Mothering Sunday or Mothers Day as it is more commonly known is held on the fourth Sunday of Lent which in 2015 falls on the 15th March. (In the UK that is, other countries celebrate it in May).
Traditionally it is a time when children, no matter what their age, remember the one that introduced them to the joys of the world or as some might say, condemned them to a life of purgatory, depending on the hand the Fates dealt you. This aptly makes the point that not all mothers are the kind, cuddly comfort blankets we are led to believe is the maternal norm.
There are dozens and dozens of stories relating to the dark side of motherhood many of which have been transformed into song which seems quite a satisfactory way of immortalising maternal wickedness. Here’s a few I came up with.
It’s All Right Ma, (I’m Only Bleedin’)
One of Bob Dylan’s powerful social comments, this one is a bitter rant about almost everything from the obscenity of war to acerbic attacks on consumerism, commercialism and hypocrisy. Its bleakness is final. There’s not a shred of optimism anywhere so you might as well book the snip before the biological clock starts ticking. The poetical lyrics are sublime, serving to emphasise the feeling that this world is no great loss which I’m finding somewhat hard to believe at the moment as the sun is streaming across my desk and the apple trees are waving budding branches over the heads of daffodils so vivid they almost burn the eyes.
The Bloody Gardener (Unknown)
By contrast the wickedness of the mother in the Bloody Gardener is much clearer cut. Like many a one before and since, this mother did not approve of her son’s choice of prospective life partner and sought to trick him into believing she was secretly meeting a rival. The plan worked a little too well as the young man … “took out his knife and cut her tender thread of life.” (His sweetheart’s not his mother’s). He eventually realises his mother is the perpetrator of his misfortunes and puts a curse upon her …
“Cursed be my mother here this day!
Oh you’ve robbed me of my joy, my jewel and my toy,
And I rue the life you ever gave to me.”
Martin Carthy sings a nice version of this.
Two Brothers (Trad)
It’s bad enough harming your own child, but arguable worse when you get a sibling to do it for you which is the case in the Two Brothers. Depending on which version you hear, the story concerns John and William who are step brothers. John’s mother wants William out of the way and encourages her son to kill the younger boy which he does in graphic detail.
Lots of accounts and many recordings by different artists. I particularly like Fay Heild’s version. Her haunting voice makes this story even more poignant.
Kemp Owen (Trad)
Fay Heild also sings this disturbingly dark, Child ballad, Kemp Owen. Teased from the mists of Norse mythology it is said to have originated from Aberdeenshire. Liberally dosed with magic, sorcery and a good dash of transmogrification, it begins with the archetypical wicked stepmother doing away with a dead rival’s child.
Be careful who you mess with though! Young Isabelle has powerful friends one of which is Kemp Owen a king’s son who with three kisses releases her from her death curse and turns it back onto the wicked step mother. Dark and weirdly brooding, this song builds to a powerfully chilling climax guaranteed to send a chill down your spine!
Down By The GreenwoodSide
Having a child out of wedlock may be nothing to frown about these days, but not too long ago it was considered a very big sin and the mother often faced social rejection leading to extreme poverty and destitution. However, that doesn’t give the right to take the life of your own new born babies which is what the wicked mother did in this song!
The story is as old as the hills, young girl falls in love with her father’s servant, gets pregnant, spurned by her lover and in desperation murders the infants as soon as they are born.
What isn’t so usual though is these children, in the spirit world, grow into lively little boys and return to haunt their cruel mother. She asks them what awaits her when her time comes to pass over and they tell her she is bound for … “seven years in the flames of hell!” Only seven years? Personally I think she got off light!
The Light In My Mother’s Eyes (While & Matthews)
Just to restore the balance and prove that most mothers are indeed caring, kind and hugely influencing no matter how old you are or how far you’ve travelled I’m finishing with this beautiful song by Chris While and Julie Matthews. I first heard it shortly after losing my own mother so it made a massive impact on me.
Just a few out there celebrating both the light and dark of motherhood. How about sharing a few of your choices in the comment box?
By the way, you should be able find all these songs as downloads, (legally please) or on disc as I’ve heard them all played quite recently. If you fancy performing them yourself they are likely to be available as sheet music and song books but if you have a good ear, I found most of these are available as midi or mp3s.