[Johnny Armstrong - Henry Hetherington Emmerson (1831-1895) Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne]
The popularity of the ballad, and the romanticization of the unfettered, amoral Armstrong, may, to some degree, be traced to its inclusion in Sir Walter Scott's highly-influential 1803 volume, The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Scott goes into some detail regarding the ballad, including noting significant variants, and suggesting that Version A (the one that Allen uses) - "There dwelt a man in faire Westmerland/Jonn Armstrong men did him call.." might actually be a corruption of Version B ("Is there never a man in all Scotland./From the highest state to the lowest degree.."), and on the famous lines that catch his fancy - "Then Jonny lookt over his left shoulder/ Good lord what a grevious look looked hee/ Saying, Asking grace of a graceless face -/Why there is none for you nor me" - more authentic is an alternative - "Then Johny look't over his left shoulder/And to his merry men thus said he:/"I have asked grace of a graceless face -/No pardon there is for you or me." (Allen is confused, it should be noted, even, at first, believing Armstrong's betrayal is from some "English Lord", before recognizing that, "it was the Scots, the Scots King that did the treachery").
AG: Johnie Armstrong, in stanza eleven has a really great line, (like "thechannerin’ worm doth chide”) - "Then Jonny lookt over his left shoulder/ Good lord what a grevious look looked hee/ Saying, Asking grace of a graceless face -/Why there is none for you nor me" - That's great - "Asking grace of a graceless face" - just the sound, but the statement is great. I can just hear (William) Burroughs making use of that, looking in the face of a narc, asking of a narcotics cop, "asking grace of a graceless face". Imagine being busted and looking up into the cop's face and "asking grace of a graceless face"! - It's, like, a modern, sort of like a modern psychological experience, or it's a universal psychological experience -
Then, the sixteenth stanza - (a) classic moment - he's been betrayed (it's a Scottish ballad and he's been betrayed by an English Lord, I think). And he's been invited for a visit and instead he's taken prisoner. So he fights it out with his men, with his friends, or, I guess, with his buddies, his knights and gets wounded, and then makes this classic speech which echoes through all the halls of balladry - "Saying fight on, my merry men all,/And see that none of you be taine;/For I will stand by and bleed but awhile./And then will I come to fight againe" [Editorial note - or, from the alternative version - "Said John, Fight on, my merry men all,/I am a little hurt, but I'm not slain;/I will lay me down for to bleed a while/Then I'le rise and fight with you again"] - And then he dies! - with the death-speech being… (it's a great line!) - "Saying fight on, my merry men all,/And see that none of you be taine;/For I will stand by and bleed but awhile./And then will I come to fight againe" - It's like a great classic moment of pathos.
And then the news is brought to his son. He probably.. I don't think a.. Before I ever read this ballad, I heard the legend - "Newes then was brough to young Johnie Armstrong /As he stood by his nurse's knee/Who vow'd that if ere he lived for to be a man,/O'er the treacherous Scots revenged he would be" - [Editorial note - variant - "O then bespoke his little son,/As he was set on his nurse's knee/"If ever I live for to be a man,/My father's blood revenged shall be".
- (I guess it was the Scots, Scots King that did the treachery)
[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately ten-and-a-half minutes in, and concluding at approximately thirteen minutes in]