The Three Ravens

Classical music devotees love to drop the names of their composers who wrote beautiful masterpieces that have endured for centuries. In most people’s minds, that longevity makes the classical genre unique. Certainly most forms of music, such as country, rock, jazz, blues, etc. are relatively modern in historic perspective. However, there is another genre that rivals (and maybe even predates) classical music in its foundation on the timeline of history. That is the form we call folk music, and the song I talk about here is a prime example.

One advantage that I have in playing folk music is that almost my entire repertoire is in the public domain, meaning I can perform and record these songs without concern for copyrights and paying royalties. Many of these songs are so old that nobody knows who originally wrote them, and sometimes we don’t even agree on exactly where they originated. 

The Three Ravens is a dark English ballad that dates back to around the year 1600. Its earliest publication was in a 1611 book by Thomas Ravenscroft called Melismata, Musicall Phansies Fitting the Court, Cittie, and Countrey Humours. It appeared again in Francis James Child’s 1904 collection English and Scottish Popular Ballads as “The Twa Corbies” (corbies being an ancient name for ravens). I found the version I have recorded in M. Richard Tully’s 2007 A Modest Collection of Traditional Songs of the Colonial Period. Tully explains that most of the songs in his collection made their way from the British isles to America in the mid-1700s. There’s no reason to believe American colonists weren’t singing some version of this song prior to the American Revolution! 

The uncertain origin of most folk songs also suggests that, unlike classical music, there was no single “standard” written version. Songs were disseminated by wandering minstrels more than on published sheets over centuries, which led to countless variations.

For The Three Ravens, the publications cited here (and others) carry a common theme, but differ in melody and lyrics. The advent of audio recordings has led to popular versions that most people now will recognize. I first learned of this song from Peter, Paul, and Mary’s 1964 In Concert album. That version omitted key verses, undoubtedly to keep the time down to conform with the de facto pop music “standard” of three minutes. I chose to include all of the verses from Tully’s book to make the story easier to follow. Other interpretations I’ve seen on YouTube seem to also include some variation of those verses.

The song opens with three ravens, sitting on a tree, wondering what they would do for their next meal. Ravens are scavengers and are known to appear after bloody battles. These ravens see a knight, slain under his shield, in the field below. But they are discouraged by the knight’s hawks and hounds protecting his body. Then a “fallow doe, as heavy with young as she might go” (an obvious metaphor for the knight’s pregnant lover) arrives to carry him off and bury him. The final verse refers to her as his “leman”, derived from an old English term for sweetheart or lover. While PP&M changed “leman” to “lovely one”, I chose to use the older, more authentic and applicable term from a historic perspective.

Listen to a 1 minute preview of this track here: