The Story Finder

Voices in Fairy Tales

by Michelle Tocher

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Song of the Ballad-Singer

Walking along the road, the wandering ballad-singer came upon a girl with a black bowl over her head.

“Oh, girl with the black bowl over your head, why do you sit weeping by the roadside?” he asked.

“I weep because the world is hard,” she said. “I am hungry and tired. No one will give me work or pay me money.”

The minstrel had not a rin of his own, or he would have given it to her. Instead, his heart filled with sympathy, and I began to take shape.

“The best I can do for you is to make you this little song,” he said.

He whipped his biwa round, and thrummed on it with his fingers. “To the tears on your white chin:”

The white cherry blooms by the roadside,
How black is the canopy of cloud!
The wild cherry droops by the roadside,
Beware of the black canopy of cloud.
Hark, hear the rain, hear the rainfall
From the black canopy of cloud.
Alas, the wild cherry, its sweet flowers are marred,
Marred are the sweet flowers, forlorn on the spray!
When the air settled, the girl said: “Sir, I do not understand your song.”
“Yet it is plain enough,” said the ballad-singer. In truth, he had not understood me either. He went his way full of thought, and came to the house of a rich farmer. The people invited him in and asked him to sing before the master of the house.
“With all the will in the world,” said the singer. “I will sing him the new song that I have just made.”
Again I took shape in his receptive, sympathetic heart, and I filled the air with the melancholy melody of the wild cherry and the great black cloud.
The master said, “Tell us the interpretation of your song.”
“With all the will in the world,” said the ballad-singer. “The wild cherry is the face of a maiden whom I saw sitting by the wayside. She wore a great black wooden bowl upon her head, which is the great black cloud in my song, and from under it her tears flowed like rain, for I saw the drops on her white chin. She said that she wept for hunger, and because no one would give her work nor pay her money.”
“Perhaps I might help the poor girl with the bowl on her head,” said the master of the house.
“That you may if you wish,” said the ballad-singer. “She sits but a stone’s throw from your gate.”
Song of the Ballad-Singer, The Black Bowl, Japanese Fairy Tales. Illustration by Warwick Goble.