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Blackfoot singers, for example, know that in Blackfoot cosmology music was given to humans to help them solve the problems they must face in life - Richard Crawford, from America's Musical Life: A History

Author Topic: Lyrics for "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry" by Paul Clayton  (Read 313 times)

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Offline Gourd_44

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Lyrics for "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry" by Paul Clayton
« on: March 05, 2022, 02:05:48 AM »
Salutations!
I'm unsure if this is even the correct forum to be posting this in, but it is the closest one I have found. :D

Recently I've discovered the Francis James Child collection of classic English and Scottish ballads, and have taken a particular interest in the lyrics of an old ballad called "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry" (Child Ballad #113).
With the help of context from the Wikipedia page (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Silkie_of_Sule_Skerry) and with help of some parts that I found hard to understand from the MainlyNorfolk page (https://mainlynorfolk.info/steeleye.span/songs/greatsilkieofsuleskerry.html) made by Reinhard Zierke, I believe that I have created a pretty spot-on transcription of the particular version of the ballad sung by American Folklorist Paul Clayton.

To my knowledge, this version was recorded in his 1956 album "Viking Record of Folk Ballads of the English Speaking World" published by Folkways Records.

The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry

In Norway lands there lived a maid
"Baloo my babe" this maid began
"I know not where your father is
Or if land or sea he travels in"

It happened on a certain day
When this fair lady fell fast asleep
That in came a good grey Silkie
And set him down at her bed feet

Saying, "Awake, awake, my pretty fair maid
For oh, how soundest thou dost sleep
And I'll tell thee where thy baby's father is
He is sitting close, at thy bed feet"

"I pray, come tell to me thy name
Oh tell me where does thy dwelling be?"
"My name it is good Hein Miller
And I earn my living out of the sea"

"I am a man upon the land
I am a silkie in the sea
And when I'm far from every strand
My dwelling is in Sule Skerry"

"Alas, alas, this woeful fate
This weary fate that's been laid for me
That a man should come from the West o'Hoy
To the Norway lands, to have a bairn with me"

"My dear I'll wed thee with a ring
With a ring, my dear, I will wed with thee"
"Thou may wed thee weddin's with whom thou wilt
For I'm sure thou'll never wed none with me"

"Thou will nurse my little wee son
For seven long years upon thy knee
And at the end of seven long years
I'll come back and pay the nourish fee"

She's nursed her little wee son
For seven long years upon her knee
And at the end of seven long years
He come back with gold and white money

She says "My dear I'll wed thee with a ring
With a ring, my dear, I will wed with thee"
"Thou may wed thee weddin's with whom thou wilt
For I'm sure thou'll never wed none with me"

"But I'll put a gold chain around his neck
And a gay good gold chain it'll be
That if ever he comes to the Norway lands
Thou may have a gay good guess on him"

"And thou will get a gunner good
And a gay good gunner it will be
And he'll go out on a May morning
And shoot the son and the grey silkie"

Oh she has gotten a gunner good
And a gay good gunner it was he
And he went out on a May morning
And he shot the son and the Grey Silkie

"Alas, alas this woeful fate
This weary fate that's been laid for me"
And once or twice she sobbed and sighed
And her tender heart did break in three

56 lines, 14 (quatrain) stanzas, in an archaic and very unusual way of speaking (at least for me   ;D).
A great disadvantage I had while transcribing this was that I am not from the Scottish Isles, and while I would consider myself a pretty fluent English speaker, I still don't know the regional dialects of Shetland and Orkney if at all.

I had trouble with the 7th stanza about the silkie offering his hand in marriage to the maid (I believe?), specifically on the 3rd and 4th lines since Paul sang them very hastily and using very archaic phrases (thou, thee, etc.). I would love someone who is a bit more experienced than me in transcribing lyrics to fix any mistakes that I have made in that stanza.

I apologise for any sloppy mistakes, my multitasking is rather terrible. ;)
An elephant-sized thank you to Zierke and the editor of the Wikipedia page.  :D
God bless :)
« Last Edit: March 05, 2022, 08:04:28 AM by Gourd_44 »

Offline Johnm

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Re: Lyrics for "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry" by Paul Clayton
« Reply #1 on: March 05, 2022, 05:29:21 AM »
Hi Gourd_44,
I was able to find Paul Clayton's version on youtube, which should be a big help for folks in assisting with the transcription. Here it is:



All best,
Johnm

Offline Johnm

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Re: Lyrics for "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry" by Paul Clayton
« Reply #2 on: March 05, 2022, 06:33:36 AM »
Hi Gourd_44,
I've listened through Paul Clayton's rendition while reading your lyrics and they seem substantially correct. You've missed a couple of quotation marks. I'll put changes I hear/see below, without referencing the verse.

   Saying, "Awake, awake, my pretty fair maid
   For oh, how soundest thou dost sleep
   And I'll tell thee where thy baby's father is
   He is sitting close, at thy bed feet

   "I pray, come tell to me thy name
   Oh tell me where does thy dwelling be?"
   "My name it is good Hein Miller
   And I earn my living out of the sea"

   "Alas, alas, this woeful fate
   This weary fate that's been laid for me
   That a man should come from the West of Hoy
   To the Norway lands, to have a bairn with me"

   "Thou will nurse my little wee son
   For seven long years upon thy knee
   And at the end of seven long years
   I'll come back and pay the norish fee"

   She says "My dear I'll wed thee with a ring
   With a ring, my dear, I will wed with thee"
   "Thou may wed thee weddin's with whom thou wilt
   For I'm sure thou'll never wed none with me"

   "Alas, alas this woeful fate
   This weary fate that's been laid for me"
   And once or twice she sobbed and sighed
   And her tender heart did break in three

It seems as though the crucial verse is the eighth, in which the silkie predicts his own demise, and that of his son. Why she followed through with it is not made clear. And in the seventh verse, in the first half she professes a desire to get married, but in the second half the silkie is skeptical. That's just how I understand the lyrics, and I certainly might have it wrong.
All best,
Johnm

Offline Gourd_44

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Re: Lyrics for "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry" by Paul Clayton
« Reply #3 on: March 05, 2022, 07:59:02 AM »
Thanks for taking time out of your day to respond, I appreciate it! :D

As for the eighth verse, the "norish" part was quite hard to put into words. It almost sounds like he says "Nordish fee" or "norish fee" or "nourish fee", but I interpreted it as that he would pay the fee for having the maid nourish the son for 7 years. The 9th stanza cemented that in for me, because "at the end of seven long years", "He come back with gold and white money". I might be wrong though, I'm unsure if norish (or whatever he said) could have another meaning in the dialect, and maybe it could've been corrupted through decades of passing the tale down knee-to-knee.
Or that could've been a metaphor, that the "gold and white money" was his life. Although on the Wikipedia page there is a painting of the Silkie actually giving a sack of presumable gold to the maid.

Also, you might have confused the eighth verse with the twelfth verse where the Silkie predicts the death of him and his son to a gunner (harpoon man). I'm unsure, but I think either you or I have gotten things mixed up.  :-\

And I think you are completely right with the seventh verse. It'd make sense for the Silkie to be skeptical about the marriage since in the twelfth verse he quite literally predicted his own death and the death of his own son.
Thank you for fixing my quotation errors ;D
Cheers

Offline Johnm

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Re: Lyrics for "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry" by Paul Clayton
« Reply #4 on: March 05, 2022, 08:06:35 AM »
Hi Gourd_44,
You're right, what I called the eighth verse is the twelfth verse, as you noted.
All best,
Johnm

Offline Vermonter

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Re: Lyrics for "The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry" by Paul Clayton
« Reply #5 on: April 09, 2022, 04:15:39 PM »
A great source for lyrics and discussion of old (and beautiful) songs like this is the Mudcat Cafe. Mudcat.org
But right now the site seems to be down.
These folks have threaded discussions about everything folkie.

Tags: folklore ballad 
 


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