Task Force

Written during BRAZTESOL Conference, Goâiña, Brazil, 1996

Comment, order, modify,
Classify and justify,
Infer, predict, identify …
All day long the teacher’s cry . . .

Off we go then, up the stairs.
Move the chairs and get in pairs,
Stand up, sit down,
Hands on heads, now turn around,
Head and shoulders, arms and knees,
Delete, complete, continue please,
What to do with kids like these …?

Alter, argue, group discuss,
Left your homework on the bus?
Here’s the question, where’s the answer,
Silent reading, info transfer,
First, last, compare, contrast,
Future, perfect, present, past,
Correct, deduce, select, produce,
Read the bit on language use

Find, fill.. replace, remove,
Make an effort, must improve,
True, false, right, wrong, no and yes,
Guess, success, don’t make a mess
Describe, expand, insert, corrupt,
Explain again, don’t interrupt,
Read the fable, make a label,
Leave your homework on the table,
Write a story, if you’re able

Transform, translate,
Commentate and demonstrate,
Wait, narrate and don’t be late,
Recall, remove, rank, match, tell,
Wait for the bell, Oh, very well …

Another slice of American Pie

This article was written in 1999 and published in the Educational Supplement of the Buenos Aires Herald. It’s a rambling, derivative and introspective reflection on a song that was seemed to be full of meaning when I first heard it. Later, when I was able to attempt a partial deconstruction, it hardly seemed worth the effort. I only put it up here at the request of a friend. But if you’re into 60s nostalgia, read on ...

It is now some twenty five years since Don McLean’s song “American Pie” hit the charts and yet it is one of those songs that has never quite gone away. I was fascinated with the song when it came out – I was at University at the time – and, listening to it again recently with some of my language students, I have once again come under its spell.

The song is irritatingly enigmatic and has been the source of much student debate over the years. Having to focus once again on the lyrics in an attempt to provide some essential background to my 1997 students (a ‘generation used to space’) I found myself needing to reevaluate some of the muddled thinking of the intervening years. However, the song certainly allows for multiple readings. Mine are no better or worse than anyone else’s and readers are invited to come back with their comments.

Throughout what follows extracts from Don McLean’s lyrics appear in italic script, with commentary in plain text.

The Song

Most people accept that the song was conceived as some sort of tribute to Buddy Holly and there are countless references to Holly’s life and sudden death in an aircrash in 1959. Further, it seems to lament the change in direction of rock and roll since Holly’s death – with the implication that if Holly had lived music and culture would have gone in a very different direction.

But I think McLean takes it further. On a broader scale, it describes the loss of innocence in a changing America through the iconography of popular songs and figures. Think if you like of the world of ‘American Pie’ as the traditional apple pie that Granny used to make – that kind of Technicolor, white picket fence, high school hop image recreated so well by David Lynch at the beginning of his film Blue Velvet.

Within the iconography (and, tantalisingly, outside it too), McLean would furthermore seem to be lamenting the lack of “danceable” music in rock and roll (remember this was recorded back in 1971) and perhaps relating that to the death of a line Buddy Holly would have followed (and been followed in).

In other words Holly’s death cut off the promise of what Leibnitz would term a ‘possible world’ in which the development of music and concomitant lifestyle would have been different, more in keeping with what the conservative, Catholic McLean would have preferred.

Verse 1

A long, long time ago…

American Pie was released twelve years after Holly’s death and probably written a couple of years earlier.

I can still remember how /That music used to make me smile./ And I knew if I had my chance/ That I could make those people dance,/ And maybe they’d be happy for a while.

The social event of McLean’s youth would probably have been the high school hop, and the function of early rock and roll music was to provide suitable music for dancing at such events. McLean, like any other high school boy, must have often dreamed of being up there on the stage with his guitar and bringing happiness (albeit temporarily) to his fellow students.

But February made me shiver,

February is a cold month in New York at the best of times. But it was in February , on February 3, 1959, to be precise, that Buddy Holly died. His plane crashed in a snowstorm in Iowa, killing him and the other occupants.

With every paper I’d deliver,

Don McLean, like so many young boys, was a paperboy in his hometown of New Rochelle, New York …

Bad news on the doorstep/ I couldn’t take one more step.

.. and, like so many Americans, he first learned about Holly’s death through the morning newspaper . The irony of his delivering the paper is a subtle touch.

 I can’t remember if I cried/ When I read about his widowed bride

Holly had only just married and his young bride was pregnant when he died. Shortly afterwards she suffered a miscarriage (1).

But something touched me deep inside/ The day the music died.

In the plane with Buddy Holly were two other big name singers: Richie Valens of La Bambafame and a Texan disk jockey known as the Big Bopper (real name J.P. Richardson), whose only hit was Chantilly Lace. ‘The Day The Music Died’ can only refer to February 3, when they all perished together (2).



Bye bye Miss American Pie,

‘American Pie’ is alleged to have been the name of the plane that crashed but I have not been able to corroborate this. However, the name clearly implies good, respectable, American values. The end of the sixties had seen such a sea change is US society, with the summer of love (1966) being replaced by hard drugs, hard line politics and hard times. When Dylan tells us (in the early sixties) that “The times they are a-changing” he is heralding the end of the American Dream. Perhaps most importantly, JFK ‘s assassination (suggested several times in the song) marked the end of the age of innocence: like grandma’s apple pie JFK was to become a memory of another, supposedly better age and his death, like Holly’s, cut off another line of development.

Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry

Consciously or not, this line echoes a scene in the movie Mississippi Burning, showing three civil rights workers, who had been killed and left at the levee. But a levee could be a place for a party too – the point here being that the levee (like the music) has dried up. The Chevy is of course the all American car, symbol of the American dream, and the levee symbolises man’s conquest of the River. But things are no longer the same ….

Them good ol’ boys were drinkin whiskey and rye

A drink common in the South, otherwise known as a ‘Whiskey sour’ and the ‘good old boys’ the traditional, conservative, perhaps red-neck kind.

Singing “This’ll be the day that I die, This’ll be the day that I die.”

One of Buddy Holly’s best known hits was “That’ll be the Day”. It had a chorus containing the repeated line “That’ll be the day.. when I die”, clearly echoed by McLean here..

Verse 2

Did you write the book of love ?

“The Book of Love” is the title of a song recorded by the Monotones which was a big hit in 1958. Buddy Holly is not credited as having written it, but then again there may have been contractual reasons for omitting the credit.

And do you have faith in God above ? / If the Bible tells you so ?

“The Bible Tells Me So” is the name of a song recorded in 1955 by Don Cornell. The lines also echo an old Sunday School song that goes: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so”. Another instance of conservative religion, perhaps, later to be contrasted with the disintegration and degeneration of society and the satanic references to Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones.

Now do you believe in rock ‘n roll?/Can music save your mortal soul?/And can you teach me how to dance real slow?

Belief is of course about things that matter. Back at the hop the slow dance was a legitimate opportunity to get close to your partner, and was an important part of the youth culture of the time. The innocence of this time was slowly replaced by the violence, sexual and psychedelic revolution of the 60s and young people lost the ability (and desire) for dancing of that kind..

Well I know you’re in love with him / Cause I saw you dancing in the gym

Those were more innocent times, and times of greater commitment. Who you danced with was really important and was something sorted out long before the event. Young people usually came together, danced together and left together. The liberation and promiscuity of the 60s saw an end to that level of commitment.

You both kicked off your shoes

Dances took place in the gym, and the floor was a wooden basket ball court which had to be protected. (These events were sometimes referred to as “sock hops”).

Man, I dig those rhythm ‘n’ blues

Young whites began listening to black music in the fifties. By the mid 50s white singers were covering black rhythm and blues songs, and some black artists (e.g. Little Richard, Fats Domino) got into the national pop charts. In 1956 The Sun record label in particular fused black rhythm and blues with white country and western and this mix was essential to Buddy Holly’s new kind of rock and roll.)

I was a lonely teenage bronkin’ buck/ With a pink carnation and a pickup truck

“A White Sport Coat (And a Pink Carnation)” is the title of a hit recorded in 1957 by Marty Robbins and was typical male dress for the big night out. Even today the pickup is seen as a symbol of male sexual independence and potency. The ‘bronco’ is a common image from cattle country.

But I knew that I was out of luck /The day the music died/ I started singing…


Verse 3

Now for ten years we’ve been on our own

I don’t know exactly when McLean wrote this song (it was released twelve years after Holly’s death) but it must have been about ten years since the aircrash which left the young people ‘on their own’.

And moss grows fat on a rolling stone

The main reference is probably to Bob Dylan whose “Like a Rolling Stone” (1965) was his first major hit. Dylan had been the seminal spokesman for a whole new generation and had turned his back on his rebel past and sat at home (i.e. stopped touring for eight years) . Perhaps the reference is more general, referring to the whole industry which was becoming increasingly capitalistic. At about this time the Rolling Stones took the hitherto unprecedented step of living a year outside the United Kingdom to save paying income tax, then at an excessively high rate. Given the invocation of the Rolling Stones later on the phrase is hardly fortuitous.

But that’s not how it used to be/When the jester sang for the King and Queen

This is undoubtedly a reference to Bob Dylan (the ‘jester’). The ‘King’ could well be Elvis Presley and the Queen very possibly ‘Connie Francis’. Some have Joan Baez, but I see no evidence for it. But Dylan did perform at a civil rights rally in Washington DC, not only in front of Martin Luther King but more importantly for John and Jackie Kennedy, commonly known in the media of the time as the king and queen of “Camelot” – the new age that was supposed (erroneously, as it happened) to be coming in.

Dylan also played a command performance for the Queen of England, and the ‘jester’ may be a reference to his refusal to dress ‘correctly’ for the occasion. Of course it might also refer to his characteristic tousled appearance and pixieish demeanour caught in so many photographs of that time, perhaps most spectacularly on the cover of the LP “Blonde on Blonde”.

In a coat he borrowed from James Dean

Each time James Dean put on his red coat in the movie “Rebel Without a Cause” he was symbolising his up-front, in-your-face attitude to the world. Within a week of the film’s release you couldn’t buy a remotely similar red jacket in the whole of the United States. Dean and Dylan were both icons for the youth of their time. On Dean’s death Dylan assumed his ‘coat’ in more senses than one – if you look at the cover of his album “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”, Dylan is wearing Dean’s red jacket and the street scene is reconstructed around a famous James Dean Publicity shot..

And a voice that came from you and me

Bob Dylan came out of Hibbing, Minnesota, and was at first totally plugged into the American folk tradition. He hung out at the Gaslight in New York where he met all the contemporary folk singers – in particular Pete Seeger and the dying Woody Guthrie. Insofar as folk music is people’s music, then his song “…came from you and me”. But Dylan spoke for his generation in another sense, in a way that had never been possible before. With the advantage of a more permissive media, with greater reach, he said what had previously been unsayable. Songs like ‘Blowing in the wind’ and ‘The times they are a’changing’ may seem tame today but they shook the foundations of the establishment at the time. Dylan spoke for his whole generation, and his influence has been seminal, to an extent perhaps not always fully remembered today.

Oh, and while the King was looking down /The jester stole his thorny crown

Elvis may have looked down from the pinnacle of his fame but he was also on the way down, sinking into a life style that would end in obesity, obscenity and overdose. Dylan was a fast mover, ever an opportunist, on the way up. Why the crown (of the new ‘king’) should be ‘thorny’ is unclear, beyond the biblical allusion. (3)

The courtroom was adjourned, /No verdict was returned.

The only contemporary reference to a real court trial I could find was the trial of the Chicago Seven which seems too remote. It seems more likely that McLean is referring to the court of public opinion regarding what was happening to music (in this case symbolising values) and that the lack of a ‘verdict’ is a metaphor for general apathy and indifference.

And while Lennon read a book on Marx,

Perhaps this refers to the introduction of radical politics into the music of the Beatles (a metaphor once again for society as a whole). The conceit is of course based on the phonetic similarity of John Lennon and Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov (Lenin). Certainly the 60s saw a general growth and interest in communism (and a strong US reaction against it).

The quartet practiced in the park

Consistency and chronology would indicate that this refers to the Beatles playing in Shea Stadium, but why ‘practicing’ ? And why would Lennon be elsewhere ? A quartet could of course be any conventional rock band, or could refer to any other group of four individuals. I’ll take a rain check on this one.

And we sang dirges in the dark

When JFK died Network televison went off the air for 4 four days while the whole country mourned. The US was plunged into another kind of dark too – the dark of doubt, despair and uncertainty. The new order – new Camelot – was not to be.

The day the music died.

The death of the music this time seems more tied down to JFK’s assassination in Dallas, once again the death of an American dream as JFK exchanged hopes of a new Camelot for the Avalon of the west coast.

We were singing…


Verse 4

Helter Skelter in a summer swelter

“Helter Skelter” is one of the Beatles song which inspired Charles Manson to order the savage butchering to death of  Sharon Tate and others in the hot California summer of 1969. ‘Helter Skelter’ in Manson’s world was to be the day in which the Blacks, at Manson’s instigation, finally rose against the white population in Los Angeles and slaughtered them all. Manson would then lead his dune buggy tribe out of the Hole in Death Valley and be welcomed as the new Messiah. Heavy stuff, mixed up with Satanism and drug dealing and rip-offs, certainly symbolising the end of traditional American family values..

The birds flew off with the fallout shelter

Fallout shelters were very much part of the cultural baggage of the Cold War era. There may be an additional play of words here with ‘falling out’ and ‘dropping out’. The birds (the pop group the Byrds) would also have ‘flown’ in the sense of their known drug use.

Eight miles high and falling fast

“Eight Miles High” was a hit for The Byrds in 1966. The song was banned, on the (undeniable) grounds that it was about drugs.. Both “Helter Skelter” (“When I get to the bottom I go back to the top”) and “Eight miles High” refer to the feeling of ‘flying’ or being ‘high’ on dope and the former can also be seen as a drug-induced description of rhythmic sexual activity. Songs didn’t used to be about things like this.

It landed foul on the grass

‘Landing’ is coming down or finishing a trip and ‘grass’ is marijuana. The Byrds, like so many rock musicians, fell foul of the law in this respect. The line also introduces a new strand, the metaphor of the football game.

The players tried for a forward pass

The metaphor is from football, but beyond that seems unclear. Depending on the game in question a ‘forward pass’ may or may not be illegal. The players may be musicians or sportsman. McLean is trying here to sustain a triple metaphor – the threads of music, sport and political repression – and I think he loses it. The reference is presumably there for those who can see it, but I can’t.

With the jester on the sidelines in a cast

On July 29, 1966, Dylan had a serious motor cycle accident in Woodstock, New York State. He was ‘out of action’ (and enormously silent) for nearly a year. ‘Sidelines’ neatly ties in the sporting metaphor with the marginalisation of Dylan, holed up in the Big Pink recording the Basement tapes, and ‘cast’ continues the double word play – it can be a ‘plaster cast’ or the ‘cast’ of a play in the sense that we all have roles to play in life and this was Dylan’s at that time. McLean thrives on this layering of ambiguity .

Now the half-time air was sweet perfume / While sergeants played a marching tune

‘Half-time’ continues the sporting metaphor but could also refer to a half-way stage of political change. The second line feeds in a new metaphor. “Sweet perfume” is probably a cynical allusion to tear gas and the ‘sergeants’ the Police and National Guard who marched protesters out of so many public gatherings (e. g. the excessive repression at Ohio State University).. At another level, given the multiple references to the Beatles, it obviously refers too to the “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album.

We all got up to dance / Oh, but we never got the chance

In 1966 The Beatles gave a concert in Candlestick Park but as it became impossible to control the crowds the performance only lasted 35 minutes. Another interpretation here that ties in with the song’s running thread would be that the ‘sergeants’ (the Beatles) played a ‘marching tune’ (i.e. music you couldn’t dance to), rather than the ‘dancing music’ Buddy Holly would have developed if he had not died so young. Or perhaps the ‘sergeants’ simply represent authorities that prevented young people from ‘dancing’ (read having a good time) in public.

‘Cause the players tried to take the field, / The marching band refused to yield.

The multiple reference continues throughout all this verse . Politically, the reference is to protesters at Kent State where the ‘players’ (students), tried to take control of the ‘field’ (campus), the ‘marching band’ being the Ohio National Guard. In terms of the rock and roll thread (and the song is after all a potted history of pop music) I think the reference is to a failed attempt by the Beach Boys who in 1966 attempted (with their brilliant, underrated album “Pet Sounds”) to supplant the Beatles hold on the industry. The Beatles of course, like the Ohio National Guard, stood firm.

Do you recall what was revealed, / The day the music died?

What was revealed ? I sincerely have no idea. Maybe this is enigma for enigma’s sake. Or McLean is again being a little too esoteric ? Answers on a postcard please ..

We started singing


Verse 5

And there we were all in one place

This just has to be Woodstock, 1969, the Festival. You just had to have been there !!. We all were. If you missed it, rent the movie – it’s a historical document. Nuff said.

A generation lost in space

Spaced out’ was a common 60s euphemism for the effects of drugs. Hippies also tended to be seriously alienated from their parents, and thus a ‘spaced out’ hippie could be doubly lost. ‘Lost in Space’ was also the name of a pretty naff TV series in US in the late 60s but I somehow can’t see McLean alluding to that.

With no time left to start again

Too much drugs ? Grown up too quickly ? The American dream irrevocably lost ? JFK and his new Camelot gone. The music that could never go back to where Buddy Holly might have taken it ? All those lost opportunities, lost chances, the what if’s have no future chance.

So come on Jack be nimble Jack be quick/Jack Flash sat on a candlestick/’Cause fire is the devil’s only friend

The Rolling Stones first hit was called “Come on”. Another major hit, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, was released in May, 1968 and the Stones’ presumably would have sung it at their Candlestick park concert. ‘Sympathy for the Devil ‘was another Stones song of that time and the Grateful Dead had a song called “Friend of the Devil”). “Jack be nimble Jack be quick/Jack Flash sat on a candlestick” is a children’s nursery rhyme which makes the allusion even more dramatic.

Jack is also the first name of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and  McLean picks up on the earlier reference to fallout shelters here, with the candlestick representing an ICBM armed with a nuclear warhead. In Kubricks’s 60’s film “Dr Strangelove” Slim Pickens plays a Texan Air Commander who sits astride such an atomic device when the bomb release won’t unlock and rides it to his death and the destruction of the known world.

Such hell and brimstone (fire) are the province of the devil, which leads us neatly back to the Rolling Stones …

And as I watched him on the stage My hands were clenched in fists of rage No angel born in hell Could break that Satan’s spell

.. who played a gig at the Altamont Speedway in 1968. They were perhaps naive, but on the advice of the Grateful Dead they put Hell’s Angels bikers in charge of their concert security. In the confusion of the night a certain Meredith Hunter was beaten and stabbed to death by the Angels to the background of the Stones playing ‘Under my Thumb’ (4). The Stones also had an earlier album (of appallingly naff psychedelic trash) called “Their Satanic Majesties’ Request” and it would seem that McLean is not altogether happy with this aspect of the Stones’ artistic career.

And as the flames climbed high into the night /To light the sacrificial rite

Still in Altamont, Jagger prancing around on the stage while bonfires (common at rock concerts in those days) provide the background for the sacrificial murder of Meredith Hunter .

I saw Satan laughing with delight

The only conclusion can be that Satan here is Mick Jagger. Don McLean is said to have had a strict Catholic upbringing – if he really wanted a return to traditional American apple pie and Sunday School values then he may be vehemently laying the responsibility for the tragic death of Meredith Hunter at Jagger’s door. More likely the Altamont incident is a convenient peg that serves McLean as a metaphor for the malaise of the age, and Jagger is the vehicle, a conduit, rather than the devil incarnate..

The day the music died / He was singing…


Verse 6

I met a girl who sang the blues

Would you believe Janis Joplin…..?

And I asked her for some happy news /But she just smiled and turned away

… who OD’d on heroin on October 4, 1970. Yet another music myth whose potential was cut short. Actually, Joplin was already past it – her Woodstock performance demonstrates the fact quite clearly – despite the smile, her lifestyle of drugs and alcohol had little happy news, and like Elvis, there was no way to go but down. And out.

I went down to the sacred store/ Where I’d heard the music years before

The “sacred store” could be that Mecca of the Sixties, Bill Graham’s Fillmore West, one of the great rock and roll venues of all time. But it could also be the local record store – ‘sacred’ because it is a repository of the old music – which in the good old days often used to let kids listen to records in the store without buying them.

But the man there said the music wouldn’t play

There’s no demand for the old music, perhaps. Or kids have to pay to hear it now. Or things just don’t work any more. Whatever. The point is, it’s all over.

And in the streets the children screamed/ The lovers cried and the poets dreamed

‘Children’ here refers in part to the ‘flower children’ of the sixties, (free) loving and dreaming their way through the end of the decade and crying in pain and anger as they avoid the batons of police and National Guard troops. There seems to be an echo here too of one of the most horrific images of the Vietnam War – the much published photograph of children running down a village street, on fire, after a napalm attack on their village.

But not a word was spoken/ The church bells all were broken

Everyone saw what was happening, no one was prepared to condemn it. Just as the broken bells can no longer produce music neither can the dead (i.e. silent) musicians. And broken church bells imply a neglected church, in which the old religion (music) is no longer observed.

And the three men I admire most /The Father Son and Holy Ghost

Obviously the Biblical reference stands, and ties in with the other Christian threads. It could also be the three singers killed in the Iowa plane crash – Holly, The Big Bopper, and Valens. Once again, something doesn’t quite gel here and one is left with the feeling that meaning has become subordinated to a snazzy rhyme scheme..

They caught the last train for the coast/ The day the music died

The west coast has long been a place where all the weirdo cults seem to thrive, and all the hippies gravitated there, mainly to San Francisco and LA.. If the “three men” were Holly/Bopper/Valens, and going to the coast means ‘passing over’ then this repeats the conceit that the music died along with Buddy Holly.

In Celtic mythology dead heroes depart to the West for a better place (e.g. King Arthur sailing off in his barge to Avalon), so the three dead singers (‘players’) could be making a similar journey. On another tack, if the US had always been God’s own country and the US people had had God on their side from Independence to the end of WW2 at least, maybe this marks the end of God’s cooperation, and he has abandoned us to stew in our own hedonistic juices. In simple terms, God just split.

And they were singing…

Refrain (2x)


“American Pie” has been one of the most talked about and analyzed songs of the post-war era.. In it somewhere, if you can get at it, is a complete history of rock and roll but it is wrapped up in such ambivalent and esoteric imagery that it lends itself to endless interpretations.

McLean himself has consistently refused to explain the song but he has let slip a couple of hints:

‘When I first heard “American Pie” on the radio, I was playing a gig somewhere, and it was immediately followed by Peggy Sue. They caught on to the Holly connection right away, and that made me very happy. I was quite interested in America – I still write about the different aspects of America – and to me, something was slipping away and I couldn’t quite put my finger on how to express it. I was sitting up in this little house where I lived and I just started to write this first verse about the day I cut open this bunch of papers [when he was a paper boy] and saw that Buddy Holly had been killed. The memory unlocked a whole bunch of things. Suddenly the song wrote itself…’

And again: ‘I can’t necessarily interpret American Pie” any better than you can,’ ( LIFE magazine, 1972). ‘Buddy Holly was the first and last person I ever really idolized as a kid. Most of my friends liked Elvis Presley. More of them liked Presley than Holly. But I liked Holly because he spoke to me. He was a symbol of something deeper than the music he made. His career and the sort of group he created, the interaction between the lead singer and the three men backing him up, was a perfect metaphor for the music of the ’60s and for my own youth’.

Twenty-five years later, McLean’s legacy gives us a complicated yet fascinating vignette which speaks not only about his own youth but about that of a whole generation.


  • Billboard Book of Number One Hits, Bronson F, Billboard, 1985
  • Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, (rev. ed.), Stambler I, St. Martin’s Press, 1989.
  • It was Twenty Years ago Today: An Anniversary Celebration of 1967, Taylor D, Fireside, 1987.
  • Return of the Straight Dope, Adams C, Ballantine Books, 1994, p.398.
  • Rock Chronicle, Formento D, Delilah/Putnam, 1982.
  • Rock Day by Day, Smith S and the Diagram Group, Guiness Books, 1987.
  • Rock Topicon, Marsh D et al, Contemporary Books, 1984.
  • Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, ed. Pareles J & Romanowski P, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
  • Rolling Stone Record Guide, ed. Marsh D & Swenson J, Random House/Rolling Stone Press, 1979.
  • Smiling Through the Apocalypse: Esquire’s History of the Sixties, ed. Hayes H, Esquire Press, 1987.
  • The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, Gitlin T, Bantam Books, 1987.


  1. A connection has been suggested with the story of Billy Joe MacAllister who jumped off the Tallahachee Bridge in Bobby Gentry’s song Ode to Billy Joe. Certainly there are a number of surprising coincidences too recherché to go into here but these are most likely the result of wishful thinking.
  2. Another country singer, Waylon Jennings, relinquished his seat at the last moment as therewas no space for the four of them. To this day he has refused to discuss the event.
  3. McLean uses the thorn image again in his song about Van Gogh, Vincent, with its hauntingly beautiful (and frustratingly enigmatic) lines: … a silver thorn a bloody rose, lie crushed and broken on the virgin snow.
  4. Incorrectly recorded by many as ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. The incident is recorded in the movie “Gimme Shelter”. The Stones dropped the song from their concert repertoire for about ten years.

EFL exams are not what they used to be …

When I started out as an EFL teacher back in the 1960s things were very different from now. The University of Cambridge (UCLES as it then was) was running a three-tier system of English language exams for overseas students: the ‘Lower Certificate in English’, introduced in 1939 (and renamed ‘First Certificate’ in 1976); the ‘Certificate of Proficiency in English (CPE) introduced in 1913 (and often referred to at the time as ‘the Higher’); and a third, absurdly high level exam way above CPE called the ‘Diploma of English Studies’ (DES), introduced I think in 1945. During my early teaching years I prepared candidates for all three of these and was a listening and oral examiner for the Lower and CPE. The format was different, more different than you could probably imagine, but that’s not my topic for today.

In those pre-CEFR days it was hard to assess the level of an exam, but the CPE then was to my mind much ‘harder’ than it is today. Certainly none the exams in the forms they then existed were what we would want to call communicative. The CPE included translation and both literary criticism and ‘Literature’, and was not unlike English language A-level of the day in some respects. The DES was a very ‘advanced’ exam indeed, one which went way beyond this and then further into contrastive cultural studies, etc. The candidature for DES was always small and in 1996 it was ‘quietly removed’. I have a few friends around still who achieved DES level, including one or two I helped prepare; but much of the ‘preparation’ was in fact carried out by the candidates themselves.

In the 1980s and 1990s the levels stabilised and the ‘main suite’ of exams slowly emerged until we reached the set of exams we know now.

That was then and now is now. A rather damning and anonymous comment (“A review of Local Examinations Syndicate – University of Cambridge”) was made on Wednesday 4th of January 2006 (see here for source).

UCLES administered until 1996 the Diploma of English Studies, an examination in English Literature and background studies at post-Proficiency level. Its discontinuation was due to the low number of entries of candidates; UCLES was busy running the far more popular -and profitable- FCE and CPE exams and could see no (financial) viability in the Diploma. Moreover, the introduction of new exams, such as KET and PET would mean attracting more and more test takers and the accrual of greater commercial gain, so why bother about literature and higher-level exams at all? One could argue that there was nothing wrong with their decision to discontinue it; still, an examining body which respects its audience should, as well as creating new exams, cater for the needs of successful candidates in terms of maintaining recognition even of discontinued qualifications. In short, UCLES should have done two things: It should have continued to make reference, in the Regulations, to the Diploma (as an advanced exam at post-Proficiency level) and, secondly, it should have tried to have it included in NQF (national qualifications framework) at, say, level 5 (the same level as DELTA). This way, Diploma holders would not have been left dissatisfied.

So, Mammon had a voice although it was missed by a few in its passing. Have we seen a dumbing down of these English language exams over the years? Well, probably yes and no, apples and oranges;  I have no dog in this fight.

When CPE (the ‘middle level’ of the Lower-CPE-DES exams) started, students were taking 12 hours of papers, with translations, literature and essays on such topics as ‘The effect of political movements upon nineteenth century literature in England’, ‘English Pre-Raphaelitism’, ‘Elizabethan travel and discovery’ and ‘The development of local self-government’, with no guidance as to how to approach these topics. They required strong cognitive and intellectual skills and a good knowledge of language, literature and culture which is not expected today, and in fact is often actively resisted by exam writers. I’m not sure there’s a place today in EFL for any of that.

Today’s exams are far more ‘authentic’ and student-oriented, and some would say considerably ‘easier’ in terms of the language they test. They are also far less Anglocentric and undoubtedly more accessible to today’s students than the post-WW2 versions would be, and that has to be a good thing.

The Red Rose and the Briar

A brief look at the ballad tradition, with special reference to “Barbara Allen”

Traditionally and historically a ballad is an oral narrative poem with no attributed author, sometimes recited and sometimes sung, occasionally to the accompaniment of a musical instrument. The heyday of the ballad was the late Middle Ages and the most prolific area was that of the Border Counties of England and the Lowlands of Scotland. Indeed it is common to talk of ‘Border Ballads’, even though in time they have spread throughout most parts of the British Isles.

We should be careful to distinguish between the traditional Border ballad and the later ‘street’ or ‘broadside’ ballad. The former comes from a preliterate, rural community, tends to the tragic, romantic and heroic, frequently contains elements of the supernatural and is often contained in tenuously connected narrative fragments. The street ballad comes later, is urban, comic and realistic, passed around a literate society in printed form and tends to have a more leisurely and detailed narrative delivery. We shall concern ourselves in this article only with the first kind.

Our knowledge of the English ballad today is largely due to a certain Prof. Francis James Child, who in his five volume collection The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-98) has left us the definitive ballad canon, consisting of 305 Ballads in 1000 versions. These are songs once sung by milkmaids, nurses and ploughmen: popular music in the real sense of the word, music of the people, authors unknown.

Child’s studies encompassed both the British Isles and North America, where the settlers took their customs with them, often living in closed communities with little contact with the linguistic and cultural mainstream. One often cited example is that of the pockets of communities in the Appalachian Mountains who when ‘rediscovered’ at the turn of the twentieth century were still speaking a variety of English that was in all effects that of Shakespeare’s England. In many cases they had also kept the songs and customs they brought with them from the various parts of England they had fled.

While Child is the undoubted authority on ballad texts his counterpart for the collection of ‘tunes” was a certain Bertrand Harris Bronson, who in his four volume publication The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, published in New Jersey between 1959-72 collected an enormous variety of different musical versions. Together with his UK counterpart Cecil Sharp of the English Folk Song and Dance Society an amazing amount of fieldwork has been done, tracking down elderly people in isolated rural areas who have maintained an oral tradition that includes songs first mentioned more than five hundred years ago. Fortunately much of this material has now been recorded and is available for consultation through the Library of Congress and other similar organisations.

Some characteristics of the ballad

 The tale and the tune were of equal importance. The ballad was made for singing but the ‘story’ was predominant. There was a set of standard images, metaphors and conventions familiar to the public who therefore knew what to expect. A parallel can be drawn here with audiences attending Elizabethan or Jacobean theatre who also knew what was going to ‘happen’; the strength of the play (or ballad) lay not only in the telling but also in the retelling of a familiar tale.

Most ballads seem to be medieval in origin. At this time society was largely illiterate and it was not until the Eighteenth century that ballads began to be collected in written form. It is because ballads come from a pre-literate era that there tend to be so many different versions.

While originally the events behind many ballads may have been local the story will have spread more widely. Presumably travelling people, the equivalent of today’s buskers and ‘travellers’, moved from town to town and a good story-teller or troubadour would have been able to count on getting his supper.

People in medieval England and Scotland were more mobile than is often supposed and the versions carried around the country by travelling balladeers would have been oral, not written. Ballads would have travelled slowly, as there was no mass dissemination through the national media as today. But the ‘essence’ of the ballad will gradually have made its way around the country, even if the form suffered many changes.

The ballad has a stylistic and thematic clarity. The themes are simple: revenge, unrequited love, mistreated maidens, philanderers getting their comeuppance, etc. Roles are on the whole polarised into good and bad, black and white.

Essentially the ballad was made for singing; they can be considered narrative songs with a metrical structure that made them easy to memorise. The oral tradition with its consequent call for memory skills led to certain stylistic features: vocabulary conventions, simple and predictable rhymes, incremental repetitions, obligatory epithets, magical numbers, nuncupative testaments (see below), commonplace phrases, a strong reliance on dramatic dialogue, etc.

These features helped to make the ballads easy to remember. The oral balladeer, unlike more ‘literary’ poets, depended on prefabricated formulas which would provide him with a convenient mental package in which he could wrap his narrative. This, easily fixed in the brain, was equally easily passed on, but what was passed on was the ‘shape’, not the form. New singers would adapt the shape to new circumstances, personalising it and making it comfortable to them, yet the ballad remained recognisable.

On different occasions the same performer might modify some aspects of the form but the shape of the song remained recognisably the same – orally transmitted and orally transmuted[1]. One Elizabethan song, Lamikin (Child 93), is printed by Child in twenty-two different versions but they all tell essentially the same tale.

What happens is that the narrative macrostructure remains intact while the stylistic microstructure changes. This is hard to understand for those who live in a literate society, but a good analogy is a joke which remains constant and recognisable although there is no fixed way of telling it.


 The scales on which many folk ballads are based differed from the major and minor as used in Western music today. Some belong to the family of what are sometimes called ‘Greek’ modes. Some of them are considered ‘gapped’ scales (certain steps being consistently absent) while others seem to belong to no classifiable system whatsoever.

In the earlier part of this century US Professor of Music John Jacob Niles made an extraordinary recording of some of the Child ballads to the accompaniment of a home-made dulcimer. Very rare today, two albums are available on the Folkways label and his falsetto singing style may give a fair representation of how some of these ballads once sounded. Other recordings have been archived at the Library of Congress and by the English Folk Dance and Song Society. In Britain today there is a strong revivalist movement in traditional folk music and much is available on disk, cassette and CD.


The verse structure is typically abcb and 179 out of the 305 ballads in the Child canon follow this pattern, with a and c being four-stress and b being three-stress lines. We see this in Mary Hamilton (Child 173 I), Geordie (Child 209) and Barbara Allen (Child 84) to name but three of the best known ballads. There is a tendency to repeat the last line of each stanza.

The typical ballad metre has quatrains which alternate iambic tetrameters with iambic trimeters and it is probable that the form was once a fourteen syllable couplet which later split into the common eight and six syllable form.

Such a split may well have brought an increasing tendency to rhyme the first and third lines as well as the third and fourth, giving the abab structure present in many of the later ballads. Nevertheless, given the enormous dialectal variation around the country, the idiosyncrasies and idiolects of each individual singer and the extent to which the language has changed over the centuries it is hard to do more than make an educated guess as to how they would have sounded.

Ballads commonly contain a ‘refrain’ which is poetically decorative, easy to remember and musically essential. This is echoed in carols, folk stories (e.g. Little Red Riding Hood with it’s frequently repeated “who’s been …ing”) and sagas.[2] We can see this refrain today in Bob Dylan’s song A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall (recently revived by Edie Brickell) where he has the recurring lines

Where have you been my blue-eyed son
Where have you been my darling young one

in which a dialogue between mother and son is patterned very closely indeed on Lord Randal (Child 12), with its

Oh where have you been, Lord Randall my son ?
O where have you been, my handsome young man ?

although the narrative development differs [3].

Rhyme schemes are generally predictable and often sound forced to a modern audience – ‘bower’ & ‘honour’, ‘warm’ & ‘bairn’, ‘narrow’ & ‘sorrow’ & ‘tomorrow’ – although these usually present no problem when sung. These reflect sound changes that have taken place in the language but the conventions remain and are followed today as part of the tradition even in more modern ballads. One example: in the relatively recent The Wild Colonial Boy the word ‘wound’ (injury) is made to rhyme with ‘ground’ [4].

Although the music is generally subjugated to the words – in fact most ballads were originally sung unaccompanied – the ‘tune’ can sometimes (although admittedly not always) be very melodic. Joan Baez exploited this aspect of the ballad very successfully in the sixties with a series of studio recordings of the Child ballads. As for variety, one ballad, The Maid Freed from the Gallows (Child 95), was registered by Bronson with 68 different tunes. There is a very definite tendency, however, for the melody to be simple and repetitive, and it is interesting that Blues, although not sharing the same melodies, often shares the same external structures. A fascinating bridge between the traditions of the folk ballad and the blues can be found in Bob Dylan’s deliberately monotonous Ballad of Hollis Brown, which echoes many conventions of the past while remaining firmly rooted in the dust bowl present Dylan inherited for a while from Woody Guthrie.

The narrative tends to be very dramatic (see text of Barbara Allen in box) with an explosive situation and highly volatile characters. Something simply has to happen and does. There is a clear parallel here with the fatalism of classical tragedy.

Tales may not be new. Indeed, generally they are not, but like classic tragedy they can withstand re-telling. Nor are they particularly concerned with historical accuracy. The ballad is autonomous, that is to say it contains its own terms of reference, and has its own internal consistency and coherence.

The symbolism can be repetitive but also very powerful. A good example can be found at the very end of Barbara Allen where the ‘Red Rose’ (the cultivated, perfect bloom, representing amongst other things the noble Sweet William) and the ‘Briar’ (the wild rose, either born that way or reverted to type, representing the feral, untamed Barbara Allen), unable to be together in life, are finally united in death. For me this couplet is one of the finest and most evocative in the whole of the Child collection.

Many conventions of vocabulary are set pieces that occur in ballad after ballad. Some examples: ‘seven brave sons’, ‘bridle me my milk-white steed’, ‘twelve month and a day’. And there are narrative conventions too. If one lover dies, then usually so does the other, inevitably ‘on the morrow’, and as often as not ‘in sorrow’.

Deathbed and scaffold speeches are common, often accompanied by the nuncupative testament where a dying or departing protagonist orally disposes of his worldly goods. This is sometimes done ironically, with a dying subject leaving a curse behind him instead of his chattels. An example is The Cruel Brother (Child 11A), where the dying heroine leaves all her worldly goods to various faithful family members but when asked about her brother (who has stabbed her for not asking him to approve her choice of husband)

What will you leave to your brother John

she replies:

The gallows tree to hang him on

There are early glimpses of magic realism too. Actions and events are often exaggerated to make them more vivid – e.g. a man’s legs are cut off in battle and he goes on fighting on his stumps. On the more human side, simple people derive vicarious pleasure from listening to tales of ladies in all their finery, robes and jewels. And perhaps too a touch of Schadenfreude in seeing how far the high and mighty can fall, or be punished.

Stark contrasts are common, as in Mary Hamilton:

When she cam to the Netherbrow Port
She laughed loud laughters three
But when she cam to the gallows-foot
The tears blinded her ee

and again in the Gypsie Laddie (Child 200)

Last night I slept in a goose feather bed
With the lily white sheets around me so
And tonight I’ll sleep all alone in the deep
Alone with the black black gypsy O


Ballad singers wanted to provide exciting narrative, to tell extraordinary tales, with easily assimilated narrative substance that would provide a welcome means of escape from the predictable rhythms of everyday life. People today are on the whole empirical – that is to say we understand the nature of cause and effect. We tend today to rely on information where the non-literate relied on imagination.

The balance people held between rational belief and superstition in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is not immediately easy to comprehend for a twentieth century audience. Folklore in those times was an imaginative interpretation of an apparently random universe and people took entertainment very seriously indeed. They were perhaps naive, but not hopelessly credulous, nor totally at the mercy of superstition, rooted as they were in the harsh reality of their rural world.

An analysis of most popular ballads shows that they deal with tragic love, the eternal triangle, murder, rape, magic, romantic passion, unrequited love and the supernatural. Much in fact like best-sellers today. This is not so much to say that the people of the time believed in ghosts, the supernatural, etc., as that they liked hearing about them. They enjoyed a good story. But we are talking about the dawn of the age of reason here, not about Neanderthals shivering in some primeval bog. That said, even today how many of us are altogether happy alone in the forest at night? And in those days there was a lot of forest and no artificial light.

Interestingly enough, even in an age where church attendance was compulsory by law, there is a noticeable lack of religious dogma in the ballads. Indeed, they frequently deal with sex and violence and even those with religious themes (inevitably Christian but with occasional heretical elements) would have been blasphemous to the strictly orthodox puritan. This is a people’s tradition, not something foisted upon them by officialdom, and it deals with the things they were concerned with (and presumably interested in). Rape, premarital sex, marital infidelity, unwanted pregnancies and children born out of wedlock are at the heart of the ballad tradition yet a moralistic tone is almost entirely absent. This is not to say that revenge or justice are not meted out but carnality per se is not overtly condemned.

The verbal duel and the riddle – examples are Fause Knight upon the Road (Child 3) and Captain Wedderburn’s Courtship [5] (Child 46 A) – are other frequent elements. The second of these is a typical contest with chastity at stake and has strong sexual overtones throughout. The ballad, the people’s song, is nothing if not earthy.

Returning to the theme of magic and the supernatural we can see a frequent preoccupation with metamorphosis, changelings and fairy folk. Interestingly enough, the theme of Silkie, otherwise known as The Great Silkie of Sule Skerry (Child 113) with a protagonist that is half man and half seal, has only recently been revived in local cinemas as El Secreto de Roan Irish. Resurrection, witchcraft, battles between human and fairy forces; these are themes that recur throughout the Child canon.

So too is the idea of defeat against insuperable odds – the battle of Agincourt was after all a relatively recent reality and one kept alive in every Englishman’s breast. Revived by Shakespeare in Henry V, Agincourt was invoked even as recently as the Second World War in Olivier’s propagandist film production and yet again, a few years ago, in Kenneth Branagh’s rather less satisfying techni-colour extravaganza. Sympathy for the underdog is timeless, and was exploited in the Middle Ages just as much as today.

I remarked earlier that the ballads are not necessarily good history. We can obviously put the natural deformity of detail down to the ravages of time but the truth is that it doesn’t really matter. At the time the dealings of King and Court were greatly removed from the common people who in more remote areas might live several years without even knowing that a reigning monarch had been replaced. The sea captain Patrick Spens is well known today, but who was he ? No one knows. The legends (and ballads) of Robin Hood are none the less enjoyable for the fact that the outlaw himself is a very elusive historical personage, most probably an amalgam of several different people. For the ballad historical details are not important. In time the essence of the tale becomes more important than the veracity of the events or the identity of the protagonists.

Mention should be made of the cinematographic aspect of the ballad. I use the word ‘cinematographic’ because the conventions are in a sense a precursor of modern editing techniques in film making; the quick cut, the fade, the dissolve, the flashback, etc.

Consider these lines from Patrick Spens (Child 58 A):

The king hath sent a letter
And sealed it with his hand
And sent it to Sir Patrick Spens
Was walking on the strand

where from one line to the next, with no linkage, the scene dissolves from the king sealing the letter to Sir Patrick Spens reading it, exactly as is done on TV or in the cinema today. Examples like this abound in the Child ballads.

Finally, we return to the evocative language. The word evokes the image, and the conventions must be respected. Magic numbers were very real – the number seven, for example, as in ‘seven days and nights he rode’, ‘seven brave sons with seven swords’, etc. Horses are typically ‘milk white steeds’ and are as often as not ‘bridled’ [6], periods of time are invariably finished by ‘and a day’, etc. In ballads of the 1960s the ‘milk white steed’ had become the ‘midnight freight’; equally evocative, the only difference being the terms of reference.

Bonny Barbara Allen

In an entry in his famous Diary for 2 January 1666, the year of the Great Fire of London, the British Naval Chronicler Samuel Pepys refers to the song Barbary Allen (sic), and how he would have the woman with whom he was infatuated at that time sing it for him. In their billets-doux she was his ‘Barbara Allen’ and he was, with apologies to the sensitive, her ‘Dapper Dicky’.

A famous collection of ballads was published in 1765 as Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. The editor was one Thomas Percy, who was encouraged in his venture by Shenstone, Johnson, Garrick and others. Familiarly known as Percy’s Reliques, it was immensly popular and, along with The Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and Milton’s Pilgrim’s Progress was through the years one of the major influences on British culture[7], although the post-literate society towards which we seem to be heading may have no place for any of these.

Percy called the ballad Barbara Allen’s Cruelty, and his version ends in sermonising voice:

Farewell, she sayd, ye virgins all
And shun the fault I fell in
Henceforth take warning by the fall
Of cruel Barbara Allen

Barbara Allen is perhaps the most famous of the British ballads and the song itself has survived in many versions. One is left with the feeling that the story (see text) is incomplete, that much is presupposed or deliberately left unsaid. Yet it is in the succinctness of the tale that its strength lies – we are told only that two lovers met and parted, that she hastened his death, was indifferent to his suffering – in some versions she laughs when told how he wastes away – and then repented and died on the following day. Scant detail indeed.

And how to explain her cruelty ? Some versions call her ‘Barbarous Ellen’. There would seem to be a general agreement that Barbara Allen had some power over the man in question – ‘Sweet William’ in the version printed here, in other versions ‘Sir John Graeme’, ‘Jemmy Grove’, et al, – very possibly through some kind of spell or witchcraft.

Maybe she was put out because he had led her on and then abandoned her to marry someone of his own station. For this reason she may have bewitched him, making a ‘voodoo style’ doll out of his clothing, nail parings, hair, etc., into which she stuck steel pins while slowly turning it over a candle flame. In Thomas Hardy’s novel The Return of the Native Eustacia Vye is bewitched in just this way and the practice was common in country districts in England until at least the mid nineteenth century[8].

There may be a clue in one early variant quoted (but not attributed) by Allingham in his The Ballad Book. Here, in a deathbed conversation between the dying lord and the hard-hearted Barbara Allen, appear the lines:

“Oh do you not mind, young man”, she says
“When the red wine you were filling
That you made the healths go round and round
And slighted Barbara Allen

Here ‘mind’ means remember and ‘healths’ would be toasts drunk to friends present or absent. But discourtesy (‘slights’) over the dinner table seems little enough motive for such cruelty.

In any case the circumstantial detail is not so important – what we have here is the essence of hundreds of romantic love stories distilled into this one ballad. The tantalising lack of detail adds an extra element of mystery to a tragic tale.

Final observations

Traditional ballads were not conceived in artistic isolation to gratify the inspirational genius of a lonely creator, nor to line the pockets of a Motown mogul. They were made to be used, to be handed around and handed on, the proud possession of a people obsessed with survival, taking time out for entertainment that would survive with them and, unbeknownst to them, dramatically outlive them. The turning point came with mass literacy and improved communications. Today the world of the ballad gives us a tantalising glimpse of a past to which we can never return.

© Martin Eayrs, Buenos Aires, November 1995



Bold Alan, The Ballad, London (Methuen) 1979
Bronson Bertrand Harris, The Ballad as Song, Berkley, California (University of California Press) 1969
Bronson Bertrand Harris, The Traditional Tunes of the Child Ballads, 4 Vols., Princeton N.J. (University Press) 1959-72
Bryant Arthur, Samuel PepysThe Man in the Making, London (Collins) 1949.
Buchan David, The Ballad and the Folk, London & Boston 1972
Child Francis James, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 5 Vols., Boston 1882-98, reprinted new York (Dover Publications) 1965.
Fowler David C, A Literary History of the Popular Ballad, Durham NC 1968.
Graves Robert (ed.), The English Ballad, London 1927.
Kinsley James (ed.), The Oxford Book of Ballads, Oxford (OUP) 1969
Lloyd A L, Folk Song in England, London 1975
Lloyd A L & Vaughan Williams Ralph, The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, London (Penguin) 1980.
Reeves James, The Writer’s Approach to the Ballad, London (Harrap) 1976
Sharp Cecil James, Collection of English Folk Songs, 2 Vols., London (OUP) 1974

Appendix: Text of Barbara Allen

Version from memory

‘Twas in the merry month of May
When the green buds they were swellin’
Sweet William on his death bed lay
For the love of Barbara Allen.

He sent his servant to the town
To the place where she was dwellin’
Saying you must come to my master dear
If your name be Barbara Allen.

And slowly, slowly, she got up
And slowly went she nigh him
And the only words to him did say
Young man, I think you’re dyin’.

He turned his face unto the wall
And death was in him wellin’
Goodbye, Goodbye, my good friends all
Be good to Barbara Allen.

Now he is dead and in his grave
She heard the death bells knellin’
And every stroke to her did say
Hard-hearted Barbara Allen.

Come, Mother, Oh, Mother, go dig my grave
Make it both long and narrow
Sweet William died of love for me
And I will die of sorrow

And, Father, Oh Father, go dig my grave
Make it both long and narrow
Sweet William died of love for me
And I will die tomorrow.

Barbara Allen was buried in the old churchyard
Sweet William lay beside her
Out of Sweet William’s heart there grew a rose
Out of Barbara Allen’s a briar.

They grew and grew in the old churchyard
Till they could grow no higher
They grew till they formed a true love’s knot
The red rose round the briar.


[1]     In his troubador/balladeer phase Bob Dylan used to do this when he sang live at his campus concerts in the 1960s, frequently altering the lyrics, often quite drastically, yet always somehow singing ‘the same song’.

[2]     In fact, the scene in Little Red Riding Hood where the girl says to the wolf ‘what great big ……… you’ve got’ comes straight from the Thirteenth Century Norse Edda, where Loki is trying to explain to the giant Thrym why his would-be bride Freya (really Loki in disguise) has such unlady-like features. Plus ça change

[3]     Dylan only takes his version so far, but he does preserve the question and answer format and although obviously his song (about nuclear fallout) goes into very different areas they both, interestingly enough, end in death and destruction.

[4]     Another example, very well known to Anglican church-goers, occurs in the perennial problem posed in the traditional Christmas Carol Good King Wenceslas, where generations of choirmasters have had to decide whether or not to rhyme ‘find’ with ‘wind’ (the kind that blows).

[5]     Perhaps more commonly known as I gave my Love a Cherry

[6]     This is echoed by Dylan in his later, Country, period where (in Country Pie) he sings ‘saddle me up a big white goose’.

[7]     Sir Walter Scott (whose Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border is an illuminating source for ballad lovers) remembered “To read and remember was in this instance the same thing, and henceforth I overwhelmed my schoolfellows, and all who would hearken to me, with tragical recitations from the ballads of Percy”.

[8]     Robert Graves (in English and Scottish Ballads) suggests: ‘It is clear enough that Sir John Graeme did not die merely of a broken heart […] He seems to have been a landowner who had an affair with a country girl, but later decided to marry a woman of his own class. When this marriage was announced, the girl avenged herself by bewitching him…’. All this is conjecture, but something slightly foreboding definitely lurks behind the surface text.

Task Force

Comment, order, modify,
Classify and justify,
Infer, predict, identify
All day long the teachers cry

Off we go then, up the stairs.
Move the chairs and get in pairs,
Stand up, wait, now turn around,
Hands on heads, and now sit down.

Head and shoulders, arms and knees,
Delete, complete, continue please,
Alter, argue, group discuss,
Left your homework on the bus ?

Here’s the question, where’s the answer?
Silent reading, info transfer,
First, last, compare, contrast,
Future, perfect, present, past,
Correct, deduce, select, produce,
Read the bit on language use.

Find, fill, replace, remove,
Make an effort, must improve,
True, false, right, wrong, no and yes,
Guess, success, don’t make a mess.

Describe, expand, insert, corrupt,
Explain again, don’t interrupt,
Read the fable, make a label,
Leave your homework on the table,
Write a story if you’re able.

Transform, translate,
Commentate and demonstrate,
Wait, narrate and don’t be late,
Recall, remove, rank, match, tell,
Wait for the bell, Oh, very well …

Goâiña, Brazil, 1996

Glíglico in English

This is a fairly free translation (what else could it be?) of an extract from Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela, chapter 68. Cortazár wrote this in Glíglico, a language he invented for the purpose. I did it to try to prove to a friend that it was possible – the reader can be the judge.

Source text

Apenas él le amalaba el noema, a ella se le agolpaba el clémiso y caían en hidromurias, en salvajes ambonios, en sustalos exasperantes. Cada vez que él procuraba relamar las incopelusas, se enredaba en un grimalo quejumbroso y tenía que envulsionarse de cara al nóvalo, sintiendo cómo poco a poco las arnillas se espejunaban, se iban apeltronando, reduplimiendo, hasta quedar tendido como el trimalciato de ergomanina al que se le han dejado caer unas filulas de cariconcia. Y sin embargo era apenas el principio, porque en un momento dado ella se tordulaba los hurgalios, consintiendo en que él aproximara suavemente sus orfelunios. Apenas se entreplumaban, algo como un ulucordio los encrestoriaba, los extrayuxtaba y paramovía, de pronto era el clinón, la esterfurosa convulcante de las mátricas, la jadehollante embocapluvia del orgunio, los esproemios del merpasmo en una sobrehumítica agopausa. ¡Evohé! ¡Evohé! Volposados en la cresta del murelio, se sentían balparamar, perlinos Y márulos. Temblaba el troe. se resolviraba en un profundo pínice, en niolamas de argutendidas gasas, en carinias casi crueles que los oropenaban hasta el límite de las gunfias.

My translation

He’d hardly got her titler bondled before her clymisse tightened and they collapsed in wartrous wallings, in wild andonbonons, in frustrated frelights. He tried and tried to slek her impubellae but kept getting all twisted up in a crantankous whimble and could only voltate himself to confront the newal, feeling how, little by little, the squipples splunkated, scrivened and redrippled, until they were stretched out like a thumanic thrilkiat into which a few fillips of phism have been dribbled. But this was only the start. Her glissyms started to trebulate, and she let him gently into her harlouns. They barely had time to quill before a kind of melochord crescated up over them, extricted and primoted them, and then, suddenly, came the cleniks, the streferous convulcation of two madrimos, the thrilkiat’s exhalborant wettenmoth, a marfent’s sprizzen in an inhumate outpuss. Ailluie! Ailluie! Soarfling the crest of the wellule, they felt themselves steapling, all limbid and marrogate. The toc still shook, desidrating into a deep slunk, surrounded by flamblings of extenguate gauze, by the almost cruel dearings which golpentrated them, right to the depths of their gumbles.

And no, it wasn’t easy !!

Buenos Aires, February 2007

The Great Flood, Mapuche style

Many cultures have a myth of a great flood to purge the world of wickedness, rejuvenate the lands and give man a fresh start. Here is a retelling in English of a Mapuche variant, collected from a reservation in Neuquén.

According to the earth-people, some sixty thousand years ago there lived two enormous serpents. One of these was called Treng-Treng and the other Kai-Kai. Treng-Treng was truly huge, big as a mountain, but he was good and he loved people. Kai-Kai was equally big but he was not very fond of people at all.

One day, for no other reason than plain wickedness, Kai-Kai took it into his head to destroy everything and everybody. He began to shake his enormous body and as he did so he caused all the waters of the seas, rivers and lakes to grow, and the world started to flood.

But Treng-Treng loved the earth-people and quickly came to their help, engaging with Kai-Kai in fierce combat. As the water level grew higher and higher, Treng-Treng arched his back more and more, whistling loudly as he did so. Hearing his whistle, the people quickly ran towards him and climbed on to his back to escape the rising waters.

The two serpents battled for days on end, one lashing the waters with his tail, causing the water to grow higher and higher, while the other thrust his back further and further out of the water so the people could escape drowning.

Not all the earth-people survived. The more timid ones were petrified through shock, and their remains can be seen today in the human shaped rocks that still lie around the earth-people’s lands. Others were so angry that the water wouldn’t stop rising that their fury turned them into savage beasts, wild cats and boar. Yet others were too slow to climb out of the reach of the rising tide and were turned into fish and reptiles.

So high did Treng-Treng raise his back to save the earth-people from the water that he almost touched the sun. The few earth-people who were perched right on the crest of his back had their hair burned off and that’s why there are bald people today.

Finally Kai-Kai tired of writhing and fighting and slunk away. The waters began to go down and slowly Treng-Treng lowered his arched back. The few earth-people who had survived were able to return to their land.

They saw straight away that it was now a much better and cleaner place. The grass was green and fresh, the trees were in flower and the air was pure. In short, the earth had been rejuvenated. There were no more timid and fearful people; these had all been turned into rocks. There were no more quick tempered people; these had been turned into wild animals. Everything was better than before.

In time the surviving earth-people had children and grandchildren, and these in turn had more children, and soon the land was once again full of people. In fact all the earth-people today come from the few survivors who were saved by Treng-Treng. And there is a story that every so many thousand years, when the earth is old and tired, Kai-Kai will be back to cause trouble. But Treng-Treng will always be around to help (even though he is at present fast asleep and often mistaken for a mountain covered with trees and shrubs) and will once again save all the patient and stronghearted.

The city of Esteco

Few today have heard of Esteco. The records tell us that the first colony of that name was built on the western banks of the Pasaje river, some eight leagues to the south of El Quebrachal, in the province of Salta. When the city of Talavera was founded in 1567 the people of the earlier settlement re-established themselves there, giving it the name of Esteco Nueva, or New Esteco. It is to this second city that our tale relates.

The city of Esteco soon became the pride of northern Argentina; rich and powerful, and set in the most beautiful surroundings imaginable. Succulent fruit sprang from its fertile soil, to be eaten off the finest gold and silver plate. But all was not well. Scornful of outsiders, its citizens competed with each other in their ostentatious behaviour and their dedication to the pleasures of life, while slaves and beggars – for this was a long time ago – were treated with contempt and a total disregard for even the most basic human rights and dignity.

Over the years, Esteco grew increasingly decadent. The bells in the church towers tolled each morning in vain, for who, after a night’s wanton debauchery, would get up early for mass? Far better to lie abed until the cool of the late afternoon and then stroll through the Esteco streets, bejewelled and bedecked with their latest finery, all a flutter of furs, lace and pearls. It would all too soon be time for another night’s revels to begin. The churches were as empty as the minds of the citizens, but while behind the church doors all was peace and tranquillity, the halls of the city resounded with shouts and cries of dissolute abandon.

Years passed, and the Eighteenth Century dawned. One sultry evening, an elderly and infirm missionary arrived in Esteco, drawn by the infamy of this vain and vacuous place. Weak from his long and arduous journey and with the dust of his travels still clinging to his clothes the frail old man shuffled from door to door in the habit of a mendicant friar. Unsurprisingly, every door slammed shut in his face, to the accompaniment of cruel and uncivil remarks.

But the old man was determined to continue, to see whether there might not be one charitable soul, one glimmer of hope in this den of iniquity. Slowly, with increasing hunger but indefatigable purpose, he continued in his rounds. And at last he was rewarded. Right on the eastern edge of the city a woman who lived alone with her infant son invited him in to her humble home, where she sacrificed her last remaining hen to provide food for the elderly traveller.

Fired by the woman’s compassion, and perhaps also fuelled by the sustenance she had provided, Father Bárzana – for it was he – harangued the people of the town from the market place, from the street corners, from the entrances and pulpits of the empty churches, entreating them to return to the ways of Christianity. But his words continued to fall on stony ground.

Preaching in the market place, the friar told the people of Esteco that their city would soon be destroyed by an earthquake and that this would be a punishment for their unholy life and their unwillingness to repent. His warning was greeted with derisory laughs and from that moment on his life became unbearable. Wherever he went, people would jeer and joke about the end of the world. There was even a spate of ‘earthquake’ parties, at which the revellers made fun of him and his faith.

Finally, the old man realised that there was nothing more he could do. He went to the house of the poor woman who had helped him and ordered her to leave her house before dawn on the following day, taking her son with her. Before the sun was high in the sky she would hear the most terrible sounds; the sky would turn red, the earth would crack open and the city of Esteco would be swallowed up for eternity. Provided she did not look back, she and her son would be safe. But if she succumbed to curiosity they would also be punished.

The woman heeded the friar’s warning, and before the sun arose she was well on her way with her son bundled up in her arms. After a few hours on the road, just as the old man had told her, she watched the sky turn crimson and heard behind her the thunder of buildings crashing to the ground, the furious roar of flames and the crack of the earth itself splitting wide open.

Such was the ferocity of the holocaust that she could soon feel the heat of the fire on her back and through the deafening blast could clearly make out the shrieks and screams of the dying citizens of Esteco as they tried in vain to escape their destiny. Distracted by terror and the very real fear that she and her son might yet fail to escape the fate of her fellow citizens she let her curiosity get the better of her and, momentarily forgetting the warning of Father Bárzana, turned to contemplate the devastation of what had once been the city of Esteco.

As she turned, infant son in her arms, she froze on the spot, instantly transformed to solid stone. And there she stands to this day, in the shape of a massive rock structure that requires little imagination to discern the forms of the mother and her babe in arms. Recognisable from afar by all travellers in the area, there are those who say that every year she takes one step further in the direction of Salta, the city to which she was fleeing when she so unwisely looked back.

As for the city of Esteco and its inhabitants, destroyed by earthquake in 1692, nothing remains but this tale.


La Maldonada

Back in 1536 or thereabouts Don Pedro de Mendoza lay on his sick bed pondering the string of fortunes and misfortunes that had brought him on such an long and eventful journey, across that wide and inhospitable ocean, at the orders of his King and Emperor, Charles V.

Don Pedro was thinking back over the events of his life. The surrender in Toledo, his departure in San Lúcar de Barrameda the following year, the attempts against his life, the trial and execution of John Osorio, so many things . . . And finally, the foundation of this new city, Santa María de los Buenos Aires, in February 1536, the 2nd was it ? Or the 3rd ? He cared little now, anyway. He cared little for anything these days, except the thought of his next meal.

The officers and soldiers in his company and the seven or eight women who had accompanied them from the motherland, were as desperate as he was. Their strength and courage were not wanting, but like their leader they were trapped in the daily necessity to eat . . . and equally unable to find anything of sustenance. All these herbs and sand were no good for hungry Spaniards, and the meagre rations that Ayolas was able to scrape together were every day more miserable and less satisfying. Although forbidden, they had even sacrificed their horses in order to survive, as they sat there, helplessly contemplating the immense river, which beat against the coast as a constant reminder of the impossibility of their return.

And such is the degradation of man that they were reduced to stealing from each other; snatching at the frogs and snakes or the rotting meat from the dead animals they found lying around. In their desperation even family ties meant little: father stole from son, brother from brother, husband from wife. Such morals as they had once possessed seemed to have been wiped out by the spectre of famine, and robbery and assault had become a way of life.

A soldier called Maldonado was hanged, no one now remembers why, and his wife, unable to face a life alone and in starvation, decided to leave the settlement and throw herself on the mercy of the Indians she had seen from time to time on the outskirts of their new town. Frightened and desperate, she thought that these strange people might have more pity on her than her fellow Europeans.

One evening she left the camp, and following the coast came to a place called Punta Goda, in the area known today as Monte Grande. As night came on she looked for somewhere to sleep and seeing a likely cave in the hillside she boldly made her way inside.

Now life was more dangerous in those days than it is today, and perhaps Maldonado’s widow was made of stronger stuff than many of us. However, she was surely not prepared for the surprise that awaited her. For, as her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she saw a pair of gleaming, phosphorescent eyes that seemed to move in the dark, cutting off her only exit.

Terrified, she crouched still, and heard a low growl as if of an animal in pain, followed by what could only be described as a purring sound. But no cat could have eyes that size, and she slowly realised that she must be enclosed in the cave with what the Spaniards called a lion, and what we today would call a puma.

Who knows how many hours they spent together in that cave, woman and feline, nor which was the more frightened of the two. Poor Maldonada squatted petrified until the first shafts of morning sum began to filter into the cave and she could see that it was indeed a puma, a female puma, very fat and very pregnant.

Maldonada began to edge her way to the entrance of the cave. But the movement evidently disturbed the cat who, now clearly visible on a ledge some two metres above, stood, stretched, snarled and prepared to pounce on the unfortunate woman. But at that very moment the ledge gave way beneath the animal, which fell gracelessly, and painfully to the floor of the cave, apparently unable to move. Its snarls of fury turned into whimpers of pain, then silence.

The woman could now see quite clearly that the puma was about to give birth, and was in a very poor state to do so. No longer afraid of the semi-conscious cat, she set to help and in a short while the mother was delivered of two fine cubs. The puma soon recovered consciousness but by some divine luck seemed to be aware of the part that Maldonada had played in the birth of her cubs and to accept her as one of her family, bringing her meat to eat as if she were one of the cubs she had helped into the world.

And so she stayed in the cave for several weeks until one day, when she had gone to drink at the river, she was suddenly surrounded by a group of Indians. She fought desperately to be allowed to stay with her new-found family, but in vain, and the Indians carried her off. Meanwhile, back in the Spanish camp, nothing more had been heard of Maldonada, although a story had been going round that one of the Indian Chiefs had taken her for his wife.

Time went by. Pedro de Mendoza survived the famine and eventually left for Spain, never getting there of course because as we all know he died on the high seas in June of 1537. The new Governor of Buenos Aires was now a certain Francisco Ruiz de Galán, a severe and inflexible man who everyone feared and many hated. Indeed the people came to blame Don Francisco for all the hostile animals and the ubiquitous Indians who made their life such a misery and made it almost impossible for them to leave the safety of their encampment.

One day one of the captains, on an exploratory mission with a group of soldiers in Indian land, came across a white woman and brought her back to the town. It was Maldonada, and surrounded once again by her own people, many of whom well remembered her flight, she was happy to tell her story, and happier still to be safely back amongst her own kind.

But the new Governor saw things in a very unfavourable light. To have chosen to leave the encampment for Indian lands was for him the gravest of crimes, punishable only by death. Nothing would make him change his mind, neither the pleadings of his nearest and dearest nor the rational arguments of his wisest advisors. He gave orders for the wretched woman to be taken a league or so outside the town and left tied to a tree, to be devoured by wild animals. The soldiers had no choice but to obey, and unwillingly carried her off to her fate.

And so once again the poor woman spent a night alone with wild beasts. That night so many wild animals gathered around her defenceless body that the growls and roaring kept the townspeople awake. Nobody slept a wink, and at dawn the townspeople, with a few soldiers for protection, hurried to the tree to see what had happened.

There was Maldonada, still tied to the tree, still alive. At her feet a lion stood watch accompanied by two cubs. The weary animal silently moved aside to let the men in to untie the woman’s thongs. It was the lion from the cave of course, the lion that the woman had helped in that difficult moment. Scratched and bleeding still, the lion had fought off all the other wild beasts in order to protect her benefactor and thus repay the favour.

The Magic Ball

The story of Aylen, Nahuel and the Magic Ball

This was an attempt to recapture the style and language of books I read as a child.

Long, long ago, there was a wicked witch who lived in the eastern foothills of the snow-capped Andes. For much of the year she was harmless for she would sleep through most of the spring, summer and autumn, but each year, as soon the first snowfall began to dust the lower slopes she woke up, hungry and ready for her first meal of the winter.

And each year, as wintertime drew on, the people in the valley became more and more frightened, because winter after winter their children were vanishing without trace. One moment they were there in the village, or playing in the nearby fields, and then suddenly they were gone, never to be seen again. The villagers all suspected that it was the witch who was stealing their children, but they had no idea how she did this, or what she did with the children she spirited away.

The witch had a secret – a sparkly, brightly coloured, magic ball, very attractive to children but quite invisible to grown-ups, or those whom the witch did not want to see it. Such was the power of this ball, and so great the children’s desire to play with it, that they would throw all caution to the wind and follow it anywhere.

One day two small children, Aylen and Nahuel, were playing by a lake in the foothills, about half a league from their home. Aylen suddenly spotted the shiny ball in the long grass and ran towards it with a shriek of excitement. But just as she bent down to pick it up the ball rolled forward just beyond her grasp, rolling gently a little further in the direction of the hillside.

Again Aylen tried to pick it up, and again it seemed to blow out of her reach, like a leaf in the autumn wind. Nahuel, who I should have told you was her brother, tried too, but he had no better luck. The two of them spent a happy ten minutes or so chasing the ball, but each time they thought they had it in their hands it rolled a little further forward. And, although they didn’t realise it, each attempt was taking them just a little bit closer to the mountain slopes.

The two children stopped for a moment to decide what to do. It really was time to be setting off for home, but somehow the desire to hold the ball or to follow it seemed to take over their common sense.

The shiny ball had come to rest for a while by a stream, lying under a bush lush with tempting red berries. The children were not slow to eat some of the fruit and wash it down with cool, fresh water, before setting off once more in pursuit of the elusive ball.

And so the afternoon wore on, with Aylen and Nahuel taking it in turns to chase the ball, albeit with no success, alongside the bubbling mountain stream as it ascended gently through the valley. What they didn’t really notice was that the ball kept stopping in places where there was fruit to eat and fresh water to drink –which they were unable to resist– and that it was taking them closer and closer to the steep mountainside.

They followed the ball alongside the brook into another valley where the sides of a canyon rose beside them as they made their way higher. It was darker here, and the landscape was much wilder, with stark rocks scattered among the sparse vegetation. Patches of snow were beginning to appear and flakes of snow were blowing up around them. Still the ball rolled on, more slowly now, until –as the air became colder and crisper– it finally rolled up against a black rock and stopped.

Aylen picked up the glittering ball and cradled it in the palm of her hands. As she gazed into the crystal depths of the magic ball, all flecked with gold and silver like the finest marble, the surface gradually clouded over and then, like a soap bubble, suddenly burst, leaving her hands holding … nothing. In fear and disappointment she began to cry, and her brother, finding that her hands were frozen, led her round to the northern side of the rock where she was sheltered from the bitter wind.

Aylen leant back against the side of the mountain and quickly dropped into a deep sleep. Nahuel sat beside her holding her hand and wondering what to do. “As soon as she wakes up”, he thought, “we must get back home”. But he too was beginning to feel drowsy, and after wresting for a while with increasingly heavy eyelids he too soon dropped off.

Some hours later Nahuel awoke and wandered down to the stream to wash his face and drink some refreshing water. Lying in the safety of the stone refuge her brother had found for her, Aylen was dreaming that she was safe in bed at home, her mother sitting beside her combing her hair. But her mother must have been angry with her, as she was tugging her hair roughly and hurting her so badly that she gave a whimper of pain and woke up.

She tried to get to her feet, but couldn’t move her head. Somehow her hair seemed to have become tied up in the rock and bushes where she was lying, or perhaps frozen to the rock. The wicked witch was weaving her magic, but would wait until dark for her dinner.

Nahuel heard his sister and ran towards her, but as he came close he came up against an invisible wall, soft yet firm, that would not let him go forward. He could see Aylen in front of him, small and frightened, but although he could hear her sad little voice he could not reach her.

“Nahuel, help me. I’m frightened!” cried Aylen through the invisible wall the wicked witch had made.

“I can’t”, said Nahuel. “There’s something stopping me. It’s like a fence you can’t see. I can see you but I can’t get through”.

“Can’t you climb over it?” asked Aylen.

“No”, replied Nahuel, “it seems to go up and up. What can we do”?

At that moment a large white owl flew slowly over their heads, and as it circled sang out to the children:

You can undo this wicked deed
Fire and heat are what you need.

“Did you hear that?” asked Aylen through her sobbing.

“Yes, Aylen”, replied her brother.

“What do you think it means?”

“I don’t know”, said Nahuel.

“Fire and heat. Why do we need fire and heat?” sniffled Aylen.

“I think it means that the terrible things in this valley are afraid of fire”.

“Then we have to get hold of some fire. But where?” asked Aylen.

“I’ll go and look. You stay here, and don’t move”, Nahuel said, showing no sign of movement.

Which was a fine thing to say, thought Aylen, who was completely unable to move even if she tried, but she didn’t say anything.

Just then a huge Condor swooped down and as it glided by they heard him call from on high:

Burning fire her death will stay.
Follow me, I know a way

“I have to go”, cried Nahuel. “The condor must know something, and seems to want me to follow him. I’ll be back before nightfall”.

The Condor was circling above the children, as if waiting for Nahuel, to guide him.

“Yes, go and get fire”, said Aylen, in what she hoped was a brave voice. She certainly didn’t feel very brave.

She watched Nahuel set off down the hill, following the Condor, who glided from rock to rock, glancing behind to make sure the little boy was following him.

The big bird seemed to know where he was going, and Nahuel followed him along the stream, down the hill, until the stream reached a larger river. There he saw a little woodcutter’s cottage, with wisps of smoke puffing lazily from the chimney.

As Nahuel reached the door of the cottage the Condor soared into the sky and flew back over the mountains, until he was just a speck in the sky. It was as if his work was over. The door was ajar and Nahuel knocked timidly but there seemed to be nobody there. More boldly, he pushed the door open.

The cottage was empty, but clearly someone lived there. The fire was still going, but there was very little wood left so Nahuel did what he would do in his own home, that is he went out and gathered twigs and branches to build up the fire and fill the wood store. He filled his pockets and shoulder bag with kindling, and seeing that the water buckets were empty he also took those and filled them with clean water from the stream.

Back in the house he used his fire making skills and soon had a better fire burning. Exhausted by his efforts, he lay on the floor in front of the fire he had made and almost immediately fell asleep.

When he awoke he saw a man sitting on a three-legged stool, sipping from a mate and looking pensive. He offered some bread to Nahuel, and passed him the mate. Nahuel ate and drank greedily, while the woodcutter peered closely at him. As he ate and drank, Nahuel told the old man about his poor sister, breaking into tears, as he thought of poor Aylen all alone on the mountainside.

“It’s the work of the wicked old witch of the mountain”, muttered the woodcutter as Nahuel told his tale. “Tell me boy, how can we rescue your sister?”

Remembering what the Condor had said, Nahuel repeated “burning fire her death will stay”.

“Ah yes”, said the man, “the Condor is old and wise and always knows what to do”.

And at that moment the Condor, who had been back to the mountain to see how Aylen was, appeared at the doorway and called out:

The freezing cold now saps her will
But burning fire can save her still

It was clear what to do. The old man gave Nahuel a burning stick from the fire, and Nahuel ran out of the house, retracing his steps back up the mountainside to where his sister lay.

He came to a small lake. It didn’t seem very deep, and to save time he decided to wade through it. But as he ran the water splashed up on either side and after a few minutes the stick had become so wet that the water put out the flames. Feeling wretched, Nahuel turned round and ran back to the woodcutter’s cottage.

“Please give me a second stick”. I was foolish and the fire went out. This time I’ll run around the lake”.

The Condor, who was still there perched on a gatepost, called out:

Only fire can save her now
You have to get it there somehow

The woodcutter poked around in the fire and gave him a second stick, and this time Nahuel ran carefully around the edge of lake where he had lost the fire before, through bog and marsh and up the mountainside where his sister awaited him, only pausing to catch his breath.

But as he reached the place where the snow started he slipped on a patch of ice, and putting out his hands to steady his fall he thrust the burning stick into the deepening snow. Rising to his feet he saw he was now holding a charred, black useless stick. Crestfallen, he once again turned round and ran back to the woodcutter’s cottage.

The old man was waiting for him, and was pleased to give him a third chance. Just then the Condor flew back, and they listened to what he had to say:

The cold, cold night is drawing on
Without fire she’ll soon be gone

For the third time Nahuel set off, back up the mountainside, this time clutching the burning stick so tightly that his hand ached. Carefully he made his way through lake and marsh, hill and valley, until once again he reached the place where the snow started.

It was so slippery that he could hardly walk, and poor Nahuel was frightened that he would drop the burning branch in the snow again. But at that moment a pure white flamingo appeared by his side and ran beside him, wings spread wide. Nahuel put his free hand on one of her wings, and thus balanced, he was able to continue on his way.

Faster and faster the flamingo hurried, and Nahuel gripped her tighter and tighter. Suddenly he found his feet were no longer touching the ground. The flamingo was flying now, and the two of them were soaring up the last bit of mountain to where Aylen lay.

Nahuel was hanging on to the flamingo for dear life, and could see the burning stick, fanned into flames by the wind as they few, burning the poor flamingo’s neck and breast badly. But the noble bird did not complain and very soon they arrived at the rock where Aylen was lying. As Nahuel approached with the burning stick in his hand he found that the invisible wall was no match for the fire, and with only a little difficulty he was by his sister’s side.

He threw the burning stick into some dry moss at the foot of the rock. The moss crackled and hissed, and suddenly burst into a small flame. In his pocket and shoulder bag he still had some twigs and small sticks that he had gathered for the woodcutter, and with some fanning and blowing he soon had a blazing fire.

Suddenly there was a great crack, a horrible scream and the rock split into a thousand pieces, breaking the witch’s spell and freeing Aylen. The little girl hugged the flamingo, trying to soothe its burns, but for all her efforts she could not completely heal the poor bird and to this day its descendants carry in their crimson feathers the marks of this one bird’s bravery.

The wicked witch was never heard of again. Some say she crossed over the Andes and went to play her tricks in another land. As for Aylen and Nahuel, they lived long in that quiet valley in the foothills among the birds they loved, and the shiny coloured ball soon became a distant memory.