Hanover, “Young Florilla”

Song: Young Florilla
Singer: Mabel C Worcester
Town: Hanover, Maine
ID: NA467  CD 003  Track 7
Collector: Frank Worcester
Date: July 19, 1967
Roud: 500
Laws: F1

Young Florilla” is a version of a murder ballad generally known as “The Jealous Lover.” It is one of the most popular ballads native to North America and has been found all over the United States and Canada. Its theme, that of the girl taken for a walk by her lover and then killed, shows up in numerous ballads including “Omie Wise,” “On the Banks of the Ohio,” and “The Gosport Tragedy.”

There is great variation in the names of the two characters. The murderer has been variously called Willie, Edward, Henry, Elmer and other variations of these, while his victim’s name has been Ellen, Florella, Alice, Abbie, and a variety of others. The “drooping willow” opening, as in this version, is common. Another common opening line is some variation of “Down in the low green valley.” Persistent narrative elements include the victim asking to be taking home, the plunging of the knife into the victim’s bosom, and her forgiveness of her killer. Not much attention is given to the motive of the murder. Common rhymes include “bloom/tomb,” “heart/part,” and “dew/flew.” Some versions, mainly from the South, have stanzas which seem to be influenced by T. H. Bayly’s “She Never Blamed Him.” The words to “The Jealous Lover” are generally set to the same family of tunes. This is particularly noticeable in the Northern versions.

The ballad has also served as the template for several others. A subdivision of the “Jealous Lover” ballad replaces the names of the victim and murderer with “Pearl Bryan” and “Scott Jackson” respectively, based on an actual murder which took place in Kentucky in 1896. Because there is also a separate ballad called “Pearl Bryan,” about this murder, all “Jealous Lover” ballads are sometimes confused as being about Pearl Bryan. However, “The Jealous Lover” was already in circulation before the murder of Pearl Bryan. The ballad has also been altered to fit the murder of Nellie Cropsey in North Carolina in 1901. And in 1929, a woman in Mississippi confessed to a murder by mailing an adaptation of “The Jealous Lover” to the governor. It is unknown however, if “The Jealous Lover” itself is based upon a historical murder, particularly since a print source has never been found.

Phillips Barry believed that it was a reworking of the 19th century English Broadside, “The Murder of Betsey Smith.” As evidence, Barry cited that some versions of “Fair Florella” have a specific reference to the date in the beginning, as in “The Murder of Betsey Smith.” In addition, the murder takes place in the woods, the setting of the Betsy Smith ballad, in eleven texts of “The Jealous Lover,” The victim’s pleading and the use of the “fatal knife” are also consistent with “The Murder of Betsey Smith.” Other scholars however, disagree with this interpretation. G. Malcolm Laws notes that it could be just as likely that the composer of “The Murder of Betsy Smith” had “The Jealous Lover” in the back of his mind and D. K. Wilgus points out that most of Barry’s evidence consists of details which are common in all murdered sweetheart ballads.

According to Arthur Field in his article, “Why is the ‘Murdered Girl’ so Popular,” murder ballads like “Young Florilla,” and other murder stories, are used as outlets for aggression. Field backs up this point by pointing out that most “murdered girl” ballads are written from the perspective of the murderer. Alan Lomax however, writes that the “murdered girl” songs were sung as warnings to young women to be wary of men, and thus worked to hold up the strict mores governing sexual relationships in frontier America. Lomax’s idea gains some support from the fact that Laws attributes the generally motiveless American murder ballads to the fact that mentioning pregnancy outside of wedlock would have been taboo. A good example of this is in the ballad, “Omie Wise,” based upon the murder of Naomi Wise in North Carolina in 1808. Wise was pregnant by her lover John Lewis and he wanted to marry another woman, so he killed her to get her out of the way. However, just like in “Young Florilla,” the motive for his murder is not mentioned in the ballad, so it makes the murder seem motiveless.


Down by yon drooping willow
Where the violets gently bloom
There lies young Florilla
So silent in the tomb

She died not broken-hearted
Nor sickness her befell
But, in one moment, parted
From the one she loved so well

One night, when the moon was shining
As bright as ever it shone
Up to Florilla’s cottage
The treacherous lover came

He says, come love, let’s wander
Into those fields we’ll stray
And there we’ll sit and ponder
Upon our wedding day

She said, those fields look dreary
And I’m afraid to stray
Of rambling, I am weary
So I’ll retrace my way

He said, no, never again
These fields and meadows roam
So bid farewell, Florilla
To parents and friends and home

Down on her knees before him
She begged him spare her life
But deep into her bosom
He plunged that fatal knife

Oh Edwin, I’ll forgive you
She said with a dying breath
And in one moment later
She closed her eyes in death

The treacherous lover fled
To other parts unknown
And now Florilla’s sleeping
So silent in her tomb

Down by yon drooping willow
Where the violets gently bloom
There lies young Florilla
So silent in her tomb

Sources: Barry, Phillips. “Fair Florella.” American Speech 3.6 (1928): 441-47. JSTOR. Web. 30 Oct. 2013; Belden, Henry Marvin. Ballads and Songs Collected by the Missouri Folk-Lore Society (University of Missouri Studies Vol. XV, No. 1). Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1966; Chapell, Louis W. Folk-Songs of Roanoke and the Albemarle. Morgantown, WV: The Ballad Press, 1939; Field, Arthur. “Why Is the “Murdered Girl” So Popular.” Midwest Folklore 1.2 (1951): 113-19. JSTOR. Web. 6 Nov. 2013; Laws, G Malcolm. Native American Balladry: A Descriptive Study and a Bibliographical Syllabus. Philadelphia: The American Folklore Society, 1964; Lomax, John A. and Alan. Folk Song U.S.A. New York: The New American Library, Inc., 1966; Randolph, Vance. Ozark Folksongs Vol. IIColumbia, Mo.: The State Historical Society of Missouri, 1948; White, Newman Ivey, and Frank Clyde Brown. The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore Vol. II: Folk Ballads from North Carolina. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1952; Wilgus, D. K. “Ballad Classification.” Midwest Folklore 5.2 (1955): 95-100. JSTOR. Web. 8 Nov. 2013; Wilgus, D. K. “A Tension of Essences in Murdered-Sweetheart Ballads.” The Ballad Image: Essays Presented to Bertrand Harris Bronson. Ed. James Porter. Los Angeles, CA: Center for the Study of Comparative Folklore and Mythology, 1983. 241-53. Print.