Shearwater: “Henry Lee” (Snow Leopard EP, 2008)
Like, I’m sure, a lot of people, I first learned “Henry Lee” from the version by Nick Cave and PJ Harvey that appeared on Cave’s Murder Ballads LP. Aside from having one of my favorite videos (it’s uncomfortable, but so perfect for the song), it was dramatic, a sharp version of a very old song with a new, mostly wordless chorus that belied the hideous murder at the heart of the song.
“Henry Lee” has a long history. It came to the United States as the Scottish ballad “Young Hunting,” a song that may actually have roots in Scandinavia, and while it fell out of the repertoire in its homeland, it established itself as one of the most played and most recorded murder ballads we have. Sometimes the title “Loving Henry” is used (there’s a related song called “Lowe Bonnie,” too), but “Henry Lee” has become the standard most often used.
It’s a simple story, really. A woman is in love with Henry Lee, but he spurns her after leading her on, his own true love being far away in “that merry green land” (which could easily be Ireland or Scotland), so she stabs him to death, then enlists some local women to help throw him down a well and keep it a secret. Harvey and Cave list the murder weapon as a “little pen knife,” which is a mutation of the original “weapon knife” referenced in older versions, such as the defining recording made by Dick Justice for Harry Smith in 1929.
“Little pen knife” actually makes the crime seem more horrific. You’d have to really go at someone with a pen knife to kill them—the only reference point I have is Joe Pesci in Goodfellas.
Shearwater’s version uses the pen knife, too, but puts a very different musical spin on the song from any other I’ve heard. Older versions done in traditional styles tend to be disconcertingly nonchalant about the brutality of the crime they describe, while Cave and Harvey seem almost to lose themselves in the visceral details. Jonathan Meiburg sings it in a disarmingly gentle way, as though it were a lullaby for the murdered man, easing him into his final rest.
It’s chilling in its own way.