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I Guess My Corpse Is A Swan Now: A Weird Folk Education

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Annotated for your pleasure, these Weird Folk Song Premises are very educational. Some plots are wonderfully bizarre, sung in lost languages - others have familiar echoes that you'll pick up later in your favorite stories.


  • King Orfeo by Emily Smith
    "An Elfin Knight Kidnapped My Wife, So I Staged This Elaborate Revenge Musical To Get Her Back" - this Celtic retelling of the Orpheus myth has wild imagery and a happy ending, and inspired Tolkien's legendarium of tall, fair, strange "elves" that meddle inscrutably with human affairs. Look up "Sir Orfeo" and educate yourselves because you're worth it. The refrains are "Scowan ürla grün" (Early green is the wood) and "Whar giorten han grün oarlac" (Where the hart goes yearly). The language is not Celtic, but Scandinavian - said to be some of the last preserved remnants of the Norn language, but could be mangled Danish, or Shetland dialect. The "gabber reel" may be related to the Scottish "gramerie," or magic. It was clearly a rockin' tune that makes a sick heart heal.
  • The Seventh Girl by Bella Hardy
    "I Dated A Serial Killer and Then Killed Him" - Another parable warning us all of the dangers of those pesky Weird Knights (in this variation, an Outlandish Knight. Outlanders, as you know, are Scottish, making them just as distressing as marriage prospects as any fairy knight.) It's a tale as old as time - you run off with an outlandish cutie, he turns out to be a serial killer, and then you've got to kill him, don't you? "Six pretty girls have you drownéd right here, but the seventh girl has drownéd you!" sings the heroine triumphantly. People who read Ursula Vernon's "The Seventh Bride" without realizing that it's a retold fairy tale are going "Ah" right now...
  • The Bonny Swans by Loreena McKennitt
    "My Sister Drowned Me and My Corpse Turned Into A Swan: On the Plus Side They Upcycled Said Corpse Into A Haunted Harp" - this modern variation of the Twa Sisters has an admittedly strange plot. She's a miller's daughter but the harp accuses the son of a king? HOW CAN YOU MAKE A HARP OUT OF A SHOULDER BONE? I HAVE BEEN ANGRY ABOUT THIS SONG SINCE I WAS A VERY SMALL CHILD. Anyway, the "Twa Sisters" songs are generally about murdering and weird stuff happening to the corpse.
  • Sovay by Pentangle
    "I Dressed As A Man And Robbed My Boyfriend at Gunpoint for Reasons" - Hey, watch out you folksong resellers and fairy-tale-retellers, this obscure little piece of lore is my absolute favorite and you haven't gotten your grubby little paws on it yet. Sovay is one of my favorite folk songs. To challenge her lover's faith, a woman dresses herself as a man, arms up, and robs him at gunpoint. Well played, Sovay. Well played.
  • Tam Lin (Child 39) by CrashAvenue
    "If I Hug My Shapeshifting Fairy Boyfriend Hard Enough He Might Make A Good Husband" - You've probably heard of this one, so let's toss it in to break up the hipsterish obscurity. I love Janet. Janet makes such terrible decisions. But they have an underlying logic. Janet goes out into the woods and destroys foliage until a wild territorial garden elf yells at her, and then she naturally bones him. This results in a rather awkward pregnancy, so she destroys a bit of foliage to induce miscarriage while getting the fairy's attention. The fairy explains that if she wants to hug him while he turns into some carnivorous wild animals, he will marry her. Not surprisingly, Janet is into it. Toss a coat on that naked boy and bring him home, Janet! You freaky thing.
  • Lady Isabel and the Elf by Knight
    "Start a Hashtag, These Elfin Knights are Absolutely Out of Control" - You can skip this one. Isabel hears some sexy horn-playing from an elf-knight (presumably plangent honking on a trumpet) and absolutely loses her head. But then she regrets it when the Elf-Knight turns out to be the Outlandish Knight from "The Seventh Girl" and recites a tedious speech about how she will be the latest in his string of murder victims. Isabel offers to stroke his hair - a trick I use on my husband - and he falls asleep with his head in her lap, allowing her to cut his head off (not something I do with my husband). This is a more boring tune and not a very Weird Variation, but it's got very deep roots and has quietly spawned a lot of folklore.
  • Three Ravens by Catherine Paver
    "Does the Three Second Rule Apply If His Pets are Watching" - some ravens discuss whether it's cool to eat a dead knight while his dog, hawk, and lady/deer girlfriend (?) are watching. Oh no, now the deer "friend" is taking the corpse away. You'd think people would consider the ravens.
  • I Gave My Love A Cherry by HanJan
    "Aha, Bet You Didn't Think of That One" - a riddle song, sometimes simply called The Riddle Song. The tradition of giving/asking for impossible objects/tasks is very common in British folk, and this particular song is one of the very oldest. From "Scarborough Fair" to the riddle-games in the Hobbit, the context of this song ripples outwards. Sometimes maidens in English trad songs save their lives by challenging elfin knights to games of riddles. Sometimes lovers fight by assigning each other impossible tasks. But the tradition of weird or riddle challenges can have a happy purpose. Here, someone offers their loved one a series of mysterious and impossible gifts: a cherry with no stone, a chicken with no bones, a baby that doesn't cry, and something with no end. But how can such gifts exist? The singer reveals that the gifts are a cherry in flower, a fertilized egg, a sleeping child... and the singer's love for the beloved one, a story with no end.
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10 comments on I Guess My Corpse Is A Swan Now: A Weird Folk Education (View all)

@Wovles @elodieunderglass I love that this is even a thing we can argue about. (I like Old Blind Dogs' version of Twa Corbies)

An amazing mix! Your annotations really bring this to life! I love Tam Lin so much, and your annotations made me laugh so hard about the sheer ridiculousness of the story!

@Caketin Thank you so much! Tam LIn is a great tale, but we shouldn't lose sight of the True Meaning of Fairy-Tale Logic. It's neither sexyromantic princesses, nor grimdark gritty fantasy - folklore is more like fanfiction written by a group of friends too late at night, where "sure fine, WHat IF tAm LiN waS a SeXy eLf but ALSO: MORE BEARS?!?!" "YES GOOD I'M INTO IT."

@Caketin @elodieunderglass @itsmeektg . It's neither sexyromantic princesses, nor grimdark gritty fantasy - folklore is more like fanfiction written by a group of friends too late at night, where "sure fine, WHat IF tAm LiN waS a SeXy eLf but ALSO: MORE BEARS?!?!" "YES GOOD I'M INTO IT." --YES THIS DEFINITELY

Haha these are the best annotations! The Tam Lin one made me laugh out loud, because the novel by Pamela Dean is what got me through high school. <3 SO ACCURATE.

LOVE your annotations! And the song choices, I don't find these songs or artists enough on 8tracks, so happy to hear them here! The Anais Mitchell Child Ballad album is superb, I'm always delighted to hear Loreena and I cannot believe you used Bella Hardy! Wonderful.

@Idril oh man I feel so self-conscious, I adore your mixes with an unbridled passion. And in fact I lifted that Bella Hardy song from one of your mixes because it is so triumphant. Oh, this is the best comment ever, thank you!

@Idril @elodieunderglass This is making me think we need a playlist of all the excellent versions of Tam Lin. I *adore* Anais Mitchell's version too, and there's another version, a modern retelling, w/Tam Lin as an illegal alien refugee, that I love a lot too....