The lovely, talented, and generous Heather Dale was kind enough to lend her vocal talents to the part of the Faerie Queen when I recorded this song for Hidden Gold. The song was first publicly performed at The Wars of the Roses in Concordia of the Snows, Memorial Day weekend 2013.
In 2020, I released a remix and remaster of the recording with clearer sound, especially on Heather’s entrancing backing vocals.
Tam Lin of the Elves
© 2013 words & music by Eric Schrager
One fortnight past came you to Carterhaugh
And two roses you plucked without care.
Surely you learned, if you take what is mine
That your trespass will summon me there?
Here you are once again, Janet so bold,
Who declared that this wood was your land.
Are you now bashful? I see you recall
How you trembled when I took your hand.
For you’d ignored advice.
You knew the tales they tell
Of ev’ry maiden’s price
If she met Tam Lin of the Elves.
Pull you no more, lady, that’s not a rose
But an herb that grows deadly and wild.
I know the weed, it’s procured for the use
Of a woman to rid her of child.
Is that the way of it, Janet my sweet,
Have you come back confess’d of your plight?
Told your lord father that you’re fathered on
By an unholy grey Elfin knight?
I’m not this thing you scorn,
Though I forget myself.
I was of woman born
Ere I was Tam Lin of the Elves.
I was a lad in my grandfather’s hunt
When I careless from saddle was thrown,
Caught by a lady–the Queen of the Elves–
And she stole me away as her own.
Years have I spent among Elf-land’s delights
And the Queen’s beauty held me in thrall.
Oft here on Carterhaugh stumbled a maid,
And my pleasure I’d take of them all.
But then I looked on you,
And something new I felt.
‘Tis since that day I rue
That I am Tam Lin of the Elves.
Though I returned to their magical realm,
It has savored me naught since we met.
Dark Faery hearts do not know mortal love
But my own heart won’t let me forget.
Tonight is Hallow’s E’en,[**]
They pay a tithe to Hell.
I think tonight the Queen
Will give up Tam Lin of the Elves.
Save your child’s father from Faery you might,
But my love, it’s a dangerous task.
And were it any lass other than you
I would not such a favor dare ask.
At Dryburgh Abbey you’ll find an old well
And from there, at Miles Cross you must hide.
Round about midnight you’ll hear horse approach:
One by one will the Elven host ride.
Past you the black will speed,
Let pass the brown as well.
Run to the milk-white steed
And pull down Tam Lin of the Elves.
Still now, my dearest, I’m bound to the Queen,
So I know not what form I will take.
I’ll be an eagle who tries to pull free–
The next moment, a venomous snake…
Then will she make me a bear in your arms
And I’ll bite and I’ll and claw at you so.
Next I’ll become a red-hot iron brand,
And I’ll burn you to make you let go!
But if you hold me fast,
Carry me down the dell,
I can be yours at last
And no more Tam Lin of the Elves.
My love she carried me near half a mile,
Although ev’ry step wracked her with pain.
Threw the hot iron in that holy well,
And a naked man took out again.
Then did she cover me out of their sight
In her green mantle, smelling of sage.
Just as we came to the safe Abbey doors
Did the Faery Queen cry out in rage:
“I’d pluck his eyes away
That my fair land beheld!
I want her life as pay
Who took my Tam Lin of the Elves!”
But she had done it, son,
Fair Janet broke the spell,
And for her husband won
Your father, Tam Lin of the Elves.
The immediate genesis for this song, which leapt ahead of a few others I was planning in my “bardic hopper”, was a conversation with my wife about the fact that, while I had written songs for her, I had not written any bardic songs for her. As I love her madly and she fills my life with joy and blessing, this was a grievous oversight, and I would need to think hard about what sort of song would do her justice.
I found myself once more drawn to Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer, a tale we both love, and decided it would be fun to honor my wife by retelling a classic ballad that in some way told the story of our love for each other. Pondering the novel, I recalled the passage where another harper performs “Tam Lin” for Thomas, and characters allude to the ballad’s similarity to Thomas’s own tale. I realized that while Thomas and Elspeth in the novel have echoes of my relationship with my wife, the tale of Tam Lin and Janet might be a better fit for the song I wanted to write. Elspeth is forced to mourn the loss of Thomas until he appears miraculously after seven years in Elfland; Janet actually rescues Tam Lin from the Elf Queen herself. As I explored the ballad and read it through, I realized this was the piece.
Now I needed to consider my approach to a retelling of a classic ballad. I had a few particular goals in mind for this piece:
- It should be a faithful retelling of the ballad, leaving out nothing I considered essential to the plot, but it should also be a completely original Drake song. I wanted a version I could perform in most settings, which meant getting the song down to about 6 minutes in length. (The final version without instruments runs about 6:30.)
- I wanted to emphasize the elements of Janet’s and Tam Lin’s tale that made it an allegory for our personal story, without contradicting the story as already known. When he meets Janet, Tam Lin is a lost soul, trapped in a lovely gilded cage which allows him no chance of growth or meaning in his life, and which will ultimately devour him. In my version, Tam Lin would want and need Janet’s help not only because he was in peril and unable to help himself, but because something in Janet awoke in Tam Lin the desire for something more than the sterile wonders of Faery. To emphasize Janet’s courage, I took out Tam Lin’s constant reassurances to Janet that she will be in no actual danger during his transformations as long as she holds onto him–in this telling, the danger is very real. (In other words, I needed to show more explicitly that Janet was like Kushner’s Elspeth, and like my wife.)
- I wanted to understand the sources for the piece, and as I researched them (with gratitude to the very talented Lisa Theriot, who offered suggestions to direct my search), I saw that there were elements of Faery folklore in the tale that modern audiences might miss, or that had been lost or changed by the time Child recorded the ballad. I wanted to incorporate some of those elements more clearly in the song. For example, Tam Lin needs to be thrown in the well not because he is in the form of a burning hot iron that needs to be cooled off, but because he needs to be cleansed of magic, via immersion in holy water. To set up a well with holy water in it, I placed an abbey close to the climax of the tale. (I chose Dryburgh Abbey, a real medieval abbey located near Roxburgh, a locale referenced in Child and other versions of the story, but which I didn’t have space to reference in my retelling.)
- To get the story tighter, and to emphasize what Janet means to Tam Lin, I shifted my song from third to first person, taking the long conversation Tam Lin has with Janet the second time they meet to make it nearly the entirety of the piece. While beautiful, the ballad is slow to rev up. By sticking to what Tam Lin knows or can confidently guess the second time he meets Janet, I could give the piece unity of setting, cut the story down to the essentials, and leave some space to express how and why Tam Lin needs Janet. In my version, I add about a verse’s worth of monologue at the midpoint of the song, shifting the emphasis in Tam Lin’s motives. Tam Lin isn’t offering a marriage of convenience to Janet because the Faery Queen is about to sacrifice him; he is in danger of being sacrificed because he has fallen in love with Janet (unlike any of the other mortal girls he has seduced), and the Queen, sensing his devotion to her has lessened, has likely decided he is now expendable. Of course, I then “cheat”, and my final verse and double refrain shifts the scene to reveal Tam Lin telling the story of how Janet won him to their young son, so that I could resolve the story, hopefully eating my cake and having it too.
For those who, like me, are fascinated by the artistic choices in re-interpreting a classic piece, contrast my version of the song with Anaïs Mitchell’s wonderful version, recorded with Jefferson Hamer on Mitchell’s 2012 folk album Young Man in America. Mitchell’s lyrics cut the song down to the essence of what she wants to tell: She removes the Fairy Queen and Miles Cross from the story completely, and Janet holds Tam Lin through his transformations in “Carter Hall” on their second meeting, directly after he prepares her for them, without providing any back story.
And then, for a different approach, there’s SJ Tucker’s well-known version with Tricky Pixie. Tucker takes on the whole of the song from Child (giving the piece nearly 10 minutes to unfold) adapting and clarifying words and lines to make the story easier to follow. The ballad versions she chooses for adaptation omit the well from the story, but more significantly, move the final scene nearly nine months, making it clear that Janet is keeping the child, and is returning to Carterhaugh specifically to learn the father’s true identity.
Chords (No Capo)
Intro: Dm G C Dm Am Dm G C Dm Am Verse: Dm G C Dm Bb F C G C Bb F Bb F C A Dm G C Dm Bb F C G C Bb F Bb F C Em7 Chorus 1-5: Am Em Am C G Bb F Am Em Am F C Am7 Dm G C Chorus 6: Am Em Am C G Bb F Am Em Am F C Am7 Dm G C Dm Am Chorus 7: Am Em Am C G Bb F Am Em Am F C Am7 Dm G C Dm Em7 Am G Am C G Bb F Am G Am F (rit.) Em C G Am
Chords (Capo on 5th Fret)
Intro: Am D G Am Em Am D G Am Em Verse: Am D G Am F C G D G F C F C G E Am D G Am F C G D G F C F C G Bm7 Chorus 1-5: Em Bm Em G D F C Em Bm Em C G Em7 Am D G Chorus 6: Em Bm Em G D F C Em Bm Em C G Em7 Am D G Am Em Chorus 7: Em Bm Em G D F C Em Bm Em C G Em7 Am D G Am Bm7 Em D Em G D F C Em D Em C (rit.) Bm G D Em
[*] Yes, my understanding of how “period” the song is has improved since then. There are references in period to a song called “Tam Lin” or something like that, but there’s no context to validate whether that is a reference to a version of this actual ballad, or a completely different song that happened to have that title.
[**] This line, and the festival cited, went through some iterations. Originally it was “Tonight is Halloween”, spelled the modern way, as it is spelled in the Child versions. My friend Aneleda Falconbridge, hearing the work in progress, noted that hearing “Halloween” in the piece took her out of the period setting for a moment, bringing up images of children in costumes with bags of candy. As I dug into the research a bit, I found that “All Hallow’s Eve” was the Church’s appropriation of the Gaelic autumnal festival of “Samhain”, a time when the barriers between the human and spirit worlds were lowered. I decided that sounded more interesting and authentic, and it rhymed well enough with “Queen” to substitute, so I changed the line to “Tonight will be Samhain”.
I hadn’t taken my research far enough–clearly, when encountering a Gaelic name, I should of course check the pronunciation. Another bardic friend, Grim the Skald, let me know when I first performed the song at Wars of the Roses 2013 that the name isn’t pronounced anything like the spelling. Double-checking, my wife confirmed the pronunciation is not “Sam-HAIN”, but “SAH-wen”. I was left with a choice between my mispronunciation (which a few of the listeners accepted, since like me they’d probably only seen the name in print, or discussed it with others who didn’t know how it was pronounced), or the proper pronunciation, which (a) would be recognized by quite a bit fewer listeners than “Sam-HAIN”, and (b) doesn’t scan for that line in any way shape or form. I changed the reference to “Hallow’s E’en”, a reasonable compromise for period sound and rhyme.
(While I was at it, I looked up “Beltane”, the other chief Gaelic festival associated with the spirit world, which opens my song “Changeling”. While the Gaelic pronunciation is more complicated, it appears that pronouncing it “BEL-tain” is considered widely acceptable. What a relief.)