There are moments when a song is the best way to convey an emotional message. Even though songs are mostly public things, they still can feel intensely personal. Popular songs in early modern England were sung in ballad form. At the intersection of oral, print, visual, and dance cultures, ballads had a wide appeal across class and rural/urban divides.1 Their broad appeal and presence in everyday life, combined with emotionally profound subjects made ballads the perfect accent to scenes in Shakespeare’s plays onstage. In addition to punctuating the plays with a meditative ballad moment, it was a given that the ballads Shakespeare used would elicit extra emotion from his audiences who already knew the songs well. One of the most well-known ballad scenes in Shakespeare’s plays is Desdemona’s willow song in Act 4, scene 3 of Othello. In revisiting this scene, I noticed for the first time an affinity with another willow song from hundreds of years later, “Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow,” first recorded by The Carter Family in Bristol, TN in 1927. Intrigued by the resonance between these songs, I investigated more and look forward to sharing the strong affinities between these songs with you.
The ballad is very pitiful, and as true
Autolycus knew how to sell his wares in The Winter’s Tale. He relied on his buyers’ desires for new, sad stories they could add to their ballad repertoires.2 Pitiful ballads feel true because they rely on shared experiences along with ancient tropes. One of the most common tropes in early modern ballads is of a forlorn lover pining beneath a weeping willow near water. The earliest song featuring weeping under willows is an ancient one, Psalm 137. Here in the opening verses, we see the defining element of the genre.
In this instance, the Israelites mourn their entering into Babylonian captivity. Of particular interest are the first three verses:
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down,
Yea we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
And they that wasted us required of us mirth,
Saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” Psalm 137: 1-3 (KJV)
Over time, willows in song became a more specific symbol of grief for the loss of loved ones.3 Then the genre evolved to include the mourning figure wearing a green willow garland as another “symbol of mourning or being lovelorn.”4 By the time early modern printed ballads began circulating with willow imagery, the symbolism became permanently attached to unrequited love or unfaithful lovers such as in well-known classical tales like we see Lorenzo recount to Jessica in The Merchant of Venice, “Dido with a willow in her hand/Upon the wild sea banks and waft her love/To come again to Carthage.“5 In a ballad that references Psalm 137, “I’ll hang my harp on a willow tree” (Roud 1444), the trials and tribulations of a rejected lover and soldier, rather than an entire nation, bring this evolution full circle.
A popular ballad from ca. 1615, “A Lover’s complaint being forsaken of his Love,” (Roud V26920) famously features in Othello. Its circulation during this timeframe means that the ballad would have been fresh in the ears of the Othello audience (first published in 1622). In this scene from Act 4, scene 3, lines 28-64, Desdemona prepares for bed with her maid Emilia’s assistance, worrying about her new husband’s change in attitude toward her. As she undresses and waits, the ballad “will not go from [her] mind” (33). Interestingly, only the bolded portions of this section appear in the 1622 quarto, or single play, edition of Othello, while the full song is printed in the 1623 First Folio collection of Shakespeare’s plays. While many scholars proffer various arguments of why the texts are different, I think it is most important to note that a reference to a “song of willow” would have been enough to signal to the audience that Desdemona has found herself in a situation that echoed the tropes of willow ballads.
Image of Desdemona’s song in STC 22273 Fo.1 no.19, p. 2v3
My mother had a maid called Barbary.
She was in love, and he she loved proved mad
And did forsake her. She had a song of willow,
An old thing ’twas, but it expressed her fortune,
And she died singing it. That song tonight
Will not go from my mind. I have much to do
But to go hang my head all at one side
And sing it like poor Barbary.
The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore6 tree,
Sing all a green willow.
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
Sing willow, willow, willow.
The fresh streams ran by her and murmured her
Sing willow, willow, willow;
Her salt tears fell from her, and softened the
Lay by these.
Sing willow, willow, willow.
Prithee hie thee! He’ll come anon.
Sing all a green willow must be my garland.
Let nobody blame him, his scorn I approve.
Nay, that’s not next. Hark, who is ’t that knocks?
EMILIA It’s the wind.
I called my love false love, but what said he then?
Sing willow, willow, willow.
If I court more women, you’ll couch with more
So, get thee gone. Good night. Mine eyes do itch;
Doth that bode weeping?
In this scene, Shakespeare retains some of the most pitiful stanzas from the ballad, especially those that feature willow song conventions such as green willows, streams, and weeping. In the final strain of her song, however, Shakespeare’s adds a line not found in the ballad text—“If I court more women, you’ll couch with more men”—which foreshadows the coming public revelation that Othello believes Desdemona has been unfaithful with Cassio. This suits and complicates the contemporary understanding of willow songs dwelling on unfaithful lovers. In Emilia’s death, she echoes Desdemona’s song and dies with “willow” on her lips, mourning her mistress and her lost love Iago, who ruined so many lives in ways she could never have imagined.7
Shakespeare calls on the weeping willow songs and symbolism elsewhere in his plays to mark lovelorn scenarios. Examples from The Two Noble Kinsmen and from Twelfth Night both use references to this crushingly morose ballad as shorthand for the serious depth of feeling from one lover for another.8 Ophelia’s tragic death in Hamlet, however, takes the willow ballad to a different level. She gives voice to a few bawdy ballads in an earlier scene, but her offstage death brings the willow ballad to life. Here we read Gertrude (Queen) report Ophelia’s death to Laertes with all the hallmarks of willow ballads.
One woe doth tread upon another’s heel,
So fast they follow. Your sister’s drowned, Laertes.
LAERTES Drowned? O, where?
There is a willow grows askant the brook
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream.
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do “dead men’s fingers” call
There on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clamb’ring to hang, an envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaid-like awhile they bore her up,
Which time she chanted snatches of old lauds,
As one incapable of her own distress
Or like a creature native and endued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death. (Hamlet 4.7.187-208)
Ophelia, mad with grief, mourns her father Polonius under a willow near a brook. She wears various flower garlands, but it seems very likely “her coronet weeds” would be willows, for loss of a loved one. Ophelia dies singing “snatches of old lauds,” momentarily buried beneath the willow tree. She becomes a willow ballad, one which we still sing today.
From Desdemona and Ophelia to Sara and Maybelle
From 25 July to 5 August 1927, Ralph Peer of the Victor Talking Machine Company oversaw one of the most important events in music history. During this period, Peer, with his new technology of the electric microphone, recorded 76 songs by 19 artists in Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia (the main thoroughfare of Bristol, State St., is the TN/VA state line).
The Bristol Sessions, as they are now known, recorded the most influential act in the history of country music, The Carter Family of Hiltons, Virginia. The Carter Family consisted of A.P. (Alvin Pleasant) on vocals and fiddle, his wife Sara on vocals and autoharp, and Sara’s cousin Maybelle on vocals, autoharp, and guitar.
During the Bristol Sessions, “The First Family of Country Music” recorded six tracks: “The Wandering Boy,” “Single Girl, Married Girl,” “The Storms are on the Ocean,” “The Poor Orphan Child,” “Little Log Cabin by the Sea,” and “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow.” These six tracks launched The Carter Family’s music career and cemented their place in country music history. Maybelle Carter’s talent and presence especially endures. Her “Carter scratch” guitar style, modeled on clawhammer banjo picking, has become the default for many modern guitarists. After the original Carter Family group dissolved in the mid-1950s, Maybelle recorded many records with her talented daughters Helen, Anita, and June. At the point when Maybelle considered her career over, her daughter June married the legendary Johnny Cash, who used his stardom to showcase his mother-in-law’s talent and share her influence on country music with new generations.
When I learned that the track “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow,” was one of the first six Carter Family recordings, I was surprised since they have become so well known for their uplifting songs “Keep on the Sunny Side” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” As I listened more closely to the song, its affinities with Desdemona’s willow song quickly became evident. If country music is “three chords and the truth,” then the truth is closest to Autolycus’s “pitiful ballad.”
My heart is sad and I am lonely
For the only one I love
When shall I see him, oh, no never
‘Til we meet up in heaven above
Chorus Oh, bury me beneath the willow
Under the weeping willow tree
So he may know where I am sleeping
And perhaps he will weep for me
He told me that he dearly loved me
How could I believe it untrue?
Until the angel softly whispered
He will prove untrue to you
Tomorrow was our wedding day
Oh, Lord, my God, where can he be?
He is out a-courting with another
And no longer cares for me
Here again we find willows, weeping, and unfaithful lovers in this willow song ballad. The Carter Family collected this song at a party, its origins still unknown. They must have noticed the songs popularity in recording, because, unlike most of their music collected and traded along their travels, they wrote a response to the ballad, “Answer to Weeping Willow.” In this follow up song, the singer finds his love buried under the willow tree and weeps because he was not untrue to his love. This revelation resonates with the tragic ending of Othello, connecting them across time and place.
Many of us are familiar with using online early modern English ballad databases such as English Broadside Ballad Archive and Broadside Ballads Online to find printed ballads by topic, title, tune, or decoration. It often can be difficult, however, to find a way to examine all the references to a single ballad and its variants along with recordings and single performances. Common bibliographic sources for folk songs include Child Ballads and Roud Folk Song Index, both of which disambiguate variants in folk music and gathered recordings. To consolidate my investigation into willow songs, I turned to The Vaughan Williams Memorial Library of the English Folk Dance and Song Society at the Cecil Sharp House. This database provides a useful platform for searching across folk contexts (song, dance, customs) and across bibliographic sources. I was especially attracted to the database’s search across indexes, the feature that displays search results as a map, and the Song Subject Index. I plan to keep this resource handy as an addition to my ballad research in the future.
Willow songs continue to prove popular (Taylor Swift, anyone?) and moving. I built a playlist to show how many different genres take up willow songs. Grab a box of tissues and I’ll see you under the weeping willow.
- Bruster, Douglas. “Cheap Print” in The Cambridge Guide to the Worlds of Shakespeare, ed. Bruce R. Smith. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
- William Shakespeare. The Winter’s Tale. Barbara Mowat, Paul Werstine, Michael Poston, Rebecca Niles, eds (Washington, DC: Folger Shakespeare Library, n.d.), accessed October 6, 2021. Act IV, scene 4.
- “willow, n.”. OED Online. September 2021. Oxford University Press. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/229085?rskey=IJQsPH&result=1&isAdvanced=false (accessed October 06, 2021).
- “willow, n. compound e.”. OED Online. September 2021. Oxford University Press. https://www.oed.com/view/Entry/229085?rskey=IJQsPH&result=1&isAdvanced=false (accessed October 06, 2021).
- William Shakespeare. The Merchant of Venice. Barbara Mowat, Paul Werstine, Michael Poston, Rebecca Niles, eds (Washington, DC: Folger Shakespeare Library, n.d.), accessed October 6, 2021.. Act V, scene 1, lines 12-14.
- Pun on “sick amour.” Shakespeare, W., & Luckyj, C. (2018). Act 4, Scene 3. In N. Sanders (Ed.), Othello (The New Cambridge Shakespeare, pp. 188-192). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781316416051.016, n38.
- William Shakespeare. Othello. Barbara Mowat, Paul Werstine, Michael Poston, Rebecca Niles, eds (Washington, DC: Folger Shakespeare Library, n.d.), accessed October 6, 2021. Act V, scene 2, lines 295-300.
- Related lines from William Shakespeare. The Two Noble Kinsmen. Barbara Mowat, Paul Werstine, Michael Poston, Rebecca Niles, eds (Washington, DC: Folger Shakespeare Library, n.d.), accessed October 6, 2021. Act IV, scene 1, lines 105-109. And from William Shakespeare. Twelfth Night. Barbara Mowat, Paul Werstine, Michael Poston, Rebecca Niles, eds (Washington, DC: Folger Shakespeare Library, n.d.), accessed October 6, 2021. Act I, scene 5, lines 271-274.