Introduced by Margaret Nelson

Back in the early 60’s, my oldest sister, Patricia Nelson, was a student at Hanover College in Indiana. She was taken on a class field trip to Berea College, and came back with an LP of the Berea College Choir that included a solo a capella rendition of a Kentucky version of “Earl o’ Bran” (Child #7), the first traditional ballad I’d ever heard. I’d sung in church choirs, junior and senior. I’d also spent a lot of time as a youngster reading all the folk tales and fairy tales I could get my hands on, a pretty wide selection since the Racine Library never bought into the notion that fantasy was bad for kids. When I found out there were rich old stories that had TUNES to them, I was permanently hooked.

According to Child, Earl o’ Bran has many versions and antecedents all over Scandinavia, including Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland; and in Germany as well. In some of them, the hero steals the lady without waking her family, but some person of ill-will sees them, accepts a bribe to say nothing, and then hurries straight to the girl’s family. As I understand this shaved-down Kentucky version, the guy and the girl could have been a long way down the road before anyone noticed she was gone, but our hero is so proud of himself as a fighting man that he blows his hunting horn, his “bugle horn,” deliberately waking up and challenging her father and all seven of her brothers. (The first six notes of the tune are definitely a horn call.)

The bit that makes the folklorists salivate is in many of the versions, including this one. Lord William doesn’t get hurt until Lady Margaret calls his name out loud, breaking (so they say) his battle magic. I think it more likely that her cry breaks his berserker’s concentration, and one of her severely wounded brothers manages to cut him.

Listen to a soloist from the Berea College Choir sing Earl o’ Bran:

Score for Earl o' Bran
Click on the image for a downloadable PDF

Lyrics (as Margaret sings the song):

Wake ye up, wake ye up, ye seven sleepers
And do take warning of me
Take care, take care of your elder sister dear
For the younger is going with me

He put her on a milk-white steed
He rode a dapple grey
With the bugle horn around his neck
So lightly they rode away

As they rode out three miles from town
Lord William, he turned all around
He spied her father and seven brothers all
Come a-galloping over the ground

Keep still, keep still, Lady Margaret he cried
And hold my steed in your hand
While I do fight with your seven brothers all
In yon green meadow they stand

Fair Margaret spoke not any word
Nor made she any sound
Until she saw her own father’s head
Come a-tumbling down to the ground

Oh, hold your hand, Lord William, she cried
For that stroke it was wondrous sore
True lovers I could get me many a one
But a father can never get more

Take your choice, take your choice, Lady Margaret he cried
Stay here, or go and be my bride
I’ll go, I’ll go, Lord William, she said
For you’ve left me no other guide

He’s put her on the milk white steed
He rode the dapple grey
With the bugle horn around his neck
And so they went bleeding away

They rode till they came to his own mother’s gate
He’s tingled all on the ring
It’s O, dear Mother, asleep or awake
Arise and let me come in

It’s O, dear Mother, bind my head
For me you will bind no more
It’s O, dear Sister, make my bed
For I am wounded sore.

Lord William he died all about midnight
Fair Margaret, long before day
Now all sweet lovers that love each other true
May God send them more luck than they

Margaret Nelson learned her first traditional ballad in the early 1960’s. In 1982, she joined musical forces with guitarist and singer Phil Cooper. As a duo, as a trio with singer Kate Early, and as members of two successive Christmas bands, Cooper & Nelson toured, performed, and spent a lot of time recording mostly traditional songs and tunes. They released 24 recordings in 28 years, including cassettes, an LP, and CDs. (Many of the CDs are still available for sale.) In November and December, Margaret still tours with Kate Early, Phil Cooper and Susan Urban as the Bittersweet Christmas Band. In the summer, she is a regular performer at the Evanston Farmers Market, playing bouncy traditional music on her Autoharp so kids and adults can shake and bang along on home made rhythm instruments. She also performs at Memorial Day and Veterans Day gatherings sponsored by Veterans for Peace, and recently has been asked to lead songs at larger Chicago-area rallies for peace, social justice, and environmental sanity. Margaret describes her current condition as “Still vertical, still musical, and INCREASINGLY POLITICAL.” Visit for videos of Margaret in performance.

Margaret served as Board President of the Folk Alliance-Region Midwest (FARM) from 1999-2002. She was booker, host and sound babe for the Sunday Evening Folk concert series, Evanston, Illinois, 2003-2005. She is the recipient of the Folk Alliance Region Midwest Lifetime Service Award, 2006.