The Three Ravens

The Three Ravens

“The Three Ravens” (Roud [ 5] ) is a folk ballad, printed in the song book "Melismata" [cite book
author = Thomas Ravenscroft, William Ravenscroft
title = Melismata
origyear = 1611
url =
accessdate = 2007-08-15
pages = 20
chapter = Covntry Pastimes
chapterurl =
] compiled by Thomas Ravenscroft and published in 1611, but it is perhaps older than that. More recent versions (with different music) were recorded right up through the 19th century. Francis James Child recorded several versions in his Child Ballads (catalogued as number 26). A common derivative is called “Twa Corbies” (“Two Ravens”), and it follows a similar general story, but with a dreary and cynical outlook.

The Three Ravens

The ballad takes the form of three scavenger birds conversing about where and what they should eat. One mentions a recently slain knight, but they find he is guarded by his loyal hawk and hound. Furthermore a doe (often interpreted as the knight's mistress in supernatural form) comes upon him, cleans his wounds, bears him away, and buries him, leaving the ravens without an apparent meal. The narrator, however, gradually departs from the ravens' point of view, ending with “God send euery gentleman/Such haukes, such hounds, and such a Leman” - the comment of the narrator on the action, rather than the ravens whose discussion he earlier describes.

The lyrics to “The Three Ravens” are here transcribed using 1611 orthography. They can be sung either straight through in stanzas of four lines each, or in stanzas of two lines each repeating the first line three times depending on how long the performer would like the ballad to last. The second method appears to be the more canonical, so that is what is illustrated below. The refrains are sung in all stanzas, but they will only be shown for the first.

:There were three rauens [In printed text of the time, "u" and "v" were often used interchangeably.] sat on a tree,:"downe a downe, hay downe, hay downe," [The refrain consists of nonsense words that create a vocal musical interlude between lines of the stanza. See Mouth music.] :There were three rauens sat on a tree,:"with a downe,":There were three rauens sat on a tree,:They were as blacke as they might be.:"With a downe, derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe."

:The one of them said to his mate,:Where shall we our breakfast take?

:Downe in yonder greene field,:There lies a Knight slain under his shield,

:His hounds they lie downe at his feete,:So well they can their Master keepe,

:His Hawkes they flie so eagerly,:There's no fowle dare him come nie ["Nie": Variant of "nigh".]

:Downe there comes a fallow Doe,:As great with yong as she might goe,

:She lift up his bloudy head,:And kist his wounds that were so red,

:She got him up upon her backe,:And carried him to earthen lake, ["Lake": Pit.]

:She buried him before the prime, ["Prime", "Euen-song": see Canonical hours.] :She was dead her self ere euen-song time.

:God send euery gentleman,:Such haukes, such hounds, and such a Leman. ["Leman": Sweetheart or mistress ]

The Twa Corbies

There are only two scavengers in “Twa Corbies”, but this is the least of the differences between the songs, although they do begin the same. However, rather than commenting on the loyalty of the knight's beasts, the corbie mentions that the hawk and the hound have abandoned their master, and are off chasing other game, while his mistress has already taken another lover. The ravens are therefore guaranteed an undisturbed meal, as no one else knows where the man lies, or even that he's dead. They discuss in some gruesome detail the meal they will make out of him, plucking out his eye and using his hair for their nests.Some themes believed to be portrayed in "Twa Corbies" are: the fragility of life, the idea that life goes on after death, and a more pessimistic viewpoint on life. The loneliness and despair of the song are summed up in the final couplets:

:O'er his banes [bones] , when they are bare,:The wind sall [shall] blaw for evermair

There may be a few different versions of this anonymously authored poem. The full text of at least one version of the poem is as follows:

:As I was walking all alane, :I heard twa corbies making a mane; :The tane unto the t'other say, :‘Where sall we gang and dine to-day?’

:‘In behint yon auld fail dyke, :I wot there lies a new slain knight; :And naebody kens that he lies there, :But his hawk, his hound, and lady fair.

:‘His hound is to the hunting gane, :His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame, :His lady's ta'en another mate, :So we may mak our dinner sweet.

:‘Ye'll sit on his white hause-bane, :And I'll pike out his bonny blue een; :Wi ae lock o his gowden hair :We'll, theek our nest when it grows bare.

:‘Mony a one for him makes mane, :But nane sall ken where he is gane; :Oer his white banes, when they we bare, :The wind sall blaw for evermair.’


"The Three Ravens" or "Twa Corbies" have been recorded by artists such as The Corries, Boiled in Lead, Clam Chowder, Omnia, Alfred Deller, Ewan MacColl, Malinky, Schelmish, Sonne Hagal, Sol Invictus, Steeleye Span, Omnia, Andreas Scholl, The Duplets, A Chorus of Two, John Fleagle, and Heather Alexander.



* (German) — a parody of “The Three Ravens”.

External links

* [ The various versions of these ballads as collected by Child]
* [ Kentucky artist and ballad singer Daniel Dutton has a painting of this ballad on his Ballads of the Barefoot Mind website]
* [ Minneapolis band The Tim Malloys' version from their first CD]

Further reading

*A literary analysis of the work: Vernon V Chatman III, “The Three Ravens Explicated,” Midwest Folklore, Vol. XIII #3, Summer 1963

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