Week 363: Fire Thief, by Karine Polwart

This is an original work by the Scottish folk-singer Karine Polwart, written for a BBC Radio 2 musical documentary series called The Radio Ballads. It is based on interviews with Anne Marie, who is living with HIV and lost her husband to AIDS, and Betty, who lost her son Michael. Both husband and son suffered from AIDS-related dementia long before their bodies died. I admire how skilfully Karine uses the devices of the old ballads – question-and-answer, refrain – to build an atmosphere of doom and pity. Of course, it’s better still with its music, a haunting guitar accompaniment: the track can be found on Karine’s album ‘This Earthly Spell’.

A couple of Scots words here: a rickle is a loose heap or rickety structure; dool is dolour, pain.

Fire Thief

Who stole the heart of my bonnie laddie
All alone and aloney O
And left me another lad in his body?
Down where I cannot go
Down where I cannot follow

Who stole the light in my laddie’s eyes
All alone and aloney O
And left me another lad in disguise?
Down where I cannot go
Down where I cannot follow

Who stole the words on my laddie’s tongue
All alone and aloney O
And left me a rickle of skin and bone?
Down where I cannot go
Down where I cannot follow

Who stole today? Who stole tomorrow?
All alone and aloney O
And left me with nothing but doul and sorrow?
Down where I cannot go
Down where I cannot follow

I know the name of the fire thief
All alone and aloney O
But you can’t grow a tree from a fallen leaf
Down where I cannot go
Down where I cannot go
Down where I cannot follow
Down where I cannot go

Karine Polwart

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