There is a song, a Child Ballad, of course. One of the older ones, I think , but I have no way of knowing. It’s called, variously, “Edward”, or “My Son David”, or simply, “Son David”. Like “Lord Randal”, it is a dialogue between a mother and her son and, like “Lord Randal”, it has some sinister interpretations. In “Lord Randal”, the eponymous character is dying after having been poisoned by his lover. There is a suggestion in a few versions that Randal’s mother might have colluded in his murder.
“Edward” isn’t dying, but he has killed; up to eight verses can treat with the Mother’s attempt to find the provenance of the blood on Edward’s sword. She does not believe him when he claims that the blood belongs to his hawk, his hound, or his horse. Edward must at last confess that he has killed his father or brother, usually for the crime of not respecting him. His mother then asks him what he will do next.
Allow me to briefly digress. In the medieval Irish religious tradition there were three types of martyrdom: the white, or pilgrimage, the green, or hermitage, and the red, which is what usually comes to mind when someone mentions martyrdom. In most versions of this song, Edward chooses the white martyrdom; he will leave and never return. Sometimes he rather callously abandons his wife and his children (“The warld is room; let them beg”), and he frequently blames his mother (“sic counsels ye gave tae me”) for encouraging him to kill his other relative. There is only one version that I’ve heard which gives a possible explanation for Edward’s guilt.
In Malinky’s “Son David”, which is the most poignant version that I own, there are two significant differences. First, David kills his brother John “because he drew his sword tae me”. Why the two were arguing to the point of slaughter is, again, not mentioned, but this lyric provides some reason for David’s depth of feeling. Once David has confessed his crime, he says “For it’s I’m gone awa’ in a bottomless boat, a bottomless boat, a bottomless boat/ It’s I’m gone awa’ in a bottomless boat and I’ll never return again.” Son David has chosen the red martyrdom.
And that is the essence of the song. It is about crime, guilt, and the expiation of that guilt. It is about families, and the way we hurt each other. It is about a man driven to the ends of the earth to undo something which cannot be undone.