Friday, May 06, 2005

Steeleye Span: "Little Sir Hugh"

Ah, “Little Sir Hugh.” The timeless tale of a boy who inadvertently kicks a ball over “the castle wall where no one dared to go,” is invited in by the mistress of the castle on the pretext of retrieving said ball, but, when he reluctantly goes in with her, is instead disemboweled and tossed down a well. I tell you, if I had a nickel for every time…

If this scenario seems vaguely familiar to those of you who have read Ulysses, it may be because, in the penultimate, “Ithaca” chapter, Stephen drunkenly sings an anti-Semitic version of the same song, to Bloom’s chagrin (study question: why do I refer to Stephen Daedalus as “Stephen” but Leopold Bloom as “Bloom?” Is it just the age difference?). That version goes thusly:

Little Harry Hughes and his schoolfellows all Went out for to play ball
And the very first ball little Harry Hughes played
He drove it o'er the jew's garden wall.
And the very second ball little Harry Hughes played
He broke the jew's windows all.

Then out there came the jew's daughter
And she all dressed in green.
`Come back, come back, you pretty little boy,
And play your ball again.'

`I can't come back and I won't come back
Without my schoolfellows all,
For if my master he did hear
He'd make it a sorry ball.'

She took him by the lilywhite hand
And led him along the hall
Until she led him to a room
Where none could hear him call.

She took a penknife out of her pocket
And cut off his little head,
And now he'll play his ball no more
For he lies among the dead.

Also, Nick Cave’s duet with PJ Harvey, “Henry Lee,” is noticeably based on the same source material.

As you can see, Stephen’s version is kind of dramatically inert. It ends quite brusquely, doesn’t it? So, she cut off his head, and now he’s dead. Bam! No wells for added dramatic effect. Although one is left pondering the mechanics of beheading someone with a penknife. Seems like it would take at least three cuts and be awfully messy. But perhaps when you’re a nefarious Jewess, you’re used to such things.

Actually, the Span one is by far the most disturbing of the three versions: in Stephen’s, the crime can simply be attributed to a weird manifestation of anti-Semitism; in the Cave version, the killer is a jealous prostitute—but in the Span, it’s totally inexplicable. The woman’s societal role is unclear, and she has no real motive. The part where “she fed him sugar sweet” is particularly macabre—if memory serves, (this is per Huysmans’ novel La-Bas), the infamous child killer Gilles de Rais would pamper his young victims in a similar manner before dispatching them. Does “she lay him on a dressing board” imply a sexual aspect? I do not know; all I can do is convey the sage advice of my undergraduate don, Ann Lauinger, who, advised her class that “if you think it’s there, it’s there.” Of course, she may have been underestimating the dirtiness of some of her charges’ minds.

Also, I like the well: note how in Cave’s version, the protagonist’s killer “[throws] him in this deep, deep well, more than one hundred feet.” Whereas, per Span, “she threw him in the old draw well, fifty fathoms deep.” Which works out to three hundred feet—now that is one hardcore deep well.

At any rate, I applaud the Span for bringing out the lugubriously grotesque aspects of the song: that’s definitely the way to do it. It’s one of my favorite Span tunes, so download it today.


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