The Cruel Mother

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"The Cruel Mother" (a.k.a. "The Greenwood Side" or "Greenwood Sidey") (Child 20, Roud 9) is a murder ballad originating in England that has since become popular throughout the wider English-speaking world.[1][2]

According to Roud and Bishop[3]

Widely collected in Britain and Ireland, and in North America, 'The Cruel Mother' has clearly struck a chord with singers over a number of generations. We will never know quite why, of course, but in performance the combination of the matter-of-fact handling of a difficult subject and the repeated rhythmic refrain often creates a stark and hypnotic tale, which is extremely effective.


A woman gives birth to one or two illegitimate children (usually sons) in the woods, kills them, and buries them. On her return trip home, she sees a child, or children, playing, and says that if they were hers, she would dress them in various fine garments and otherwise take care of them. The children tell her that when they were hers, she would not dress them so but murdered them. Frequently they say she will be damned for it.

Some variants open with the account that she has fallen in love with her father's clerk.


This ballad exists in a number of variants; one contains a number of verses that appear to stem from "The Maid and the Palmer".[4] A closely related German ballad exists in many variants: a child comes to a woman's wedding to announce himself her child and that she had murdered three children, the woman says the Devil can carry her off if it is true, and the Devil appears to do so.[5] Variants include "Carlisle Hall", "The Rose o Malinde", "Fine Flowers in the Valley", "The Minister's Daughter of New York", and "The Lady From Lee", among others. "Fine Flowers of the Valley" is a Scottish variant.

Ballad scholar Hyder Rollins listed a broadside print dated 1638, and a fairly complete version was published in London in broadside ballad format as "The Duke's Daughter's Cruelty: Or the Wonderful Apparition of two Infants whom she Murther'd and Buried in a Forrest, for to hide her Shame" sometime between 1684 and 1695.[6]

This ballad was one of 25 traditional works included in Ballads Weird and Wonderful (1912) and illustrated by Vernon Hill.


Album/Single Performer Year Variant Notes
False True Lovers Shirley Collins 1959 The Cruel Mother .
Dear Companion: Bonnie Dobson Bonnie Dobson 1960 The Cruel Mother
Folksongs of Britain: Child Ballads Vol 1 Thomas Moran 1961 The Cruel Mother Recorded 1954
Four Strong Winds Ian & Sylvia 1964 The Greenwood Side
The Judy Collins Concert Judy Collins 1964 The Cruel Mother .
The Long Harvest, Vol. 1 Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger 1967 see note Album contains three versions of The Cruel Mother, one variant called "Down By the Greenwood Sidey-O",

and another called "The Lady From Lee".

Ballads Hedy West 1967 The Cruel Mother .
Joan Joan Baez 1967 The Greenwood Side .
Kishmul's Galley The Corries 1968 Cruel Brother .
A Beacon from Mars Kaleidoscope 1968 The Greenwood Side .
Landfall Martin Carthy 1972 The Cruel Mother .
The Voice of the People Vol. 3 Lizzie Higgins 1988 The Cruel Mother Recorded 1975
Tempted and tried Steeleye Span 1989 The Cruel Mother .
Flesh and Blood Maddy Prior 1997 The Cruel Mother .
Ye Shine Whar Ye Stan! Jock Duncan 1996 The Cruel Mother .
Live at Newport Ian & Sylvia 1996 The Greenwood Side Recorded live at the Newport Folk Festival, 1963.
Songs Of Experience Cindy Mangsen 1998 The Cruel Mother .
Shantalla Shantalla 2000 Fine flowers in the valley .
Greenwood Side Lothlorien 2000 Greenwood Side .
A Day Like Today Emily Smith 2002 The Cruel Mother .
No Earthly Man Alasdair Roberts 2005 The Cruel Mother .
Wolverley Summer of Love 2007 Stuart Estel 2007 The Cruel Mother .
To The Ground Kerfuffle 2006 Down By The Greenwood Side .
In The Shadow of Mountains Bella Hardy 2009 Cruel Mother Miss Hardy omits 'The' from the title but it is nonetheless a variant of the folk song.
Lady Diamond Bryony Griffith
& Will Hampson
2011 The Lady of York From the singing of Jim Eldon.
Here's to those we could not save The Imaginary Suitcase 2012 Fine flowers in the valley .
Old Light: Songs from my Childhood & Other Gone Worlds Rayna Gellert 2012 Cruel Mother .
Revival Bellowhead 2014 Greenwood Side .
Fiona Hunter Fiona Hunter 2014 The Cruel Mother .
Twice Told Tales 10,000 Maniacs 2015 Greenwood Sidey .
Murmurs Nancy Kerr 2015 Cruel Mother .
Here in the Deep Dave Heumann 2016 Greenwood Side .

Another variant of the song is Louise Jordan's version, taken from her EP "Born to wonder"

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The Ozarks: An American Survival of Primitive Society By Vance Randolph
  2. ^ Francis James Child, English and Scottish Popular Ballads, "The Cruel Mother"
  3. ^ Roud, Steve & Julia Bishop (2012). The New Penguin Book of Folk Songs. Penguin. ISBN 978-0-141-19461-5.
  4. ^ Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 1, p 218, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  5. ^ Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 1, p 219, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  6. ^ Cazden, Norman, Herbert Haufrechtt, and Norman Studer. Folksongs of the Catskills. Albany: SUNY Press, 1982. 251-252. Print.

External links[edit]