A little bird lit down on Henry Lee :: VOTD

Henry Lee :: Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds & P.J. Harvey
from the album, Murder Ballads

About the song

Henry Lee, a variant of Young Hunting, is a song by the Australian post-punk band Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. It is the third track and second single from the band’s ninth studio album, Murder Ballads (1996), and was released on February 26, 1996 on Mute Records.

The song, which features a duet between frontman Nick Cave and  P.J. Harvey, is alternately–arranged in comparison to other more traditional versions of Henry Lee.

Henry Lee is a retelling of the traditional folk song Young Hunting that was cataloged by Francis James Child as Child ballad #68. The song has its origin in Scotland. Like most traditional folk songs, numerous variants of the song exist worldwide, notably under the title Henry Lee and Love Henry in the United States, and Earl Richard and sometimes The Proud Girl in the United Kingdom.

The song, which can be traced back as far as the 18th century, narrates the tale of the eponymous protagonist, Young Hunting, who tells a woman, who may have borne him a child, that he is in love with another, more beautiful woman. Despite this, she persuades him to drink until he is drunk, then to come to her bedroom, or at least kiss her farewell. The woman then stabs him to death. She throws his body in the river — sometimes with the help of one of the other women of the town, whom she bribes with a diamond ring — and is taunted by a bird.

She tries to lure the bird down from the tree but it tells her that she will kill it if it comes within reach. When the search for Young Hunting starts, she either denies seeing him or claims that he left earlier, but when Hunting’s remains are found, in order to revoke her guilt, she reveals that she murdered him and is later burned at the stake.

Nick Cave, who covered the song, referred to the song as “a story about the fury of a scorned woman.”

American variants of the song are more widely known as the song has been physically released. One of the earliest recorded variants was performed by blues singer Dick Justice in 1929 under the title Henry Lee. The recording was anthologised in the first of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, released in 1952.

Judy Henske included a version of the song titled Love Henry — a title collected by Cecil Sharp in September 1916 from Orilla Keeton in Mountfair, Virginia— on her eponymous debut album, in 1963.

Lyrically, Nick and P.J.’s Henry Lee borrows heavily from Dick Justice’s version of the song.

The majority of the studio version of Henry Lee was recorded by The Bad Seeds at Sing Sing Studios and Metropolis Studios in Melbourne with Cave’s vocal track. Harvey’s vocal track was recorded at Wessex and Worldwide Studios in London.

A demo version of the song which was sent to Harvey featured Bad Seed member Blixa Bargeld performing guide vocals. The single’s two b-sidesare other American murder ballads, following the album’s theme and do not feature Harvey. However, Knoxville Girl features James Johnston on acoustic guitar.

The music video (see above) was directed by Rocky Schenck. The video features one scene throughout; Nick Cave, in the role of Henry Lee, and P.J .Harvey, in the role of his lover, singing the duet.

There is a constant green backdrop in the background of the video.

This format contrasted the former format used by Schenck for Where the Wild Roses Grow (in the previous song of the day post) which focused on cinematography and featured several scenes.

Body language is a stand-out feature of the video and after many varying forms of it, the pair slow dance at the end of the video.


My thoughts:

I love murder ballads and haunted folk tale songs of old. Perhaps it is the gothic nature of it all, the darkness and shadowy humanity in the song-told-stories, the pain and the twisted romance of it all. I mean, I am not a fan of murder, but I do enjoy a murder mystery, and the examination of the darkness and lightness that coexist in life.

P.J. and Nick have such chemistry. It is as if their voices were meant to partner and produce sound together.

I’d love to see David Lynch write and direct an anthology series based on murder ballads.


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