Friday, January 22, 2010

There’s Something About Mary: Mary Hamilton

Joan Baez: Mary Hamilton


Mary Hamilton is one of those folk songs from the British Isles that I enjoy so much. This one comes from Scotland. In the song, Mary Hamilton was a lady-in waiting to a queen, until she had an affair with a high-ranking courtier, (the king in some versions), and had a child by him. She decides to get rid of the child, and is then executed for infanticide.

There are two historical incidents which the tale echoes. One occurred in the court of Mary, Queen of Scots, the other in the Russian court of Peter the Great. In each case, there were four woman named Mary who waited on the queen. Mary also appears to be a title that was given to royal ladies in waiting. In any case, neither of the historical incidents precisely matches the details of the song, so they may have become combined via the folk process. The song is also known as The Four Marys.

Joan Baez does something with Mary Hamilton that I have not seen in other versions. Baez sings the following verse:

“I put him in a tiny boat
And cast him out to sea
That he might sink or he might swim
But he'd never come back to me”

Typically, Mary Hamilton casts the baby into the sea with no boat. I don’t know Baez’s source for this verse, but it raises the unlikely possibility that the child might have survived. In this, it recalls the story of Moses in the bible, as well as the tale of Taliesen in Celtic mythology.

This version of Mary Hamilton is special to me, because it comes from the first folk album I ever owned. I had a vinyl copy with the original cover, shown above. I’m glad the album has been remastered and reissued for others to enjoy, but why did the new cover have to be so ugly? Follow the purchase link, and you’ll see what I mean.

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