House Carpenter

by

edited from http://mbmonday.blogspot.com:

The Demon Lover and the House Carpenter

Laurence Price receives the credit for the original song, published as a broadside in 1657, and entitled “James Harris (The Daemon Lover).”  It bears the somewhat more descriptive subtitle of:

A Warning for Married Women, being an example of Mrs Jane Reynolds (a West-country woman), born near Plymouth, who, having plighted her troth to a Seaman, was afterwards married to a Carpenter, and at last carried away by a Spirit, the manner how shall be presently recited.”  

British and Irish versions tend to favor “The Demon Lover” as the title of choice, and American versions generally favor “House Carpenter.” Some British artists pick up “House Carpenter,” but these are often explicitly sourced to American artists.  All modern versions essentially agree on the core elements of the story, however much they together stray from the original.  The song as we have it today reliably dispenses with the initial courtship of James Harris and Jane Reynolds, his being pressed into ship’s service, and any details of the carpenter’s demise at the end of the song.

Depending on the goals of the singer, the remaining details are tweaked in the story.  There are some variables.  These include:

  • The length of the separation of the lovers. If it is specified, it is either seven years, as in the Price original, or “three-fourths of a long, long year.”
  • The number of children born to the carpenter’s wife
  • Whether the carpenter’s wife requires her old true lover to demonstrate his ability to support her
  • Whether the carpenter’s wife puts on a display of finery as she departs
  • Whether the lover who lures her away is a demon who kills her through supernatural means or her demise is depicted as accidental/natural.

Sometimes these options appear to be mixed and matched, unrelated to other elements or who is singing the song where.  Other options tend to correlate strongly with each other or other factors.  For one, basically all the Old World versions (regardless of which title they choose) invoke a supernatural agent; the lover reveals himself to be a demon.  In essentially all of the New World versions, there is no demon.  The only view of the supernatural, if any, is that our heroine views the hills of Heaven and of Hell, and learns which way she will go.

In Clarence Ashley’s version, initially recorded either in 1928 or 1930 (depending on your source) and released by Columbia Records, he accompanies himself on 5-string banjo.  Harry Smith  (in the Anthology of American Folk Music) summarized this version as follows:

“WIFE AND MOTHER FOLLOWS CARPENTER TO SEA; MOURNS BABE AS SHIP GOES DOWN”

Ashley’s version demonstrates another correlation among our variables.  If the length of the “true lovers'” separation is “three-fourths of a long, long year,” she has only one child.  This tie happens only in American versions of the song.  In versions where the time is not specified (American or Old World), or is specified as seven (Old World only), there may be two or three children.  The implication here has to be that the baby is either Harris’s, or that she was faithful to her vow to him for no more than a moment before wedding the house carpenter.  Either of these choices are significant departures from the original narrative.

In Price’s original, the only people we definitively know die are James Harris (whom the Spirit impersonates) and the carpenter.  Jane Reynolds is merely missing and reasonably presumed dead.  The original, therefore, accomplishes its work primarily on the basis of the destruction that Jane’s choice wreaks on others.  She is a somewhat more sympathetic character, having done her level best to be faithful.

In the more contemporary versions, both “The Demon Lover” and “House Carpenter” focus on the destruction it wreaks on Jane.  In the former, she is deceived by a supernatural trickster, in the latter, she meets her doom because of a leaky ship and her own bad judgment–natural causes, in more ways than one.

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