This has proved to be one England’s most popular ballads amongst traditional singers, and certainly one of the most popular of the Child ballads, with no less than 8 versions coming to light in Gloucestershire and many other versions on both sides of the Atlantic. The ballad compiler Francis James Child named it “Lady Isabel and the Elfin Knight”, although most collected versions do not mention either an Isabel or an elf. Lady Isabel appears in two early Scottish versions, but no other, to our knowledge. As with other ballads, theories abound and links in the story line have been found to other European ballads, (see http://www.fresnostate.edu/folklore/ballads/C004.html). The earliest known version is from the late 18th Century, and versions of the song are still being discovered in oral tradition. Whatever the origin, the story of a girl discovering that her boyfriend is a psychopathic serial killer still has a grip on people’s imaginations.
Note that apart from the versions transcribed here, the words of the song were also collected by James Madison Carpenter from William Newman of Stanway Hill. Mr Newman had learnt the song as a boy, sometime about 1880. Mr Newman’s tune was said to be the same as [Arthur] Nightingale’s [from Didbrook – about 2 miles away], but Mr Nightingale’s tune has not been preserved.