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Why We LeftUntold Stories and Songs of America's First Immigrants$

Joanna Brooks

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780816681259

Published to Minnesota Scholarship Online: August 2015

DOI: 10.5749/minnesota/9780816681259.001.0001

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Two Sisters and a Beaver Hat

Two Sisters and a Beaver Hat

Desire and the Story of Colonial Commodity Culture

(p.75) Chapter Three Two Sisters and a Beaver Hat
Why We Left

Joanna Brooks

University of Minnesota Press

Abstract and Keywords

Following the clues in the folk ballad “Two Sisters,” Brooks discloses the profound social destabilization unleashed by the advent of luxury commodity consumption England—especially the culture of the “beaver hat.”

Keywords:   colonization, folk music, ballads, immigration, Land of Opportunity, Colonial America, globalization

ON AUGUST 15, 1932, a young and enterprising literature scholar named Arthur Kyle Davis Jr. set up his Speak-o-Phone recording device in the tiny parlor of the home of Horton Barker in St. Clair’s Bottom, Virginia. Barker had been born in 1889 in Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee, in the eastern foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, into a family of tenant farmers and domestic servants in a mountain mining and iron mill town; he became blind when he was just a small child. Over a lifetime of listening—to his mother, to the music teachers at the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind, and to hymn singers during his years on the road with a traveling preacher—Barker had developed a mastery of the canons of Anglo-American traditional music. He had also cultivated a lucid and angular tenor voice, the desired object of many folk song collectors then combing the highways and byways of the American South. Among folklore enthusiasts, Barker, who sometimes made a living as a broom salesman, came to be known as an “aristocrat of singers.”1

Barker probably had little use for such adulation, or for the romantic attitudes Davis and other eager young salvage ethnographers brought into the Blue Ridge Mountains. By all accounts, he was a bit of a rascal, as happy to tease would-be scholars by singing only popular tunes of the time, rather than the ballads made famous by British folklorist Francis James Child that could be traced back to sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. Barker, whose mother was a multigeneration mountain woman—the name of his father, who died early, (p.76) does not survive—could probably trace his ancestral roots back that far too, had anyone bothered to keep up the records.

Either it was an especially muggy August day in the bottomlands near Chilhowie, Virginia, or something about the earnest young scholar with the fancy recording device made Horton Barker feel obliging. For when Davis turned on the Speak-o-Phone, Barker delivered a stellar version of one of the most ancient and familiar ballads in the English and Anglo-American canons:

  •     There was an old woman lived on the seashore,
  • Bowing to me,
  • There was an old woman lived on the seashore,
  • Her number of daughters, one, two, three, four,
  • And I’ll be true to my love,
  • If my love will be true to me.
  •     There was a young man came there to see them,
  • Bowing to me,
  • There was a young man came there to see them,
  • And the oldest one got stuck on him.
  • And I’ll be true to my love,
  • If my love will be true to me.
  • He bought the youngest a beaver hat,
  • Bowing to me,
  •     He bought the youngest a beaver hat,
  • And the oldest one got mad at that.
  • And I’ll be true to my love,
  • If my love will be true to me.
  •     “O sister, O sister, let’s walk the seashore,”
  • Bowing to me,
  • “O sister, O sister, let’s walk the seashore,
  • And see the ships as they sail o’er.”
  • And I’ll be true to my love,
  • If my love will be true to me.
  •     While these two sisters were walking the shore,
  • Bowing to me,
  • While these two sisters were walking the shore,
  • The oldest pushed the youngest o’er.
  • And I’ll be true to my love,
  • If my love will be true to me.
  •     “O sister, O sister, please lend me your hand,”
  • Bowing to me,
  • (p.77) “Sister, O sister, lend me your hand,
  • And you may have Willie and all of his land,”
  • And I’ll be true to my love,
  • If my love will be true to me.
  •     “Oh no, I’ll never lend you my hand,”
  • Bowing to me,
  • “Oh no, I’ll never lend you my hand,
  • But I’ll have Willie and all of his land.”
  • And I’ll be true to my love,
  • If my love will be true to me.
  • The miller he got his fishing hook,
  • Bowing to me,
  •     The miller he got his fishing hook,
  • And fished the maiden out of the brook.
  • And I’ll be true to my love,
  • If my love will be true to me.
  • “O miller, O miller, here’s five gold rings,”
  • Bowing to me,
  •     “O miller, O miller, here’s five gold rings,”
  • To push the maiden in again.
  • And I’ll be true to my love,
  • If my love will be true to me.
  • The miller received those five gold rings,
  • Bowing to me,
  •     The miller received those five gold rings,
  • And pushed the maiden in again.
  • And I’ll be true to my love,
  • If my love will be true to me.
  •     The miller was hung at his own mill gate
  • Bowing to me,
  • The miller was hung at his own mill gate,
  • For drowning little sister Kate.
  • And I’ll be true to my love,
  • If my love will be true to me.2

The song Horton Barker sang for Arthur Kyle Davis Jr. is called “The Two Sisters,” and just like the ballad “Edward,” it tells an ancient saga of sibling rivalry and betrayal. A young man, often a sailor, comes to visit a family and falls in love with the younger sister. He offers her as a token a “beaver hat,” incurring the older sister’s jealousy. The older sister invites the younger to walk down by the seashore, then tries to (p.78) drown her. The younger sister tries to allow the older sister to have her new love as well as his land, but the eldest sister refuses to extend her hand, so the younger sister washes downstream until she reaches the miller’s pond. The miller takes gold from the younger sister and pushes her back into the pond, where she drowns. Even if we recognize how important fraternal and sororal loyalty were to the ballad tradition, the apparent whimsy and cruelty of the eldest sister and the miller in “The Two Sisters” still have the power to startle, especially when set against the chorus: “I’ll be true to my love, / If my love will be true to me.” As I listen, so too does Horton Barker’s sweet, bright, unaccompanied tenor startle as it pushes through the story of murderous betrayal, reaching gladly for high notes and leaning full-throated into the chorus. As with Lina Ward’s singing of “Edward,” Barker’s singing is spare and sinewy. Dark though the betrayal may be, he sings it as though it would be extravagant to sentimentalize such a familiar story.

Variants of the “Two Sisters” ballad have been documented and collected by folklorists not only in England but also in Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and the Faroe Islands.3 But it was among the Anglo-American folk singers of the southern United States that the ballad achieved its greatest popularity. In the first decades of the twentieth century, ethnographers working in small communities from Virginia to Arkansas transcribed and recorded dozens of versions of “The Two Sisters.” Almost all of them share the same narrative bones: two sisters, a suitor, a coveted gift, a murderous betrayal, and a final act of desecration. A few Anglo-American singers set the ballad in mythic time, as did their English and Scandinavian forbears, describing the sisters as daughters of a “king” or a “lord,” the suitor as a “knight,” and the gift as a “fine gold ring” and “silken dress.”4 Most, however, vest the story with a close familiarity, describing the sisters as daughters of an “old woman” or a “man in the west,” the suitor as a commoner, either a sailor or a boy named “Willie” or “Johnny,” and the gift as a “beaver hat,” and sometimes a “gay gold ring” as well.5 The most significant variations in story concern the behavior of the miller. In the version of the ballad as sung by Horton Barker and others documented in rural Virginia between 1913 and 1915, the younger sister manages to swim downstream until she reaches the miller’s pond, where she offers him her gold to rescue her, but the miller robs her and throws her back in the pond to drown instead.6 In others, as in the version sung by Jean Ritchie, in Viper, (p.79) Kentucky, in 1946, the younger sister drowns, then the miller fishes the younger sister’s dead body out of his pond—thinking, fancifully, it is “either a mermaid or a swan”—robs her of her “gay gold ring,” and pushes her dead body back into the water.7

Across almost all of these variants, one image recurs: the beaver hat. As curious as it seems that a sister should murder her sister over a hat, the wide distribution of this image across the Anglo-American “Two Sisters” tradition suggests that it is no incidental detail.8 In fact, the version sung by Sam Pritt in Alleghany County, Virginia, in November 1924, underscores the importance of the hat by relating that the older sister is so jealous of the “beaver hat” that she “mashed it flat” before pushing her sister in the water.9 Do sisters really kill their sisters over beaver hats? Do brothers really murder their brothers over the destruction of young trees?

Here, again, we face the same questions as we did in examining the ballad “Edward.” Folklorists have not spent as much time arguing over the meaning of “The Two Sisters” as they have over the ballad “Edward,” nor have they tried to transpose the sisters’ rivalry into some more Lévi-Straussian frame. But as the example of “Edward” shows, the apparently surface details of oral literatures anchor them in specific historical environments. It pays to look at rather than strive to see through the details. It pays to read them not as symptoms pointing to hidden and therefore supposedly more timeless and meaningful texts of human experience but rather as paths into particularly pivotal moments in human history. If we follow the destruction of a young tree, for example, at the heart of “Edward,” the story opens outward to a broader history of deforestation in England, a history that proved decisive in the economic, social, and spiritual dislocation of an entire class of common English people and thus to the colonization of the Americas. When we grasp the extent of the impact of deforestation on English lives, the grim and fatal tone of the “Edward” ballad no longer seems so puzzling. What we have, then, is a ballad that serves as a commentary on its times, or, in the words of folklorist Barre Toelken, a “fossil record” of historical feeling.10 Could “The Two Sisters” be the same?

Like “Edward,” “The Two Sisters” is a narrative that suggests a fatal introduction of disorder into community and family. Especially in the version of the story first deployed in seventeenth-century England and refined over centuries by Anglo-American folksingers, the ballad (p.80) depicts a world where social guarantees and norms are upended. Sisters murder sisters; millers pillage corpses; bodies foul the waters. As underscored by the choral refrain—“I’ll be true to my love / if my love will be true to me”—the norms of decency and reciprocity that distinguish a well-ordered society collapse and in their place emerge a host of intimate cruelties. What sets this crisis narrative in motion? The introduction of a single beaver hat. This chapter will look at rather than strive to see through the beaver hat. For if we listen to Horton Barker, and the hundreds of other Anglo-American folk singers of “The Two Sisters” who preserved this oral literary masterpiece over more than two centuries, if we take their words as a path into Anglo-American peasant history, we may find that an apparently simple transaction like the gift of a beaver hat can incur world-reshaping consequences. The story of colonial commodity culture and its consequences is an important dimension of the Anglo-American colonial story. The hunger for status goods both reflected and created powerful economic and social transformations in both America and England. It contributed to social and economic conditions that common English men and women like the ancestors of Horton Barker (and my Brooks ancestors as well) found uninhabitable. This chapter will explore the starring role of the beaver hat in this larger story of why we left.

LONG BEFORE THE EUROPEANS even dreamed of North America, fur held pride of place as a status commodity of empire. From ancient times through the early modern period, Viking, Russian, and German feudal overlords had demanded marten, sable, ermine, fox, and beaver pelts as tribute from peasant hunting communities from Lapland to Siberia, then trafficked them (alongside human slaves) to the Roman Empire and the Levant. Smaller, finer furs became part of the distinctive costume of the early modern merchant class, as seen in the fur-lined coat and felt hat of the merchant depicted in the Jan van Eyck painting The Arnolfini Portrait (1434) and the fur overcoat on the ambassador in Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533). The emergence of a late medieval and early modern merchant class spurred the official regulation of the wearing and display of status goods like fur. The Crown, Parliament, and the Church all passed sumptuary laws designed to restrict the wearing of fur (and other forms of conspicuous consumption) by social rank. For example, King Edward III’s 1363 Statute concerning (p.81) Diet and Apparel restricted the wearing of miniver and ermine to the aristocracy and upper nobility. Other furs like hare, otter, and fox could be worn by lower nobility, knights, and clergy, while common people wore muskrat, badger, and sheepskin.11

Among the most admired accoutrements of the emerging merchant class was a kind of hat made from the soft undercoat of the European beaver (Castor fiber). The beaver has two layers of fur: an outer layer of long, coarse hairs and an inner layer of short, fine, dense ones. As a water-dwelling mammal, the beaver is also equipped with anal glands that secrete castoreum oil to protect and waterproof the fur. It was from the short, fine, and specially lubricated undercoat of the beaver that a special variety of felt was made through a complex multistep process that entailed removing long guard hairs, shaving off short downy wool, and matting the wool into felt sheets that could then be rolled, bathed, shaped, trimmed, tallowed, shellacked, dyed, and decorated. What made the beaver hat special was that, thanks to the water-repellent quality of beaver fur, a beaver hat held its shape in the rain, while lesser felt hats and woolen caps did not. It took pelts from two beavers to make a single beaver felt hat. Owing to the intricacy of its production—felt making was regarded as one of the finest arts of textile making—felt had long been regarded as a status good. King Henry III reportedly wore felt hats in the 1260s, as did merchants from the Islamic Levant in the fourteenth century.12 Flanders became known as a European center of felt hat making; in fact, Chaucer’s description of the merchant in the Canterbury Tales mentions that the merchant has “a Flaundrish bever hat.”13

By the late sixteenth century, the beaver hat was enjoying a fashion resurgence, even as supplies of European beaver rapidly diminished. In 1583, Puritan pamphleteer Phillip Stubbes published an antiluxury treatise titled The Anatomie of Abuses. In addition to lamenting all manner of extravagant dress and social custom, Stubbes paused to wonder at the emerging craze in beaver hats:

And as the fashions bee rare and straunge, so are the things whereof their Hattes be made. Some of a certaine kind of fine haire, far fetched and deare bought…. These thei call Beuer hattes of xx, xxx, or xl shillinges price fetched from beyond the seas, from whence a greate sorte of other varieties doe come besides.14

(p.82) Stubbes criticized not only the extravagance of expenditure but the confusion of social classes this luxury sowed. Whereas simple woolen caps had always been the headgear of all but the English nobility and gentry, the popularization of the beaver hat introduced an entire new medium of cultural aspiration, expression, and distinction. Especially ornate beaver hats made of rare sable beaver, taffeta linings, and imported silken hatbands might cost up to five times as much as a simple woolen cap: about forty or fifty shillings, or one pound, at a time when the salary for a clergyman was thirty pounds a year.15 Beaver hat owners also paid as much as twenty or thirty shillings to refurbish or customize their hats with the latest, most fashionable trimmings. Thanks to the hunger of the merchant class to stay up-to-date and their own inventiveness in creating an endless demand for the customizing and refurbishing of hats, haberdashers became among the most wealthy and powerful guilds in the city of London. Some especially prosperous haberdashers reinvested their new wealth in the very merchant venture companies that would initiate the English colonization of North America.

And what a timely investment that was. For by 1600, the European beaver had been hunted into extinction, forcing European haberdash-ers to look westward for fresh supplies. It was French, Basque, and Portuguese cod fishermen trolling the shores of Newfoundland and New England in the sixteenth century who first bartered with local communities of Micmac and Abenaki for the fur of the American beaver (Castor canadensis). Regular networks for trafficking furs from North America to France were established in the 1570s and 1580s. Visiting Paris in the 1580s, colonial promoter Richard Hakluyt reported viewing “divers beastes skynnes, as bevers, otters, marternes, lucernes, seales” imported from Canada.16 French, Dutch, and English trading companies soon established New World fur-trade footholds: Henry Hudson explored the Manna-hata (now Hudson) River as far north as Albany beginning in 1607; Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec in 1608; and in 1620, yet another fur-post colony was established by Protestant Separatists at Plymouth. When the ship Fortune left Plymouth for England in 1621, beaver skins made up 69 percent of its cargo value.17 It was beaver fur that enabled the Puritans to pay their debts and raise capital enough to finance their religious and civic experiment, even as (p.83) Puritan writers like Phillip Stubbes condemned beaver hats and other vanities. By the 1630s, beaver pelts even served as a currency of exchange in North America. The fur trade—driven largely by exchange of a pelt used only to make hats—served as the first economic engine of British North American colonialism.

Refreshed supplies of American furs helped secure for the beaver felt hat an iconic place in the annals of European fashion. The power and expressive range of the hat was modeled by King James’s son Prince Charles, who during the 1620s purchased between forty and sixty beaver hats a year, each costing about eighty-five shillings, including fancy trimmings, a sum equivalent to the cost of a good horse or ten weeks’ wages for an artisan laborer.18 Despite its costliness, the wearing of beaver hats was not limited to nobility alone. As Nicholas Bunker writes, “By the 1620s, the beaver hat had ceased to be a foppish, eccentric novelty, and instead it became an almost universal object of codified desire.”19 Over the course of the century, different segments of the English middle class developed their own particular styles of beaver felt hats. Puritans preferred theirs with a high dome, narrow brim, and silver buckle; wide brims and luxurious plumage (a style some historians suggest was first developed in Sweden) were favored by the cavalier, including King Charles II, who supervised the founding of the fur-trading Hudson’s Bay Company in 1670.20 Beaver hats became a symbol of status recognized across all sectors of English society. As had Phillip Stubbes in the 1580s, some critics, like John Evelyn in his book Tyrannus, or The Mode, in a Discourse of Sumptuary Laws (1661), expressed concern about the rage for novelty and luxury across the English social classes. Evelyn proposed the reintroduction of sumptuary laws not only to preserve the social order but to discourage the unnecessary expense of luxury goods and to consolidate the economic and national identity of England:

How glorious to our Prince, when he should behold all his subjects clad with the Production of his own Country, and the people Universally inrich’d whilst the Species that we now consume in Lace, or export for forreign Silks, and more unservicable Stuffs would by this means be all sav’d, and the whole Nation knit as one to the heart of their Soveraign, as to a Provident and Indulgent father?21

(p.84) Evelyn was not entirely wrong in worrying about the political costs of the rage for beaver felt. As the beaver fur trade continued to grow and expand across the North American continent, tensions over the trade impacted the political relationship between France and Great Britain, leading even to open military conflict in the Beaver Wars, which concluded with the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 and the cession of Hudson’s Bay, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia to England.22 The impacts of the rage for beaver radiated far beyond the fashionable circles of Europe.

Historian William Cronon and anthropologist Eric Wolf have tracked the world-reshaping effects of the beaver trade among the in-digenous nations of North America, from the Abenaki of Maine, to the Algonkians, Hurons, and Iroquois, to the Anishinaabeg people of the Great Lakes, and further west. The trade touched every dimension of Native life. Interaction with European traders brought disease and population decline and created incentives for the reorganization of traditional subsistence-based societies into new, smaller, and more mobile family hunting units. Redirection of economic activity away from horticulture and toward hunting changed Native diets, increased dependence on grains obtained from neighboring tribes, and diminished women’s traditional political and economic powers, which in many communities had been closely tied to land and its cultivation. Elimination of the beaver in overhunted areas left lasting ecological consequences, especially inasmuch as beavers and their dam-building habits had played decisive roles in shaping landscapes, meadows, and waterways. Trade routes opened the way to missionary incursion; fur-trading posts were soon converted into forts. The fur trade also introduced a new intertribal lingua franca and spurred the intertribal adoption of formerly local cultural practices like gift exchange. It decisively shaped political confederations and alliances among the Iroquois and Algonkians, as well as intensifying practices of warfare. It redefined notions of kinship and tribal affiliation and spurred new patterns of settlement and resettlement across New York and the Great Lakes. Religion, political organization, gender roles, family life, warfare, diet—all of these were profoundly and decisively reorganized by the advent of the beaver fur trade.23 The trade, according to Wolf, “deranged accustomed social relations and cultural habits and prompted the formation of new responses—both internally, in the daily life of various human populations, and externally, in relations among them.”24 He continues:

(p.85) Native Americans themselves came to rely increasingly on the trading post not only for the tools of the fur trade but also for the means of their own subsistence. This growing dependence pressured the native fur hunters and pemmican suppliers to commit ever more labor to the trade in order to repay the goods advanced to them by the trader. Abandoning their own subsistence activities, they became specialized laborers in a putting out system, in which the entrepreneurs advanced both production goods and consumption goods against commodities to be delivered in the future. Such specialization tied the native Americans more firmly into continent-wide and international networks of exchange, as subordinate producers rather than as partners.25

What can be said of the European communities who participated as the trading partners and primary consumers of the fur trade? It seems scarcely possible to believe that a trade that had such powerful impacts on so many dimensions of life in indigenous America should not also exert pressures in European communities as well. If the transition from subsistence to mercantile economics, in Wolf’s words, “deranged accustomed social relations and cultural habits” in North America, what impacts must it have had on the English? Perhaps that is the story that “The Two Sisters” is trying to tell.

IF WE WANT TO BEGIN TO ASCERTAIN how the beaver trade registered among the common people of England, we need look no further than the rich body of ballads that grew up over the seventeenth century. As early as the 1630s, when the beaver hat was still out of financial reach for all but nobility and the upper merchant classes, English popular oral culture began to document the impacts of the beaver hat craze on social relations and culture in English peasant-class communities. In the ballad “Well Met Neighbor: Or, A dainty discourse betwixt Nell and Sisse, of men that doe use their wives amisse,” published (scholars estimate) sometime between 1633 and 1669, two friends on their way to attend another woman’s labor exchange a long litany of reports of abuses doled out by local men to their wives. A beaver hat plays a starring role in one of the most gruesome cases:

  • Know you not Sam the Turner,
  • o hee is as good as ere twanged,
  • He throws his wife ith fire to burn her
  • (p.86) O such a Rogue would be hangd.
  • I Pray you how happened that,
  • what should be the cause of this strife?
  • A man brought a new Beaver hat,
  • unto his next neighbours wife,
  • And she spoke unto her good man,
  • to buy such another for her,
  • Which made him to curse and to ban,
  • and thus began all the stir.26

These lines reflect the social dynamics that drive the economics of fashionable status goods: display leads to desire; emulation follows consumption. But in this ballad, the introduction of a beaver hat to the village community leads to negative social consequences as well: inequality leads to desire, which foments resentment and anger, which culminates in violence. The hat precipitates social strife and disorder.

Within a few decades, more ballads appeared that established a strong association between the allure of the beaver hat and destabilizing or deceitful social choices. In a ballad detailing a marriage proposition from a traveling soldier, “The True-Lovers Holidaies: OR, The Wooing, Winning, and Wedding of a fair Damosel; performed by a lusty Souldier, being one of the Auxiliaries” (published between 1663 and 1674), a young girl promises to leave her home and family and undertake the difficult life of a camp follower, having been lured by grand promises, including that of a new beaver hat: “Il buy thee a new kirtle, wrought wastcoat & beaver / A dainty silk Apron, my minde shall not waver, / So no body else shall enjoy thee but I.” Never mind that both by lifestyle and reputation soldiers were a class associated with inconstancy and that a soldier could never have afforded such extravagances.27

Similarly, in “The Country Cozen; or the Crafty City Dame” (published between 1672 and 1696), a woman of London schemes to have an affair with her favorite lover by asking him to come to her house dressed in women’s clothing. His costume? “A brave new Gown, and a rich Beaver / New Apron, Hose, and Shooes.”28 “Nell’s Humble Petition: OR, The Maidens kind and courteous Courtship to honest John the Joyner, whose love she earnestly desired” (1670s) relates the tale of Nell, a forty-year-old former prostitute, who proposes marriage to a younger and far simpler man. When John complains about her age, her “wrinkl’d Brow,” her skin like “the Tawny-Moor,” and her crooked (p.87) nose “all awry,” Nell tries to woo him with the promise of her “perfect Skill” in lovemaking, as well as with a set of handsome gifts: “I’ll buy thee a new Suit and Cloak, / a delicate Beaver too.” What finally clinches the marriage proposal is Nell’s offer to allow John to keep a younger lover as well.29

By the 1680s, all mentions of the beaver hat in popular ballads connect it to the aspirations and untrustworthy (even criminal) behaviors of self-styled cavaliers. “The Town Bully’s Bravery: OR, The High-Way Hector’s Ample Confession of his Lewd Life; Being a fore-runner of an Ignominious Death” (1680s) tells the story of the exploits of one such shyster, including his execution for his crimes of deceit. His chosen costume, significantly, includes a beaver hat elaborately customized with silk bands and gold wires:

  • All the newest Fashions which any Gallants use,
  • I do follow to the life, see Spanish-leather
  • Shooes,
  • Campaign-wig,
  • of Flaxin-hair,
  • Beaver-hat
  • and Silks I wear
  • With Golden-fringes,
  • Drawers scringes when I do repair
  • Unto the Tavern, where I do call
  • For Sack and other Wine, yet I seldom pay at all;
  • A Room I take below, and watch my time to go,
  • And thus I leave them and deceive them like a Bully-Bow.30

A beaver hat is the costume of the cunning “Citizen” who demeans the rural commoner and schemes to steal his bride in “The Contention Between a Countryman & a Citizen, For a beauteous London Lass, who at length is married to the Countryman” (published 1685–88).31 It is also the costume of the “Citizen” who travels to the countryside to woo away a young maiden but who is ultimately defeated and cudgeled by a simple plowman in “The Couragious Plow-man, or, The Citizens Misfortune” (published 1674–79).32 And it is a signature piece of the habit prescribed by the “Fop Master” to his pupils in “The Fop Masters Instructions to All His Beau Schollars, That are desirous to commence Fops” (published 1675–96). “Cock up your Beaver Sir,” is the first of the Fop Master’s lessons, followed by a long list of others that reveal the character of the fashionable class:

  • Draw your mouth like an Ass, Tol.
  • Ogle the Ladies now …
  • Speak like one has the Pox, Tol.
  • (p.88) Lisp sometimes when you speak, Tol.
  • And wear your Shoes that Creak, Tol….
  • Strut and swear like a huff, Tol….
  • Never speak what is true, Tol….
  • Swear Ladies dies for you, Tol.
  • Lay your head in their lap, Tol.
  • Vow you have got a clap, Tol.
  • Sing them a Baudy Song, Tol.
  • And then loll out your tongue, Tol.33

This ballad associates the beaver hat–topped cavalier costume with deceit, disease, and predatory scheming. It is the costume of the merchant-class cosmopolite out to take advantage of country women and men.

Another parallel body of beaver hat ballads depicts the hats as a sign of economic overextension and social ruin. “Ill-gotten Goods seldome thrive. Or, the English Antick” (published 1647–65) tells the story of Dick, a country miller, who comes to town, his pockets lined with “silver,” and promptly spends a large part of it on status goods:

  • a Perry-wig,
  • a gallant Suit of Clothes,
  • Which was bestrewd with Musk,
  • more sweeter then a Rose;
  • A Cambrick Band and Cuffs,
  • his Halfe-shirt
  • out before,
  • His Breeches had of Ribbons
  • at least a dozen score.

And to finish it off:

  • A Beaver, and a Feather
  • The Crowne did over-top,
  • With Ribbons round about,
  • Like a Haberdashers-shop.

Soon, Dick is beguiled by a “cunning snap” of a “Lasse” who “rusled” by him in “her Silke,” another imperial status good brought to England. Dick pursues her to a tavern, where she rebuffs his sexual advances, but continues to flirt with him, even as Dick continues “smoking of his Nose, / and drinking store of Sack.” (It bears notice that both tobacco (p.89) and sack, a fortified white wine imported from the Canary Islands, were imperial status commodities as well.) Finally, she agrees to go “to bed” with him, but before he can accomplish his ends, the inebriated Dick falls asleep, and the woman steals his clothes (including hat) and abandons him. Unable to pay for his room when he awakens, Dick is unceremoniously ejected from the tavern and driven home to his “Fathers Mill,” “naked.” The ballad concludes with a warning:

  • Ill gotten goods nere thrive,
  • take heed you pilferers all,
  • Lest you like strutting Dick
  • to such mischances fall:
  • Then young men have a care
  • of painted curled Locks.
  • For such, though faire above,
  • below may have the Pox.34

According to this ballad, the beaver hat was the desired object of the newly rich, many of whom had come to their riches through less than honorable means. It is significant that here Dick, a miller and a miller’s son, is described as having “ill gotten goods.” Millers were often blamed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries for food shortages. Common English people viewed millers as profiting from the enclosure movement: when common lands previously farmed for subsistence by English peasants were enclosed and turned over to farmers who raised staple crops for sale and profit, it was the millers who were perceived to have betrayed the interests of their communities for market gain. Food rioters often accused millers of buying up such large quantities of grain for trade and sale that they left not enough for the poor.35 Dick’s pretensions to fashion and his ability to afford a beaver hat came about because he made gain at the expense of peasant farmers who were, by the middle of the seventeenth century, in extreme economic distress, if they had managed to hold on to their plots and commons at all. The loss of his hat (and the rest of his clothing) as well as his humiliating walk back to the countryside served as a form of comic justice.36

A similar storyline animates “The Two-Penny Whore” (1692), which tells the tale of a young man, a “vapouring Gallant,” who has “consumd his estate” in frivolous expenditures, including upon lavish clothing. Now ruined, he tries to engage a prostitute he once (p.90) frequented, though he now has only a “two-pence.” She rebuffs him, and he pleads for mercy, reminding her:

  • When formerly I in my silks was adorned,
  • And about my neck wore a fine flanders lacd band,
  • Upon my head was no less than a Beaver:
  • What was there then I had not at command?37

The ballad concludes with the prostitute relenting and working at reduced rates, but it issues a warning as well to young “gallants” to beware the lavish expenditures that lead to ruin. In not a single one of the ballads produced and circulated among common English men and women in the seventeenth century is a beaver hat associated with strength of character, foresight, prudence, or decency. Rather, it is always a spur to envy and conflict, a symbol of ill-gotten gain, a signature accessory of the false and the predatory.

This is the context in which the ballad “The Two Sisters” was born. The earliest documented English version of the ballad was printed as a broadside by Francis Grove in London in 1656, under the title “The Miller and the King’s Daughter”:

  • There were two sisters, they went playing,
  • To see their father’s ships come sailing in.
  • And when they came unto the sea-brym,
  • The elder did push the younger in.
  • “O sister, O sister, take me by the gowne,
  • And drawe me up upon the dry ground.”
  • “O sister, O sister, that may not bee,
  • Till salt and oatmeal grow both of a tree.”
  • Sometymes she sanke, somtymes she swam,
  • Until she came unto the mill-dam.
  • The miller runne hastily down the cliffe,
  • And up he betook her withouten her life.
  • What did he doe with her brest-bone?
  • He made him a violl to play thereupon.
  • What did he do with her fingers so small?
  • He made them pegs to his violl withal.
  • What did he doe with her nose-ridge?
  • Under his violl he made him a bridge.
  • What did he doe with her veynes so blew?
  • He made him strings to his violl thereto.
  • (p.91) What did he doe with her eyes so bright?
  • Upon his viol he played at first sight.
  • What did he doe with her two shinnes?
  • Unto the viol they danc’d Moll Syms.
  • Then bespake the treble string,
  • “O yonder is my father the king.”
  • Then bespake the second string,
  • “O yonder sitts my mother the queen.”
  • Then bespake the strings all three,
  • “O yonder is my sister that drowned me.”
  • “Now pay the miller for his payne,
  • And let him be gone in the divel’s name.”38

This version of the ballad situates the conflict between the sisters on the ocean shore and gives no motive for the elder sister’s betrayal of the younger. Significantly, it also concludes with the miller’s grisly dismemberment of the younger sister’s body and his use of body parts to fashion a musical instrument, through which, in grand supernatural fashion, the murdered sister reveals her older sister’s crime.

Sometime during the seventeenth century, the dynamic street and alehouse ballad culture developed a parallel version of this classic, one that translated the scene of betrayal into far more familiar terms. The king became a common man, or a widowed woman, in the disadvantageous economic position of being a parent to several daughters. Conflict erupts between the daughters when a young man comes to town bearing the gift of the beaver hat, the spoils of the British North American fur trade empire and an iconic and coveted element of English fashion. Envious over the beaver hat gift, the eldest sister drowns the younger. It is this late seventeenth-century version of the ballad, born out of a ballad canon and at a historical moment and milieu wherein beaver hats were associated with deceit and discord, that according to folklore experts served as the source text for “The Two Sisters” that travelled across the Atlantic and became a fixture in Anglo-American folk tradition.39

At some point in that ocean crossing and in the centuries that followed, “The Two Sisters” underwent additional changes. Most significant among them is the loss of the final stanzas in which the sister’s body is made into a musical instrument—sometimes a viol, as in the 1656 version above, sometimes a harp. The younger sister never manages (p.92) to speak from beyond the grave to name her older sister her betrayer; the possibility of justice is lost. Story elements of supernatural retribution were a common feature of traditional English ballads, but they disappear almost entirely from American folk music canons. The reasons for this loss of the supernatural are unknown. It may be that the economiesof oral tradition pared down concluding stanzas like baggage abandoned because it was too bulky to make the Atlantic crossing. It may also be that the spiritually eclectic Christian-pagan-occult world of many common English people lost some of its richness across the centuries and miles. Perhaps the Anglo-American heirs of the original English ballad singers lost a sensible connection to the spirits of their ancestral lands when they came to North America. Whatever the reason, in American versions of “The Two Sisters,” there is no supernatural retribution. In some, the miller is punished for his role in the drowning of the sister. In the version sung by Horton Barker, the younger sister is alive when she reaches the miller’s dam and promises him a reward of gold (another imperial status commodity) for rescuing her; the miller takes the gold, but pushes her back in to drown:

  • The miller received those five gold rings,
  • Bowing to me,
  • The miller received those five gold rings,
  • And pushed the maiden in again.
  • And I’ll be true to my love,
  • If my love will be true to me.
  • The miller was hung at his own mill gate
  • Bowing to me,
  • The miller was hung at his own mill gate,
  • For drowning little sister Kate.
  • And I’ll be true to my love,
  • If my love will be true to me.

Other American versions offer an even more chilling conclusion, as in that sung by Jean Ritchie of Viper, Kentucky, and collected by Artus Moser in 1946:

  • Into the miller’s pond she ran,
  • I’ll be true to my love
  • If my love will be true to me.
  • O miller, o miller, go draw your dam,
  • (p.93) Bow down,
  • O miller, o miller, go draw your dam,
  • Bow your bend to me,
  • O miller, o miller, go draw your dam,
  • Here’s either a mermaid or a swan,
  • I’ll be true to my love
  • If my love will be true to me.
  • He robbed her of her gay gold ring,
  • Bow down
  • He robbed her of her gay gold ring,
  • Bow your bend to me,
  • He robbed her of her gay gold ring,
  • And then he pushed her in again,
  • I’ll be true to my love
  • If my love will be true to me.40

Here, the youngest sister is drowned by the time she reaches the miller’s pond, for she does not bargain with the miller for her rescue. Rather than recover her body for a proper burial, the miller fishes it from the pond, plunders it of its gold ring (given by the suitor), and then returns the body to the water, leaving it to rot.41 There is no moral; there is no justice. There is envy, leading to murder, leading to plunder, leading to environmental befoulment. There is, to recall Eric Wolf’s descriptions of the impacts of the beaver trade on indigenous North America, the “social derangement” of at least four elements of social order and obligation: first, the young man courts the younger rather than the older sister; second, the older sister tries to murder her younger sister; third, the miller robs the girl rather than rescue her or plunders the body rather than retrieve it for burial; fourth, the miller fouls a common water supply with the corpse. We are left with a chilling, fatal narrative of how people betray one another for gain, a narrative ironically underscored by the chorus: “I’ll be true to my love / If my love will be true to me.” It cannot be said that the fur trade had the same kind and extent of impact on England as it did on North America, but “The Two Sisters” offers a body of memory dating to the seventeenth century that suggests that the lower ranks of English people perceived the introduction of status commodities like the beaver hat and the broader commercial culture they represented as destabilizing to their own communities as well. If as Nicholas Bunker writes, the beaver hat had become “an (p.94) almost universal object of codified desire,”42 working-class ballads featuring beaver hats almost universally comment on the destructive and humiliating consequences of desire unleashed and unregulated.

IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO KNOW how many beaver hats were actually purchased in England in the seventeenth century. Some idea comes to us from data compiled by the English statistician Gregory King (1648–1712) titled “Annual Consumption of Apparel,” wherein he estimates that in 1688 3.3 million hats of all kinds (including beaver, wool felt, and rabbit) were purchased for use in England, as well as more than 1.6 million caps, to cover the heads of about 4.5 million people. Almost everyone had a hat or cap. But it is safe to assume that the hat wealth was not equally distributed, as we may surmise from King’s economic census for 1688. According to his calculations, 511,586 English households made an annual average salary of sixty-seven pounds or greater, thus “Increasing the Wealth of the Kingdom,” and 849,000 households, including “Common Seamen,” “Labouring People and Outservants,” “Cottagers and Paupers,” “Common Soldiers,” and “Vagrants” subsisted on salaries averaging £10.5 annually or less, thus “Decreasing the Wealth of the Kingdom.” When we combine King’s tables with other sources, including probate records and household account books, we learn that most common laborers earned about ten to twenty pounds per year. Forty pounds per year was considered the bare minimum for middling households, with the most prosperous middle-class households earning about £150 annually, while lesser gentry and especially well-to-do tradesmen might bring in more than £200 in revenue.43 For lower-rank households, the beaver hat costing upward of fifty shillings, or £2.5, was totally out of reach. At the cost of about two weeks’ salary, the beaver hat was also well beyond the reach of most of the middling sort, especially given the fact that in these households food purchase and production amounted to about 50 percent of annual expenses and clothing about 15 percent.44 Before 1660, it cost about one pound and two shillings to outfit a boy in a respectable middle-class ensemble of hat, coat, shirt, doublet, breeches, stockings, and shoes, and seventeen shillings for a girl’s headwear, waistcoat, shift, petticoat, stockings, and shoes.45 With the median cost of a nonbeaver hat estimated between two shillings and three shillings, the beaver hat at fifty shillings and above was an extravagance on the order of today’s Jimmy Choo shoes (p.95) or even a Hermès Birkin bag.46 Only the stars (and would-be celebrities) were wearing them.

When we realize how few people were actually wearing beaver hats, it seems clear that their function in the ballads is symbolic. Beaver hats and the trouble they cause are an index to the anxiety common people were feeling about massive economic shifts in early seventeenth-century England. This, after all, is a time when traditional commons are being enclosed and repurposed for commercial agriculture, peasant households displaced, and a new class of landless laborers created. It is also a time of growth in England’s commercial and manufacturing activity, growth that was changing the economic and social landscapes of England in profound and permanent ways.

Overseas trade and colonization propelled a significant part of that growth, creating new markets for English goods and manufactures, opening access to new raw materials, and infusing European economies with new capital plundered from the New World. Colonization also reshaped the way England thought of its own role in the global economy from being a producer of raw materials and manufactured goods for domestic consumption and export to playing the role of the middleman in ever more extensive global commercial networks. Such a role would come with an increased standard of living as well, as Richard Hakluyt argued in his case for overseas colonization: “At the firste traficque with the people of those partes, the subjectes of this realme for many yeres shall chaunge many cheape comodities of these partes for thinges of high valor there not estemed; and this to the greate inrichinge of the realme, if common use faile not.”47 Colonization did in fact change the consumption patterns of English men and women, introducing new staple crops such as potatoes and maize, as well as fabrics like silk and calico, and status comestibles like tobacco, sugar, tea, and coffee. By the middle of the seventeenth century, tobacco became an item regularly consumed by more than 25 percent of the English population; tobacco imports for domestic consumption grew a hundredfold from 1620 to 1672, peaking in the first decade of the eighteenth century.48

If the advent of imported goods like tobacco changed the daily consumption habits of English men and women, even greater changes came about as a result of the growth of domestic manufacturing during the early seventeenth century. Especially under Queen Elizabeth, a host of new manufacturing projects had been initiated and patented, (p.96) many offering part-time wage labor in spinning, knitting, pin making, lace making, and so forth to the common sort, including the women and children in rural households and inmates of poorhouses and work-houses. This growth in domestic manufacturing changed the nature of work in many peasant-class English households from subsistence activities like small-scale farming and gathering to a combination of traditional subsistence and specialized wage labor. It also meant that many manufactured goods like pins, paper, and glass formerly imported to England were now produced at home. Consequently, many households did have access to a greater range of domestically produced commodities, thanks in part to the greater price range and variety of goods made available, and thanks in part to wage earnings that put a little cash into the hands of more households.49 Historian Joan Thirsk argues that a “mass market” for consumer goods such as “stockings, knitted caps, cheap earthenware, nails, tobacco pipes, lace, and ribbon” existed as early as the seventeenth century.50 By the end of the seventeenth century, many laboring-class households were able to buy pots, pans, dishes, and stockings.51 This increased domestic consumption fueled the greatest part of English economic growth: by the end of the seventeenth century, production for export was about 7 percent, while production for domestic consumption was 93 percent.52 This led some political economists who had initially viewed domestic consumption as frivolity to celebrate it as a source of domestic economic growth and capital generation.53

Thanks to growth in overseas trade and domestic manufacturing and consumption, the national income of England doubled between the 1560s and 1640s. But the new wealth was not distributed evenly. The commercial shift that brought more English lives into contact with national and international (rather than local) markets was both a source of opportunity and a source of new vulnerability, once that strongly favored the most mobile and educated members of society. New wage laborers working, for example, in cottage cloth and pin-making industries were increasingly vulnerable to interruptions and fluctuations in trade. This vulnerability was compounded by loss of land, livestock, and access for many newly landless laborers to commons, forests, and other sources of traditional subsistence. Writes historian Keith Wrightson: “There was, of course, nothing new about poverty or inequality. But the marked divergence in living standards and life chances between (p.97) those who gained and those who lost in the decades around 1600, and the sheer growth in the numbers of the labouring poor have led many historians of England and Wales to view this period as one not only of economic expansion, but also of social polarization.”54

It is against this backdrop of widespread economic insecurity and increasing inequality that the new status consumption of fashionable commodities like the beaver hat emerges. In his classic work on modern cultural economy, Fernand Braudel connected the rise of the fashionable middle class to the overall material “advancement” of European societies, finding in fashion itself an expression of the new “energies, possibilities, demands and joie de vivre of a given society, economy, and civilization.”55 But these “energies” and “possibilities” were not equally shared. Those who landed on the right side of England’s commercialization could play the status consumption game and chase the latest fashions; all others could not. In seventeenth-century England, the keenest players were not necessarily the wealthiest—gentry, for example—but those whose lives were most linked to the markets like traders, professionals, and wealthy craftsmen.56 Historian Woodruff Smith writes that for these upper-middling types, the “object” of the game was to “acquire influence and reputation” and to demonstrate “a certain amount of control over the world around them.”57 Keith Wrightson continues:

The diffusion of new consumption habits certainly spread by example and imitation, but such imitation did not necessarily imply the mimicking of social superiors. Rather, it involved the spread of influence through networks of association of the middle sort themselves…. In short, the middle sort were themselves innovators; they helped to initiate new standards of domestic consumption.58

The rise of the new status consumption meant the innovation and accumulation of a new strata of social and cultural capital among the middle classes.59 This new strata of social and cultural capital was not fashioned out of thin air. It was accumulated as surplus from the land, labor, and natural resources of indigenous peoples in the Americas and Africa and from the repurposed lands and natural resources and waged labor of peasant-class Britons.60 And it came at significant cost, as the beaver hat ballads suggest.

It represented the rise of the city at the expense of the country. (p.98) Urbanization played an important role in the spread of demand for status goods. It was in towns and cities that new goods were introduced, marketed, and popularized. Studies of household inventories from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries show that households in London and major towns tended to own decorative and status goods like mirrors, table linens, books, and china in greater proportion than rural households.61 But the city also represented the end of the line for newly landless laborers. In almost every one of the ballads, the beaver hat is associated with the untrustworthy “citizen” against the honest “countryman,” even at a time when greater numbers of countrymen were leaving rural areas for urban employment.62

The new status consumption also emblematized the rise of a new modern enterprising individuality at the expense of the many. The seventeenth century witnessed a major power shift from old, exclusive royal-chartered merchant adventurer companies to a new set of enterprising London-based merchants operating as individuals on an unregulated international market.63 Individualism was also an emerging social logic of the early modern era, and seventeenth-century status consumption presaged the development of a consumer society in which the possession of goods (rather than inherited status, or connection to a community or a place) would play a significant role in establishing the social position of the individual. Lynn Festa has observed in her study of fashionable wig-wearing in the eighteenth century, “The important role played by the wig in establishing, even constituting, the identity of its wearer exposes the dependence of the autonomous individual upon his possessions. If the wig belongs to the wearer, there is also a sense in which the wearer belongs to the wig.”64 The beaver hat emblematized the dawn of a world in which for ever greater segments of society things made and manipulated people, and people belonged to things.

Finally, the plumes and silk bands and rich tastes and textures of the new status consumption emblematized the redistribution of capital from laboring classes to middling classes. To visualize how this shift in resources was experienced, imagine this: a peasant-class household scrapes by in the early seventeenth century by raising food for its own consumption on a tiny garden plot, gathering some household necessaries from forests, taking in some waged work like pin making, and keeping a small number of domestic animals like cows and sheep to (p.99) graze on local commons. The animals provide a source of the household’s milk, butter, eggs, and wool, the opportunity for breeding and therefore increase, as well as the chance to sell surplus milk, butter, and eggs at market. If the commons are enclosed for transformation into commercial farm or pasture, the household loses its ability to maintain livestock: the laboring household loses capital. Many laboring-class households were forced to abandon their livestock in the seventeenth century, and somehow through the workings of the commercial market, that loss translated into a substantial gain for merchant classes.65 Producer goods were lost by the lower classes, while consumer goods were gained by upper-middling types.66 Cows, through the magic of mercantilization, somehow became plumed beaver hats.

Thus, what felt to the mercantile class like a new era of possibility felt to many commoners like a new era of insecurity that impacted relationships and the texture of daily lives in families, villages, and towns. It also constituted a major shift in social values and ethics. As historians John Walter and Keith Wrightson explain, “The primacy of local need over individual profit, the obligations of neighbourliness and the traditional interpretation of customary rights were being increasingly denied by a significant element in local society.”67 The beaver hat ballads with their resentment toward millers and other merchants represent a growing focus on those who were perceived to have skimmed the surplus and profited from the impoverishment of others.68 Thomas Hobbes captures this modern sense of social instability and antagonism in Leviathan (1651): “The liberty of the Commonwealth … is the same with that which every man then should have, if there were no civil laws nor Commonwealth at all. And the effects of it also be the same. For as amongst masterless men, there is perpetual war of every man against his neighbour; no inheritance to transmit to the son, nor to expect from the father; no propriety of goods or lands; no security; but a full and absolute liberty in every particular man.”69

Ballads like “The Two Sisters” document a sense of disorder and insecurity and connect it to the introduction of a status commodity culture capitalized on the losses of laboring classes. The beaver hat is the bellwether of the dislocating shift into commercial modernity; it is the lure that sets into motion a chain of events that contributes to the displacement of thousands upon thousands of English peasants to North America. It is this story of desire, deceit, and betrayal that English (p.100) peasants carried with them across the Atlantic and that persisted with them down through the centuries as an archive of memory. Among the descendents of African slaves kidnapped and brought to North America, there is an oral-traditional story that relates that Africans were lured into the clutches of slave traders with a piece of red cloth.70 For Anglo-Americans, the oral-traditional story of why we left begins with the allure of a beaver hat.

In 1933, Horton Barker made his first public folksinging appearance at the White Top Folk Festival in Washington County, Virginia, where his audience included none other than First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Like other folk festivals of the time, White Top had been the project of out-of-area folklorists and folk music aficionados who hoped to promote and preserve what they believed to be “authentic” folk traditions; its backers included magnates profiting from the local timber industry and other industrialization in the Virginia mountains. Roosevelt, whose father was among those magnates, had lived in the area decades before, motored to mountain peaks and hiked to local springs, feasted on country ham and beaten biscuits, and was serenaded by local mandolin players and folksingers, among them Barker, who so impressed her that she invited him to sing at the White House one year later. In her speech to the people at White Top, Roosevelt said:

The study of the folk songs and the early stories of a country are always interesting because they frequently reveal the background on which the customs of a country are built. Very frequently we find explanations for trends in customs and literature of today hidden in some old custom, ballad or legend of many years ago. One thing particularly with regard to the mountains songs is that they go back to our English ancestors. English folklore collectors visiting here have found verses to their ballads that had been lost in England. Historically as well as aesthetically, these folk songs, stories and dances are of value. It is well to encourage a study of folk literature and customs.71

Her words conveyed the viewpoints of professional folklorists and scholars like Arthur Kyle Davis Jr. who were professionally invested in the cultural valuation of the ballad form. One wonders, though, what a blind broom seller and generations-long mountain dweller like Horton (p.101) Barker thought of it all. Did he feel himself the repository of the foundations of Anglo-American culture? And what are those foundations, exactly? If we look to grim murder ballads like “The Two Sisters” as foundational, how do we reckon with their fatal tone, a fatality made all the more startling by Barker’s bright, matter-of-fact rendition of it. Rather than taking a romantic view of the ballads as a confirmation of the continuities of Anglo-American life from Old World to New, ballads like “The Two Sisters” (and “Edward” and others to follow) ask us to reckon with the cruelties and betrayals that stand behind Anglo-American origins and to experience their unsentimental reality to singers like Barker. The story they tell is this one: English peasant migrants did not come here as appointed keepers of ancient customs; we came here as the rejected ones, pushed into the water or across the seas.

“The Two Sisters” suggests the emotional core of a moment when English mercantile imperialism visited English communities with profoundly destabilizing consequences, consequences that ate away at the social fabric of everyday life, the guarantees and obligations that held us in our homes. For the English love of a beaver hat, the lives of hundreds of thousands of indigenous peoples in North America were fundamentally transformed; the lives of English and Anglo-American people were transformed too, propelled away from subsistence economies and into the maw of industrial wage labor, where we were pinioned as the producers of surplus we could only dream of enjoying. Carolyn Merchant has observed of indigenous American involvement in the fur trade: “Furs provided the exchange values needed for the European tools and food required for subsistence. What had begun as adaptation and absorption became dependency.”72 The same might be said for common English people as well. It was only human, after all, to want a taste of the spoils of empire, to want to wear the rich textures and sample the prizes of British colonial mercantilism. And even so we were drawn into a globalizing commercial culture in which we were designated a movable and ultimately disposable class of surplus labor. Adaptation to the modes of global commercial culture led to greater inequality and then dependency. Like the animal whose skins so many craved, we found ourselves dislodged from our traditional homes, and then trapped. (p.102)


(1.) Paton, Review of Horton Barker. See also Lawless, Folksingers and Folksongs in America, 35; Whisnant, All That Is Native & Fine, 233–35; Coltman, Paul Clayton and the Folksong Revival, 46; Barker, Traditional Singers.

(2.) Davis, More Traditional Ballads of Virginia, 35–50.

(3.) Child ballad 10; see versions A–U in F. Child, English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 1:118–41.

(4.) See version A in Davis, Traditional Ballads of Virginia, 93–95, and version AA in Davis, More Traditional Ballads of Virginia, 33–40.

(5.) See versions B–J in Davis, Traditional Ballads of Virginia, 95–103, and versions BB–JJ in Davis, More Traditional Ballads of Virginia, 40–50.

(6.) Davis, Traditional Ballads of Virginia, 97–100; Davis, More Traditional Ballads of Virginia, 48.

(7.) Bronson, Child Ballads Traditional in the United States, album typescript, 3; see also Davis, Traditional Ballads of Virginia, 100–2. In a fascinating version sung by Clarsy Deeton Laws of Burnsville, North Carolina, in 1950, the suitor gives the older sister a “beaver hat,” and the “youngest one thought hard of that.” The suitor then gives the younger “a gay gold ring.” In a fit of mutual jealousy, the oldest pushes the youngest in, but both sisters end up in the water. The youngest drowns, while the eldest is rescued by the miller and then hung for her crime (AFS 10005 A17; AFS 10006 A01). For commentary on the versions, see Coffin and Renwick, British Traditional Ballad, 32–36, 213–15.

(8.) Davis alone documents eleven versions of “The Two Sisters” featuring the beaver hat sung in Virginia alone in the 1910s and 1920s (Traditional Ballads of Virginia, More Traditional Ballads of Virginia). See also Mildred Creighton’s 1962 version of “The Two Sisters,” transcribed by George Goss and reprinted in W. K. McNeil, Southern Folk Ballads, 150–53.

(9.) Davis, Traditional Ballads of Virginia, 95.

(10.) Toelken, Morning Dew and Roses, 33.

(11.) Emberley, Cultural Politics of Fur, 46–47.

(12.) Bunker, Making Haste from Babylon, 236; Crean, “Hats and the Fur Trade.”

(13.) Chaucer, “Prologue,” line 272.

(14.) Stubbes, Anatomie of Abuses, 50–51.

(15.) Bunker, Making Haste from Babylon, 232.

(16.) Ibid., 233. See also Allaire, Pelleteries, manchons, et chapeaux de castor.

(17.) Müller-Schwarze and Sun, The Beaver, 139.

(18.) Bunker, Making Haste from Babylon, 241.

(19.) Ibid., 233.

(20.) Crean, “Hats and the Fur Trade,” 379; Emberley, Cultural Politics of Fur, 67.

(21.) Ibid., 66.

(22.) Müller-Schwarze and Sun, The Beaver, 144.

(23.) See Wolf, Europe and the People Without History, 158–94, Cronon, Changes in the Land, 82–107. See also Merchant, Ecological Revolutions, 50–57, and passim.

(24.) Wolf, Europe and the People Without History, 161.

(25.) Ibid., 194.

(26.) EBBA 30314.

(27.) EBBA 21127.

(28.) EBBA 21263.

(29.) EBBA 21080.

(30.) EBBA 20782.

(31.) EBBA 21269.

(32.) EBBA 30557.

(33.) EBBA 22351.

(34.) EBBA 30882.

(35.) Sharp, In Contempt of All Authority, 35; see also Tilly, “Food Entitlement, Famine, and Conflict.”

(36.) On the theme of beaver hats as signs of overextension and ruin, see also “The Humours of Rag-Fair” (published 1756–90), in which we find among the secondhand goods offered at the fair a “beaver fine, / brought from a broken draper” (EBBA 31251). Even in the eighteenth century, the purchase of a beaver hat would have represented several weeks’ wages for a draper, a dangerous financial overextension in the name of fashion.

(37.) EBBA 30980.

(38.) Child ballad 10, English and Scottish Popular Ballads, 1:118–19.

(39.) Taylor, “English, Scottish, and American Versions of the ‘Twa Sisters,’” 243–44.

(40.) Davis, Traditional Ballads of Virginia, 100–2.

(41.) Abrahams and Foss, Anglo-American Folksong Style, 23; Foss, “More on a Unique and Anomalous Version of the Two Sisters.”

(42.) Bunker, Making Haste from Babylon, 233.

(43.) Weatherill, Consumer Behaviour and Material Culture, 95–102.

(44.) Ibid., 133.

(45.) Spufford, “Cost of Apparel,” 688.

(46.) On clothing, see also Harte, “Fabrics and Fashions”; Lemire, Dress, Culture, and Commerce.

(47.) Hakluyt, Principal Navigations, 267–68.

(48.) Shammas, Pre-Industrial Consumer, 78–79.

(49.) De Vries, “Peasant Demand Patterns and Economic Development.”

(50.) Thirsk, Economic Policy and Projects, 125.

(51.) Ibid., 175.

(52.) Ibid., 2–3.

(53.) Ibid., 1–23.

(54.) Wrightson, Earthly Necessities, 200. See also Wrigley, “Divergence of England.”

(55.) Braudel, Capitalism and Material Life, 235.

(56.) Weatherill, Consumer Behaviour and Material Culture, 194–96; Wrightson, Earthly Necessities, 299–300.

(57.) W. Smith, Consumption and the Making of Respectability, 73.

(58.) Wrightson, Earthly Necessities, 300.

(59.) The seventeenth century represents only the leading edge of what many have described as the English “consumer revolution” of the eighteenth century. See Berg, Luxury and Pleasure in Eighteenth Century Britain; Berg, Age of Manufactures; Berg and Eger, Luxury in the Eighteenth Century; Haggerty, British Atlantic Trading Community; McKendrick, Brewer, and Plumb, Birth of a Consumer Society; Perking, “Social Causes of the British Industrial Revolution.”

(60.) On the fur trade as a source of surplus and inequality, see O’Brien, Dispossession by Degrees, 81.

(61.) Weatherill, Consumer Behaviour and Material Culture, 76.

(62.) See ibid., 70–90.

(63.) Brenner, Merchants and Revolution.

(64.) Festa, “Personal Effects,” 49.

(65.) Shammas, Pre-Industrial Consumer, 42.

(66.) Ibid., 93.

(67.) Walter and Wrightson, “Dearth and the Social Order in Early Modern England,” 23–24.

(68.) Ibid., 29.

(69.) Hobbes, Leviathan, 140.

(70.) On “red cloth” narratives, see Bailey, African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 108–13; Pearson, Black Legacy, 35–42; Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks, 200–8.

(71.) Mack Sturgill, “First Lady Visits Whitetop,” New River Notes, http://www.newrivernotes.com/va/whitetop1lady.htm.

(72.) Merchant, Ecological Revolutions, 55.