And Reels: Johnny Cock/Johnny O’Braidslea  

Chuck Lipsig penned this essay.

One of the fascinating things about folk music is the variety that one song or tune can produce. Niggling purism aside, there has never been one folk style. That’s even more true these days with musicians fusing traditional folk to jazz, rock, Latin, and whatever other style they happen to like. So what I’m going to do in And Reels is to take a song or a tune and see how different performers, as well as different sources, treat it.

I’m starting off with ” Johnny Cock” (Child #114) (often called some variant of ” Johnny O’Braideslea” ) because it’s a sentimental favorite of mine. When my son, Derek, was less than a week old and for the first time I was up late at night, trying to get him to sleep, I was running out of lullabies. In tired desperation I starting singing a version of ” Johnny O’Braideslea.” Halfway through, Derek was asleep. Maybe it was the repetition of the tune. Maybe it was just time for Derek to fall asleep. Maybe it was that his middle name is MacNaughton. I will note that for his first year, almost every time I tried to sing him to sleep, it was usually a song with a body-count that would finally do the job. In any case, bloody deaths or no, I associate this song with singing Derek to sleep.

The gist of the ballad is that a young man named Johnny sets out one morning with his bow and hunting dogs, ignoring his mother’s advice that he stay home, as there are foresters who, for some unmentioned cause “possibly poaching “want to kill him. Johnny proceeds to shoot a deer and feasts on it, along with his dogs, until all fall asleep. In some versions an old man sees him and takes word to the foresters who want him dead. In others, the foresters just happen to find him. In any case, the foresters (three to fifteen in number, but usually seven) shoot Johnny with arrows before he is awake, fatally wounding him. However, before he dies, Johnny wakens and returns fire, killing all of them or, in some versions, all but one of them, whom he leaves alive, if injured, to report what has happened.

In the earliest versions, in Child’s Ballads, the young man is called Johnny Cock or Cockerslee and is killed in the Bradyslee or the Braidisbauks. Demonstrating how wildly these names can vary, one version (Child version A) has the line, ” High up i’ Bradyslee, low down i’ Bradisslee.” In later versions, Johnny has taken the name Bradyslee and is killed in Monymusk.

Likely there are more, but I am familiar with four recorded versions:”Johnny of Brady’s Lee” on Planxty’s The Woman I Love So Well (Tara, 1980);”Jock O’Braidislee” on The Corries’s Privateers (Dara, date unknown, but probably 1987);”Fair John and the Seven Foresters” on Crwydryn’s The Wizard & The Elvenking (Spiralsongs, 1991); and”Johnny O’Braidislee” on Old Blind Dogs’s Five (Lochshore, 1997).

Of these versions, Crwydryn’s stands separate from the other two. ” Fair John and the Seven Foresters” is a fast, rocked-up version with a feel somewhere between Boiled in Lead and Steeleye Span. The primary instruments are electric guitar and drums with a fiddle solo on a bridge. The lyrics are relatively stripped down, dispensing with many details, including the old man who informs on Johnny. It is unusual in that, instead of leaving one of the foresters alive, this version borrows from other songs and has a bird fly to his mother to bring word of her son’s death. This is a powerful, straightforward version of the ballad.

Planxty’s and The Corries’ versions are textually very similar and stylistically quite different. Planxty’s ” Johnny of Brady’s Lee” starts out with a slow lament by Liam O’Flynn on uilleann pipe with either synth or concertina back-up. However, it quickly turns to a light merry tune (sung by either Andy Irvine or Christy Moore) with guitar soon kicking in and the pipes fading out. Several bridges are given to the whistle and uilleann pipe, both of which take the melody along with the singer.

This is a longer version of the ballad that includes Johnny’s mother’s warning, his hunting of the deer, the report of a ” sly old man” to the foresters (here, dwelling in ” Esselton” ), a brief debate among the foresters whether to kill Johnny, and the fight leading to the death of Johnny, his dogs, and all but one of the foresters. Only on the last verse does the tempo slow back down to a lament (” Johnny’s good ben-bow is broke/ And his two grey dogs lie slain/ And his body lies in Monymusk/ And his hunting days are done.” ) The song ends on the pipe lament that started it. This is an exciting version “indeed, it’s the first that I heard and is the version that my personal standard is closest to. As much as I like the tune, its lightness doesn‚t exactly fit the material. It is noteworthy that this comment can be made of three other ballads on Planxty’s The Woman I Love So Well (” True Love Knows No Reason,” ” Little Musgrave,” and ” Roger O’Hehir” ).

The Corries’ ” Jock O’Braidislee” is textually very similar to Planxty’s. Several verses of debate between Johnny and his mother, as well as the debate among the foresters, are not in this version. However, it otherwise matches verse for verse and sometimes word for word, the Planxty version. Stylistically, however, the two versions are quite different. The Corries’ version starts with a brief, eerie banjo(?) introduction with guitar and voice joining in. Performed in a minor key, this version starts out quietly, but grows in intensity and emotion. Then, as in the Planxty version, the tempo slows and the intensity lightens for the last verse. For me, this is the finest performance of the ballad. Indeed, the tune is the one I used when I sang Derek to sleep four years ago.

While Planxty’s and The Corries’ versions are stylistically different there is one interesting similarity. While not matching note for note, the Corries’ tune is basically a minor key version of the Planxty’s major key version.

Old Blind Dogs’s “Johnny O’Braidislee” is the most recent version. It’s somewhat resembles the Corries’s version. It is one of the more stripped-down versions of the story, though the discussion with Johnny’s mother, and the “silly auld man” are both in the version. Musically, the tune is similar to the minor-key version of The Corries. It is also somewhat similar stylistically, starting quietly with guitar and voice, then building up in intensity with bass, drum, and whistle joining in. However, the tune has a Guthrie-like American flavor to it, similar to their version of Bob Dylan’s “Hollis Brown” on Legacy. Furthermore, unlike The Corries’s and Planxty’s versions, the music is not slowed for the last verse. It is a great performance. I suspect the only reason it doesn’t measure up to The Corries’s version in my estimation it the sentimental attachment I have.

This is a fascinating song. Whether it’s a story from the feuds among the Scots clans or has roots even deeper than that, there is a lot of emotion and atmosphere packed in to the ballad. It is one of the finest in the traditions of the British Isles if somewhat less known than it should be. I include a text below. It is not any specific version, nor do I offer it as a definitive version. It is simply the one I’ve put together for myself from my listening and reading.

I plan to be repeating this exercise in upcoming months. And I’m going to ask for a little help. My future plans include doing an essay on the reel ” The Star of Munster” and the ballad ” Matty Groves” (a.k.a. ” Little Musgrave” ). I’d appreciate any suggestions of versions of these songs to include. I’d also appreciate any suggestions of other tunes or songs to do similar essays on. There’s no guarantee that I’ll be able to track down the version suggested, but I’ll do my best. Thanks.



Diverse Voices

Diverse Voices is our catch-all for writers and other staffers who did but a few reviews or other writings for us. They are credited at the beginning of the actual writing if we know who they are which we don't always. It also includes material by writers that first appeared in the Sleeping Hedgehog, our in-house newsletter for staff and readers here. Some material is drawn from Folk Tales, Mostly Folk and Roots & Branches, three other publications we've done.

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