The Twa Sisters Folk Song

In Story Nerd entries, I’ll be discussing classic mythologies and folktales, themes, yarns, characters and tropes and follow their histories–and alterations through history–sociological impact, and the general weirdness of storytelling. Basically, the oft-sprawling Science of Story. This can get very broad and very nerdy, so please bear with me 🙂

I’ve been looking for an excuse to get started with a particular topic in mind, and when I looked at my calendar and realized it was the tail end of World Folk Tales & Fables Week, I knew I’d found my chance. So let’s waste no more time!

If you know your folk songs, it’s very rare to find a story song that is sung exactly the same if you compare different versions. And I’m not just talking about instrumentation. For example, “Wild Mountain Thyme” (or “Will Ye Go, Lassie, Go?”) is a Scottish folk song my dad used to sing to me as a girl, and I’ve heard various versions of it. If anything, it’s one of those two titles or there are differences in a word here or there (changing Lassie to Laddie), but for this song in particular you get what you bargained for: a young person in love asking their true love to pick wild mountain thyme all around the blooming heather.

With the song “Scarborough Fair,” I’ve seen a few subtly different spellings of the title (“Scarborough Faire”), seen verses switched around, seen it turned from “she” to “he,” and different wordings in the verses, but it’s pretty much about someone asking their lover to complete a few tasks to prove their fortitude.

Both “Will Ye Go” and “Scarborough” each stick with the same familiar tune for each, so if you try to strike one up in a crowd of people it’s easy for everyone who knows it to join in.

However, my favorite example of the ADHD folksong has got to be:

The Twa Sisters

Or “The Two Sisters.” Or “The Three Sisters.” Or “The Bonny Swans.” Or “The Miller and the King’s Daughter.” Or “The Cruel Sister.” Or “Binnorie.”

WHAT. THE PANTS.

According to Wikipedia this particular song has 21 English variations, with probably more than 21 different names! And the story can be found all over Europe in different languages!

The story is pretty simple: there are at least 2 sisters, and one gets jealous (over a lover in all the ones I’ve heard), and drowns the other. The girl’s body is found by a miller (in all the versions I’ve heard), and she’s either robbed and killed by the miller, or he pulls her corpse out and her bones and hair are made into an instrument, and when its played, reveals the story of how she was murdered by her sister.

However. HOW. EVER. My gosh, I can only cover the English versions I’ve heard PERSONALLY, and there are so many differences! I know there are many versions of Cinderella from around the world (hopefully another entry!), not to mention other folk stories that have many variations, but for some reason the fate of The Twa Sisters has been the one I’m most aware of. Probably because the songs are easier to find and compare to each other.

In fact, I’ll compare a few examples of versions I’ve come across, which will show you how different they can be within just a few songs!

The first song I ever heard was Jim Moray’s “Two Sisters.”

  • The father is a farmer who lived by the sea, and he had 3 daughters.
  • A man comes courting and focuses on the youngest. He gets her a beaver hat, which the older sister is jealous of.
  • The older and younger sister go walking, and the older pushes the younger in the water. The drowning sister begs for help, offering her house and her land, but the older sister doesn’t answer.
  • The sister “floats” down to the miller’s dam (implying she’s dead now), the miller pulls her out, robs her fingers of 5 gold rings and then “plunges” her in again. And that’s the end. Delightful.

But other versions are at least moderately more generous. Take Clannad’s “Two Sisters.”

  • Two sisters walk side by side (presumably by the river) and the older sister is pining for a guy named Johnny
  • Johnny buys the youngest a “gay gold ring” AND a beaver hat (what is it with the beaver hats?), but he doesn’t buy the older sister anything! The plot thickens…
  • As the sisters walked by the “foamy brim” the oldest pushed the youngest in. The sister begs for her life, saying that the older sister can have Johnny and his land, but the older sister says that she isn’t going to save her, and she’ll get them anyway.
  • It’s confusing, but it sounds like the sister swims all the way to the Miller’s dam, and he steals her gold ring and throws her back in.
  • But in the end, “Miller he was hanged on the mountain head… The eldest sister was boiled in lead.” Well at least they got punished!

In the Tom Waits’ version of “Two Sisters,” the older sister gives the miller 5 gold rings to push the sister in again, who presumably hasn’t died in this version! And then she frames him for her sister’s drowning and he was “hung in the old mill gate” for drowning the younger sister Kate. She gets a name finally! I don’t know, those are pretty big twists, even though the basic story is the same.

And in the Paul Clayton version of “The Twa Sisters,” younger sister floats to the miller’s, offers him 3 gold rings to take him back to her father’s, and the miller takes her rings and drowns her again. The singer even calls the drowned girl “my sister Kate,” so maybe there is an unmentioned brother who is telling the story.

But the Jim Moray one is dark and melancholy sounding. Clannad’s version is bright and bouncy! You could dance a happy jig to it if you didn’t listen to the words. I’m not even getting into the instrumentation differences: every song has a different tune, sound and tempo.

My favorite version by far has to be Loreena McKennitt’s “The Bonny Swans,” which seems to combine a lot of the common storylines that are connected to this tale, and actually has a juicy resolve to the ending.

  • A farmer lived in the North country with three daughters. There are a lot of versions which start off with three daughters. IMHO, having 3 when the other one won’t even be mentioned beyond this is kind of sloppy.
  • The daughters (doesn’t specify if it was just 2, so I assume it’s all 3) were walking by the river, and the eldest pushed the youngest in. Which makes me wonder, WHAT IS THE MIDDLE SISTER DOING? Is she even noticing what’s going on? For some reason I envision her spacing out over some pretty flower or something. She’s kind of an airhead, Farmer’s Daughter #2. OR PERHAPS she’s telling the story of her sister Kate? Hmm!
  • Per usual the younger sister cries out for her oldest sister’s hand, saying she’ll give her houses and land. And the oldest sister replies “I’ll give you neither a hand or glove…unless you give me your own true love.”
  • So the younger sister drifts downstream “sometimes she sank, sometimes she swam,” which sounds similar to a lyric in the Clannad version, “until she came to a miller’s dam.”
  • NEW CHARACTER! “The miller’s daughter dressed in red” is coming out to gather water, and then runs to her father shouting, “Father…there swims a swan…it’s very like a gentlewoman!”
  • The miller and his daughter lay her out to dry (so presumably she’s dead now), when a harper comes passing by and proceeds to salvage the pretty corpse for harp parts out of her bones and stringing it with her golden hair. XP Waste not, want not? And when he finished building it it starts to play on its own!
  • He takes the harp to the dead sister’s father’s hall, and his whole court is there. I am assuming this is her father-in-law’s place, who is presumably rich and maybe even a king. (In the middle ages, once you married into a family, they not only became your family literally, they were seen as blood relatives now that you were grafted onto their family tree. Makes sense why Hamlet was so grossed out at his mom and uncle’s indiscretions? Anyway, getting off topic)
  • The harper lays the harp on a stone in front of the whole court, and it plays by itself and says, “There does sit my father the king…there does sit my mother the queen…there does sit my brother Hugh…and by him William sweet and true…and there does sit my false sister Anne…who drowned me for the sake of a man.” And that’s the end of the song! Man, that packs a much more gratifying punch!

There are a lot of others with the magical instrument, but I have heard more that involve the thieving miller and don’t have the harper or fiddler coming by.

So, Kate and Anne, but is their suitor William or Johnny, or both?

This is another weird part: ALL THE CHORUSES AND REPEATED LINES ARE DIFFERENT IN EACH SONG. “Hey hey ho and my bonny o,” “bough o balance to me…I’ll be true to my love if my love will be true to me,” “Sing aye dum, sing aye day…the boys are born for me…I’ll be true for my love if he’ll be true to me…” “bow down, bow down…boughs they bend to me…love will be true, true to my love, love will be true to you,” and that’s only four variations. Sure most of them involve boughs bowing and love being true somehow, but STILL, that’s a lot of ways to say it differently.

There seems to be an interesting preoccupation with boughs, which seems to go back to the Binnorie version, which I’m pretty sure translates as some sort of “tree bough.” Loreena McKennitt’s version is the only one that I’ve heard that mentions swans, so I don’t know if she wrote that in, or if it’s somewhere in the story’s history. And this is just scratching the surface! In some stories apparently instead of a harper, a fiddle-maker comes and turns her into a magic fiddle. What a crazy project to research every version of the song you could get your hands on.

Okay, so other than it being incredibly varied, WHAT is it about this song that is so interesting to me?

I like wondering about its origins. It sounds like a news item that troubadours went around telling and just built on and built on til everyone had their own version. If my theory is true, there probably WERE 3 sisters with only two involved, seeing as that would be awfully poetic if you had 2 sisters duking it out over love. It makes no sense to have there be 3 sisters to start off with unless it was some sort of undisputed fact. All the stories have it be over love, so it’s probably either the truth, or the more romantic reason. All involve drowing in the river, so that’s probably what happened, and being found by a miller who might or might not have been blamed for the crime makes perfect sense for a news item. As for the magic instrument part, I can only assume that was an idea that a troubadour had to spice it up a little. A very lovely and dramatic one at that.

I really need to do more research and compare these songs. I might even be a dork and create a whole site that compares the lyrics of all the Twa Sister songs I can get my hands on.

Here are a few sites that I found interesting:

——–March 29, 2011——–

Oh my gosh, you guys, I found more links from the Wikipedia page!

  • Here is a WHOLE slew of Twa Sisters song lyrics from a ton of older folk songs. Prepare to be baffled at the varieties, INCLUDING references of a woman drifting down the river compared to a bird, likened to a pheasant or a swan. Another one has a chorus that specifically mentions Edinburgh and Sterling (which matches up with the “North Country” stuff). The first song on the page says that the miller himself made the girl’s breastbone and hair into a fiddle. He used her fingers as pegs and the bridge of her nose for the fiddle bridge. It sounds kind of cumbersome to make a fiddle out of human bone, but what do I know? 😉
  • Cruel Sister” by Kate and Corwen, another version with 3 daughters and a “down down derry-derry down” repeating part, and a LOT of verse and word variations that I haven’t heard before. It sometimes refers to the girls as “brides” and the harp declares that the cruel sister’s tears will flow. It also says that the harp’s song could “melt a heart of stone.” (On another nerdy note, the song itself makes nice use of the jaw harp :D)
  • Stories from around the world under the label “The Singing Bone.” The themes and characters vary widely, but “Binnorie” is cited as the version from England.

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Christina {PuellaDocta}

Christina is an artist and graphic designer, fantasy writer, and a huge geek. She chronicles her creative process--as well as her love for storytelling, the arts, tea, and more--in blogs, portfolio posts, vlogs and on social media. Read more about her here >>

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