lee’s body and thus a bonding exercise for the brokenhearted (“Come all ye ladies in the town…”).

“Get down, get down, little Henry Lee, and stay all night with me.
The very best lodging I can afford will be fare better’n thee.”
“I can’t get down, and I won’t get down, and stay all night with thee,
For the girl I have in that merry green land, I love far better’n thee.”

She leaned herself against a fence, just for a kiss or two;
With a little pen-knife held in her hand, she plugged him through and through.
“Come all you ladies in the town, a secret for me keep,
With a diamond ring held on my hand I’ll never will forsake.”

“Some take him by his lily-white hand, some take him by his feet.
We’ll throw him in this deep, deep well, more than one hundred feet.
Lie there, lie there, loving Henry Lee, till the flesh drops from your bones.
The girl you have in that merry green land still waits for your return.”

“Fly down, fly down, you little bird, and alight on my right knee.
Your cage will be of purest gold, in deed of property.”
“I can’t fly down, or I won’t fly down, and alight on your right knee.
A girl would murder her own true love would kill a little bird like me.”

“If I had my bend and bow, my arrow and my string,
I’d pierce a dart so nigh your heart your wobble would be in vain.”
“If you had your bend and bow, your arrow and your string,
I’d fly away to the merry green land and tell what I have seen.”

The most famous recording of the song is probably that of blues singer Dick Justice, whose 1929 interpretation appears on the Holy Grail of folk collections, Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. The six disc set was released by Folkways Records in 1952 and features an array of wonderful folk, blues and country recordings.

Dick Justice’s version of “Henry Lee” is in waltz time (3/4 time signature) and, judging from the recording, in G major, utilising only chords I, IV and V (GMaj, CMaj and DMaj respectively). A simple, almost uplifting ditty melodically that makes for something rather unsettling when coupled with its menacing lyrics.

In the ’90s the song garnered new listenership via Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds’ 1996 album, Murder Ballads, which featured an array of original and reinterpreted songs concerning murderHere “Henry Lee” is reimagined as a duet between Nick Cave and his then lover, UK alt-goddess P.J. Harvey.

The song has been transposed into A minor, retaining its triple timing but changing instead to a 6/8 time signature. In using the minor key, the verses obviously sound far more melancholic in the Cave/Harvey interpretation, but the chord change in the verse from A minor to D minor, still echoes the move of a fourth between G Major and and C Major in Justice’s version. What is really lovely and unique in the Cave/Harvey version however, is the sudden change to C Major during the “La, la, la…” section, which gives a beautifully whimsical touch to an otherwise haunting song. The lyrics of the original have essentially been “remixed” in order to create a duet between the man and the heartbroken woman in the song, and also to make the events of the song’s tragic narrative more clear.

One thing that puzzles me about both interpretations is the presence of the “little bird” character. I can only imagine that it functions as some sort of moral compass, observing the events that are occurring between the woman and Henry Lee and commenting upon them. What is really interesting is that it seems to me that in Justice’s version the bird is condemning the woman for her actions, whilst in Cave/Harvey’s it is almost a Svengali figure, encouraging and overseeing the woman’s vengeful act of violence. A sign o’ the times, perhaps? Or maybe just Cave and Harvey’s dark sense of humour.


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