And the misty brakefern way

Wednesday, January 4, 2023   (updated 15 hours later)

Comments: 5   (latest 10 hours later)

Tagged: archie fisher, witch of the westmorland, stan rogers, music, pamela dean, the waybacks, owlswater, west-mer-lands

You know the song, "The Witch of the Westmorland"? I got into a discussion about it a couple of days ago.

The song is by Archie Fisher, but it's more commonly associated with Stan Rogers. Stan sang it on his live album Between the Breaks. That album has launched a thousand pub sings -- it's got "Mary Ellen Carter" and "Rolling Down to Old Maui" and "Barrett's Privateers", for heavens' sake -- but let's stick to the one song.

I knew a couple of things about the Witch, and then there's a bunch of things I didn't know. There's a rabbit warren down there.

Before I get into it, though, let me tell you how the song goes! You can read the original liner notes and lyrics (PDF). (Or see the lyrics on Mudcat, the Internet Archive of folk music knowledge. Or on Mainly Norfolk.) To sum up:

A knight rides away from the battlefield, sore-wounded. Three talking animals tell him that his only hope of survival is to find the Witch of the Westmorland. (Stan Rogers' version skips a couple of the animals.) The knight gathers goldenrod and casts it into the lake, and the Witch comes forth:

One half the form of a maiden fair / With a jet black mare's body.

The knight sets his hawk and hounds on the Witch, but she's not into that. She salves his wounds with the goldenrod, and kisses him, and they spend the night together. In the morning he rides away -- not merely healed, but with the Witch's blessing:

There's none can harm the knight who's lain / With the Witch of the West-mer-land.

Now, the first thing I knew about this song is that it's not a folk story. There is no British tradition of horse-witches hiding in lakes. The whole thing is contemporary (well, from the 1970s). Stan Rogers apparently referred to it as "a five hundred year old legend that Archie made up."

The first thing I didn't know -- or I didn't think about it until this week -- is that the song is extremely damn weird.

Leave aside that the knight rides halfway across the country and then chases the Witch while supposedly bleeding to death. Or that he maybe has sex with a centaur? (Okay, she's a shapeshifter, I get it. But I'm laughing at the idea of a centaur wearing a blue velvet dress on her horse-body.)

No, it's weird because what is this song about? The knight is wounded, so he goes to a healer, who... heals him. He doesn't bargain. She doesn't ask a price, unless maybe she was horny. He doesn't go back and win the war once he's healed. The "before" is a ruined battlefield and there is no "after".

I don't want to oversell the idea of narrative tension. Plenty of songs have no more to say than "My girl, yeah yeah yeah!" (And you know that can't be bad.) But Archie Fisher "borrowed the form of the narrative ballad" (his words) without exactly writing a narrative. Stan Rogers sings "He has risen hale and sound!" so triumphantly that you forget that this is exactly what everybody said would happen from line pip. Except maybe the knight is invulnerable now, which... is some other story the song doesn't get into.

The closest we have to a conflict, in the narrative sense, is when the knight chases the Witch. The text doesn't quite say she runs from him, but she goes "fast and fleet" and then he rides swiftly, so okay, a chase. He sends his hounds to fetch the mare, and his hawk to fetch the woman. (Separately? Whatever.) Except the text doesn't say he catches her either! Next verse, she's just talking him down. "No, sweetie, this isn't a hunting song. C'mere."

It's a cycle: teasing genres -- a battlefield, a chase, a magical bargain -- and then blowing right past them into something else. One half the form of a hunting tale with a twist from old Faerie...

And then the song is also musically weird. It doesn't have a chorus. It barely has a verse -- more like half a verse; just two bars repeated over and over for four minutes. Most people who perform it jam in an instrumental bridge to break up the monotony.

(Stan Rogers, a legend, goes to town with a different musical texture on every verse. Plus two instrumental bridges.) (And I think this is why his version works so well. He plays up each narrative segment, the search and the hunt and so on, letting the music carry each as a big climactic moment -- which segues right into the next one without giving you time to realize that it didn't resolve the way you expected.)

We're not done, though.

Another thing I've long known about "The Witch of the Westmorland" is that Pamela Dean wrote a story based on it. It's called "Owlswater". You can find it in Xanadu, a 1993 collection edited by Jane Yolen -- or more likely you can't because it's way out of print. I don't think the story has ever been reprinted.

The story is its own brand of strange. It's not about the knight. It's about an apprentice sorcerer who goes out following the knight. He's memorized the song (exactly as Archie Fisher sang it). He has a fellowship of talking animals -- well, he talks to them. Sort of. His task is to find out what the song means. He finds the Witch, at least, and some smooching is entailed; but "none can harm" isn't what he thinks. It's a good story. Ambivalent, in the same way as the song.

(The story is a prequel to Dean's Secret Country trilogy. If you've read that, then it may be significant that the sorcerer is Shan and the Witch is Melanie. But you probably knew that.)

Another thing I didn't know is that the song is about a real place. It's practically a travelogue of the English Lakeland. (Yes, England. Even though Archie Fisher is Scottish and uses a lot of Scots dialect in the lyrics.)

The Ullswater is a place you can visit. Then if you ride down the Kirkstone Pass, you'll be a few miles from the Wastwater before you come to the Windermere. Fisher says (the liner notes lay this all out, I should have read them decades ago) that the Windermere, or Winandermere, used to be the Winding Mere. All this in the district of Westmorland.

Turns out Westmorland hasn't legally been a county since 1974 -- about when Fisher wrote the song. Hm. But it's being re-created in just a few months! Oh, and "...there is no doubt that Westmerland is the more correct spelling," says J. E. Marr.

Here's another thing that I never knew: Archie Fisher wrote a sequel. For an American bluegrass group called the Waybacks.

From what I can tell, the Waybacks covered "The Witch" on a 2000 album. (Straight, not bluegrass-style. They're versatile.) Archie Fisher liked their version, so he whipped out a new set of lyrics under the title "The Return". The Waybacks recorded it for their album Burger After Church (2002). As best I can tell, Fisher has never recorded the song himself. I can't find any other recording either. Mind you, "The Return" is a rocky Google search, so I might have missed one.

So what the heck is this new chapter? The lyrics; the summary:

The knight is old now. His horse and his hounds and his hawk are long dead. He rides an old pony back to the winding mere. With his horn he calls back the spirits of his companion creatures. Then he casts a handful of withered goldenrod into the water. The Witch rises, white-haired now. Sorry, she says; nothing cures old age. So he climbs up on her back, with the velvet dress as his saddlecloth, and the knight and the Witch and the ghosts ride off together.

(We may infer that the knight has also died; he and his hawk and hounds are reunited on death's shore. What that means for the Witch, anybody's guess.)

It's a fitting end for the knight, I'd say. Just as in the first song, we entirely skip over the knight's battles. There may be a story of the invulnerable knight carving his way through history, but this isn't it. He's old and alone and there's nothing left for him to do. So he does it.

I meant it, though, when I said Fisher "whipped out a new set of lyrics". I don't think "The Return" stands well on its own. Most of its heft is reprising familiar phrases and images. He's kissed her pale lips once and twice, this time.

But then, we don't get to hear Stan Rogers sing it. Maybe he would have made it work.

A few places around the Internet indicate that Fisher intended to write a third song, a prequel, completing the Witch's cycle. He hasn't yet.

I'll leave you with this:

In Pamela Dean's "Owlswater", the Witch is partial to goose:

One sunset, however, by means Shan did not care to inquire into, Melanie killed a goose. She plucked, and singed, and drew it, and stuffed it with the wild grass seeds, and roasted it, quite as if she had been cooking, and expertly, for all her life, instead of having only that morning boiled two ducks' eggs until a child could have played at dodge ball with them.

Having eaten the goose, they built houses of its bones. [...]

Well, I can tell you how the Witch killed her goose. She swam up below and snatched it right down into the mere.

Witnesses have reported wildfowl vanishing suddenly at Ullswater in recent days.

"There was a large flock of Greylag geese on the lake, when one about 10lbs in weight - a fully grown adult bird - started flapping its wings furiously on top of the water before it got dragged backwards at speed and straight down."

-- Ullswater geese deaths, June 30, 2022 (BBC News)

The knight is gone away, but the Witch is with us still. Go down to the water's brim with goldenrod and some good sage stuffing and you might find out.

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