Back in 1996, Nick Cave and PJ Harvey teamed up to record ‘Henry Lee’, a rendition of a traditional folk song that featured on Cave’s 1996 album, Murder Ballads. 

As the story goes, the pair soon became deeply in love while filming the music video, and embarked upon a highly-publicised, yet all-too-brief relationship. Before long, they were something of an iconic musical pairing, defining the era with their striking appearance and high-profile nature.  While the love between the pair soon burned out, many were left to wonder what went wrong between the two. Now, in a new post on his Red Hand Files website, Nick Cave has discussed the dissolution of their relationship to a fan who asked why he ‘gave up’ on PJ Harvey.

“The truth of the matter is that I didn’t give up on PJ Harvey, PJ Harvey gave up on me,” Cave explained. “There I am, sitting on the floor of my flat in Notting Hill, sun streaming through the window (maybe), feeling good, with a talented and beautiful young singer for a girlfriend, when the phone rings. I pick up the phone and it’s Polly”.  “I was so surprised I almost dropped my syringe,” he added, noting that while “drugs might have been a problem between us”, he believed that they each had their own issues which could not be addressed while together.  “I think at the end of the day it came down to the fact that we were both fiercely creative people, each too self-absorbed to ever be able to inhabit the same space in any truly meaningful way,” Cave explained.  “We were like two lost matching suitcases, on a carousel going nowhere.”

Despite their breakup, Nick Cave explained that the end of their relationship inspired him to dive headfirst into the completion of his next album, which ultimately received critical acclaim across the board. “I remember our time together with great fondness though, they were happy days, and the phone call hurt; but never one to waste a good crisis, I set about completing The Boatman’s Call,” Cave recalled. “The Boatman’s Call cured me of Polly Harvey. It also changed the way I made music. The record was an artistic rupture in itself, to which I owe a great debt. “It was a growth spurt that pushed me in a direction and style of songwriting that has remained with me ever since – albeit in different guises.”

Get down, get down, little Henry Lee
And stay all night with me
You won’t find a girl in this damn world
That will compare with me
And the wind did howl and the wind did blow
La la la la la
La la la la lee
A little bird lit down on Henry Lee

I can’t get down and I won’t get down
And stay all night with thee
For the girl I have in that merry green land
I love far better than thee
And the wind did howl and the wind did blow
La la la la la
La la la la lee
A little bird lit down on Henry Lee

She leaned herself against a fence
Just for a kiss or two
And with a little pen-knife held in her hand
She plugged him through and through
And the wind did roar and the wind did moan
La la la la la
La la la la lee
A little bird lit down on Henry Lee

Come take him by his lilly-white hands
Come take him by his feet
And throw him in this deep deep well
Which is more than one hundred feet
And the wind did howl and the wind did blow
La la la la la
La la la la lee
A little bird lit down on Henry Lee

Lie there, lie there, little Henry Lee
Till the flesh drops from your bones
For the girl you have in that merry green land
Can wait forever for you to come home
And the wind did howl and the wind did moan
La la la la la
La la la la lee
A little bird lit down on Henry Lee

[Nick Cave – 1996]

Young Hunting” is a traditional folk song,  catalogued by Francis James Child as Child Ballad number 68, and has its origin in Scotland. Like most traditional songs, numerous variants of the song exist worldwide, notably under the title of “Henry Lee” and “Love Henry” in the United States and “Earl Richard” and sometimes “The Proud Girl” in the United Kingdom.

The song, which can be traced back as far as the 18th century, narrates the tale of the eponymous protagonist, Young Hunting, who tells a woman, who may have borne him a child, that he is in love with another, more beautiful woman. Despite this, she persuades him to drink until he is drunk, then to come to her bedroom, or at least kiss her farewell. The woman then stabs him to death. She throws his body in the river, sometimes with the help of one of the other women of the town, whom she bribes with a diamond ring,  and is taunted by a bird. She tries to lure the bird down from the tree but it tells her that she will kill it if it comes within reach. When the search for Young Hunting starts, she either denies seeing him or claims that he left earlier, but when Hunting’s remains are found, in order to revoke her guilt, she reveals that she murdered him and is later burned at the stake. Nick Cave, referred to the song as “a story about the fury of a scorned woman.”