MURDER IN SONG: THE BONNY SWANS-LOREENA MCKENNIT (1994)

Two sisters are walking by a lake (or the ocean, a pond or river) when the one sister pushes the other sister into the water in the hopes that she will drown. Her motive? It could be a man, sexual jealousy or what have you depending on the teller of the tale. There is more: when the sister’s bones wash ashore they are found and fashioned into perhaps a harp or a fiddle with the murdered girl’s hair being used as strings and her bones for the framework. Either way, this morbidly beautiful instrument tells a tale of murder and jealousy and of how her own sister was the one who took her life in a jealous rage over a man.

First there were “The Twa Sisters”. For their tragic tale you would have to go all the way back to 1656. The tale of the two sisters has taken on many forms and been performed by many artists. Everyone from Bob Dylan (a version appears on his The Genuine Bootleg Series, Take 2) to Tom Waits (“Two Sisters”), Jerry Garcia and Dave Grisman (“Dreadful Wind and Rain”) and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings (“Wind and Rain”) have recorded a variation of the ballad and the names I mention are just the beginning as there are so many more.

For this weeks Murder in Song I focus on Loreena Mckennit’s “The Bonny Swans”, a song featured on her the mask and mirror album in 1994. From traditional lyrics and with music arranged and composed by McKennit, “The Bonny Swans” features her gorgeous soprano. I present to you a live edition of the tale of “The Bonny Swans”. I hope you enjoy it.

A farmer there lived in the north country
a hey ho bonny o
And he had daughters one, two, three
The swans swim so bonny o
These daughters they walked by the river’s brim
a hey ho bonny o
The eldest pushed the youngest in
The swans swim so bonny o

Oh sister, oh sister, pray lend me your hand
with a hey ho a bonny o
And I will give you house and land
the swans swim so bonny o
I’ll give you neither hand nor glove
with a hey ho a bonny o
Unless you give me your own true love
the swans swim so bonny o

Sometimes she sank, sometimes she swam
with a hey ho and a bonny o
Until she came to a miller’s dam
the swans swim so bonny o

The miller’s daughter, dressed in red
with a hey ho and a bonny o
She went for some water to make some bread
the swans swim so bonny o

Oh father, oh daddy, here swims a swan
with a hey ho and a bonny o
It’s very like a gentle woman
the swans swim so bonny o
They placed her on the bank to dry
with a hey ho and a bonny o
There came a harper passing by
the swans swim so bonny o

He made harp pins of her fingers fair
with a hey ho and a bonny o
He made harp strings of her golden hair
the swans swim so bonny o
He made a harp of her breast bone
with a hey ho and a bonny o
And straight it began to play alone
the swans swim so bonny o

He brought it to her father’s hall
with a hey ho and a bonny o
And there was the court, assembled all
the swans swim so bonny o
He laid the harp upon a stone
with a hey ho and a bonny o
And straight it began to play lone
the swans swim so bonny o

And there does sit my father the King
with a hey ho and a bonny o
And yonder sits my mother the Queen
the swans swim so bonny o
And there does sit my brother Hugh
with a hey ho and a bonny o
And by him William, sweet and true
the swans swim so bonny o
And there does sit my false sister, Anne
with a hey ho and a bonny o
Who drowned me for the sake of a man
the swans swim so bonny o

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6 thoughts on “MURDER IN SONG: THE BONNY SWANS-LOREENA MCKENNIT (1994)

  1. This made me think of “A Good Idea” by Sugar of the Copper Blue LP. Completely different tone, but some poor gal gets drowned in a river by some guy with issues and man, can Bob Mould play that guitar to death.

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