Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender – The Brown Girl

This song has been around for hundreds of years. It was known to be in print before 1750 and probably came to us from England or Scotland. Even at that time the song could have been an old one. The song has been sung with different verses and has been known by several titles: Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender, The Brown Girl, Fair Eleanor, Fair Ellinor and even Fair Annet, or Annie. Lord Thomas is sometimes referred to as “Sweet Willy.”

Vernon Hill’s illustration of folk ballad “Lord Thomas and Fair Annette” from 1912 book Ballads Weird and Wonderful by Richard Chope.

Thomas is in love with a fair young lady who owns very small piece of property. There is another lady, a nut brown girl, or the Brown girl, who wants to marry Thomas. He does not love her but she owns a lot of property and other valuables. Thomas goes to a family member to seek advice. In some stories it was his brother, in others his mother or father. He is advised to marry the wealthy girl. In one “story” his sister warns him that the lady could lose her wealth and land and he would be stuck with an ugly wife for nothing.

The fair young Annet dresses as well as she can, determined to attend the wedding. The Brown girl becomes so jealous that she stabs Annet. Thomas, distraught over the loss of the girl he truly loved, killed the Brown girl and then himself. According to legend a rose grew from one’s grave and a brier from the other. The two plants joined.

I am certain that there is some truth to this old story. So many songs from so long ago seem to reflect the details of what happened in the lives of these three young lovers. Songs were a part of the stories, the oral traditions that were brought into Kentucky through the Cumberland Gap. I have been reading and learning about some of our old time music and the roots of these songs. Often the “modern” version of the song has changed wording because some of the phrases no longer make sense or because someone recorded a certain song and that was the one version that became widely recognized regardless of its accuracy.

For example in the song Down In The Willow Garden we hear artists say “burgundy wine.” That is incorrect. In that particular song/story the phrase was “Burglars wine.” Burglars wine is a bottle of wine that has been drugged to put a person to sleep, not to kill them. Some people actually kept a bottle of drugged wine around. The wine was used to get a person to pass out so that they could be robbed. I hear that it was even used to put an unwanted guest to sleep so they wouldn’t be a nuisance or wake up and rob you in the middle of the night. Sometimes if you have overnight guests you might want to be sure they stay asleep.

In this video, Sarah Wood performs the song the way she learned it from Lily May Ledford. Lily May titles the song, The Brown Girl. You can hear “Ellender” as the name of the fair maiden in the song. Fair Ellender was one of the older titles the song was known by.

You can get this song and others on Sara’s new album One May Morning.

This is an EXCELLENT album from Sarah Wood If you like old time music and haunting heart felt singing you should contact Sarah and get yourself a copy. When I saw her last she even had vinyl LP albums! Scroll all the way down for more information about her project!

The Brown Girl

The Brown Girl as performed by Hedy West ( American Folk Singers And Balladeers 1964)

“O mother, O mother,” Thomas said
As he walked out at the door,
“Should I marry fair Ellender,
Or go fetch the brown girl home?”

“The brown girl she has house and land,
Ellen she has none.
Therefore, I advise you, Thomas, my son,
Go fetch the brown girl home.”

He rode, he rode to Ellen’s house,
He knocked at the bell and it rung.
There was none so ready as Ellen herself,
Ellender did come.

“What news, what news?” Ellen said.
“What news to me do you bring?”
“I’ve come to invite you to my wedding,
Tomorrow’s the day it’ll be.”

“Sad news, sad news,” Ellen said
“Sad news to me, I presume.
I intended to be the bride myself
And you to be the groom.

“Mother, mother,” Ellen said
As he walked out at the door,
“Should I go to Thomas’ wedding,
Or tarry all day at home?”

“Ellen, you know your friends will be there,
And also all your foes.
Therefore, I advise you, Ellen, my daughter,
Tarry all day at home.”

“Mother, I know my friends will be there,
And also all my foes.
But if life spares me till tomorrow morning,
To Lord Thomas’ wedding I’ll go.”

She rode, she rode to Thomas’ house,
And she knocked at the bell and it rung.
There was none so ready as Thomas himself,
Thomas he did come.

He taken her by the lily-white hand,
He led her across the hall,
He set her down by his bride’s left side,
Among the ladies all.

Accompanying Herself On The 5-String Banjo

Accompanying Herself On The 5-String Banjo

“Thomas, Thomas,” Ellen said,
“Your bride looks wonderful brown.
You once coulda had as fair a lady
As ever the sun shined on.”

“Yes, Ellen, yes, Ellen,” Thomas said,
“My bride is wonderful brown.
I have more love for your little finger
Than the brown girl’s house and land.”

Now, the brown girl had a little penknife
That was so keen and sharp.
She turned around to fair Ellender
And pierced it in her heart.

“What’s the matter, what’s the matter?” Thomas said.
“What makes you look so pale?
You always look so red and rosy,
What makes your color fail?”

“Are you blind, are you blind?” Ellen said.
“Or can’t you very well see?
Don’t you see my own heart’s blood
Come a-tricklin’ down my knee?”

He taken the brown girl by the hand,
Led her across the floor,
Cut her head short off with his sword,
And kicked it against the door.

Put the point of the sword to his breast,
The handle on the floor.
He hollered out, “Oh, boys, boys,
Was there ever such a weddin’ before?”

He hollered out, “Boys, boys,
Dig our graves so deep.
Cover us up with marble stones,
Marble stones so neat.”

He hollered out, “Boys, boys,
Paint our coffin black.
Bury fair Ellender in my arms,
The brown girl at my back.”

Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender

* This version was in print before 1750 and probably came to us from England or Scotland.

1. Lord Thomas was a bold forester
And the lodge-keeper of the king’s deer;
Fair Ellender was a lady gay,
Lord Thomas, he loved her dear.

2. Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender
Sat all day on a hill;
When night had come, and sun was gone,
They’d not yet said their fill.

3. Lord Thomas spoke a word in jest
And Ellen took it ill:
“Oh, I will never marry me a wife
Against my family’s will.”

4. “If you will never wed thee a wife
A wife will never wed thee!”
So he rode home to tell his mother
And knelt upon his knee.

5. “Mother, come mother, come riddle to me,
Come riddle it all in one,
And tell me whether to marry Fair Ellen
Or bring the Brown girl home.”

6. The Brown girl she has house and land,
Fair Ellender she has none,
And there I charge you with the blessing
To bring the Brown girl home.

7. He dressed himself all in his best,
His merry men all in white;
And every town that he passed through
They took him to be some knight.

8. He got on his horse and he rode and he rode,
He rode ’till he came to the home,
And who so ready as Fair Ellen herself
To rise and bid him in.

9. He went till he came to fair Ellender’s court
So loudly twirled at the pin,
There was none so ready as fair Ellender herself
To let Lord Thomas in.

10. What news have you brought unto me, Lord Thomas?
What news have you brought unto me?
I’ve come to ask you to my wedding,
A sorrowful wedding to be.

11. Bad news, bad news, Lord Thomas,” she said,
Bad news you bring to me;
You’ve come to ask me to your wedding,
When I thought your bride to be.

12. “Come come riddle to me, dear mother,” she says
“Come riddle it all in one,
If I must go to Lord Thomas’ wedding
Or if I must stay at home.”

13. “Many may be your friends, daughter
But thousands are your foe
And therefore I charge you with my blessing
To Lord Thomas’ wedding don’t go.”

14. “Yes, many may be my friends, mother
And thousands are my foes
But betide to my life, betide to my death,
To Lord Thomas’ wedding I’ll go.”

15. She turned around and dressed in white
Her sisters dressed in green,
And every town that they rode through
They took her to be some queen.

16. They rode and they rode ’till they came to the hall,
So loudly she twirled at the pin
And no one so ready as Lord Thomas himself
To let fair Ellender in.

17. He took her by her lily white hand
When leading her through the hall
Saying fifty gay ladies are here today
But here is the flower of all.

18. “Is this your bride, Lord Thomas?” she said
“She looks most wonderful brown
You might have had as fair a woman
As ever trod England’s ground.”

19. “Despise her not, fair Ellender,” he said
“Despise her not to me
Much better do I like your little finger
Than I do her whole body.”

20. The Brown girl she was standing by
With knife ground keen and sharp,
Betwixt the long ribs and the short,
She pierced Fair Ellender’s heart.

Jean Ritchie Ballads From Her Appalachian Family Tradition

Jean Ritchie Ballads From Her Appalachian Family Tradition

21. “Oh, what’s the matter?” Lord Thomas said
“You look so pale and wan
You used to have so fair a color
As ever the sun shone on.”

22. “Oh, are you blind, Lord Thomas?” she said
“Or can’t you very well see,
And can’t you see my own heart’s blood,
As it trickles down to my knee?”

23. Lord Thomas he was standing by,
With knife ground keen and sharp,
Between the long ribs and the short,
He pierced his own bride’s heart.

24. He held the grip against the wall,
The point against his breast,
“There is the going of three true lovers,
God send our souls to rest.”

25. “Oh father, oh father, go dig my grave,
Go dig it wide and deep,
And place fair Ellender in my arms
And the Brown girl at my feet.”

( Source http://ingeb.org/songs/lordthom.html )

Jean Ritchie – Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender

Jean Ritchie version from 1973:

One May Morning

Sarah Wood with Scott Napier, Jesse Wells and Karly Dawn Milner

1 One May Morning
2 The Roving Cowboy
3 I Never Will Marry
4 Old Aunt Jenny With Her Nightcap On
5 Barbara Allen
6 Little Girl And the Dreadful Snake
7 Lonesome Scenes Of Winter
8 Rock Andy
9 Young People Who Delight In Sin
10 The lady Of Carlisle
11 The Soldier Traveling From the North
12 Stumptailed Dolly
13 Bed Of Primroses
14 The Brown Girl
15 Glory In The Meeting House
16 A Conversation With Death
17 The Old German War

Visit Sarah on CD Baby to get your copy!



More References:

Lord Thomas and Fair Annet https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lord_Thomas_and_Fair_Annet

Lily May Ledford https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lily_May_Ledford

Hedy West https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hedy_West


  • Dale Farmer 8 years ago

    Very interesting article. I love the deep history of our music!

  • Jeannie Nesbitt 8 years ago

    Lovin ittt

  • Charles Bill Black 8 years ago

    Yes, and so much of the music–stuff that is familiar to us–has a history far older than most people know about. It is so common, actually, for a “familiar song” that many folks have known “all of their lives” and can play or sing to have an origin that goes back to that 1900s or 1800s–and sometimes even the 1700s or even earlier! And then there is that fascinating thing known as the “folk process” in which songs “transform” over the years–words are rewritten, verses are added, melodies are borrowed and turned into new songs (examples: Wildwood Flower of 1860 became The Sinking of the Reuben James around 1940 by Woody Guthrie or The Eighth of January of 1814 became The Battle of New Orleans by Jimmy Driftwood in 1959 and a huge country hit for Johnny Horton.) Of course, lots of wonderful old-time music comes from many different places but personally I look to Kentucky as the heart of it all! Hey, just remember that old Merle Travis song–“Kentucky Means Paradise!”

  • Dale Farmer 8 years ago

    I picture my great, great….. grandmothers singing this in England, then Virginia, then on their trek through the Cumberland Gap to their cabins in Eastern Kentucky, changing a little with each generation, down to me… My Grandma Oza Farmer, Magoffin County Kentucky, sang these old ballads as a child till on her death bed back in 1978. She taught several to my cousins and hopefully they’ll be passed on.

  • Charles Bill Black 8 years ago

    Dale, so neat to hear about that! My family also came through the Cumberland Gap, also near Black Mountain in Kentucky–I kinda like to think that the family name had something to do with the naming of Black Mountain but there’s no evidence that. Grandpa Lee Black was from Somerset Ky and Grandma Bessie Black was born in Eubank Ky, which are both in Pulaski County Ky. They got married in 1915 when he was 25 and she was 15–not something that would fly today! He died in 1972 an she passed in 1980.

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