Pentangle: Cruel Sister
Cruel Sister is the title track from my favorite album by Pentangle. Pentangle was a British folk super-group, if you will, consisting of Jacqui McShee, John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, Danny Cox, and Danny Thompson. I hope some of those names are familiar; if like this song and these names are all new to you, you will find further exploration very rewarding.
The song Cruel Sister is a variant of the Child Ballad Twa Sisters. In their arrangement, Pentangle used the melody of a different Child Ballad, Riddles Wisely Expounded, and they also borrowed the mysterious refrain, “Lay the bend to the bonny broom” from the latter song. In my researching of the song, I found that this borrowing really bothers some folk purists. But I find it to be an amazing linkage.
Twa Sisters tells the tale of two sisters, one dark and one fair, who are wooed by the same man. He must woo the dark sister because she is the oldest and stands to inherit from her noble parents, but it is the younger, fair sister he truly loves. The dark one gets her younger sister to walk with her by the sea, and drowns her. She then proceeds to marry the young man. Meanwhile, a pair of minstrels come upon the fair sister’s remains, and fashion a harp from her breastbone. they then play the new harp at the dark sister’s wedding. When the minstrels stop playing, the harp plays itself, and the fair sister’s voice sings the whole story. In some versions, but not in Pentangle’s, the harp is broken in half and the fair sister returns to life and at last claims her love.
Riddles Wisely Expounded, also tells of two sisters, fair and dark, who are rivals for the same man. In this song, the light sister wins the man by winning a riddling contest. The song has been interpreted as involving a deal with the Devil, or a spell against the Devil.
So what about “lay the bend to the bonny broom”? Broom is a plant which is variously regarded as protection against witches or as essential to a witches spells. Bend is a variant form of bent, which was once a term for the horn of an animal,(or perhaps, of the Devil?) The repetition of the phrase suggests an incantation or spell.
In British folklore, it often happens that a magical tale such as this has its origins in pre-Christian times. Alternate versions of Twa Sisters can be found in the Nordic countries and in Iceland. So the root tale was probably brought to the British Isles by the Norse. The motif of the dark sister and the light is often part of a seasonal myth, where the sisters represent the dark and light halves of the year.
So there may be much to Cruel Sister than one would expect. I would welcome anyone’s further thoughts on this in the comments.
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