Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Music of Sawney Bean

Although this isn't directly Halloween related, it is the kind of story that can make your skin crawl.  Back in the late 80s, I was occasionally mail-ordering music from an obscure independent label called Ralph Records.  One album I bought from them was a compilation of folk songs by various artists which I wrote about before.  My favorite song from that album was "The Ballad of Sawney Bean" by Snakefinger.  This was the first time I'd ever heard of the legendary cannibal Sawney Bean.

Since the days of the internet, I have been able to look up more information about him, and this Wikipedia entry on him seems to be fairly balanced and accurate. The legend is that Sawney was kind of a hell-raiser in either the 1400s or 1500s who met and married a woman who shared his predilictions.  They moved into a cave--this very cave, according to legend--on the west coast of Scotland at Bannane Head, and since neither wanted to work for a living, they made their way by killing and robbing--and eventually, eating--travelers.

They had sons and daughters, then grandsons and granddaughters, all of which were their incestous progeny, until at the time of their capture they numbered 48 in all, and they all had to eat, right?.  The number of missing persons grew and grew until they came up against someone who was able to defend himself and survived.  Then King James sent 400 men to find them.  The men of the clan were all executed by having their hands and feet removed and then hanged.  The women were all burned to death.

However, there is no actual historical record of hundreds of people disappearing from the area, nor is there any record of King James finding and executing the clan.  So it appears to all be mere legend.

But it's a legend that has inspired many songs.  Here are a collection of several that can be listened to via YouTube.  The first one is one of my favorites, by a group (or musician?) called Raymy.  I haven't been able to to find much of anything about them on the internet.  Since they don't have anything to sell on Amazon or anywhere else that I can find, I ripped this mp3 from the video a few years ago, and yesterday it turned up on my phone as I was working.  I was able to find a lyric sheet for it, and it wasn't hard to figure out the simple chords, so last night I was strumming my ukulele and singing it happily.  This is a more "poetic" version that doesn't detail the full legend, but I like it a lot.

The next one is by Sol Invictus, a neofolk or "folk noir" band from England.  You can find videos of them performing this song live, but I picked this one because the audio is better.  I'll give you this link to take a look at because it has one guy playing a hurdy-gurdy, which is pretty cool.

And here's a very different version by Canadian punk band The Real McKenzies, from their 2002 album Pissed Tae Th' Gills.

Scottish folk band Longshot Nelson and The Disjoints from their 2013 album Teeth Marks in Your Brain.

The Vegetables.  Another band that I can't find much about.  This was recorded in 1971, as far as I know.

And finally, the song that started it all (for me), by Snakefinger, 1987.

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