Och, alrrrrrright. The vairy fairst thing ye have tae knoo aboot this wee poem is that it's wrrrrrritten in a rrright prrrroperrrr Scottish brrrrrogue. (Translation: The very first thing you have to know about this poem is that it's written in a Scottish dialect). Why, you ask, is that? Well, the answer is pretty simple. "Lord Randall" belongs to a group of songs and poems commonly called Anglo-Scottish ballads, or sometimes "border ballads" (the border in question being the one between England and Scotland).
But please don't go thinking that all Scottish people go around spelling things phonetically and speaking in archaic language. Some famous counter-examples to this claim are Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott, though they certainly couldn't resist writing in a good, old-fashioned dialect every now and again (bless their Scottish hearts!). "Lord Randall" and other border ballads like it are kind of special cases. They are "written" in heavy Scottish accents because they weren't actually meant to be written down at all.
Since the ballad as a form comes to us from folk songs, like this one (for some examples, see the "Best of the Web" section), they were originally transcribed by interested scholars or canny ballad-sellers, or both, from original spoken or sung versions. When these ballad-collectors, including Walter Scott himself, wrote down these ballads for the first time, they included the folky accents of their singers.
So what's come down to us through the centuries of both oral and written transmission is actually a cool relic of a much, much earlier time. Estimates usually say that this ballad came into being somewhere between the 13th and 15th centuries, which shows us that this puppy is not only written in an extremely old poetic form and meter, but it also preserves an archaic way of speaking, like a time capsule in poem-form.
Especially cool is the notion that the ballad was the popular song of earlier times, and hearing it or reading it now gives us an insight into the pop culture of the period that other literature or art might not. Just imagine the excitement of an archaeologist of the 25th century stumbling upon some Rihanna lyrics. That's kind of what "Lord Randall" is like to us today. After all, once we get past the accent and everything, this is really a song about a guy whose girlfriend has done him wrong, in the very worst way—just like a lot of the stuff we might hear on the radio (or on Pandora, or Spotify, or whatever you crazy kids today are listening to) every day.
The answer seems pretty self-evident to us. Frankly, anyone who's ever been a lovesick teenager, or ever will be a lovesick teenager, should really get "Lord Randall." It's got true love, mystery, passive aggressive parent-child relations, betrayal, tragedy… you know, basically all of the ingredients that make up your average first love story (plus a extra special, bonus secret ingredient: a little after-dinner murder). The ballad's building air of unease and melancholy really captures the sinking despair of the dumped. Ah, young love… sigh. We're feeling a little weepy just thinking about it, like maybe we'll go off for a little while and Facebook-stalk all of our old flames… excuse us. Sniff. We're fine—really.
Phew, anyway, to make it worse, the repetitive structure of the poem increasingly piles on the tragedy: not only did Lord Randall's treacherous GF poison his dogs (!), it turns out that she dumps the poor guy by poisoning him (!!) with an unromantic dinner of eels (!!!).
The ballad basically begins with an air of melancholy and mystery, and each time we hear the haunting refrain, "mother, make my bed soon / for I'm weary wi' hunting, and fain wald lie down," it grows sadder and more meaningful. Finally, when we finally learn that the girlfriend from hell has poisoned our young hero, and he admits that he is "sick at the heart," we realize that the pain and weariness that he's dealing with isn't just your average post-hunting exhaustion or even poison pangs at all—it's heartbreak.
In the end, the poem invites us world-weary, lovelorn readers to sympathize and reflect upon young Lord Randall's tragic betrayal, and think back on our own sad, swoony stories, though hopefully none of us have had our pets (or ourselves) poisoned by vindictive exes. Even though the trappings of this particular story—you know, hunting, bloodhounds, murder by eels—may seem foreign to us, it turns out that we aren't so far removed from Lord Randall at all. When we strip this ballad down to its bare bones, it's really just another sad love song, and we can all sympathize with its message of love and loss.
So in conclusion: you know that creepy, nagging feeling of vague misery that's been tugging at your sleeve from the very first few lines of this poem? It turns out to be the depressing moral of this story, and many other weepy pop songs, at that: love hurts. Actually, in this case, love kills. With eels!
Looking for More History?
You can read a brief history of this ballad and its other variants at this site, and hear one of the tunes it's commonly sung to.
For all you musicians out there…
Here you'll find sheet music for one version of "Lord Randall."
Feeling inspired to take your own trip to the "wild wood"? Take a look at this image gallery of beautiful Scotland to get a feel for Lord Randall's setting…
Interested in this Version? Check out the Others.
Here, you can see 14 other variants on "Lord Randall" collected by Francis J. Child in his famous compendium of ballads of the British Isles.
The Tip of the (Ballad) Iceberg
If you liked "Lord Randall," you might also enjoy some of the other traditional ballads collected by Child – a lot of them are creepy and cool, and they're all pretty excellent stories.
First, a Lute-less Version
Here's a particularly authentic-sounding, unaccompanied sung version of the ballad.
And Now, with 100% More Lute!
Here's another traditional musical setting of "Lord Randall," with musical accompaniment.
Lord Randall in America
Here's a bluegrassy, Appalachian version of the song.
And Now for Something Completely Different
Well, not completely. Okay, this is almost completely a non sequitur, but here's another song about betrayal, from another classic source – MTV's most amazing show ever, Daria.
One More Musical Setting
Here's another simple musical version, which offers a karaoke-style scrolling lyrics, and its own interpretation of the poem…
Straight Up Poetry Style
Here's "Lord Randall," without all the musical mumbo-jumbo.
"Lord Randall," Illustrated
That redhead is clearly up to no good.
Pre-lamprey poisoning, of course.