"Geordie" is Child ballad 209 (Roud 90), existing in many variants. Versions of the ballad have been sung by traditional folksingers in Scotland, Italy, England, Ireland, Canada and the United States, and performed and recorded by numerous artists and groups. The ballad concerns the trial of the eponymous hero, during which his wife pleads for his life.
There are two distinct and for the most part separate variants of this song, one deriving from 17th century English broadsides and sung by traditional singers in England, Ireland and North America, the other printed in one 18th and some 19th century ballad collections and collected from Scottish singers and some North American singers.
Steve Roud and Julia Bishop (New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs) comment that in Scottish versions Geordie tends to be released, while in English ones his lady "has "come too late" and he is executed.
A man is killed in battle and Geordie is to be executed. When his lady hears of this she calls for horses to ride with her household to the court in Edinburgh, sometimes by way of Queensferry, where sometimes she has her horse swim the Firth of Forth. Sometimes she distributes gold to poor people as she goes. Arriving in the town, she sees her husband being brought to the headsman's block. She begs the king for Geordie's life, offering estates and her children in return, but the king orders the hangman to make haste. Sometimes there is discussion about Geordie's fate between lords. Sometimes men of the Gordon clan show readiness to fight. An old man suggests the king accept money for Geordie's release, and a large and sufficient sum is gathered from the crowd. He is released and the couple say complimentary things.
A narrator coming (usually) over London Bridge (but sometimes elsewhere) hears a young woman lamenting for Geordie. She says he will be hung in style because he was of royal blood and loved a good woman. She calls for horses to ride to London (or somewhere else). She pleads that Geordie's crimes weren't serious, in that he only stole some of the king's deer and sold them (in Bohenny, Davy, Kilkenny and so on), and says she would give up a variable number of children to save his life. In some versions there is discussion between lawyers. The judge sometimes says that she's too late and always that he cannot pardon Geordie. Sometimes Geordie has time to say goodbye to his friends and his wife. Sometimes one or the other wishes he or she were on "yonder Hill" with weapons to "Fight for the life of Geordie". Often we hear again that his execution will be luxurious.
Child records 14 versions of "Geordie"; the first begins:
There was a battle in the north,
And nobles there was many,
And they hae killd Sir Charlie Hay,
And they laid the wyte on Geordie.
O he has written a land letter,
He sent it to his lady:
"Ye maun cum up to Enbrugh town,
To see what word's o Geordie."
When first she lood the letter on,
She was baith red and rosy;
But she had na read a wrod buy twa
Till she wallowt like a lily.— Child #209 "Geordie" A, stanzas 1-3
A version recorded by Robert Burns describes Geordie's situation, and his wife's pleading, thus:
And first appear'd the fatal block,
And syne the aix to head him;
And Geordie cumin down the stair,
And bands o' airn upon him.
But tho' he was chain'd in fetters strang,
O' airn and steel sae heavy,
There was na ane in a' the court,
Sae bra' a man as Geordie.
O she's down on her bended knee,
I wat she's pale and weary,
O pardon, pardon, noble king,
And gie me back my Dearie!
I hae born seven sons to my Geordie dear,
The seventh ne'er saw his daddie:
O pardon, pardon, noble king,
Pity a waefu' lady!— stanzas 6-9
Early printed versions
The earliest known publication of a variant of this song is a London black-letter broadside "The Life and Death of George of Oxford" dating from between 1672 and 1696, though an earlier broadside from between 1601 and 1640, 'A lamentable new ditty, made vpon the death of a worthy gentleman, named George Stoole : dwelling sometime on Gate-side Moore, and sometime at Newcastle in Northumberland: with his penitent end. To a delicate Scottish tune' has "a rhythm and rhyming scheme that connects it to "Geordie", and includes some key verbal similarities, such as the lines
I never stole no oxe nor cow
Nor never murdered any"
The English variant was published by many broadside publishers in the nineteenth century CE.
One of, if not the, earliest recordings is a 1907 performance by Joseph Taylor, collected on wax cylinder by the musicologist Percy Grainger in 1907. It was digitised by the British Library and made available online in 2018.
A version recorded by Keith Summers of the Nottinghamshire singer Alec Bloomfield singing "Young George Oxbury" in the British Library Sound Archive.' There are three verses by an unidentified male singer there too.
A version in the Carroll Mackenzie Collection, Clare County Library recorded from Mrs Casey contains this verse:
My Georgie never killed a man,
No, nor neither robbed a lady.
He stole a pair of the King’s pretty maids,
And he gave them to Lord Taily.
There are three versions, all called "Georgie" , in the Max Hunter Folk Song Collection at Missouri State University: from Rhonnda Hayes of Irving, Texas; Joan O'Bryant of Wichita, Kansas; and Charles Strayer Jr. of Sarcoxie, Missouri, in all these versions, either "the oldest lawyer at the bar" or "Georgie's own lawyer" says that he is condemned by his own confession, an interesting local variant.
The Roud Folk Song Index lists about 129 distinct versions - 40 from England, 27 from Scotland, 2 from Ireland, 52 from the United States and 8 from Canada.
One of the earliest recorded versions is by Joan Baez, who included a live performance of the song on her first live album in 1962. The Baez version makes it clear that Geordie's crime was poaching the King's deer, for which the penalty was hanging with a silken rope. It has also been recorded by Ewan MacColl, John Jacob Niles, Doc Watson, Sandy Denny, A. L. Lloyd, Julie Felix, and the British folk rock band Trees, Silly Sisters and Shirley Collins. More recently, Emilie Autumn performed it live.
The ballad became very popular in Italy thanks to Fabrizio de André who translated the ballad into Italian, and this version was later reinterpreted by the folk band Mercanti di Liquore, Angelo Branduardi and the DJ Gabry Ponte.
Danish band Gasolin recorded an adaptation in 1971 heavily inspired by Baez' rendition. "London Bridge" was translated into "Langebro" - the title of the track. The setting shifts from London to 20th century Copenhagen, though the overall sombre mood of the song remains intact.
It was also performed by the Russian folk band Sherwood.
In 2015 Galley Beggar recorded a version of Geordie for their album Silence & Tears, with the traditional lyrics being set to original music.
In terms of geography, there are four versions. The Scottish variants mention Geordie being rescued from the scaffold in Edinburgh. This may refer to George Gordon, 4th Earl of Huntly. One English version mentions Newcastle. This may refer to George Stools, executed in 1610. There are some versions that mention the town "Boheny", but this has never been satisfactorily located. There is a hamlet called Bohenie near Roybridge. Another English version has the execution taking place in London, and the culprit is the Earl of Oxford. The story of the Earl of Oxford was printed in the 17th-century. The last version is the Danish version taking place in Copenhagen, performed by Gasolin. The Danish title is Langebro.
The relationship between the two main variants of this ballad are uncertain.
"The propriety of the inclusion of Georgie in this recorded series of Child ballads is largely dependent upon the acceptance or rejection of various claims of prior existence of several different ballad strains. The ballads in question are a traditional Scottish ballad, the earliest known version dating from the end of the 18th century, and two English broadsides, both of which date from the 17th century. Child (and most later scholars) believed that the Scottish ballad must have existed prior to the broadsides and that the broadside scriveners borrowed from the Scottish ballad. As evidence, Child indicated that the broadsides are merely "goodnights", while the Scottish texts are full narratives, with a beginning, middle and end. Ebsworth, however, was of the opinion that the broadsides were the earlier form, and that the Scottish ballad was an adaption from these.
Most texts collected since Child (including the version sung here by A.L. Lloyd) are obviously derived from 19th century broadside printings of the early English broadsides in question. Indeed, aside from some few texts from Scotland, all of the many recently reported texts are at least partly derived from the English broadsides."
A L Lloyd commented:
"As with many of our best ballads, this one is familiar both in England and in Scotland. In the latter, the main character usually appears as a nobleman sometimes identified as George Gordon, a sixteenth century Earl of Huntly, whereas in England he is usually a common outlaw thought by some to be George Stoole, a Northumbrian robber executed in 1610. In fact, there are not good grounds for presuming that this is a historical ballad at all; it may well be simply a romantic fiction that was already delighting singers and audiences well before the day of the robber Stoole or the dissident Earl of Huntly. Perhaps the story really belongs to the period when the Middle Ages were drawing to a close and the greenwoods were full of outlaws, some high-born, but mostly otherwise, all of them on the run from oppressive feudal authority."
- "The Laird O Logie'" features another woman pleading for her lover's life.
- "The Maid Freed from the Gallows" depicts the condemned pleading for a stay of execution while the ransom may yet arrive.
- Child, F J (ed); The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Vol 4, 1890
- Roud Folk Song Index, Vaughan Williams Memorial Library: https://www.vwml.org/search/search-roud-indexes Retrieved 2017/03/04
- Roud, S, and Bishop, J; The New Penguin Book of English Folk Songs; London, 2012 pp 499-500
- British Library Sound Archive, Shelf mark 1CDR0007368 http://sounds.bl.uk/World-and-traditional-music/Keith-Summers-Collection/025M-C1002X0024XX-0300V0 Retrieved 2017/03/02
- Child, Francis James; Kittredge, George Lyman (1882). The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. 7. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin. p. 127.
- "BBC - Robert Burns - Geordie - An old Ballad". BBC. Retrieved 22 December 2019.
- Early Books Online Text Creation Partnership, http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/B04027.0001.001/1:1?rgn=div1;view=fulltex Retrieved 2017/03/04
- University of California, Santa Barbara, English Broadside Ballad Archive: http://ebba.english.ucsb.edu/ballad/30131/image Retrieved 2017/03/04
- Johnson, James. "Scots musical museum, Volume 4". National Library of Scotland. Retrieved 2018-02-18.
- "Percy Grainger's collection of ethnographic wax cylinders". British Library. 20 February 2018. Retrieved 22 February 2018.
- "Percy Grainger ethnographic wax cylinders - World and traditional music". British Library. Retrieved 22 February 2018.
- Ritchie, Jean. "Geordie". research.culturalequity.org. Retrieved 2018-02-18.
- British Library Sound Archive 2CDR0004976 http://sounds.bl.uk/World-and-traditional-music/Reg-Hall-Archive/025M-C0903X0196XX-0400V0#_ Retrieved 2017/03/02
- Clare County Library Carroll Mackenzie Collection Georgie http://www.clarelibrary.ie/eolas/coclare/songs/cmc/georgie_mrscasey.htm Retrieved 2017/03/02
- Max Hunter Folk Song Collection Cat. #1023 (MFH #238)http://maxhunter.missouristate.edu/songinformation.aspx?ID=1023 Retrieved 2017/03/02
- Max Hunter Folk Song Collection Cat. #1389 (MFH #238) http://maxhunter.missouristate.edu/songinformation.aspx?ID=1389 Retrieved 2017/03/02
- Max Hunter Folk Song Collection Cat. #1581 (MFH #238) http://maxhunter.missouristate.edu/songinformation.aspx?ID=1581 Retrieved 2017/03/02
- David Browne (15 November 2011). Dream Brother: The Lives and Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley. HarperCollins. p. 30. ISBN 978-0-06-211195-1.
- Broadside. Broadside Publications. 1967.
- Kenneth F. Goldstein, notes to The English and Scottish Popular Ballads The Child Ballads) Volume II Riverside RLP 12-623/624 1956
- Vaughan Williams, R, and Lloyd, A L; The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, Harmondsworth; 1959
- Geordie performed by Oak Ash & Thorn
- George Stoole broadside: http://ebba.english.ucsb.edu/ballad/30131/image
- George of Oxford broadside: http://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/B04027.0001.001/1:1?rgn=div1;view=fulltext