The Two Sisters/The Bonny Swans

Folk stories, music and magic have long been combined in storytelling. Kitty and Cadaver is the latest incarnation of a band that began in England in 1267, and who knows what previous versions of the band have done to perhaps be the origins of such stories! Here I share some of my favourite tales of music and magic.

One of my favourite folkloric tales involves sisters – two or three of them, depending on the version you read. One of the sisters is sweethearts with a lovely man (who is good or noble or rich, or all three, depending) and another of the sisters is in love with the same bloke. Jealousy or greed leads to one sister drowning the other so she can make off with the noble/wealthy/hot beau.

(There’s not a lot to say about the man in question here, except that he seems a bit faithless, but his side of the story doesn’t seem to get much of an airing.)

The drowned sister floats downstream and, in some versions of the story, is mistaken for a swan. In other versions, her body is washed ashore and decomposes until a minstrel finds the remains and fashions a harp (or some other instrument) (which, if you ask me, is terribly macabre and honestly, this minstrel chap is a bit of a creeper by the sound of it).

But lo, the creeper minstrel plays the harp and it magically sings its tragic story, so the evil sister (and the possibly faithless beau) don’t get away with it after all. It’s sort of a musical revenge tragedy. With swans!

An exhibit at the MONA gallery in Tasmania had a wonderful exploration of this idea, with two speakers in a darkened room each broadcasting the artist singing the song but from the two perspectives – the jealous sister and the drowned sister. It was haunting and beautiful.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Loreena McKennitt’s version, which is a crazy mashup of all the versions of the myth. So it starts with three sisters whose father is a farmer in the north country, and goes through the swan version and the harp version and ends up at a royal court. Continuity-schmontinuity! It combines traditional folk instruments, including McKennitt’s harp, as well as the electric guitar, so I love the sound of it too. It’s a wafty kind of film clip, but it does contain some astonishing hair-dos, so there’s that.

Does anyone else have a favourite version of this bit of folklore – as a story, in song form or as art?

New to Kitty and Cadaver? Find out about the project in About Kitty and Cadaver or start from chapter one at Read the Book.

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