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Album: Liege & LiefReleased: 1613
"Matty Groves" is an English folk ballad. According to a report in the London Times of March 2, 1945, this song was specially written by the composer Benjamin Britten and dedicated to the musicians of the German POW camp Oflag VII B the previous year.
This is not quite correct; "Matty Groves" is also known as "Little Musgrave And Lady Barnard". Dating to at least the 17th Century, it is a well-known murder ballad - Child Ballad Number 81.
Written in 2/2 time, Britten's version was published by Boosey & Hawkes Music of London in 1943 as "The Ballad of LITTLE MUSGRAVE and LADY BARNARD" with the dedication "For Richard Wood and the musicians of Oflag VIIb".
As with many folk songs, the names of the characters vary, but basically Lady Barnard, the wife of Lord Arlen (Lord Arnold, Lord Donald...) entices her servant into her marital bed. Unfortunately, she is betrayed by another servant. In some versions, this servant is promised a fine reward if he is telling the truth, and death if he is lying. The nobleman hurries home and catches the lady of the manor in flagrante delicto. Unsurprisingly, he calls on her lover to get out of bed and face him, but Little Musgrave declines. Rather sportingly, Lord Arlen takes out two swords and offers the servant the better one, and the chance to strike him first.
Painted into a corner, Mugrave has little choice but to accept the offer, strikes Lord Arlen first, but is killed in return.
Then, Lord Arlen sits his wife on his knee and asks her which of them she now prefers; she responds that she would rather kiss the dead lips of her lover, at which point he stabs her through the heart and orders them to be buried together with her on top, because she is of noble kin.
This song has of course been widely recorded, including by Joan Baez (as "Matty Groves"). This is the last and longest track on her 1962 live album. Running to 7 minutes 44 seconds, it features just Baez and her acoustic guitar.
Fairport Convention recorded an electrified version of this traditional folk song on Liege & Lief. The album title is composed of two Middle English words - "liege" meaning loyal and "lief" meaning ready. The LP has come to be regarded as a major influence in the development of British folk-rock, and in 2006, BBC Radio 2 listeners voted Liege & Lief the "most important folk album of all time." Fairport Convention guitarist Richard Thompson reflected on its influence in an interview with Mojo magazine March 2011: "What surprises me is how influential it was in other countries. Folk musicians in places like Sweden, Spain, Holland heard Liege & Lief and thought, 'this what we need to do with our culture,' and it spawned all these folk-rock bands playing their own traditions. We were hoping it would get in the charts and the music would be accepted alongside the American-influenced stuff but that didn't happen and it became a cult. It remains a cult to this day."
There is an allusion to the song in Beaumont and Fletcher's 1613 play The Knight of the Burning Pestle.