[SoundStage!]For a Song
Back-Issue Article

December 2006

Willie Moore

Willie Moore was a king aged twenty-one,
Courted a maiden fair,
Her eyes were like two diamonds bright,
Raven black was her hair, hmmm, hmmm,

He courted her both day and night,
To marry him she did agree,
But when they went to get her parents’
They said, "This could never be," hmmm,
   hmmm, hmmm--.

"I love Willie Moore," sweet Annie replied,
"Better than I love my life,
And I would rather die than weep here and cry,
Never to be his wife," hmmm, hmmm,

That very same night sweet Anne disappeared,
They searched the country ‘round.
In a little stream by the cabin door,
The body of sweet Annie was found, hmmm,
   hmmm, hmmm--.

Sweet Annie’s parents they live all alone,
One mourns, the other cries,
In a little green mound in front of their door
The body of sweet Annie now lies.

Willie Moore scarce spoke that anyone knew,
Soon from his friends did part,
And the last heard of him was he’s in Montreal,
Where he died of a broken heart, hmmm,
   hmmm, hmmm--.

First verse repeats.

As printed in The Joan Baez Songbook (New York: Ryerson Music).

What's a Daughter To Do? Family Values in the Traditional Ballad "Willie Moore"

In addition to pleasing tunes and topics important to human beings, traditional ballads -- songs handed down through the generations, often in multiple forms, their originators often unknown -- get their power from subtle details. The words’ literal meanings are obvious -- a child can get the basic idea. Figurative and multiple meanings, though, continue to dawn on singer and listener ad infinitum, depending on how much thought one gives a song. Rather than an identified genius like Shakespeare or Keats, it’s as if the collective genius of a region has worked the song down to its aesthetically perfect kernel.

Such is the case with "Willie Moore," an American ballad about "a maiden fair" destroyed by her parents’ opposition to her intended marriage. This theme’s popularity in traditional songs suggests, on the one hand, that it reflects a plight with which people sympathize, and, on the other hand, that its occurrences and the people involved vary enough to make for many distinct tales.

Boy meets girl

The first verse tells several specific facts that gain significance as the song progresses. Willie Moore, the young man who intends to marry the "maiden fair" whose name we soon learn is Anne (also called Annie), is 21 years old. Much younger, he could perhaps be considered unprepared for marriage. Much older, his intentions might be questioned, to put it euphemistically.

Moore is "a king," though probably not royalty, which does not exist where the song originated. In addition, a king most likely would not court one whose social class is only suggested by her parents’ "cabin." Despite having memorized this song decades ago, I had not puzzled out the use of "king". As it turns out, a definition no longer widely used but provided in a standard dictionary is a man who is supreme or highly successful in some field.

So in just seven words including "Willie Moore," the first line portrays him as an obviously suitable groom in terms of his age and ability to provide for his bride and a family that ostensibly would follow. This causes the listener to consider Anne’s parents’ refusal unfounded and unjust. Getting across this and other key points without explicitly stating them is part of the song’s artfulness.

Because the rest of the verse is dedicated to details about Anne, those details are probably important. First, "a maiden fair" is a conventional indication of what is called "purity" in pre-modern societies. She is "suitable" for marriage. The comparison of her eyes’ brightness to that of two diamonds suggests some precious quality, perhaps an inner beauty that shines forth. Diamonds’ legendary permanence also tells us to see something eternal in this young woman -- perhaps in her soul and also in her story.

In addition to the well-known bird, "raven" is an adjective meaning black and lustrous. But it gets that meaning from its association with the bird. Being flesh-eaters and highly intelligent (scientists today estimate their intelligence -- and that of the other members of the crow family, the corvids -- as approximating that of nonhuman primates), ravens are mythologized as harbingers of death, as in Poe’s famous poem.

"Hmm, hmm, hmm" -- sung in rising notes at the end of this and most of the other verses in the recorded versions I’ve heard and published in the version provided here -- is correctly considered part of the lyric. Its effect is something like "My, oh my" or "Tsk, tsk," suggesting that someone's poor judgment will prove harmful. At the end of the first verse, it is as if we’re being told, Oh-oh, the hair wasn’t just dark but raven -- watch out! Such details resonate all the more when we realize the song emerged from a culture steeped in myth and superstition, not a modern one that would pooh-pooh the notion that invoking a symbol could foretell a death.

The plot thickens

Although verse two appears to give just a brief, literal statement of what occurred, certain phrasings are significant. Willie’s courting "her" "both day and night" suggests he is seeing only her and that he is determined to marry her. He is serious, not casual, and he is not two-timing her. "To marry him she did agree" implies he asked her to marry him; she was not "forward"; also, she’s perhaps oriented toward doing others’ bidding, not toward being the primary agent in her own life. Is there a warning here of what can happen to "a good girl"? Can one take obedience too far?

Her name is not even mentioned by the end of the second verse. It first appears when she protests her parents’ refusal to let them marry. Is this her first venture into self-assertion? Till now, has she just been a pretty girl doing as her parents say and waiting for a husband to direct her life after marriage? Maybe that is why, when they go to "get her parents’ consent" -- apparently believing it will be forthcoming because all of the circumstances are right for them to marry -- and they say "This could never be," she takes their word as final.

Thus, the third verse has her declaring that her only options are to die or to "weep here and cry." She seems not to consider defying her parents’ wishes. That might be why she is called "sweet Annie." The song doesn’t say she or Willie or both of them together strove to make their case or kept courting and approached Anne's parents later. The answer is treated as final. Annie’s sweetness might be one reason for her parents’ refusal. No one else is mentioned as living at her parents’ cabin. This place doesn’t have "modern conveniences." Maybe Anne is too helpful for her parents to let her go off and serve someone else. If she were not sweet but, say, cantankerous and lazy, maybe they’d be glad to get her off their hands. What seems to be her goodness also seems to be her undoing.

Fatal decision

That interpretation is supported when verse four says "sweet Anne disappeared" "[t]hat very same night" -- just after her parents’ refusal. Interestingly, until after Anne disappears, the song doesn’t give any description or characterization of her parents except that they are rigid, not only refusing permission but saying "never" and presumably being taken literally. Anne isn’t said to have run away, only to have disappeared -- from the view of her parents. This maintains the impression that she has no experience at being the agent of her own life.

Apparently her parents don’t realize that her sweetness and their tyranny over her are two sides of the same coin and they might lose her by seeking to keep her. Her being called Anne rather than Annie at this moment, though, is a subtle clue that she has gone from being a child to being an adult and is acting on her own.

The description of the search for Anne and the discovery of her body is striking. The parents do not begin their search close to home -- "They searched the country ‘round." Nor is it stated whether the parents sought others’ help and all searched far and wide. The parents and anyone else searching for Anne suspect that she has run away, not that she has killed herself. The parents either do not suspect they are to blame or believe it is not a big deal. "Sweet Annie" will return because she is obedient and belongs to them.

Better never than late

Only too late -- if ever -- do Anne’s parents learn their error. But the song makes it clear. Twice it lays responsibility for Anne’s death literally at her parents’ door. "The body of sweet Annie" "was found" "[i]n a little stream by the cabin door," and it "lies" "in a little green mound in front of their door." The grave forever reminds them of what they did. The wedding "never could be," but the parents will have her in body only, never again benefiting from her sweetness.

She is ultimately "sweet Annie," having died "a maiden fair" despite her one adult decision. And finally her demise falls within Willie Moore’s experience, destroying him. His having "scarce spoke" is interesting: Being "a king," one might think he could persuade the parents to change their minds. Maybe his having said little after his beloved’s death follows a pattern in which he also said little in response to her parents’ nixing of their plan to marry. Did he achieve so much at his young age by acceding to authority? Perhaps that strength proved tragic when it came to his personal life. Maybe he said little, parted from his friends, and fled to Montreal, not only because of his pain, but because he could not face the circumstances in which he failed to assert himself where he might have saved the life that was most precious to him.

Parents, take note!

Though Annie's and Willie’s personal traits might concede more power to Anne’s parents than necessary, the song places the blame squarely on the parents. The little green mound they face each day is fertile, continuing to bring forth new life; the daughter who died because of their selfishness will never do so. Annie is not said to have any siblings -- her parents have ended their family line, and Annie’s grave serves as a permanent reminder of this.

In a world that serves up sensational outside threats like guns, illegal drugs, pollution, war, terrorism, indifferent bureaucracies, hospital errors, and bad drivers, "Willie Moore" reminds us that failing to respect one’s child can be the greatest danger of all.

...David J. Cantor

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