The Twa Sisters
"The Two Sisters" is a Northumbrian murder ballad that recounts the tale of a girl drowned by her sister. It is first known to have appeared on a broadside in 1656 as "The Miller and the King's Daughter." At least 21 English variants exist under several names, including "Minnorie" or "Binnorie", "The Cruel Sister", "The Wind and Rain", "Dreadful Wind and Rain", "Two Sisters", "The Bonny Swans" and the "Bonnie Bows of London". The ballad was collected by Francis J. Child (Child 10) and is also listed in the Roud Folk Song Index.
Two sisters go down by a body of water, sometimes a river and sometimes the sea. The older one pushes the younger in and refuses to pull her out again; generally the lyrics explicitly state her intent to drown her younger sister. Her motive, when included in the lyrics, is sexual jealousy – in some variants, the sisters are being two-timed by a suitor; in others, the elder sister's affections are not encouraged by the young man. In a few versions, a third sister is mentioned, but plays no significant role in events. In most versions, the older sister is described as dark, while the younger sister is fair.
When the murdered girl's body floats ashore, someone makes a musical instrument out of it, generally a harp or a fiddle, with a frame of bone and the girl's "long yellow hair" (or "golden hair") for strings. The instrument then plays itself and sings about the murder. In some versions, this occurs after the musician has taken it to the family's household, so that the elder sister is publicly revealed (sometimes at her wedding to the murdered girl's suitor) as the murderess.
It should be noted that the variant titled The Two Sisters typically omits the haunted instrument entirely, ending instead with an unrelated person (often a miller) executed for robbing the murdered girl's corpse and the elder sister sometimes going unpunished, or sometimes boiled in lead.
Parallels in other languages
The theme of this ballad was common in many northern European languages. There are 125 different variants known in Swedish alone. Its general Scandinavian classification is TSB A 38; and it is (among others) known as Den talende strængelek or De to søstre (DgF 95) in Danish, Hørpu ríma (CCF 136) in Faroese, Hörpu kvæði (IFkv 13) in Icelandic, Dei tvo systar in Norwegian, and De två systrarna (SMB 13) in Swedish. It has also spread further south; for example, as Gosli iz človeškega telesa izdajo umor (A Fiddle Made from a Human Body Reveals a Murder) in Slovenian.
In the Norse variants, the older sister is depicted as dark and the younger as fair, often with great contrast, comparing the one to soot or the other to the sun or milk. This can inspire taunts from the younger about the older's looks.
In most of the Norwegian and some of the Swedish variants, the story ends by the instrument being broken and the younger sister coming alive again. In a few, she was not actually drowned, but saved and nursed back to health; she tells the story herself.
This tale is also found in prose form, in fairy tales such as The Singing Bone, where the siblings are brothers instead of sisters. This is widespread throughout Europe; often the motive is not jealousy because of a lover, but the younger child's success in winning the object that will cure the king, or that will win the father's inheritance.
In Polish literature from the romanticism period, a similar theme is found in Balladyna (1838) by Juliusz Słowacki. Two sisters engage in a raspberry-gathering contest to decide which of them gets to marry Prince Kirkor. When the younger Alina wins, the older Balladyna kills her. Finally, she is killed by a bolt of lightning in an act of divine retribution.
A Hungarian version exists, where a king has three daughters. Both of the eldest are bad and ugly, and envy the younger child sister due to her beauty. One day, they murder her in the forest, and place her corpse inside a fiddle. The fiddle plays music on its own and eventually is given to the royal family. The fiddle does not play for the evil sisters, but the princess is restored to life once her father tries to play it. The sisters are imprisoned, but the good princess fully pardons them once she becomes queen.
The ballad also appears in a number of guises in Scottish Gaelic, under the name 'A' Bhean Eudach' or 'The Jealous Woman'. In many of the Scottish Gaelic variants the cruel sister murders her sibling while she is sleeping by knotting her hair into the seaweed on a rock at low tide. When she wakes the tide is coming in fast and as she is drowning she sings the song 'A' Bhean Eudach' detailing her tragic end.
Connections to other ballads
As is frequently found with traditional folksongs, versions of The Twa Sisters are associated with tunes that are used in common with several other ballads. For example, at least one variant of this ballad ("Cruel Sister") uses the tune and refrain from "Lay the bent to the bonny broom", a widely used song (whose original lyrics are lost) which is also used, for example, by some versions of "Riddles Wisely Expounded" (Child 1).
Canadian singer and harpist Loreena McKennitt's song "The Bonny Swans" is a pastiche of several traditional variants of the ballad. The first stanza mentions the third sister, but she subsequently disappears from the narrative. The song recounts a tale in which a young woman is drowned by her jealous older sister in an effort to gain the younger sister's beloved. The girl's body washes up near a mill, where the miller's daughter mistakes her corpse for that of a swan. Later, after she is pulled from the water, a passing harper fashions a harp from the bones and hair of the dead girl; the harp plays alone, powered by the girl's soul. The harp is brought to her father's hall and plays before the entire court, telling of her sister's crime. The song also mentions her brother named Hugh, and her beloved William, and gives a name to the older sister, Anne.
An early Alfred Lord Tennyson poem, "The Sisters", also bears a resemblance to the ballad: a sister scorned in love who murders the lover of her sister, and possibly the sister too, out of jealousy.
Versions and settings
- A version of the tale by Patricia C. Wrede called "Cruel Sisters" appears in her 1996 anthology "Book of Enchantments", detailing the tale including the minstrel, as told from the perspective of the third sister who often disappears in other versions of the tale. This version casts doubt on whether the accusing deceased sister is telling the truth.
- "Binnorie" in Joseph Jacobs' English Fairy Tales (1890).
- Cyril Rootham's three-act opera The two sisters (1918–21, libretto by Marjory Fausset) is based on "The twa sisters O'Binnorie"; it opens with an unaccompanied rendition of six verses of the ballad instead of an overture.
- Percy Grainger's Danish Folksongs Suite (1926–41) incorporates melodic material the composer had noted down in 1923 from a traditional Jutish version sung by "folksongstress" Ane Nielsen Post.
- Andrew Bird recorded a setting titled "Two Sisters" as the fifth track of his album Music of Hair.
- Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick recorded a version titled "The Bows of London".
- The Irish group Clannad has a version titled "Two Sisters" on their album Dúlamán. This version inspired the name of Minneapolis Celtic-rock band Boiled in Lead.
- Bob Dylan performed "Two Sisters" in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and a recording of an impromptu version in the apartment of his friend Karen Wallace from May 1960 appears on The Genuine Bootleg Series, Take 2. He also based "Percy's Song" on the variant "The Wind and the Rain".
- Jerry Garcia and David Grisman recorded "Dreadful Wind and Rain" on the Shady Grove album.
- Folk metal band In Extremo recorded an Old Norwegian version of the song ("Two søstra") for the last track of their debut album Weckt Die Toten!.
- Ewan MacColl recorded a version in Scots called "Minorie" which can be found on several of his recordings.
- Folk singer Peggy Seeger recorded a version entitled "O The Wind and Rain" on her album Bring Me Home.
- Julie Fowlis recorded another version of this song, titled "Wind and Rain".
- Pentangle released their album Cruel Sister in 1970, the title track being a rendition of this ballad.
- Rachel Unthank and the Winterset recorded "Cruel Sister" on their album Cruel Sister.
- Tom Waits includes his own version of "Two Sisters" on the Bastards disc of his Orphans: Brawlers, Bawlers & Bastards trilogy.
- Julia Wolfe composed an instrumental rendition of the ballad titled Cruel Sister in 2004.
- Custer Larue recorded the song on her album The Daemon Lover.
- The Irish band Altan recorded a version of the ballad "The Wind and Rain" on their 2005 album "Local Ground"
- Loreena McKennitt covered a version of the tale "The Bonny Swans" on her album The Mask and Mirror.
- Bellowhead recorded a version called "Wind & Rain" for their album Broadside.
- The Early Folk Band recorded a version on their album "Northlands" in 2012 ("The two sisters/Binnorie/Två systrar")
- Nico Muhly composed a version called "The Only Tune" for folk musician Sam Amidon in 2007.
- The Norwegian folkband Folque recorded a version called "Harpa" on their 1974 self-titled debut album.
- John Jacob Niles recorded an eight verse version of the song, collected from Arlie Tolliver of Cumberland, Kentucky in 1932.
- Old Blind Dogs recorded a version called "The Cruel Sister" on their 1993 album Close to the Bone.
- Méav Ní Mhaolchatha recorded a version titled "The Wicked Sister" on her album Silver Sea.
- Progressive bluegrass band Crooked Still recorded a version called "Wind and Rain" on their 2006 album Shaken by a Low Sound.
- The video game Her Story includes the interviewee performing a version of the song on acoustic guitar, spread across two separate video
- The Folk metal band Subway to Sally recorded a German version called Grausame Schwester on their 2014 album Mitgift.
- Celtic rock band Tempest recorded "Two Sisters" on their 2001 album Balance.
- YouTube channel, The Curiously Comforting Crinkle, featured an original bedtime story based on "The Two Sisters" in the first installment of their Slumber Stories series (2016), entitled The Singing Bone: An Original Retelling.
- The Pagan-Folk band L.E.A.F recorded a Norwegian version called " Harpa Toner" on their 2015 album called " Lys"
- The Pagan-Folk-Band Omnia recorded a version called "Harp of Death" on their 2016 album Prayer.
- The musical Ghost Quartet draws from this ballad as inspiration, as well as having a version of the ballad called "The Wind & Rain".
- London based band Stick in the wheel featured on local radio in Tewkesbury recently with a version of "Bows of London"
- Indie-rock band Okkervil River on the 10th Anniversary edition of their album Black Sheep Boy, titled 'Oh, the Wind and Rain'
- Mercedes Lackey used the tale as part of the plot of her 2016 book A Study in Sable, part of her Elemental Masters series.
- Rab Noakes and Kathleen MacInnes constructed an arrangement in 2013 joining a Scots/English version and a Scots Gaelic version back-to-back. Rab recorded his Scots/English part of it on his 'I'm walkin' here' album, released on Neon Records in 2015.
- Folk rock band Steeleye Span recorded "Two Sisters" on their 2016 album Dodgy Bastards.
- "Roud Folksong Index". English Folk Dance and Song Society (for the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library). Retrieved 23 January 2013.
- Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 1, p 119, Dover Publications, New York 1965
- Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 1, p 120, Dover Publications, New York 1965
- Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 1, p 121, Dover Publications, New York 1965
- Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 1, p 123, Dover Publications, New York 1965
- Stith Thompson, The Folktale, p 136, University of California Press, Berkeley Los Angeles London, 1977
- Joseph Jacobs, English Fairy Tales, transcript.
- Rootham, Cyril Bradley; Fausset, Marjory (1920). "The two sisters. An opera in three acts founded on the ballad 'The twa sisters O'Binnorie'" (Vocal score). London: Goodwin & Tabb Ltd. Retrieved 22 January 2013.
- Lewis, Thomas P (1991). "Chapter 4. Program notes. 'The Nightingale' and 'The Two Sisters'". A source guide to the music of Percy Grainger. Pro/Am Music Resources. p. 254. ISBN 978-1-871082-22-7. Retrieved 23 January 2013.
- Host: Cal Koat (April 8, 2008). "Boiled in Lead". Celt in a Twist.
- The Genuine Bootleg Series: Volume 2 with "The Two Sisters" (Disc 1, Track 1), performed at Karen Wallace's Apartment, May 1960
- The Genuine Bootleg Series, Take 2 at Answers.com, with "The Two Sisters" (Disc 1, Track 1), performed in St. Paul, May 1960
- Wolfe, Julia (2004). "Cruel Sister". G. Schirmer Inc. Retrieved August 8, 2016.
- "The Only Tune". Nicomuhly.com. Retrieved 2015-06-10.
- The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles - John Jacob Niles - Google Books. Books.google.co.uk. Retrieved 2015-06-10.
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- Child Ballads, The Twa Sisters Numerous variants
- The Singing Bone and other tales of Aarne-Thompson type 780 — includes The Twa Sisters and other variants