The Unquiet Grave (Andover version) | Folk from the Attic

There’s an irony to ‘The Unquiet Grave’ that I find delicious. Here we have a traditional folk song that warns its listeners that excessive grief and ghost-bothering can really piss off the dead. That’s pretty rich advice, coming from a genre that spends most of its time wallowing in death and misery. It can be a contrary beast, this folk music – yet another reason to love it so.

Ye olde beliefs had it that the recently deceased needed a certain amount of levity to get from this world to the next, and the chances of your loved one getting to where they needed to be decreased significantly if you were to cause a scene. Apparently this is why Irish wakes are boisterous and joyous affairs – anything less and the village might find themselves adopting a disgruntled ghost, stranded between astral planes. As you’ll see below, I find quite a bit of humour in the song’s lyrics, but seen in this light perhaps I’d be wise to take it more seriously.

‘The Unquiet Grave’ is another of those songs that everyone has had a bash at, mostly in a mournful, solemn manner befitting of the grief we find the protagonist in. I find this approach a bit odd, however. Sure, the song’s opening scene finds a chap moping around a graveyard in howling wind and rain bemoaning the death of his beloved, but there’s clearly a cheeky sense of humour at work once the ghost awakens. “Why do you sit here on my grave,” she scolds, “and will you not let me sleep?”

Having heard many of the weepy, windswept versions, I really didn’t think there was much in the song to get excited about… until I heard a performance based loosely on something that George Gardiner collected a few miles from where I live in North Hampshire. The version that Gardiner noted down in Andover, way back in August 1906, sung to him by a 66-year-old fellow called Charles Bell who, it seems, knew no other songs. (Imagine only having ‘The Unquiet Grave’ in your pub repertoire. He must’ve been known as Cheery Charlie.) To my ear at least, it seemed to have a bit more oomph about it, not to mention an almost entirely different melody. I was intrigued.

Rather than pitying the weather-beaten lover, the song seems to jeer at him, almost chiding him into pulling himself together. When he finally wakes his decaying darling on the anniversary of her death, he pleads for a kiss, to which she replies, “Are you kidding? Have you smelt my breath? Come any closer and you’ll keel over yourself.” It’s also interesting that this version seems to come to no resolution – she simply tells him not to kiss her and then there are a couple of verses that meander about in a myrtle-green garden, lost in memories. Maybe he kissed her after all. Maybe memories are all that are left. It’s certainly a puzzler.

Of course, it’s not terribly surprising that such an alternative version exists – it’s a very old song and there must be more than a good handful out there. Indeed, if you type ‘Unquiet Grave’ into the Full English search engine, you get 51 results (for the record, the Andover version can be found here). The most famous version is its presentation as a Child Ballad, collected by Francis James Child in 1868 (Child Ballad no. 78A), although it is thought to date from around 1400 AD.

The wonderful Mainly Norfolk website has a fairly comprehensive list of notable recordings, and it’s worth noting that a number of performances go by the name ‘Cold Blows the Wind’ (including Bellowhead’s version, which is perhaps the nearest in melody to the version I’ve recorded here) or ‘My True Love’. For better or worse, this Folk from the Attic version of ‘The Unquiet Grave’ may offer something to suit an alternative moody, ideally suited, perhaps, to anyone feeling heartless enough to berate the recently bereaved.

The Unquiet Grave (Andover version) lyrics

So cold the wintry winds do blow
And down fall drops of rain
And I have had but one true love
In greenwood she was slain
In greenwood she was slain

Well I’ll say as much for my true love
As any young man could say
I’ll sit and I’ll weep on her cold grave
For 12 months and a day
For 12 months and a day

When the 12 months and a day was up
The ghost began to speak
“Why do you sit here on my grave
And will you not let me sleep?
Will you not let me sleep?”

If there’s one more thing that I do want
And that’s all that I crave
That’s to kiss your lily-white lips
And I’ll go from your grave
And I’ll go from your grave

“My lips they are as cold as clay
My breath smells heavy and strong
And if you kiss my lily-white lips
Your time will not be long
Your time will not be long”

Down in the garden of myrtle green
Where my true love did walk
The prettiest flower that ever was seen
Is withered unto the stalk
It’s withered unto the stalk

And the stalk is withered unto the root
And the root unto the ground
That’s why I mourn for the loss of my love
When she’s not to be found
She’s not here to be found

2 thoughts on “The Unquiet Grave (Andover version) | Folk from the Attic

  1. Hi Jon, thanks for this fine blog and for referring to Mainly Norfolk.

    My Unquiet Grave page wasn’t that comprehensive 😉 I’ve now added about a dozen more versions from my album collection.

    1. Hi Reinhard. No problem at all! I’m a huge fan of Mainly Norfolk. I get a lot of information and inspiration from it. Thanks for the return link, by the way. Much appreciated.

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