This mountain ballad, performed here by the Everly Brothers, is, to put it mildly, a strange one. No one seems to have been able to trace it back to a single source, not even such indefatigable collectors as Alan Lomax and Frank C. Brown. Tim O’Brien, who recorded it as a duet with singer Paul Brady on his 1999 CD THE CROSSING, says in passing that it has its English and Irish cousins, but who those English and Irish cousins might be is up for debate.
The earliest recording I’ve heard of it was made by Charlie Monroe, the older brother of Bill Monroe. It is sometimes recorded under the alternate title “Rose Connelly”, for the name of the young murder victim.
The details of the murder of Rose Connelly, as presented in the ballad, are curiously circumstantial, especially when compared to a story told in Terence Whitaker’s 1980 book LANCASHIRE’S GHOSTS AND LEGENDS. What happened to Hannah Corbridge in July 1789 is eerily similar to what happened to Rose Connelly in “Down in the Willow Garden.”
Hannah Corbridge, says Whitaker, left her home in Colne to meet her boyfriend, Christopher Hartley, one Sunday afternoon, and was never seen alive again. She was found dead three days later. She had first been poisoned, an autopsy revealed.
In most versions of “Down in the Willow Gardens” the second verse says,
I had a bottle of burgundy wine
My true love, she did not know
It was there I poisoned that dear little girl
Down on the banks below.
Hannah was also nearly decapitated by a vicious cut across her throat.
The ballad continues:
I drew my saber through her
It was a bloody night. . .
Hannah Corbridge was found in a drainage ditch not far from an old house called Barnside Hall. Here there is one slight difference from the ballad; Hannah was found in an old trunk, partially buried in the muck at the bottom of the ditch. In the ballad
I threw her into the river
Which was an awful sight.
There the circumstantial details end, at least in most recorded versions. The young man who killed Rose Connelly down in the willow garden spends the rest of the ballad lamenting that his father’s money cannot save him from the gallows, ending with
My race is run beneath the sun
The devil is waiting for me. . .
Actually, such an ending is fairly standard in ballad tradition.
In 1789 Lancashire, Christopher Hartley was immediately suspected and arrested, whereupon he confessed to having murdered Hannah Corbridge. She had, it seems, gotten inconveniently pregnant, and like many a man before and since, he had taken an ugly, ugly shortcut to get rid of the inconvenience.
He had given her poison, probably in a drink, but it didn’t take effect as quickly as he had thought it would. In a panic, he had cut her throat, then taken her body—most likely under cover of darkness—and put it in the trunk before trying (and failing) to bury it in the drainage ditch.
There is no record of Christopher Hartley’s fate, although most likely he was executed for his deed.
Whitaker adds a few paranormal details. Hannah’s father and some of the local men began looking for her when she did not come home. A villager (whether male or female, Whitaker does not record) came to them on the day of their search and directed them to the spot where she was found, a place the villager had seen in a dream.
The fields around old Barnside Hall was haunted for many years by the ghost of Hannah Corbridge. When the Hall was torn down, stones from its walls were used to build Laneshaw Bridge, not far from where the murder was committed. Legend says that, after he buried her in the ditch, Christopher Hartley wiped his bloody hands on the stones on the side of the Hall, and that those stains can still be seen on certain parts of the bridge. Hannah herself has been seen near the bridge as recently as 1964.
None of those events occur in the ballad, but if its details of how the murder was committed are any measure, we must admit the possibility that the ballad was based on this actual murder.