Twa Brothers, The [Child 49]

DESCRIPTION: Two brothers agree to wrestle on their way to school. In the process, one is wounded by the other's knife. The unwounded brother (often) tries to save the wounded one, but it is too late; all that is left is to arrange for his burial and make excuses
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1825 (Motherwell)
KEYWORDS: contest death fight stepmother brother homicide magic
FOUND IN: Britain(England,Scotland(Bord)), US(Ap,MA,MW,NE,NW,SE,So) Canada(Mar,Newf)
REFERENCES (40 citations):
Child 49, "The Twa Brothers" (8 texts)
Bronson 49, "The Twa Brothers" (41 versions plus 4 in addenda)
BronsonSinging 49, "The Two Brothers" (5 versions: #1, #22, #25, #29, #37)
ChambersBallads, pp. 111-113, "The Twa Brothers" (1 text)
Lyle-Crawfurd2 160, "The Twa Brithers" (1 text)
BarryEckstormSmyth pp. 99-106, "The Two Brothers" (1 text plus many excerpts including a complete Kentucky version, 1 tune) {Bronson's #21}
Belden, pp. 33-34, "The Two Brothers" (1 text)
Randolph 10, "The Two Brothers" (3 texts plus a fragment, 4 tunes) {Bronson's #13, #40, #3, #2}
Randolph/Cohen, pp. 24-25, "The Two Brothers" (1 text, 1 tune -- Randolph's 10A) {Bronson's #13}
High, pp. 47-48, "Two Boys Away at School" (1 text)
Eddy 9, "The Twa Brothers" (2 texts, 2 tunes) {Bronson's #28, #30}
Flanders/Olney, pp. 96-99, "Edward Ballad [listed as "Child 13" but obviously this piece though Bronson considers it a "too literary" mix of the two ballads with a peculiar tune]; pp. 230-232, "Martyr John" (2 texts, 2 tunes) {Bronson's #41, #38}
Flanders-Ancient1, pp. 316-331, "The Twa Brothers" (4 texts, 5 tunes; the last two tunes are variants taken from the same informant) {A=Bronson's #41, B=38}
Linscott, pp. 278-280, "The Rolling of the Stones or The Twa Brothers" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #14}
Davis-Ballads 11, "The Twa Brothers" (11 texts, 6 tunes) {#23, #31, #5, #33, #10, #24}
Davis-More 15, pp. 92-101, "The Twa Brothers" (5 texts, 5 tunes)
BrownII 13, "The Two Brothers" (1 text)
Chappell-FSRA 6, "The Two Brothers" (1 text)
Morris, #152, "The Twa Brothers" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #12}
Hudson 7, pp. 73-74, "The Two Brothers" (2 texts)
Moore-Southwest 14A, "Yonder School"; 14B, "Willie and Johnny" (2 texts, 2 tunes)
Scarborough-SongCatcher, pp. 166-167, "The Twa Brothers" (1 text, locally titled "The Two Brothers")
Brewster 9, "The Two Brothers" (2 texts)
JHCoxIIA, #6, p. 21, "The Two Brothers" (1 fragment, 1 tune) {Bronson's #8}
Creighton/Senior, p. 25-26, "The Twa Brothers" (1 text, 1 tune) {Bronson's #39}
Peacock, pp. 827-830, "The Two Brothers" (2 texts, 2 tunes)
Leach, pp. 163-167, "The Twa Brothers" (2 texts)
McNeil-SFB2, pp. 136-138, "Two Brothers" (1 text, 1 tune)
OBB 63, "The Twa Brothers" (1 text)
Friedman, p. 169, "The Twa Brothers" (2 texts)
Niles 20, "The Twa Brothers" (1 text, 1 tune -- a fragmentary text that opens like "The Twa Brothers," but has an ending that might be anything)
Gummere, pp. 174-175+343, "The Twa Brothers" (1 text)
SharpAp 12 "The Two Brothers" (12 texts, often short, plus a fragment ("E") that may be this; 13 tunes) {Bronson's #17, #10, #31, #24, #18, #19, #11, #9, #1, #15, #27, #25, #32}
Sharp/Karpeles-80E 11, "The Two Brothers" (1 text, 1 tune -- an expanded composite version) {Bronson's #11}
LPound-ABS, 18, pp. 45-46, "Two Little Boys" (1 text)
JHCox 7, "The Twa Brothers" (2 texts)
Whitelaw-Ballads, pp. 157-158, "The Twa Brothers" (1 text)
DT 49, TWOBROS TWOBROS2* TWOBROS3* TWOBROS4* ROLLSTON*
ADDITIONAL: Bob Stewart, _Where Is Saint George? Pagan Imagery in English Folksong_, revised edition, Blandford, 1988, pp. 23-24, "The Two Brothers" (1 text, 1 tune)
Walter de la Mare, _Come Hither_, revised edition, 1928; #52-53, "The Wta Brothers" (1 text)

Roud #38
RECORDINGS:
Charlotte Decker, "The Two Brothers" (on PeacockCDROM) [one verse only]
Nellie McGregor, "The Two Brothers" (on FSBBAL1)
Hobart Smith, "The Little Schoolboy" (on LomaxCD1702)
Belle Stewart, "The Two Brothers" (on Voice03) {Bronson's #13.2 in addenda}
Lucy Stewart, "The Twa Brothers [The Two Brothers]" (on FSB4, FSBBAL1) (on LStewart1) {Bronson's #11.1 in addenda}

CROSS-REFERENCES:
cf. "Sir Hugh, or, The Jew's Daughter" [Child 155] (lyrics)
cf. "The Unquiet Grave" [Child 78] (lyrics)
ALTERNATE TITLES:
The Rolling of the Stones
The Murdered Boy
Two Little Boys Going to School
The Cruel Brother
NOTES: In Friedman's A version, the brother is killed, not wrestling for fun, but in a fit of passion. - PJS
Indeed, this motif (which is not unusual; many of Davis's texts have it, for instance) gives rise to the possibility that what we have here is two songs mixed. Call them "The Twa Brothers" and "The Rolling of the Stones." In the former, the one brother kills the other as a result of accident or perhaps a (step?)mother's malice.
"The Rolling of the Stones," though it involves a death and is usually listed as a version of this song, has a very different feel. It is definitely a song of passion and jealousy, and ends with Susie, the girl of the piece, dancing to try to bring the dead man back to life.
The two have certainly mixed verses, making them hard to tell apart, but I'm not at all convinced that they are the same song. A curiosity is that the "Rolling of the Stones" texts seem to be mostly American, even though American texts rarely involve magic. But it should be noted that the endings of the texts in Child are very diverse; it may be that he simply hadn't found one of the "magic" endings.
Stewart evidently thinks the whole thing goes back to early myth; on p. 24 he declares, "The story is clearly found in Celtic and pre-Celtic myth and lore, in classical mythology, and in ancient Egyptian and Eastern religious allegory.
"The plot is very simple, one brother kills another in competition for a woman. The murdered man is then brought back to life by his true love."
In other words, Stewart sees this song as a a version of the Egyptian tale of Osiris, Seth, and Isis (Osiris having been murdered by his brother Seth and revived by Isis). Given the content of "The Rolling of the Stones," it does appear that something like the Osiris story was known in Britain. But it must be repeated that most versions of this song *don't* have a resurrection theme. They're a much more basic tale, of a stepmother's desire to gain an inheritance for her son over her older stepson.
Stewart, similarly, suggests that the questions at the end are an attempt to gather oracles from a dying man. Certainly the idea that the dying can see the future is well-attested. But why, then, are the dying brother's answers all excuses for the younger brother or, in one case, a curse? And, at that, a curse which apparently never comes true?
Again, Stewart thinks the "Rolling of the Stones" variants hint at human sacrifice. At most, it appears to me, they hint at the mass, and the conversion of win into the blood of Jesus.
In any case, everything that gets Stewart's mythological juices flowing comes from variants of "The Rolling of the Stones," not the mainline versions of "The Twa Brothers."
Linscott has one of her usual folklorish explanations: "The event from which the ballad gets its theme happened near Edinburgh in 1589, when one of the Somervilles was killed by the accidental discharge of his bother's pistol." This connection ignores the fact that brothers are more than a little apt to quarrel over inheritances....
E. K. Chambers (English Literature at the Close of the Middle Ages, p. 72) quotes a passage from a thirteenth(?) century fragment of a song which has not been connected with this piece, but which I find rather interesting:
Atte wrestling my lemman I ches,
And atte ston-kasting I him for-les.
i.e.
At wrestling my love I chose,
And at stone-casting I him lost.
Chambers goes on to note a command from William of Wykeham, Bishop of WInchester (1384), "which condemns the pollution of graveyards, alike by dissolute dances and by stone-castings." We do not know what stone-castings are -- but they occur in graveyards, they are condemned by the church, and they are connected somehow with "dissolute dances," i.e. probably carols. A connection with a resurrection ritual sounds not unlikely.
In another interesting, but probably meaningless, footnote, the two boys of the song are sometimes William and John. I found the following tale on p. 123 of T. W. Moody, F. X. Martin, and Dermot Keough, with Patrick Kiely, The Course of Irish History, fifth edition, 2011 (page references are to the 2012 paperback edition):
It is found by the jury that, whereas William Bernard, on the Sunday after the Nativity of St. John Baptist last, in the town of Newcastle of Lyons, was playing at ball with the men of that town and the ball was struck in the direction of John McCorcan, who was standing near to watch the game, John ran towards the ball, which William was following in pursuit, and met him so swiftly that he wounded William in the upper part of his right leg with a knife which he, John, had upon him, which knife unfortunately without John's knowledge pierced its sheath and so injured William, to his damage of five shillings. And the jurors, being asked if John did this from ill-timed zeal or ran against William from malice aforethought, say that it was not so, but that it was for the purpose of playing that he ran toward him to hit the ball.
Incidentally, it appears very likely that Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) knew some form of this piece as a very young man. One of his earliest poems, written while he was still a schoolboy, is called "The Two Brothers," and the opening is quite similar to "The Twa Brothers" [Child 49]; it begins
There were two brothers at Twyford school,
And when they had left the place,
It was, "Will ye learn Greek and Latin?
Or will ye run me a race?
Or will ye go up to yonder bridge,
And there will we angle for dace?"
Later verses are more reminiscent of "Edward" [Child 13] or "Lizzie Wan" [Child 51]:
"Oh what bait's that upon your hook,
Dear brother, tell to me?"
"It is my younger brother," he cried,
"Oh woe and dole is me?"
[ ... ]
"And when will you come back again,
My brother, tell to me?"
"When chub is good for human food,
And that will never be!"
The final verse might be from "It Was A' For Our Rightful' King" or similar:
She turned herself right round about,
And her heart brake into three,
Said, "One of the two will be wet through and through,
And 'tother'll be late for his tea."- RBW
Also collected and sung by Ellen Mitchell, "Twa Brithers" (on Kevin and Ellen Mitchell, "Have a Drop Mair," Musical Tradition Records MTCD315-6 CD (2001)) - BS
Last updated in version 4.1
File: C049

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