The Wife of Usher's Well
"The Wife of Usher's Well" is a traditional ballad, catalogued as Child Ballad 79; it is originally from Britain, and is more particularly considered a Scottish ballad, but is also popular in North America. No complete original version has survived, but the song has been 'remade' in America in a cohesive form.
The ballad concerns a woman from Usher's Well, who sends her three sons away, to school in some versions, and a few weeks after learns that they had died. The woman grieves bitterly for the loss of her children, cursing the winds and sea.
- "I wish the wind may never cease,
- Nor fashes in the flood,
- Till my three sons come home to me,
- In earthly flesh and blood."
The song implicitly draws on an old belief that one should mourn a death for a year and a day, for any longer may cause the dead to return; it has this in common with the ballad "The Unquiet Grave". When, around Martinmas, the children return to their mother they do so as revenants, not, as she hoped, "in earthly flesh and blood", and it is a bleak affair. They wear hats made of birch, which is said to protect the dead from the influences of the living, from a tree that grows at the gates of Paradise. The mother expects a joyous reunion, in some versions preparing a celebratory feast for them, which, as subjects of Death, they are unable to eat. They consistently remind her that they are no longer living; they are unable to sleep as well, and must depart at the break of day.
- "The cock doth craw, the day doth daw,
- The channerin worm doth chide;
- Gin we be mist out o our place,
- A sair pain we maun bide."
The most popular versions in America have a different tone, and an overtly religious nature. They return at Christmas rather than Martinmas, and happily return to their Savior at the end. Indeed, Jesus may speak to the Wife at the end, telling her she had nine days to repent; she dies at that time and is taken to heaven.
The ballad has much in common with some variants of "The Clerk's Twa Sons O Owsenford". The Christmas appearance has been cited to explain why, in that ballad, the two sons are executed, but their father tells their mother they will return at Christmas; the father may mean they will return as ghosts.
A version of the ballad by folk-rock pioneers Steeleye Span can be heard on their 1975 album All Around My Hat. Andreas Scholl performs the song on the album Wayfaring Stranger: Folksongs (2001), and Karine Polwart on her album Fairest Floo'er (2007). Versions appear on the Bellowhead album Broadside and on the Runa album Current Affairs.
2010 Quondam play
In autumn 2010, Quondam toured an Arts Council England-supported "new play with songs" called The Wife of Usher's Well to 27 venues. Inspired by the border ballad, this reprised the historic text in a new setting of a mother's losing her son in the war in Afghanistan. The writer was Jules Horne and the cast was Helen Longworth, Danny Kennedy, Ruth Tapp and Andrew Whitehead.
- The Wife of Usher's Well with commentary