Saturday, July 27, 2019

StorySpotting: I gave my love a cherry (Harlots)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

One of my favorite period dramas are back for a third season, and off to a strong start.

Where was the story spotted?

Harlots, season 3, episode 2

What happens?

Running away from a hellish insane asylum, Lydia Quigley and her young friend help a whole lot of other women escape in the chaos. As the women walk out of their cells, we see one of them strolling, a little dazed, humming a song to herself:
I gave my love a cherry 
That had no stone 
I gave my love a chicken 
That had no bone 
I told my love a story 
That had no end 
I gave my love a baby 
With no crying.

What's the story?

This song, known as The Riddle Song or I Gave My Love a Cherry, has been known in the English and Scottish folk tradition from the 15th century, and belongs to a story often referred to as Captain Wedderburn's Courtship (Child ballad No. 46). In it, a girl challenges a captain to a game of riddles, agreeing to marry/sleep with him if he answers all of them. The suitor manages to solve all the questions. There are many different versions with many different riddles. To the ones above, the answers are as follows:
A cherry without a stone is a cherry flower
A chicken without a bone is an egg
A baby that doesn't cry is sleeping
A story without end is the story of love

There are many versions and adaptations to the song, and to the story. You can find the Child ballad here,  the Appalachian version here, info on Captain Wedderburn here, and a medieval text here. I would also like to highlight two favorite adaptations of mine:

First and foremost, American storyteller Susanna Holstein has a marvelous re-telling of Captain Wedderburn, one that I fell in love with a decade ago, and she graciously gave me permission to tell it. I have been telling it ever since, and it is one of my all-time favorite stories. It never fails with any audience; kids love guessing the riddles, teens adore the love story, and adults enjoy both. (I heard the story on a radio program, find more info here)

Another favorite of mine is Great Big Sea's song adaptation. You can listen to it on YouTube here.


The way the lady sang the song on Harlots definitely had a menacing tone to it, especially since it ends on "a baby with no crying." The episode's end credits also featured a cover of the same song. I'm curios where this is going to lead.


  1. Ooh, I remember this from my childhood! Can’t remember who sang it, though. There are, like most folk songs, quite a few variations, aren’t there?

  2. First time I heard this sing, I definitely it was about a stillbirth... oO maybe that's ehat they were going for?