For the last handful of weeks on Folkadelphia Radio, we’ve been focusing on a featured song, digging a little into its history, context, and importance in music and art, and listening to a few selected renditions, usually of diverse style. This week, we’ll put a spotlight on “Katie Cruel,” a ballad that appears to have often drawn its verses, themes, and melodies from other older songs. In most contemporary versions, the narrative generally revolves around the titular narrator that despite hardship and adversity (for instance, the townspeople call her “Katie Cruel,” which seems, you know, unfriendly) remains steadfast in her journey to follow her heart’s desire.
“Katie Cruel” is said to have originated during the American Revolutionary War, but its pieces are related to Scottish ballads and broadsides, such as “Licht Bob’s Lassie,” which tells the story of a woman following infantrymen (Lichtbobs), and “Leaboy’s Lassie,” which changes the infantrymen to migrant farmers. The thematic elements are also related to “The Hexhamshire Lass,” best known from Fairport Convention. The melody and more thematic elements of “Katie Cruel” are pulled from “I Know Where I’m Going,” which continues to be a popular song and became the title of Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger’s 1945 film of the same name.
However it is interpreted or performed, Katie Cruel remains a central character in the folk song canon.