Thursday, 19 May 2016

My daddy says I'm fine: gender bending, female desire and Willie o the Winsbury

The king he hath been a prisoner,
 A prisoner lang in Spain, O
 And Willie o the Winsbury
 Has lain lang wi his daughter at hame. O
You know it's going to be good when you get to fornication in the first verse. Willie o' the Winsbury, or Child100 - currently my favourite to sing at people whenever I get the slightest indication that they won't actually kick me out for doing so - makes no bones about the boning. I especially like the term "lang" in this context. This could easily echo the "lang" in the second line, and mean "many times over several months", or it could, in the economy of form of folksong, mean rather "all night", "several times" and "with foreplay". It give the relationship a very languorous tone  - this is not a case of:
He took her by the milk-white hand,
 And by the grass green sleeve,
 And laid her low down on the flowers,

It implies rather more a:
Lye still, lye still, thou Little Musgrave,
 And huggell me from the cold;
Anyway, if I can ditch my obsession with the type of sex folkloric characters are having for thirty seconds, one other thing I will say about this opening is that it leaves very little idea where the ballad is going. The kind of people who enjoy putting folkstories away in such frameworks as the Aarne-Thompson Motif Index* have real trouble categorising ballads that start with enthusiastic rumpy-pumpy between the daughter of a powerful man and her - what - toyboy? Take, for example, Brown Robin (Child97) which - in the three variations recorded by Francis Child - has three entirely different endings. In contrast, Willie o' the Winsbury is remarkably consistent.

What follows immediately is both expected and upsetting. Janet (yes, the king's daughter is another Janet) is interrogated by her father as to her 'wanness' made to strip. In doing so, reveals that she is visibly pregnant. Her father then interrogates her as to the father of the child, and his emphasis is telling: he suspects rape. He asks if the pregnancy is by "a man of might" or "any of the rank robbers/ that's lately come out of Spain". What is more, he also attempts to ascertain the eligibility of the child's father - asking whether he is a man of "mean" or any "fame", depending on the version.

Janet's response makes explicit my earlier reading. This was a consensual liaison - not as (arguably) in Tam Lin an acceptance after the fact. It is something she had sought, wanted and enjoyed:
But it is to William of Winsburry;
 I could lye nae langer my lane.
More interestingly, the social status of Willie is not entirely clear. Yes, in 100C and 100D, there is some reference that - of the King's retainers - he "should hae been the foremost man", while in 100I, he is "Lord Thomas" and clearly a power in his own right. However, in most versions his exact status is unknown, and in 100F he is described as the King's serving man. Aside from in 100I, what is important here is that Janet has slept with a man who is perceived as markedly beneath her, and who - directly or otherwise - is subordinate to the King's power.

With this in mind, (and in most versions) her father declares that Willie o' the Winsbury is totally getting hanged. So far, so predictable if we factor in the manner in which Janet's father has behaved throughout. What happens next is... curious.

Ballads, as a general rule, are not big on description. You might get a passing reference to "grey e'en", "green mantles" "golden" or "yellow hair", and occasionally "lily-white" body parts (remind me to do a blog on Bold William Taylor sometime), but it tends to be included in the general thrust of the action, an aside to provide a little detail, or level out the rhythm. In Willie o' the Winsbury we get an entire verse of it:

when he cam the king before,
 He was clad o the red silk;
 His hair was like to threeds o gold.
 And his skin was as white as milk.
This presence of this much description is consistent across seven of the nine versions. And, what does it tell us? That Willie is a striking, snappy dresser (also, rich), that he is blond (or possibly red-headed) and that he very fair. The version I sing (which is slightly different to any Child version) states that his breast was white as milk, letting us know that that red shirt was open at the neck, along with the strawberry blond hair and pale, pale skin...

Yes, this is exactly where your mind should be going.
What the audience are probably expecting here is some sort of sword fight or slanging match, where Willie reveals himself to be Prince in disguise, sweeps Janet up in his arms and rides off into the sunset. Instead, the King says this:
'It is nae wonder,’ said the king,
 ‘That my daughter’s love ye did win;
 Had I been a woman, as I am a man,
 My bedfellow ye should hae been.'
Again, this is consistent across the majority of versions. This is the King's first response, and it marks a transition from raging, "hanged he shall be" fury, to... offering this guy his daughter's hand in marriage, gold and earldoms?

The sexuality presented in folk ballads fascinates me because the multiplicity of recorded versions offer a glimpse of a variety of voices in discussion over the same themes and stories. However much a teller might claim to the contrary, all singers and storytellers adapt the material they learn to suit their own prejudices and those of their audience. It is in those negotiations that the true subversive potential of the folk tradition is permitted to emerge. A range of versions can almost be seen as a collective effort to thrash out the problematic societal implications of these stories: endings being changed, reactions being framed differently, sympathy being assigned in differing ways.

Yet, what is most amazing about these verses - Janet's enthusiastic consent, Willie's beauty and the King's recognition thereof - is their consistency across the versions. Willie o' the Winsbury does thrash out the acceptability of a vassal/heiress relationship, of parental benevolence/control, and Willie's relative humility/pride, but it seems to agree on three key points. Firstly, that women feel desire and sexual attraction, and that they are not necessarily drawn to feats of strength, but to male beauty. Secondly - considering the ballad has a consistently happy ending - that premarital** sex under those conditions was to be condoned, and the King's anger at his daughter's condition was unjustified. And thirdly, that it was okay for men to admit homoerotic attraction provided they expressed it in heteronormative terms.

To dwell on this last point for a moment: Willie's beauty is, in most versions, described in a way that is more typical of the women in ballads. He is not a "man of might" nor is he not brown skinned from being in the sun or fighting in Spain. He is a "bonnie boy", his fine hair dangles down and he comes "tripping" up the stairs. We focus upon his complexion, his golden hair, his silk clothes. Only in G is there any active quality to his beauty "He glanced like the fire [...] His eyes like crystal clear."

And while in A and H we get the verse quoted above, in most versions, the King's statement of attraction reflects this connection of beauty with femininity - hypothesising a change of Willie's gender rather than his own: "Gin ye were a woman, as ye’re a man". While this does, of course, play into the heteronormative assumption of 'active' and 'passive', 'male' and 'female' sexual roles, it actually reinforces the strangeness of what's happening here. In A and H, the King is merely admitting that Willie is such an attractive man that it causes the King to imagine the circumstances in which he could act upon that attraction. This alternative implies that Willie's beauty, and the response to it, is such that it transcends gender - that he can simultaneously be perceived as 'woman enough' for the King to desire him as such, and 'man enough' for him to be irresistible to Janet. Or perhaps that his gender is irrelevant when it comes to desire. 

The fact is that conceptions of gender, desire, sexuality are constantly in flux, and in this context romantic folk ballads become an archaeological resource which gives some indication of past ideas that fell within the realm of acceptable. Which makes Willie o' the Winsbury a good one to throw at people who like to vaunt truisms about traditional constructions of gender, as well as being raunchy and rather a lot of fun.

Anyway, here's a lovely version from LazyShark - go and give it some well deserved likes:


*for which I am duly grateful, mostly because it must have been an utter chore to compile. I admit to simplifying its usefulness and complexity here somewhat.

**note, not extramarital.

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