The folk process they call it – the movement of a song from one place to another, with variations occurring in the tune and the words. At the extreme, a song can cross an ocean, spend a couple of centuries being refined and then return home again, similar but not the same. What is this folk process though? Is it adaptation to local conditions? It can be: Streets of Laredo being the classic example where a young gallant or a young sailor becomes a cowboy. It might be adaptation to local instruments – a song starts out with a fiddle accompaniment and ends up being a banjo standard. It might be refinement of the tune, different and perhaps better or more exciting playing or it might be refinement of the words. Of course refinement suggests of improvement, but refinement just as easily could be defined as “I forgot the words.” Here’s an example – the classic folk song Mattie Groves, where young Mattie Groves encounters Lord Barnard’s wife. Or is that Lord Darnell? Or even Lord Arnold? And listen as different importance is given to the sub-plot of the unfaithful (or faithful, depending on your viewpoint) servant. At one turn he’s an heroic message bearer who braves dangers to report to his master what he has seen, but at another he’s a doubted tale-teller threatened with the gallows if he has lied and on the third hand he’s not even present. And as for his lordship – is he an affronted husband acting out a crime of passion or is he really just a brutal thug?
Let’s start with the definitive folk-rock version by Fairport Convention, and the recording from ‘Liege and Lief.’ The combination of Sandy Denny’s vocals with Richard Thompson on guitar and Dave Swarbrick on fiddle make this a high-energy rendition, with Denny’s nuanced vocals defining each of the major characters in the drama. Here the loyal servant seeks his master against all perils “when he came to the river he took off his shoes and swam.” And the lady’s perhaps too honest reply as to whom she prefers gets her pinned against the wall by her husband’s sword.
And then compare to this lo-fi folk rendition by Robin Williamson, now the servant is under suspicion and Lord Barnard is shown to be easy with his violence – threatening a hanging if the servant had lied about what Lady Barnard was up to at home. And in the final encounter it is Lord Barnard who holds the stage – Matt Grove doesn’t even get to protest his lack of even a knife in the face of Lord Barnard’s two fine blades. Lady Barnard though gets to cheek her husband and, it seems, live to tell the tale. Matt Groves is less fortunate and is left lying in his own gore.
So let’s now cross that ocean and see what Ralph Stanley makes of the situation. The song survived in many versions in Appalachia and Canada but it’s much changed on this recording – it’s a slower and statelier rendition and when it comes to the lyrics well, quite a few are missing or reduced to their core. The servant subplot is out for a start and Matt (who is now Mathie) has no hesitancy about the assignation either: Mathie just goes along to the fine feather bed, not even checking that Lord Arnold is safely away from home. It still ends badly for him – and even worse it could be said for his lover who has her head cut-off and kicked against the wall. None of this “bury her on top ‘fore she was of noble kin” pseudo-honourable nonsense.
And then back across the ocean for a very different arrangement by Planxty with the supreme Christy Moore on the vocals. There are a couple of twists in this plaintive version which calls Matt Groves by the song’s alternate title ‘The Little Musgrave‘ (which apparently suggests that Matty had a household position as an equerry, with responsibilities for the hawks, within Lord Barnard’s court). Firstly there’s a hint of the possibility of the lovers getting away with their amorous encounter, as a friend of the Musgrave sounds a horn as the hunting party return from deer hunting. Sadly he sleeps through the alarm – and as he drags out the getting up and dressed when Lord Barnard returns it’s clear he already knows his fate. Then after his brutal double killing Lord Barnard falls to remorse – for killing “the finest knight who ever rode a steed” and “the finest lady who ever did a woman’s deed.” For a song that is usually attributed in origin to the North of England it makes a fine Irish ballad.