This is my second entry in The Quarantine Sessions – a social distancing musical collaboration between the talented Mark Caserta and me. Together, we performed the classic folk song “Love Henry.” Below, you will find the music video for our song and my own discussion about the fascinating history of Love Henry. You may see other Quarantine Sessions entries by following this link.
Background of Love Henry
Francis James Child originally catalogued the song now known as “Love Henry” as Child Ballad #68, “Young Hunting,” in volume II of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. The song, which originated in in Scotland, dates back to as early as the eighteenth century. Over the centuries, it has gone by many alternative names as well, including “Henry Lee,” “Earl Richard,” and “The Proud Girl.”
Despite its age, Love Henry has survived into modern day popular culture. It has been covered by such artists as Bob Dylan (World Gone Wrong, Released 1993) and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (King Kong Kitchee Kitchee Ki-Mi-O, 1996). Love Henry involves subject matter and themes that are captivating, identifiable, and universal. It is cinematic in its delivery, and wonderfully composed story.
Francis James Child’s Versions of Love Hunting
You can view all the original text as transcribed by Francis James Child here. Child collected many versions of Young Hunting, but they all share a similar plot. First, the protagonist’s lover tells her that she is second in his heart to another woman. The protagonist convinces him to stay with her through the night, sometimes through the use of alcohol (and, perhaps implied, seduction). She then proceeds to murder her lover, usually with a small knife.
The protagonist’s manner of disposing the body varies in the original texts, but the protagonist throws her lover’s body into a body of water in most versions. Interestingly, in version E, she keeps the body “three quarters of a year” before calling upon her waiting-maid for help throwing the body into a body of water.
The versions differ with regard to the fate of the protagonist. In version J, the murder is discovered and the protagonist is executed by being burned alive. Most versions, however, end differently, and I think those versions are better for it. It is no coincidence that the versions that were more readily passed down do not end with the protagonist being discovered and punished.
The protagonist has a pet bird in most of Child’s versions of Young Hunting. In many of the versions, she beckons the bird to fly down to her after the murder, motivated by the fear that the bird will inform others of her crimes. The bird generally refuses, stating that if the protagonist is capable of murdering her lover, she would be more than capable of killing a small bird.
My Interpretation of Young Hunting/Love Henry
I think that it is entirely possible that early performers and audiences understood the bird’s speaking literally. In that case, alternative readings of the song would be contrary to how the song was understood in Child’s time and earlier. With that being granted, I think that the song, in its various configurations, has endured in part because it can be understood as having a moral and a deeper meaning.
I interpret the narrative of the song after the murder as follows. First, the protagonist, consumed by guilt over murdering her lover, becomes paranoid and delusional. In this state, she comes to believe that the only witness to her crime, her pet bird, may reveal the deed to others. Having fallen into the abyss of madness, she believes that her bird talks to her, condemning her for what she had done and her desire to conceal the act.
In my view, concluding the song with the protagonist’s losing her mind is more powerful and satisfying than her suffering an external punishment. One can easily empathize with the protagonist’s emotions prior to the murder – for she had been carelessly and cruelly disposed of by the love of her life. This, of course, does not justify murder, but it does highlight that she responded to being wronged with a worse wrong. In her despair, the protagonist did something evil that could not be taken back. Since her despair was personal, just as her subsequent actions, it is fitting that her punishment – becoming mad – is personal as well.
Justice’s Henry Lee
When Harry Smith released the Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952, which consisted of six albums containing a compilation of eighty-four folk songs, all recorded between 1926 and 1933, he chose to open with Dick Justice’s version of “Henry Lee.” Justice was a white folk musician from West Virginia. He, unlike most of his contemporaries, assimilated musical styles from African American blues musicians. These influences are clear in Justice’s recording of this olden English ballad.
The themes explored in Love Henry and all of its versions are timeless. From older works such as Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Edgar Allen Poe’s The Tell Tale Heart, to contemporary works such as James Dearden’s Fatal Attraction and the infamous Japanese anime School Days, artists have always and will continue to explore personal madness deriving from murders and scorned lovers.