Caroline of Edinborough Town

Laws P27


Come, all young men and maidens, come listen to my rhyme,
It is all about a nice young girl that was scarcely in her prime,
She beat the blushing roses, admired all around
Was lovely little Caroline of Edinborough Town.

Young Henry was a Highland man, a-courting her he came,
And when her parents came to know they did not like the same;
Young Henry was offended and this to her did say,
“Rise up, my lovely Caroline, and with me run away.”

Persuaded by young Henry, she put on her finest gown,
And soon was traveling on the road from Edinborough town.
She says to him, “Oh, Henry, dear, pray never on me frown,
Or you’ll break the heart of Caroline of Edinborough town.

They had not been in London scarcely half a year
When hard-hearted Henry he proved to be severe;
Says Henry, “I’ll go to sea; your parents did on me frown.
So without delay go beg your way to Edinborough town.

“The fleet is fitting out and to Spithead is dropping down,
And I will join in that fleet to fight for King and Crown.”
“The gallant tar[s] might feel the[ir] scar[s] or in the waters drown.
“But,” says she, “I never will return to Edinborough town.”

Filled with grief without relief, this maiden she did go,
Right into the wood to seat such food as on the bushes [grow].
Some strangers they did pity her and more did on her frown,
And some did say, “What made you stray from Edinborough town?”

It was on a lofty jutting cliff this maid sat down to cray,
A-watching of [Love] Henry’s ships* as they went sailing by.
She [said], “Farewell, oh Henry dead,” and plunged her body down,
And that’s what became of Caroline of Edinborough town.

A note was in her bonnet that was found along the shore,
And in the note a lock of hair and these words, “I am no more.
I am asleep down in the deep, the fishes are watching ’round
What once was lovely Caroline of Edinborough town.”

* Dean’s text reads “King Henry’s ships.” This is an unusual reading, and in fact makes no sense — there was never a King Henry who reigned over both England and Scotland, and it seems clear the two nations are one by the time of the song. “Love Henry” seems the minimum possible emendation — she sees (or thinks she sees) her love’s ship and is brought to despair.

(Click here for a PDF version of the music) * (Click here to hear the song performed by Brian Miller)

The characters in folk songs are often said to be exceptionally beautiful. They are rarely said to be exceptionally smart.

This is a famous old ballad, presumably of Scottish origin. It seems almost unknown in England, but there are many Scottish versions, as well as texts from a dozen or so American states. Many of these probably derive from the version in the famous Forget-Me-Not Songster. Critics do not regard it very highly, considering the emotions rather forced. Most of the incidents are stereotyped — Malcolm Laws cataloged 39 “Ballads of Family Opposition to Lovers” just among songs which originated in Britain and migrated to America and didn’t file in his other categories. He had another 40 of “Ballads of Unfaithful Lovers” (and files this among them). I count some 80 traditional songs ending in suicide, almost all of them due to betrayal by a lover. This is one of the most popular, though, trailing only “The Butcher Boy” and “Lord Thomas and Fair Annet” (the latter of which is primarily about jealousy and murder rather than suicide).

There are a number of curiosities about this song. One is the very idea of a Highlander named “Henry.” Most Highlanders, particularly prior to about 1750, spoke Gaelic — a Highlander wouldn’t speak the same language as Caroline, and even if named Henry (unlikely) wouldn’t spell it that way.

Spithead (the site of a famous mutiny) was a major British naval base in the period of the Napoleonic wars; it is in the far south of England.

Source: The text is from Dean, with a few changes in spelling (e.g. to make it clear how “Edinborough” is to be pronounced. Dean spells it “Edinburg,” which is close to the official spelling “Edinburgh,” but the Scots call their capital “Edinboro” or “Edinbro”).

The tune here is one that Brian Miller learned from Irish sources — which makes it not unlikely that it is the tune Dean used, since Dean knew a lot of Irish songs. Other Irish versions of this are sung to a tune also known as “The Flower of Sweet Strabane” (though that song is thought to date from the 1840s, making it more recent than “Caroline”).

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