I have four children, two daughters and two sons. Naturally, I worry about their moral upbringing. As everyone knows who’s paying attention, “Just say no” doesn’t work. Instead, I made sure they were constantly exposed to the traditional folksongs and legends of Great Britain. Nothing’s more certain to give you a strong sense of the negative consequences of immoral or imprudent behavior.
Things I’ve learned from British folk ballads
Don’t ignore warnings. If someone tells you to beware of Long Lankin, friggin’ beware of him. If someone tells you not to go by Carterhaugh, stay away. Same goes for your mother asking you not to go out hunting on a particular day. Portents about weather, particularly when delivered by an old sailor who is not currently chatting up a country maid, are always worth heeding.
If someone says that he’s planning to kill you, believe him.
If someone says he’s going to die, believe him.
Avoid navigable waterways. Don’t let yourself be talked into going down by the wild rippling water, the wan water, the salt sea shore, the strand, the lowlands low, the Burning Thames, and any area where the grass grows green on the banks of the great North Sea. Cliffs overlooking navigable waterways aren’t safe either.
Broom, as in the plant, should be given a wide berth.
Stay away from the greenwood side, too.
Avoid situations where the obvious rhyme-word is “maidenhead.”
If you look at the calendar and discover it’s May, stay home.
The flowing bowl is best quaffed at home. Don’t drink with strangers. Don’t drink alone. Don’t toss the cups or pass the jar about in bars where you haven’t arranged to keep a tab. Drinks of unusual or uncertain provenance should be viewed askance, especially if you’re offered them by charming members of the opposite sex. Finally, never get drunk and pass out in a bar called “Cape Horn.”
Members of press gangs seldom tell the truth. Recruiting sergeants will fib to you shamelessly. They are not your friends, even if they’re buying the drinks. Especially when they’re buying the drinks.
If you’re drinking toasts, mention your One True Love early and often.
If you’re a young lady, dressing yourself in men’s array and joining the army or the navy has all sorts of comic possibilities, but you yourself aren’t going to find it too darned humorous at the time.
If you are an unmarried lady and have sex, you will get pregnant. No good will come of it.
If you are physically unable to get pregnant due to being male, the girl you had sex with will get pregnant. No good will come of it. You’ll either kill her, or she’ll kill herself, or her husband/brother/father/uncle/cousin will kill you both. In any case her Doleful Ghost will make sure everyone finds out. You will either get hanged, kill yourself, or be carried off bodily by Satan. Your last words will begin “Come all ye.”
Going to sea to avoid marrying your sweetie is an option, but if she hangs herself after your departure (and it’s even money that she’s going to) her Doleful Ghost will arrive on board your ship and the last three stanzas of your life will purely suck.
If you are a young gentleman who had sex it is possible the girl won’t get pregnant. In those rare instances you will either get Saint Cynthia’s Fire or the Great Pox instead. No good will have come of it.
New York Girls, like Liverpool Judies, like the ladies of Limehouse, Yarmouth, Portsmouth, Gosport, and/or Baltimore, know how to show sailors a good time, if by “good time” you mean losing all your money, your clothes, and your dignity. Note: All of these places are near navigable waterways. In practical terms this means that if you’re a sailor you’re screwed (and so are any young ladies you happen to meet). See also: Great Pox; Doleful Ghost.
If you are a young lady do not allow young men into your garden. Or let them steal your thyme. Or agree to handle their ramrods while they’re hunting the bonny brown hare. Cuckoo’s nests are right out. And never stand sae the back o’ yer dress is up agin the wa’ (for if ye do ye may safely say yer thing-a-ma-jig’s awa’).
Never let a stranger teach you a new game. No good will come of it.
Sharing a boyfriend with your sister is a bad plan.
Having more than one True Love at a time is a non-starter.
If you’re a brunette, give up.
Not that being a blonde will improve the odds much.
If your name is Janet, change it.
If you are a young lady and an amorous soldier, sailor, ploughboy, blacksmith, cavalry officer, or other young man fails to stop the first time you tell him he’s being too bold, knock off the maidenly protests and take more direct measures. If saying “no” the first time didn’t stop him, you’ve no reason to believe that twice will work any better.
Professions to be particularly wary of: clerks, salty sailors, serving maids, blacksmiths, highwaymen, gamblers, rank robbers, stonemasons, soldiers, tinkers, and millers. Anyone described as “jolly,” “bold,” or “saucy.” Supernatural creatures are best avoided. If they can’t be avoided, they should be addressed respectfully. If a supernatural creature sets you a task you’re well and truly screwed.
If you are a young lady and a soldier promises to “marry you in the morn,” it means he’s already married. And has kids. And he’s not going to marry you anyway. Even if you’re pregnant. Which you will be.
If you’re a young unmarried lady with child, and your pregnancy embarrasses or inconveniences someone else, consider yourself a sitting duck. Don’t meet with your young gentleman alone, or at odd hours, or in isolated locations, even if he says he’s taking you to be married. Next thing you know your Doleful Ghost will be telling your mother all about it. While he may say “Come all ye….” in the last stanza or two this will be small comfort.
Young ladies who feel uneasy should always act on their feelings. If in your good opinion you fear some young man (however handsome, rich, and well-spoken) is some rake, depend upon it: He’s a rake. Rakes will protest that you have them all wrong. They’ll be fibbing. Never go anywhere with a rake, particularly to isolated spots. See above: Doleful Ghost.
If you are a young lady and someone arrives to tell you that your boyfriend was slain on a foreign battlefield, take it with a grain of salt. Especially if you’re carrying a broken token.
If a former significant other turns up unexpectedly after a long absence, don’t throw yourself into his/her arms right away.
That goes double if they refuse to eat anything.
Triple if they turn up at night and want you to leave with them immediately.
Have nothing to do with former boyfriends who turn up and say it’s no big deal that you’re now married to someone else and have a child. If their intentions are legit, that’s got to be a problem. If it’s not a problem, their intentions are not legit.
You are justified in cherishing the direst suspicions of a suddenly and unexpectedly returned significant other who mentions a long journey, a far shore, or a narrow bed, or who’s oddly skittish about the imminent arrival of cockcrow.
If you are a young lady and you meet a young man who says his name is “Ramble Away,” don’t be surprised if, by the time you know you’re pregnant, it turns out he’s moved and left no forwarding address.
A fellow who’s a massively accomplished flirt hasn’t been spending his time sitting around waiting for his One True Love to come along. Furthermore, odds are poor that you’ll turn out to be his One True Love who will reform him.
If you arrange an assignation with your new sweetie, a little foot page will be listening in and will carry the news to exactly the last person you’d want to hear the story.
If your girlfriend insists that you go back to sleep after some odd sound woke you, it’s time to dive out the window and run for the hills right then.
If you’re hiding in the hills, don’t inform anyone exactly where you’re sleeping, particularly not an attractive member of the opposite sex.
If your girlfriend serves eels in eel broo, make sure you see her eat some first.
Informing your current significant other that you’re about to be wed to someone else is … risky. Even if you’re doing it as a joke, or to test their love. Especially if you’re doing it as a joke or to test their love. Testing someone’s love in general isn’t too bright.
Not even sending a talking goshawk to tell your significant other that the engagement is off will help you. You’re going to find yourself at the bottom of a well full fifty fathoms deep. A Doleful Ghost may get involved.
If, after you inform your current significant other that you’re to be wed to someone else, he or she suggests that the two of you meet in some lonely spot for one last fling, do not go.
Inviting your old flame to your wedding is a bad idea.
If your old flame invites you to his/her wedding, leave town.
If your old flame shows up uninvited at your wedding, start eyeing the exits. There’s a chance he/she is a Doleful Ghost. Be that as it may, no good will come of it.
If you’re out hunting, make sure of your sight picture before you pull the trigger/loose your bow. Especially so if you’re near a navigable waterway or the greenwoodside.
Do not allow the words “I wish” to pass your lips.
Avoid oaths, particularly when you’re near navigable waterways or the greenwoodside.
If the jailer indicates his willingness to take your gay gold ring to carry a message to your sweetheart, see if he’ll take that same gay gold ring to leave the door open and look the other way for five minutes while you or the sweetheart (as appropriate) escape.
Always use the buddy system. “Bare is brotherless back,” as Grettir the Strong put it; and if Grettir was worried about going places alone, you’d better worry too. So bring a friend with you. Friends keep bad things from happening. If things go badly anyway, you’ll need their help. And if things go well (hey, it could happen), it’ll be nice to have a friend along to share the laughs.
Moving to America for a minute:
Do not, for any reason, mess with a man’s Stetson hat or a man who is wearing a Stetson.
You are a beautiful young lady named Janet. On the first of May you meet a man in a patch of broom down by the greenwoodside. He invites you to his home on the far side of the sea, and earnestly entreats you to keep his invitation secret from your parents. The ship is leaving right away, this very night!
What should you do?
A) Woo hoo, sounds like fun! You’ll go, have a great time, and return home happy, healthy, and with some great gossip for your chums.
B) You blow loudly on a police whistle and run home as if jet-propelled. You tell mom and dad what just went down, put on a Stetson, and load your forty-four caliber revolver with silver bullets.
C) You decide that it would save everyone concerned a great deal of trouble if you skipped ahead a bit and hanged yourself right now. Your Doleful Ghost informs mom of the situation.
D) Rather than go with him you disguise yourself as a man and join the Army. Next time you’re marching through the Lowlands Low you seduce a beautiful young lady. She is so amazed to discover that she isn’t pregnant that she hangs herself. Her Doleful Ghost gets confused and drives the young man you met down by the greenwoodside mad. He delivers a long speech that begins “Come all ye wild and roving lads a warning take by me….”