Brought over by English, Scottish, Irish, German, and other European immigrants in the eighteenth century, imported ballads make up a huge portion of the American ballad repertory. As one would expect from the transatlantic game of telephone, these oral stories changed over the course of travel and becoming a part of a new social and geographic environment. Names and locations are altered to suit locality (“Lord Randall” becomes “Johnny Randolph”), overtly sexual and taboo topics are glazed over, and the supernatural is disregarded or justified. The latter is the case for “The Daemon Lover” (originally compiled in James Child’s collection as #243), also known as “James Harris,” or most frequently in America, “The House Carpenter.” This ballad has everything one could as for: a beautiful lady and her husband, a former lover returned, infidelity, heartbreak, ships and the sea, a startling twist, the devil/daemon, retribution, and, finally, death.
In “The Daemon Lover” version, a man returns to a former lover, now married with children, after a long period of absence. The man convinces her to leave her new life behind, luring her with a fleet of ships, treasure in abundance, and pleasures of every kind. She’s caught (wouldn’t you be?) But she soon realizes that things are not what they seem – where are the other sailors, why is the returned lover gloomy and dismal, and why, I ask you, are his feet cloven? She weeps at the discovery that her lover is the devil, but it is too late. He snaps the ship in two, drowning them down to hell below. Chilling narrative! In the much more popular American version, “The House Carpenter,” the narrative amplifies the point-making element, transforming the ballad into a warning piece against adulterous elopers. Here, the returned lover is not sinister or immortal, the wife leaves her house carpenter husband, and both eventually fall victim to a leaky ship in a bit of moralistic poetic justice. Nothing against lessons about adultery, but for my money, I prefer the supernatural. Makes it all the more frightening. We’ll hear a number of renditions on this week’s radio program.