Problematic Pregnancies

Aug 18, 2020

The end of life brings difficulties to navigate as we saw in the last post but so does the beginning, especially for women. Pregnancy, childbirth and raising children is life-changing for anyone, but depending upon the society you are a part of and the health of yourself and the child, having children can be hugely problematic, fatal even. I am blessed with two wonderful children, thankfully conceived and raised in happy circumstances, but I can identify with the deep feelings of fear and uncertainty being in this position could engender. Thankfully for me it is only imagined, yet I know for many, even today, these issues are prevalent and powerful.


Many tales of unplanned pregnancy suggest that it is the mother’s sole problem, having been abandoned by her lover. This attitude manifests itself in society as a whole, marginalising unmarried mothers irrespective of the circumstances of their pregnancy. Illegitimacy was considered scandalous, not least by the authorities and church, with perhaps the unsurprising outcome of numerous cases of babies needing to disappear.

Abortive herbs are described in 'Tam Lin', as sung here by Frankie Armstrong ‘I think I know a herb in the merry green wood, That'll twine your babe from thee, Lady’, though it is notoriously difficult to end a pregnancy without medical proceedure Taking the matter into their own hands, in the ‘Sheath and Knife’ family of songs often known as ‘My Son David’, ‘Edward’, or as I conversely named it ‘Henry’ on Orfeo, an incestuous brother kills both mother and unborn child in an unsuccessful attempt to hide the pregnancy and in ‘Lady Maisry’, the mother’s family kill her and her unborn child - sung here by the eponymous Lady Maisery. However, a heartbreaking turn of events perpetrator of this desperate crime in many songs is the mother. In an effort to conceal the baby, she gives birth alone and ends the babies’, for they are often multiple, lives soon after. This story comes up time and again in ‘The Cruel Mother’, or as it is otherwise known Greenwood side or The Lady of York, recorded over again by contemporary singers, including this wonderful version by including this wonderful version by Bryony Griffith, as well as resting in the archives.

The women in these songs are usually portrayed as evil, destined to suffer an eternity in Hell. Such songs may have been intended to be a cautionary tale acting as a deterrent to young women to find themselves in such a position. By aiming such moral crusades at the mother, society effectively ignored the role of the seducer, including those who abused their rank or position of power. Thankfully, other songs show more sympathy for the mother. The White Fisher is a rare example of the husband of a woman seduced by another man before their marriage refusing to kill the resulting child, instead passing the boy off to his mother as the fruit of an affair of his own. Here is Professor Ian Russell talking about it, and giving us a blast of it.


Drawing by Käthe Kollwitz.


This is a dark subject, but sadly not one consigned to the archives. As recently as the 20th Century, forced separation of unmarried mothers from their children was not only condoned, but institutionalised. From 1947 until as late as 1967 some 4000 child migrant ‘orphans’ (including illegitimate children removed from mothers) were sent from the UK to a supposedly new and better life in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). And it would be naiive to think that infanticide due to societal pressure was a scourge of a bygone era. There were around forty recorded incidents per year in England and Wales between 1995 and 2002 and other societies still witness children being killed in large number becuase they are the “wrong” sex.


I find this area of traditional song difficult to enjoy but it does open up a lot of important questions and the older I get the more vital they seem to engage with. Where do you go once society has turned its back? What would move you to commit such hideous acts? Where is the right and wrong here, morality is clearly in question, but who is the wrongdoer? It is perhaps not so far to understand how women may feel that if humanity has turned its back, the ghost or animal kingdom could better take care of human souls in distress.

‘The Cruel Mother’ is a song that makes me feel physically ill, so it’s an odd choice to deliberately include on my album. It found a place because I decided to explore it until I understood it and could find a way in to at least appreciate it. Through the process, I arrived at the point where I actually like it. I began by searching a lot of versions for the common elements and finding the parts that were flexible to tease out the specific aspects which upset me, and explore why. The two moments I felt most discomforted were the act of murdering the babies, and the hatred the ghostly babies seem to harbour toward their mother. Traditional songs are often impartial in their telling, just describing actions rather than giving backstory or moral codes, so I had a lot of characterisation to do to come to my own understanding of what had driven the mother to commit such an act. This typical lack of emotion makes the clear bitterness felt by the ghostly babies stand out, making me feel this is an emotion put on the song by someone (or a society) wanting to instill a message, to create guilt, rather than a tale for the listener to explore themselves.

Without changing the story, I made subtle changes to the emotions conveyed to make the song meaningful, and valuable to me. The way the mother handled the babies around their murder suggest deep care - where she buried them, how she spoke to them. In my mind, she was forced into this situation by the conditions of wider society and was deeply disturbed by her own actions. I made it more about her torment, showing that she could punish herself more harshly than any external judgement. It did not seem helpful for the babies to pile on the torture, I wanted them to pity their mother’s situation, to try to comfort her, absolve her guilt and recognise her love. I’m welling up writing this - it is such a powerful story, which perhaps doesn’t all come out in the lyrics, or a dry discussion of it, but it is a personal journey of understanding that I needed to undergo in order for the song to make sense to me. The deliberate subtleties of phrasing and alterations hint towards this altered viewpoint on the events and I am conscious of them while I sing.

Although this is clearly based on the traditional story, it is not an archival version, but neither is it composed, rather it is edited and adapted, updated for my own retelling. Similarly, the tune grows out of a phrase from something that I can’t quite put my finger on, and feels classically timeless. When I wrote it, I felt it was overly repetitive and a bit too generic, but it became one of Sam’s favourite melodies to play in rehearsals, so perhaps there is some beauty in its simplicity.


Art by @St.Borg

I wrote ‘Jenny Wren’ as I was driving from Wales to a gig in Bath, in an attempt to write a fake folk song. It is a response to the classic love-them-and-leave-them theme, perhaps the precursor to The Cruel Mother. I wrote a lot of lines which told the story, but many of the words and phrases felt too modern and anachronistic for the song I was attempting. Just writing was useful to get the structure, to get the thing I was trying to say out, then it was a process of swapping words and phrases out and trying something else more poetic. The lyrics slowly fell into place, either becoming familiar and less jarring, or reworded to fit. It is a nice feeling when you know that something works. It might not bother anyone else, but the singer knows when a line is wrong, you can feel it. In contrast to the story above where I really wanted to tie down what I was saying, I like the ambiguity of the ending to this song. I have two perfectly valid scenarios in my head and I don’t know which it is. I am not sure if both mother and child die and turn into bird spirits or if they flee their ostracising society and live out their days free and content in the woodlands. I like that listeners get to make their own minds up.

Although this theme isn’t perhaps so clearly linked to the idea of the other, as hare transformations, fairies and ghosts, I see the ‘other side’ as the inner voice, or indeed the outer society. The persona and their actions are trapped in a space between the expectations and norms of an external culture and their inner thoughts, wishes and desires. Judgement comes equally from both sides and the individual is trapped in a no-mans-land of decision making, trying to navigate the best for them, and for their babies. A truly heartbreaking situation. That songs might be used as a tool by society to manipulate the inner thoughts of women in such precarious situations makes me angry. The songs I resent here on Wrackline are an attempt to return to using art for expressing the inner voice of the vulnerable.

See below for a teaser of all the songs on Wrackline, including Jenny Wren and The Cruel Mother, and you can preorder the album here.

With thanks to John Nicholson for helping to piece together this research.

Header image by Polly Boden