Along with Steeleye Span, Fairport Convention helped revitalize folk music in England by electrifying traditional ballads with modern arrangements. “Tam Lin,” from Fairport Convention’s 1969 album, Liege And Lief, features a strong-willed heroine in a hair-raising tale of lust, evil curses, and redemption. It’s based on Scottish folklore although variations have surfaced in other cultures as well. Brought to life by the terrific lead vocalist Sandy Denny, the lyrics warn maidens to steer clear of a wooded area called Carter Hall because a creepy elf named Tam Lin dwells there.
Some versions of the original ballad offered unsavory reasons why a particular maiden named Janet ignores the warning, but Fairport Convention goes with the more positive view that she believes she has a right to pick roses at Carter Hall since it’s part of her family’s property. “When up there came young Tam Lin says, ‘Lady, pull no more./And why come you to Carter Hall without command from me?’/‘I’ll come and go,’ young Janet said, ‘and ask no leave of thee.”
Fairport Convention breaks up the narrative with energetic instrumental passages driven by electric guitar and fiddle. Although it’s not stated clearly, Janet’s encounter with Tam Lin includes him seducing her, and later there are consequences. “Well, up then spoke her father dear and he spoke meek and mild/‘Oh, and alas, Janet,’ he said, ‘I think you go with child.”
By then, she’s fallen in love with the little guy. “For if my love were an earthly knight as he is an elfin grey/I’d not change my own true love for any knight you have.” Janet goes back to Carter Hall to see if Tam Lin wants to trade the woods for a family, castle and white picket fence. He’s game, especially since his only other option at that point is being offered up as a human sacrifice. “The Queen of Faeries caught me when from my horse I fell/And at the end of seven years she pays a tithe to hell/I so fair and full of flesh and feared it be myself.”
The magic of Halloween night not only offers Tam Lin a means to escape, but through Janet’s love, it can also transform him back into the handsome knight he was before the Queen of Faeries cast a spell on him. Janet carries out the elaborate ritual Tam Lin prescribes, and wins his freedom. The Queen of Faeries is furious with the outcome. “‘Oh had I known, Tam Lin,’ she said, ‘what this knight I did see/I have looked him in the eyes and turned him to a tree.’”
The Tam Lin Balladry site lists several more sinister variations on the original ballad than Fairport Convention’s version, but there is one that depicts The Queen Of Faeries expressing a grudging admiration for Janet’s pluck. On that note, we can also thank Fairport Convention for its well-executed take on this spooky legend.