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Article MT164, part 27 - newly written for MT.

The Riddle Song: Roud 330, ODNR 4780

The meanings, evolution and relatedness of the various riddle songs and ballads have been comprehensively dealt with elsewhere.  See for instance the headnotes in Child's The English and Scottish Popular Ballads to Child 1, 2 and 46, and pages 73 to 77 in Boklund-Lagopoulou, I Have a Yong Suster, Four Courts press, 2002.

It might seem like an obvious statement but I make it anyway, where these songs and ballads have riddles in common they need to be considered as commonplaces.  We are dealing here with songs that have been in existence for at least 6 centuries, and the riddles themselves probably more, so that the recycling of some of the riddles is not at all surprising.

American collectors of the first half of the 20th century often presented collected versions of The Riddle Song under the umbrella title of Captain Wedderburn's Courtship, Child 46.  We now know this was grossly inaccurate and also that the former is very likely much older than the Child ballad.  No extant datable version of Child 46 is any older than 1776 when it was written in Herd's Manuscripts.  In the late 18th century there were many garland versions printed under the title The Lord of Roslin's Daughter, the earliest datable being 1783.  All of these late 18th, early 19th century versions vary very little from the standard 18-stanzas and there is no reason to believe they are any older than this.  As Child states, there were indeed various Wedderburns who had come courting the daughters of the Sinclairs of Roslin at various points in history.  By the mid-19th century a shortened version titled The Lover's Riddle or Stock and Wall of 11 stanzas was being printed on broadsides, no doubt with some input from oral tradition.

It is worth at this point quoting from Bertrand H Bronson's The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads in his headnotes to Child 46:

With a nod perhaps to earlier collectors he included The Riddle Song as a separate entry in an appendix to Child 46, and several scholars since then have asserted that The Riddle Song and Child 46 are not related1 so at this point we can leave aside Child 46, but before we do, it might be useful to look at which riddles they have in common along with other ballads mentioned.

Child 1, Riddles Wisely Expounded, or to give it its 15th century title Inter Diabolus et Virgo, has 14 riddles of which 3 are found among Child 46's 10 riddles:

The Riddle Song has no riddle in common with Child 1, but there are 3 possible links between the song and Child 46: And possibly 'The ring without a rim' which might be related to 'What is rounder than a ring?' in Child 46.

Now we turn to what we know about the history and evolution of The Riddle Song.  Considering the great age of the song it has remained remarkably stable over the 6 centuries, despite having attracted at least 3 sets of extra stanzas.  The earliest extant version comes from the Sloane Manuscript of the early 15th century.2  It has been much anthologised and in some cases translated into modern language, but I make no excuse for printing the original here as it is easily understood with a little glossing.

We then have to jump 2 centuries to find our next extant version.  Just one stanza is given in the back of a manuscript dating from the mid-17th century at Edinburgh University.3 However, it does have a tune.

The main alteration with the riddles is in line 3 where the briar with no bark has become a ring with no rim, but it is also worth noting that the dove has become a chicken as in most later versions.

We then jump more than a century to the Mansfield Manuscript4 from about 1780, again from Edinburgh.  What is remarkable is that the first stanza has remained intact for some 250 years.  We don't know what print versions might have added to this stability over that time but it is still impressive.  The Sloane text was not published until about 1830 so it's unlikely that Elizabeth St Clair, who wrote down the song of the later text, had seen it.

This 18th century version marks the first extant appearance of the nonsense/pseudo-Latin refrain which continued in oral tradition in some versions up to the present day.  The refrain is fairly stable over 2 centuries which could well be due to the influence of Halliwell's published version in Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales of 1849 in which the 'sister over the sea' has become 'four sisters beyond the sea' In subsequent versions the 'para-mara' of the refrain becomes 'perrie merrie' and 'dictum' is in some versions 'dixi'.  The 'partum quartum' is quite stable with a few minor variations as is 'paradise' or sometimes 'paradisi', and 'tempum' is more often 'tempore'

That these words can all be likened to Latin words need not be greatly significant and I have been warned by greater scholars like Steve Roud and Bob Waltz that trying to translate or rationalise the refrain here can lead us into realms of romanticism.  However, it could be an interesting exercise I must leave to those with the necessary linguistic knowledge.  If no-one else takes up the challenge I might put some ideas in an appendix at a later stage.

One of the characteristics of simple iterative songs like this one is that they readily attract stanzas from other songs and this one is no exception.

By the early 19th century the song appears on broadsides as The Riddle but it has been rewritten to include 4 stanzas taken from elsewhere, 3 at the beginning and a concluding stanza.

The Riddle

I have 3 printings of this ballad all printed in London in the early 19th century but the earliest is easily datable to before 1819 as it was printed by John Pitts at his earlier address.  Here the cherry/chicken/ring/child sequence is joined for the first time by the more obscure apple/house/palace/key sequence and indeed this ballad might be the original of this.  It is somewhat scarce in oral tradition turning up in a Dorset version and one from Nova Scotia.

The first stanza is a commonplace found in a number of ballads and it can be traced back at least to a 17th century black-letter broadside The Wandring Maiden, or, True Love at Length United issued by Jonah Deacon at the Angel in Guiltspur Street, London, where it is also the first stanza.5

All 4 of the new stanzas can also be found in The Dublin Garland6 titled The Young man's Lamentation for Leaving his Love in Dublin, of the late 18th century.  Undoubtedly this is the source, either directly or indirectly, of the ballad above and indeed the most likely source of the much-printed and collected The Boys of Kilkenny (Roud 1451) as it contains all of the stanzas usually found in that song.  However the song in the above form with these extra 4 stanzas doesn't appear to have survived in oral tradition.

By the middle of the 19th century The Riddle Song appeared on broadsides in yet another form.  It has just the basic cherry/chicken/ring/baby stanza with questions and answers in sequence but has had tagged onto it a very early stanza Go no more a rushing, which according to William Chappell in Popular Music of the Olden Time7 goes back to at least c.1610 where the tune appears in a manuscript virginal book of William Byrd's arrangements and compositions.  The broadside was printed by Henry Disley, one of Pitts' successors.

This variant survived in oral tradition in Somerset and Sussex.

The most common oral variant, found more in America, has none of the extraneous stanzas and most often just consists of the cherry/chicken/ring/baby 3-stanza sequence, although as previously mentioned a Dorset version and one from Nova Scotia have 6 stanzas starting with the apple/house/palace sequence.

Another rewritten version exists in John Clare's manuscripts, undoubtedly a love song a la Burns written by Clare.8  The 7 x 6-line stanzas include the common 3-stanza sequence, but the riddles are selected from the 7 available to give apple/cherry/palace.  As this has not affected any other versions I have not included it here.

An interesting study would be to compare all of the extant tunes of the related pieces.  Bertrand Bronson has made a strong start on this already in the aforementioned appendix to Child 46 in his The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, p.376.

Dungbeetle - 27.11.17


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