The lasting appeal in the 21st century of ‘Matty Groves’, also known as ‘Little Musgrave’, has long been a bit of a mystery to me. There’s a version on Fairport Convention’s Liege and Lief (as ‘Matty Groves’) and one (as ‘Little Musgrave‘) on Martin Simpson’s masterpiece Prodigal Son. It was collected by Francis Child in the 19th century, and is one of the oldest murder ballads. The earliest published version dates from 1658 (but is referenced earlier), and it’s been recorded by everyone from Joan Baez, Martin Carthy and Nic Jones to Christy Moore and Planxty.
The song is essentially a feudal tragedy. The Lady of the Manor picks up a commoner after church and takes him back to her castle while the Lord is away rounding up his sheep. Word gets out (massive spoiler alert) and Lord Donald, as he’s known in Fairport’s version of the Matty Groves lyric, quickly heads for home, surprising his wife and Matty still in bed. (The names vary between different versions – Barnard, not Donald, for example, in Simpson’s ‘Little Musgrave’ – but the events described in the song are remarkably consistent). Chivalry prevails, at least to some extent; Matty is given time to dress (“It’ll never be said in fair England/I slew a naked man”) and then, as he stalls desperately, (“For you have two long beaten swords/And I have but a pocket knife”) is given the better of Lord Donald’s swords. Of course, he dies in the duel, and Lord Donald promptly asks his wife whether she prefers her dead lover or her live husband. When she gives him the wrong answer he drives his sword through her heart. As a final twist, the two lovers are buried together, with the Lady on top (“for she was of noble kin”).
Martin Simpson often insists on the contemporaneity of much of the English folk canon – another of the Child’s ballads, ‘Andrew Lammie‘, also on Prodigal Son, is a song about an honour killing – but there is almost nothing that appears to link the world of ‘Matty Groves’ to ours, other perhaps than Lady Donald cheating on her husband. All the rest is lost in feudal order and feudal chivalry.
The explanation, I think, is in the power of the narrative. From the sunny moment that Lady Donald approaches Matty Groves outside the church (on “A holiday, a holiday/And the first one of the year”), the story is a series of disasters waiting, inevitably, to unfold. It has the same dynamic as film noir – the dark ending is encoded from the start of the story. Lady Donald is Gilda. And as in noir, it starts (of course) with female desire and female transgression. Not so feudal after all.
The image at the top of the post is taken from the website LyricsOne, which has a number of versions of Matty Groves, and is used with thanks.