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With A Brace of Pistols All At Her Side: Kickass Women in Folk Songs

2011 May 12

Black and white illustration/engraving of a head and shoulders portrait of a female highwayman (highwaywoman?) in a feathered hat and maskStruggling as usual to come up with the ‘pop culture’ bit of the feminist pop culture adventure that you and I are embarking on together, I hit upon a brilliant idea: I could write something about the pop culture of the 1800s! So here I am talking about traditional Anglo-American music. Problem solved.

I was also inspired by a question from @FeministInti to her twitter followers: do you know any folk songs that feature gender-based violence? The answer is yes, AND HOW. In a few moments we had amassed enough for a limited edition CD box set of traditional songs about rape, domestic violence and murdered women.

It tends to be these songs that a lot of modern folkish artists have picked up on. Yes, I’m looking at you Nick Cave. And you, Decemberists, although I love you. There are also a lot (a LOT) of waiflike folk girls with guitars singing about how love is like a cloud or they’re not sure which handbag matches their heart, as parodied by Bill Bailey.

As an antidote to the murdery and misogynist on the one hand and the mindlessly insipid and pathetic on the other I thought I would take this opportunity to share and celebrate some traditional songs in which women come out on top.

Note: Because the songs are hundreds of years old in some cases there’s quite a lot of variety over names and lyrics. I managed to find versions of nearly all of them on Spotify and have made a collaborative playlist so y’all can add any others you find: Kickass women in folk songs.

Cross-dressing adventurers

Scanned image of 'The Female Sailor' broadsheet from the National Maritime Museum

'The Female Sailor' broadsheet from the National Maritime Museum

Now THIS is what I’m talking about – songs about women dressing as sailors, hunters and highwaymen, whether to find their true love or just for kicks. Some of them sound a little unhinged: like Sovay, who is prepared to blow her lover’s head off if he gives up the love token she has given him. But the heroine in ‘The Golden Glove’ is very endearing as she cleverly arranges matters so that she can marry the man she loves (and “enjoy” him, as she sings gleefully).

If you’d like more stories of derring-do like this, I recommend Dianne Dugaw’s Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1650-1850.


“Sovay Sovay all on a day
She dressed herself in man’s array
With a brace of pistols all at her side
To meet her true love, to meet her true love, for did she ride”

Public domain scanned book illustration of a tall shipWhen I Was A Fair Maid

“When I was a fair maid about seventeen
I listed in the navy for to serve the queen
I listed in the navy, a sailor lad to stand
For to hear the cannons rattling
and the music so grand”

The Golden Glove

“Coat waistcoat and trousers the young girl put on
And away she went a-hunting with her dog and her gun
And she hunted around where the farmer he did dwell
Because in her heart oh she loved him so well”

Bold William Taylor

“Then the captain stepped up to her, pleased well at what she’s done;
He’s gone and made her a bold commander, over a ship and all its men.”


Just a couple of examples – ‘I Wanna Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart’ is basically about a woman who wants to be a cowboy, the ‘sweetheart’ of the title is purely incidental, and ‘Belle Starr’ is about a real life wild west fugitive who had a number of famous fugitive lovers.

Public domain engraving of Belle Starr riding a horse

I Wanna Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart

“I wanna pillow my head by the sleeping herd
while the moon shines down from above
I wanna strum my guitar, and yodellaheehoo,
that’s the life that I love!”

Belle Starr

“Eight lovers they say combed your waving black hair
Eight men knew the feel of your dark velvet waist
Eight men heard the sounds of your tan leather skirt
Eight men heard the bark of the guns that you wore”

Bold and crafty women

The Crafty Maid and Lovely Joan outsmart their arrogant would-be seducers and make off with their horses. Sally Brown kicks the ass of the Cruel Youth, saving her own life and avenging the deaths of the ‘pretty maidens’ who went before her, and the Bonny Lass of Angelsey dances the king and 15 of his knights out of their swag.

Public domain, old book illustration of a horse

The Crafty Maid’s Policy

“But as soon as the maid she saw him a’coming
She instantly then took her pistol in hand
Saying “Doubt not my skill, it is you I would kill
I will have you stand back or you are a dead man.”

Lovely Joan

“She’s robbed him of his horse and ring,
And left him to rage in the meadows green.”

The Cruel Youth

“Lie there, lie there, you cruel young man,
Lie there lie there,” said she
“Six pretty maidens you’ve drowned here,
now go keep them company.”

The Bonny Lass of Angelsey

“She’s taken all their bucklers and swords
She’s taken their gold and their bright money
And back to the mountains she’s away
The bonnie lass of Anglesey”

Old illustration of a group of knights looking silly

Silver Dagger

The woman in Joan Baez’s version of the Silver Dagger decides not to risk getting her heart broken by keeping clear of love altogether. Whether she’s right or wrong, I like that she makes a choice.

“My daddy is a handsome devil
He’s got a chain five miles long
And on every link a heart does dangle
Of another maid he’s loved and wronged.”

Thanks to my main song sources, Mudcat and Creative Folk!

21 Responses leave one →
  1. Pet Jeffery permalink
    May 12, 2011

    If you’re thinking of compiling a CD of these songs, “With A Brace of Pistols At Her Side” would be rather a good title. “All” may be necessary to fit the tune, but could be dropped from the album title.

    • Sarah Jackson permalink*
      May 12, 2011

      I hope there’s an album out there somewhere! If not we should make one…

  2. May 12, 2011

    “four women” and “mississippi goddam” by nina simone

    • Sarah Jackson permalink*
      May 14, 2011

      Thank you! :-) Love Nina…

  3. Aisling Kenny permalink
    May 12, 2011

    Adding to the gender-bending goodness of ‘When I was a Fair Maid’ is the fact that it seems to be more often sung by blokes, at least at those sessions I’ve been at (far too many). I don’t know if that’s specifically Irish trad musicians trying to screw with people a bit, but you’d often get dudes singing all the sighing-maiden-oh-noes-my-true-love-is-gone songs, and women singing about soldiers, debauchery &c. Yeah, it’s awesome.

    Man, I didn’t know Patrick Street did a version of Willie Taylor! The Uncle Earl version’s pretty damn snazzy too, but the words are quite different.

    Speaking of Uncle Earl, the lyrics to Silver Dagger seem to echo those of Sleepy Desert: Except obviously with more stabbing.

    I could probably go on like this for several days, so /shutting up/.

    • Sarah Jackson permalink*
      May 12, 2011

      Please don’t, it’s interesting :-) I’d love to hear some of these live, sounds like there’s even more gender bendy fun to be had. I like the Sleepy Desert lyrics (I have got a bit of a soft spot for the murdery end of the folk spectrum) Can you recommend any songs for the Spotify playlist?

      • Aisling Kenny permalink
        May 12, 2011

        Ha, it is pretty disconcerting when Andy Irvine starts going ‘oh a blacksmith courted meee…’ and so on. (Not that I’m complaining, he’s like the Jimi Hendrix of the mandolin, if that was actually a thing.)

        There’s a murdery *end* or the spectrum? Man, I barely know any ballads *without* murder. XD

        Hm… there’s this cheery piece about a woman who tries kill her husband:'_It_Up_To_Nancy
        (…which I was sung to sleep with as a baby. Man, my dad is the classiest parent. XD)

        Barbara Allen, who ditches her admirer, who then dies of love-sickness (everyone seemed to be doing that, back then). In some versions she dies too, but other versions she doesn’t give a shite and/or dances on his grave for twelvemonth and a day.

        The (Bonny) Brown Girl is a lot more definite about her feelings. She gets dumped for being too brown (ie. tanned from field-work) and almost immediately goes and dances on his grave for twelvemonth and a day.

        …and if you like, I can rec some more tomorrow, but I’ve got to go to bed now. (why is it so time-consuming to find some of these videos?)

        • Sarah Jackson permalink*
          May 13, 2011

          Any more you can be bothered to share I’d be interested to hear about! This whole thing was really just a scheme for me to find more good music ;-)

          • Aisling Kenny permalink
            May 17, 2011

            Augh, sorry, I meant to get back again sooner, but real life happened. Like, ALL OVER THE PLACE. It was crazy.

            Anyway though, let the balladspamming resume.

            Lass of Rochroyall, which is a sort of genderflip ballad. Storywise, pretty unremarkable, but it’s the fair lass doing all the traditional derring knight jazz.

            Eppie Morrie, a Scots ballad about a girl who gets kidnapped, forcibly married and then manages to threaten her new husband/kidnapper into not raping her.

            Mary and the Soldier, in which Mary goes window-shopping for sexy militia. Not really feminist, but I <3 this song. Also, young Paul Brady is kind of adorable. :3

            Pavanne, which strictly speaking isn't trad folk, but folk revival, but what kind of folky mix would this be if Richard & Linda Thompson didn't feature somewhere?

            And FINALLY: The Two Sisters/The Cruel Sister/Wind and Rain. Man! This song has so many versions, I could spend forever listening to all the wonderful little variations. Because, y'know, I don't have a social life.

  4. Jenni permalink
    May 12, 2011

    Vaguely related to women and folk, (but not old folk, new folk) Escape Key’s Into the Fire is a lovely, haunting, eerie folk song/love story about two women ( and thier song Ladies Don’t Do Those Things is of obvious interest to BadRep fans…

    They also wrote a filk song about Firefly, Mal’s Song…

    • Sarah Jackson permalink*
      May 12, 2011

      A trip to the underworld to wrest a loved one’s soul from Satan’s grasp? Woo! :-)

  5. Jenny permalink
    May 13, 2011

    aw I like Nick Cave. Ah well, I’ll check this out though, thank you.

  6. May 18, 2011

    one of my favourite badass women in folk songs comes from Jim Kweskin’s Jug Band (Newport Folk Festival ’64 album). It’s called ‘My Girl’

    well arich girl will drive an automobile
    a poor gal will drive much the same
    but my girl, she’ll ride wild horses
    and y’know she’s getting by just the same

    and I’ll be there in the morning if I live
    I’ll be there if I don’t get killed
    and if I never see you again
    be sure to remember me

    well a rich girl will drink fine whiskey
    a poor gal will drink much the same
    but my girl, she eats peyote
    and you know she’s getting high just the same


    well a rich girl will give you a peck on the cheek
    a poor gal will do much the same
    but my girl she’ll run up to you and slobber all over your face
    you know she’s loving you just the same


    well a rich girl will slap you if you hurt her
    a poor gal will do much the same
    but my girl, she’ll get a rusty Wilkinson and run y’all over town
    you know she’s raising hell just the same

    Sort of fell in love with this the first time I heard it & regularly sing it at folk nights. It’s the final verse that makes it.

  7. Sarah Jackson permalink*
    May 18, 2011

    Thank you everyone (and especially Aisling Kenny – amazing!) for the recommendations, going to have fun listening to them all and I’ll add any I can find to the Spotify playlist.

  8. May 20, 2011

    Late to the party a bit, but I just wanted to mention House of the Rising Sun.

    The opening line ‘There is a house in New Orleans / They call the rising sun / And it’s been the ruin of many poor girl / And me I know I’m one’

    Is often sung as ‘poor boy’ by male vocalists, and it always makes me happy to the listen to the Bob Dylan version (on his first album, before he started writing his own music) when he sings girl. And letter asks his ‘baby sister / Not to do what I have done’. I also think it’s ridiculous for it to be a tale of a man, since it’s about a brothel.

  9. Sarah Jackson permalink*
    May 29, 2011

    Right, have finally updated the Spotify playlist with as many of these as I could find (and some suggestions that came through other channels) Feel free to add your own!

  10. Lee permalink
    February 13, 2012

    May Colvin (aka “False Sir John”) seems to be a variant on “The Cruel Youth”. I like the version by Sileas, but it’s not up on YouTube. The one I’ve linked, though, has both a verse that the Sileas version is missing and some truly nice illustration work.

    Can you use something other than Spotify for putting these things together? I will never be able to have a Spotify account because they now demand that you register via Facebook. Facebook is the Borg and I absolutely refuse to let it have access to any of my other accounts anywhere.

    • Miranda permalink*
      February 13, 2012

      Yeah, I think when we wrote this, Spotify was …less Borgy? I’m not sure. Sorry about that!

  11. February 17, 2012

    Late to the party, but:

    Before you write off Nick Cave, there’s Henry Lee: Young man tells his girlfriend that he loves someone else. She kills the guy and throws his body in a well.

    Lie there, lie there, little Henry Lee
    Till the flesh drops from your bones
    For the girl you have in that merry green land
    Can wait forever for you to come home

    Or, the rather obscure Jellon Grame: Wicked Jellon Grame gets a young lady pregnant, then, like many another ballad villain, kills her. In the course of this he performs a field-expedient caesarian on her. The child, a little girl, lives. Jellon Grame raises her. When she turns 18, she asks Dad, “How come I never hear from mom?” or words to that effect. He tells her that he killed mom. The young lady goes all action-adventure on him:

    With that the girl has bent her bow
    It was both stout and long
    And though and through this Jellon Grame
    She’s made an arrow go.

    Then there’s Little Duke Arthur’s Nurse. A young man tells his girlfriend that he’s dumping her. She isn’t too thrilled by this, but tells him to go down to the tavern for a drink, and she’ll come, give him some nookie, and settle his account. Imagine the look of surprise on his face when, rather than the young lady, her brothers turn up “with their naked swords all adrawn-o.” There’s lots of cross-dressing goodness after that.

    “If I have your heart but another has your hand
    The news has fair undone me;
    Come let’s make a time when we’ll meet again
    And then in love you can twine me.

    “O go ye down to yon public house
    Where the welcoming light is beckoning
    And sure as I’m a woman true
    I’ll come, love, and pay you your reckoning.”

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