Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Fairport Convention: Matty Groves

It is Traditional Tuesday and the story line for today’s song could have come from Wisteria Lane and Desperate Housewives or perhaps from the shores of South Beach and CSI Miami. As one band (the Strangelings) prefaced a performance of the tune, "it is a story that begins at church and ends with a double homocide." The song is "Matty Groves" and is performed by the pioneers of English folk-rock, Fairport Convention.

I became aware of this tune from the import LP "The History of Fairport Convention" when I purchased it during the spring of 1973. While my first taste of the band came with their initial release that had been given to me six months previous, this compilation album that predated the release of the album "Rosie" was a great introduction into the various styles that emerged as they evolved nearly as often as most of us change our socks.

The song originally came from their archetypical fourth album "Liege & Lief" – their greatest selling album in their 40 plus year history. While I like the tune and Sandy Denny’s performance (as well as Messers Thompson, Nicol, Swarbrick, Pegg, and Mattacks), my own cognition surrounding the history of this particular gruesome story pales in comparison to my older brother Chuck's encyclopedic knowledge of its intricate details.

In deference to him (and knowing full well that he will identify aspects of the song in great detail if I don’t include them myself), I am posting, in its entirety, the chapter dealing with "Matty Groves" from his quite interesting publication, Murder, Betrayal and Death: Observations on Traditional Ballads. This gets me off the hook for missing something of great importance and also provides a greater audience to this booklet published in 1999 that needs a much wider exposure in the first place.

While Chuck goes into great detail of the song, he is lacking one fact about "Matty Groves" that I will provide here. In Fairport’s version, the first verse is as follows:

A holiday, a holiday
And the first one of the year
Lord Darnell's wife came into the church
The Gospel for to hear

We may be inclined to think that this story occurs in January; however, this is an incorrect assumption. Prior to September 1752 when the English speaking world finally adopted the Gregorian calendar used in the rest of Europe, the Julian calendar placed New Year’s Day on March 25.

It may be assumed that this first holiday of the year may be a reference to Easter or one of the other holidays associated with Eastertide – i.e., Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, or several holidays that follow Easter. With Easter being a moveable feast, any one could have been the first holiday of the year.

As Easter can occur in March or April, the story of Lord Darnell bringing the yearlings home would have happened at a more hospitable time (weather wise) than it would have if it had taken place in January.

That appears to be the only omission I could find in his fine essay on this timeless story that has been handed down for several hundred years.

"The Ghost of Matty Groves"

from Murder, Betrayal and Death:
Observations on Traditional Ballads
by Charles E. Owston
Pages 33-48
©1999 Charles E. Owston

It is a warm August night in 1992. The sun has gone down in a crimson blaze, and Night's shadows have covered the earth. I stand, along with thousands of other folk-rock fans, in a field near the little village of Cropredy, in Oxfordshire, England. In 1644, a battle was fought down by the stone bridge, the Royalists of Charles I against the Roundheads of Oliver Cromwell. That was Cropredy's claim to fame for nearly 400 years.

 Ric Sanders in Pittsburgh; June 2006

Now it's known for the fact that it hosts the largest folk music gathering in Europe. It's the annual reunion of the present and former members of the English band that first electrified traditional music for the masses, Fairport Convention. On stage are the current lineup of 1992: Simon Nicol, guitar and vocals, Dave Pegg, bass, Dave Mattacks, drums, Maartin Allcock, guitar, and violinist Ric Sanders, tonight at the keyboards. His arm is in a sling from a recent accident with a plate glass window. Filling in on the violin is guest musician, Chris Leslie, from the band Whippersnapper.

Chris Leslie and Jim Owston; Pittsburgh June 2006

The concert is nearly over and it starts to rain. The band begins the intro to a song that has become a regular staple in their live sets for many years. The crowd cheers, ignoring the downpour. Interestingly enough, it is a song that is over 400 years old, and would have been known to those long ago combatants at the Battle of Cropredy Bridge.

It's called "Matty Groves."

This tale of cuckolded husband, unfaithful wife and handsome young man about town, who comes to a grim and bloody end, has been a crowd pleaser since the days of yore. According to the sources, there is evidence that it came down to England from Scotland sometime before 1600. It was played in wayside inns and taverns by troubadours and rag-tag bands of minstrels, men who lived by their wits and their songs. It was first mentioned in a play published in 1611, the same year as the King James Bible, but was well known before that. Several versions had been in circulation for years.

Bertrand Harris Bronson writes, in The Singing Tradition of Child's Popular Ballads: "This ballad is one of those quoted in Beaumont and Fletcher's Knight of the Burning Pestle (c. 1611) and it was entered in the Stationer's Register in 1630." A part is sung by Merrythought, a sort of jovial old ballad singer in Act V, scene 3, where he sings,

And some they whistled, and some they sung
Hey down, hey down!
And some did loudly say,
Ever as the Lord Barnet's horn blew
Away, Musgrave, away!

The ballad travelled across the Atlantic with immigrants to the New World, who took it with them into the Appalachian Mountains. Years later, it reappeared in the repertoires of old-timey mountain musicians and bluegrass bands as "Mathy Groves." It surfaced during the Folk Revival of the early 60s on a live LP by Joan Baez. After that, it was copied by long-haired, winsome girls with acoustic guitars and voices as clear as mountain streams.

It even went to the West Indies with the buccaneers, privateers and pirates who called England their home. There it has surfaced as "Lord Barnaby." Obviously it was a favorite of those wild swashbucklers. A good swordfight was always up their street.

When Fairport Convention recorded their ground breaking LP of British folk-rock, Liege & Lief, in 1969, one of the songs chosen was "Matty Groves." Much more upbeat than the Baez dirge, it rocked. Since that version, with powerful vocals by Sandy Denny, it has reappeared many times as part of the continuing saga of Fairport Convention. We have two Sandy Denny versions, the second being an the live album A Moveable Feast. On this rendition, the tempo is much slower. Personally, I like the Liege & Lief recording of the two.

However, once Sandy left the band, the blokes didn't abandon poor Matty. He appeared on many recordings, in a variety of guises. On House Full, Richard Thompson took on the vocal chores. This LP was recorded live at L.A.'s Troubadour. Then Thompson left the band, and the task fell to Simon Nicol. We have more versions with Simon at the vocal helm than anyone else, and he does a fine job of telling the tale with his rich baritone. His performances have a dramatic flair that some of the other vocalists lack.

Live Version featuring Simon Nicol

You can catch Simon performing "Matty Groves" on Farewell, Farewell, In Real Time and The 25th Anniversary Concert, as well as several video releases and the "official bootlegs."

Chuck Owston and Simon Nicol in Pittsburgh; June 2006

Even in the years since Fairport have made this song recognizable as their own (some people even think they wrote it), other bands and singers continue to perform and record it.

In England, Paul Roland, a gothic singer, has a fine version, and Eden Burning (who played al Fairport's annual Cropredy Festival in 1995) have a live version, with fiddle replaced by mandolin, on a CD single.

At the Sandy Denny Tribute Concert at St. Ann's Church in Brooklyn on Nov. 21, 1998, "Matty" was performed by alternative rocker Robyn Hitchcock. I've also heard there's a tape of one of Steve Forbert's concerts where he does a pretty fair version of the ballad.

English folk stalwart Martin Carthy, John Wesley Harding and the British band, Urban Folk, have all recorded versions of "Little Musgrave," which some scholars believe to be the closest to the original Scottish version.
When a local library asked me to put together and perform a program of murder ballads for their coterie of mystery readers, one of my first choices was "Matty Groves."

It's a song that really shows the whole fabric of human society in one fell swoop. It contains a holiday, religion, hypocrisy, betrayal, adultery, love/lust, revenge, swordplay, murder, death, burial, and to top it off, the snide remark at the end about class consciousness. Everything a song could want. Change a bit of the scenery, move it up several hundred years, and it could be a comment on yesterday's headlines. We might call it a "medieval soap opera."

I believe that's one of the reasons "Matty Groves" has stayed around so long. It contains a situation that is true to life. People more than occasionally do stray from their spouses, and sometimes they get caught . . . and the results call be just as brutal and bloody.

In olden times they didn't have newspapers, radio, TV or supermarket tabloids. But they had minstrels, and in a way, those tunesmiths fulfilled the function of these modern day sources of news and gossip. The troubadour was more than a mere entertainer. He didn't have to be a virtuoso on his instrument (though many, were). It was the story that really mattered. Listeners would hang on every word, wanting to know the outcome, because the majority of these early ballads were musical retellings of actual events. The closest 20th Century troubadours to compare to those original songsters are early Bob Dylan (first three albums) and early Donovan (first two US albums, on Hickory). Basic vocals and primitive guitar work -- it was the song that mattered, the words, the story. I remember hearing someone in the early 60s describe Dylan this way: "Hey, I admit he doesn't have much of a voice, but listen to what he's saying!"

People have been listening to what singers have been saying about Matty Groves for over four hundred years. How many of today's songs do you think they'll be singing 400 years from now?

When anything has been around as long as "Matty Groves," it's bound to have numerous variants and alternate versions. Professor Child, in his listing of Popular English and Scottish Ballads lists it as #81. There are a variety of versions, both here in the US and back in England, which we will discuss shortly.

I first came to know the song when I was in college in the early 60s A fellow across the hall had just bought the Joan Baez live album and he kept telling me about the great medieval song on it. "You ought to learn it," he said, "it's about an unfaithful wife and her boyfriend, who get caught in bed by the jealous husband, who runs him through. Shades of Errol Flynn."

I was definitely intrigued. Murder ballads were right up my street. I had been fascinated by them since I'd seen a TV program as a kid based on the ballad "Pretty Polly." I was performing a few murder ballads in my own folk concerts in the Rec. Hall -- "Willow Garden" as recorded by Walter Forbes, "The Cuckoo" as recorded by The Knob Lick Upper 10,000 (what a name!), and "Flora, the Lily of the West." "Matty Groves" was soon added to my lunchtime concert set list.

One day while looking at records in the local supermarket (this was Eastern Kentucky in 1963), I heard a song playing on the radio. Things were pretty primitive in that part of the country, and they, played the local radio station, WGOH, through the store's PA system. I heard the words, "How do you like my feather bed? How do you like my sheets?" There was a fiery five-string banjo and frantic fiddling, all at breakneck speed. The vocalist was wailing in that bluegrass style they call "the high lonesome sound." I stopped and listened till the song was over. Then the disc jockey came on, "That was the Starlite Ramblers (or some such group) doing their version of an olde English folk song, "Mathy Groves." Mathy, not Matty.

This was nothing at all like the seven minute version that Baez did. She did it like a dirge, with doomy minor chords on the guitar. They turned it into a hillbilly hoedown in a major key.

When Fairport Convention married rock rhythms and instrumentation to traditional lyrics, one of their choices was "Matty Groves." The fact that it has been copied by so many others shows that they made a wise choice. It's one of the oldest songs being consistently done in a rock context. Other songs in this league would be "Tam Lin" (Liege & Lief) and "The Raggle Taggle Gypsies." The latter was recorded several years back by the Waterboys. This is another song I'd heard in Kentucky done by bluegrass musicians.

All of these songs hail from around the mid 1500s. It must have been a great time for songwriters. In those days, the songs had much longer staying power. Without albums or CDs, the life of a song stretched into decades, even centuries. Not so today. Today's hit is tomorrow's forgotten oldie, or worse yet, an out of fashion has-been.

In those days, a song might come down out of the Scottish highlands, pass through England, maybe even go to France or Ireland, all the while changing, being added to, having parts deleted, then return to England, perhaps to Scotland again, with all new verses and words. Names and places would change, someone would forget a verse, but make up a new one to replace it, and so forth. This is the folk process at work.

Now we're ready to examine the various versions of "Matty Groves." Using Fairport's Current version (nineteen verses, not including instrumental breaks) as our standard version, we're ready to begin.

First let's look at the name of the song: Child 81 has been called all of the following:

  1. Matty Groves
  2. Mathy Groves
  3. Matthew Groves
  4. Lord Orland's Wife
  5. Lyttle Musgrave
  6. Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard
  7. Lord Arnol's Wife
  8. Lord Banner
  9. Lord Banner's Wife
  10. Mossy Graves
  11. The Red Rover
  12. Little Musgrove and Lady Barnswell
  13. Little Matthy Groves
  14. Lord Barnaby

There may be other titles, but these are the most well know variants. It's interesting that the emphasis changes from Matty to the woman then to the outraged husband.

Let's examine the principle characters in this song:

1. Matty Groves, a young man about town, handsome, obviously charming and well liked by the ladies. Usually thought of as a commoner.

2. Lord Arnold's Wife. The unnamed character in this triangle. She's simply referred to as "the wife." This gives us a little insight into her situation. Obviously, even though she's "of noble kin" as the last verse tells us, her station in life is enhanced by who she's married to, and she has no real position, except that of nobleman's wife. Obviously, she's got a roving eye because Lord's Arnold's out "calling the yearlings home" and other such important (to him) tasks.

3. Lord Arnold. Here's the cuckolded husband. A man of martial pursuits, obviously since he's wears not one, but two swords. Not the kind of guy you want to mess around with. This should have been a warning to Matty, but the lady's charms obviously overcame any trepidation he may have felt at the outset. This was indicated by his words at the beginning:

I can't go home, and I won't go home,
I won't go home for my life
For I see by the little ring you wear
You are Lord Arnold's wife.

4. The servant girl. She figures in many old ballads, usually a conniving female character, such as the false nurse in "Long Lankin" or the tattle tale girl of "Raggle Taggle Gypsies," who can’t wait to tell the Lord of the Manor that his wife has run off with the gypsies.
Let's start with Matty and examine him. In both the Fairport and the Baez versions he's called Matty Groves. We've already come across Mathy, short for Matthew, which was probably his given name. It was common in England to name children after saints, even up to fairly recent times. Other names found in the variants are: Mathew Grew, Little Musgrave, Lyttle Musgrave, Little MacGroves, Little MacGrew and Magrue. Both MacGroves and MacGrew indicate Scots versions of the song. In David Drake's fantasy novel of the Southern mountains, Old Nathan, he makes reference to a song about "Mossy Graves." In the book, British Ballads from Maine, we have some rather interesting variations: Young Grover MuGrove, Massy Grove, and The Red Rover from Old Scotland.

In his book on Bob Dylan, No Direction Home, Robert Shelton, ties Matty Groves with Dylan's version of "The House of the Rising Sun," that old Chestnut that not only Dylan recorded, but also Joan Baez; British rockers the Animals; Detroit psychedelic hippies, Frijid Pink; and even Alan Lomax himself on an obscure 60s folk LP. Shelton writes: "Alan Lomax recorded what he called a ‘modern Southern white song’ in 1937 in Middlesborough, Kentucky. Lomax traced it to some older bawdy English songs, the melody with the classic -Little Musgrave and the Lady Barnard ('Child Ballad 81') and its American variant 'Little Mathy Groves.'"

The "wife" remains just the spouse of the Lord of the Manor. I have found no versions where she's ever mentioned by name. One interesting fact, however, is that there are several different outcomes to her fate. She is always pictured as beautiful, rather coy and flirty, as we see in this verse from the Baez version:

She tippied up to Malty Groves
Her eyes so low cast down
Sayin' pray, oh pray, come with me stay,
As you pass through the town

Lord Arnold, like Matty, has many different names. In the very first Fairport version, Sandy Denny called him Lord Darnell By the time House Full was recorded, he'd become Lord Arnold. Richard Thompson did the vocals. When Sandy rejoined the band on the Australian tour, he was still Arnold. Joan Baez called him Lord Arlen. Paul Roland used Lord Donald in his gothic version, as did the 1972 touring unit of Fairport (as heard from a live recording of a radio broadcast). In other printed and recorded variants he is named variously: Lord Orland, Lord Arnol, Lord Barnard, Lord Daniel, Lord Banner, Lord Donnel, Lord Donald, Lord Branswell, and the obviously Irish Lord Donnelly. In the David Drake book, Old Nathan, he's called "the King," so there are obviously versions where the fellow is royalty.

The servant girl is a little different. What we have here is not so many different names, but both female and male servants, depending on the version. Both Denny versions and the Thompson one have a male servant. Baez sings:

Her little page did listen well
To all that they did say
And ere the sun could rise again
He quickly sped away.

And he did run the King's Highway
He swam across the tide
He ne'er did stop until he came
To the great Lord Arnold's side.

It's only in the current lineup's version that we find a female servant.
The length of "Matty Groves" differs also. The version that is listed in The Oxford Book of Traditional English Verse has a total of twenty-nine verses, the longest I've found. The shortest contains a mere sixteen. But what do we find in these "extra" verses? Perhaps a little more insight into the "true" story.

In some versions there are descriptions of the other woman at the church service.

The first came in was a gay ladye;
The next came in was a girl;
The third came in was Lord Orland's wife
The fairest of them all.

Another version tells it this way:

The first came in was a-clad in green,
The next was a-clad in pall.
And then came in Lord Arnol's wife
She's the fairest one of them all.

In the Baez version we hear of three ladies dressed in black. This reminds us of the three pale queens who appeared at the death of King Arthur, come to bear his body to the misty isle of Avalon. These three are reminiscent of the three Fates of Greek mythology, the three one-eyed Norns of Norse myth, or even the three hags from Shakespear's "MacBeth" - a warning of doom approaching.

He spied three ladies dressed in black,
As they came into view
Lord Arlen's wife was gaily clad,
A flower among the few.

There's even a version where she's not even at a church service, but instead at a fancy ball, as is evidenced by the description in this verse:

There were four and twenty ladies there
A dancing at the hall
The first came in was a lily white robe
The next came pink and blue
The third came in was Lord Banner’s wife
The flower of the view.

Obviously, from the meter of this version the usual tune we've come to associate with "Matty Groves" would not fit. Which brings up another point. I've heard a number of different tunes to this song. The current lineup's version has a tune similar to life Appalachian song "Shady Grove." Being found on both sides of the Atlantic, there are both major and minor key versions. In the US, the song has been collected in Kentucky, Ohio, Maine, and Michigan. In parts of Maine the sung has been sung to the tune (if you can believe this one) of "Yankee Doodle." It's staggering to the imagination.

Another major key version is akin to life cornball old tune "Bingo." Somehow, with this tune, it loses it dramatic edge and becomes much too "cutesy."

Another variation is the reason for Lord Arnold's absence. Fairport has him "bringing the yearlings home." Baez has him a loyal Royalist, "gone to consecrate King Henry at Whitehall." In another version we have a weird twist. Lord Arnold has become a scholar (a little out of character for a guy who carries two swords): "He has gone to the academie, some language for to learn." Lord Banner, in his version, "he's Redemption gone. He's on Queen Anne's throne." And in a North Carolina version he's off "at the King's highway working."

What are some of the other extra verses? Some deal with the conversation between the footpage and Lord Arnold

What's the matter, what's the matter
little footpage?
What news you bring to me?
Little Matthew Grew's in bed with your wife
It's as true as anything can be. -

If this be a lie, Lord Orland he said,
That you have brought to me
I'll build a scaffold on the King's highway
And hanged you shall be.

In a version of "Mathy Grove," Rena Hicks relayed this interesting verse to folklorists Anne and Frank Warner in 1951. In this verse the footpage is promised a reward if his message is indeed true.

If this the truth you brought to me
And true it may be
To the oldest girl that I got
Married you shall be

This bring up the question as to who "the oldest girl" refers. Is it Lord Donal's (in this case) oldest daughter, perhaps to an earlier wife who has passed away? Or can it be that he is referring to a servant girl on his household? There's no way we can know for sure.

As far as the penalty if the page has told a falsehood, another version says, "I'll build me a gallows in fair Scotland." This is one of the reasons some scholars believe this to be a Scottish song that travelled to England. For example:

Rise up, rise up, you young MacGroves.
Rise up draw on your clothes
It shall never be said in fair Scotland
I slain a naked man.

Which brings us to another topic. Censorship. Baez's version substitutes "sleeping" for "naked." It was a common practice in Victorian times to "clean up" any offensive passages in the olde ballads, making them less bawdy, and more fit for the public. When ballads were printed in school books for British children, the renderings so changed some of the songs that they were hardly recognizable.

This brings us to perhaps the most interesting aspect of all, which is the final climax of the story. What happens when the adulterous wife and her young lover are finally confronted by the raging husband'?

Chuck Owston’s Version

There's not a single version anywhere that has Matty escaping to love another day. He dies in all of them. There's no leap out the window. No handy swordplay ala Errol Flynn where he manages to disarm the jealous husband (see The Adventures of Don Juan, Warner Bros.). No, justice is merciless. There's no forgiveness upon Lord Arnold's part, just flashing steel. How does Mattie die? We have the following lines:

Matty struck the very first blow,
and he hurt Lord Arnold sore,
Lord Arnold struck the very next blow,
and Matty struck no more."

However, in some recorded versions Simon Nicol sings: "Matty hit the floor." But yet others say:

"Lord Arnold struck the very next blow,
and laid him in his gore."

From the state of Maine, we find this graphic verse:

"Lord Arnold struck the very next blow,
and Matty's head rolled across the floor."

The wife is another matter altogether. In about half of the versions, she survives or her fate is unclear. In the Baez version, the last verse tells us:

Ah, woe is me, and woe is thee,
Why stayed you not your hand'!
For you have killed the fairest lad
In all of England.

In the Fairport version she tells the husband that she loves the dead Matty Groves better than Lord Arnold. And in yet another, she says that she would never kiss him, even if he were dying.

If you lay struggling in your blood
As MacGroves he does now,
I'd kiss the lips of sweet MacGroves
But I never would kiss yours.

That's it. Out comes the flashing broadsword and Lady Arnold joins Matty in death. In the Fairport version, Lord Arnold "pins her against the wall." However, this is not the most gruesome outcome to the story. Here's some that are even bloodier.

Lord Arnol stepped up to the bedside
Whereon those lovers had lain
He took the sword in his right hand
And split her head in twain.

Or check this one out:

He caught her by the hair of head
He split her brains in twain
He threw her on the floor
Where she never rose again.

I remember hearing one version where Lord Arnold cut of his wife's head and then kicked it across the floor like a soccer ball. But that's not the worst. Here it is, the ultimate gross out, worthy of a modern day splatter film:

He cut the paps from off her breast
A great pity it was to see
And some drops of this lady's heart's blood
Run trickling down her knee.

Quick, send for the Victorian censors! You probably couldn't even perform this version today without a lot of flak from feminist/anti-abuse groups.

I caught it one night at an open stage when I performed the Fairport version. Some irate lady accused me of promoting abuse against women. I said, "What about Matty Groves? He died as well. How's that for equal time."

The most unusual twist in this story is the version that finishes with a murder/suicide In "Lord Banner," we have this final verse:

He put the hilt of the sword
Upon the floor, the point was to his breast
And never was three lovers
So quickly sent to their rest.

There's even a more modern version where Lord Arnold uses a pistol instead of a sword. It's obviously a gun of the black powder variety:

He took his wife by the lily-white hand
And he led her through the hall
He jabbed the pistol in her breast
And she fell with a special ball

In one of the versions, Lord Arnold confesses that he has done a terrible thing.

Woe worth you, woe worth, my merry men all
You were not borne for my good
Why did you not offer to stay my hand
When you see me wax so wood?

For I have slain the bravest sir knight
That ever rode on a steed
So I have done the fairest lad
That ever did woman's deed

What's also interesting about this version is that Matty is not some low life commoner that we find in the rest of the variants, but a knight himself.

There's even a version from the Old World that pictures the Lady far gone in pregnancy.

I'm not sae wae for my lady
For she lies cauld (cold) and dead
But I'm right wae for my young son
Lies sprawling in her blood

Another addition that I have recently found is a version where Arnold must pay for killing young Matty. Hence this verse:

Sweetly sings the nightingale
And sweetly sings the sparrow
Lord Arnold has killed his fair lady
And he will be hung tomorrow

So, was Matty Groves a real person? I think he was. After four hundred years, we're still hearing his story in song. His real name may be forgotten. In the hundreds of tellings, his true identity may have been obscured by the mists of time.

But every time Fairport Convention takes the stage, the ghost of Matty Groves is with us.


A holiday, a holiday
And the first one of the year
Lord Darnell's wife came into the church
The Gospel for to hear

And when the meeting it was done
She cast her eyes about
And there she saw little Matty Groves
Walking in the crowd

"Come home with me, little Matty Groves
Come home with me tonight
Come home with me, little Matty Groves
And sleep with me 'til light"

"Oh, I can't come home, I won't come home
And sleep with you tonight
By the rings on your fingers
I can tell you are Lord Darnell's wife"

"But if I am Lord Darnell's wife
Lord Darnell's not at home
He is out in the far cornfields
Bringing the yearlings home"

And a servant who was standing by
And hearing what was said
He swore Lord Darnell he would know
Before the sun would set

And in his hurry to carry the news
He bent his breast and ran
And when he came to the broad mill stream
He took off his shoes and he swam

Little Matty Groves, he lay down
And took a little sleep
When he awoke, Lord Darnell
Was standing at his feet

Saying, "How do you like my feather bed
And how do you like my sheets
How do you like my lady
Who lies in your arms asleep?"

"Oh, well, I like your feather bed
And well, I like your sheets
But better I like your lady gay
Who lies in my arms asleep"

"Well, get up, get up", Lord Darnell cried
"Get up as quick as you can
It'll never be said in fair England
I slew a naked man"

"Oh, I can't get up, I won't get up
I can't get up for my life
For you have two long beaten swords
And I not a pocket knife"

"Well, it's true I have two beaten swords
And they cost me deep in the purse
But you will have the better of them
And I will have the worse"

"And you will strike the very first blow
And strike it like a man
I will strike the very next blow
And I'll kill you if I can"

So Matty struck the very first blow
And he hurt Lord Darnell sore
Lord Darnell struck the very next blow
And Matty struck no more

And then Lord Darnell he took his wife
And he sat her on his knee
Saying, "Who do you like the best of us
Matty Groves or me?"

And then up spoke his own dear wife
Never heard to speak so free
"I'd rather a kiss from dead Matty's lips
Than you or your finery"

Lord Darnell, he jumped up
And loudly he did bawl
He struck his wife right through the heart
And pinned her against the wall

"A grave, a grave", Lord Darnell cried
"To put these lovers in
But bury my lady at the top
For she was of noble kin"

The Strangelings’ Live Version


  1. Thanks for all the info. It's nice to see the work of fellow ballad geeks! I think it's interesting that most of the "old time" American singers that sing "Matty Groves" or "Lord Musgrave" don't use the "Shady Grove" tune even though they're well aquainted with it from obviously "Shady Grove".

  2. Loved the article. I've long been fascinated by this ballad (and murder ballads in general) and its longevity. It was great to find out more about it,though I had hoped to find that we knew the historical event that had been its basis. Whatever it was it's certainly been more than the usual nine day's wonder that most events seem to be now. Maybe modern so gwriters should write some murder ballads, and the events would last longer in our collective memories. Thanks for sharing your brother's work with us.

  3. One point - Musgrave is the surname of a family from the county of Westmoreland, now part of Cumbria. There were two branches of this family. The Little Musgrave may have been the head of the lower ranking of these branches. The Musgraves were border reivers, and members of the family served as Wardens of the Marches. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musgrave_family
    The song was called Matty Groves by American singers who would probably not have known the name Musgrave. Scottish and English versions of the Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard ballad date back to the early seventeenth century.

  4. In one of the versions in Child Lord Barnard says "I have killed the finest knight that ever rode a steed, and I have killed the fairest lady that ever did a woman's deed". So the Little Musgrave wasn't a servant, or a commoner.