Archive | November 2013

The American Songbag, Part II: Of Doves and Crows

Last week, I shared some highlights from Carl Sandburg’s folk song collection, The American Songbag. This week, I dig a little deeper.

In perusing The American Songbag, I was excited to discover evidence of a connection between some songs (or song families?) that I already knew and liked but which I had assumed were unrelated. The first song in the book is “He’s Gone Away.” Though the tune was unfamiliar to me, I immediately recognized the words as being like those of Crowfoot’s “Winter’s Night.” Here are selected verses from each:

“Winter’s Night”

Fare you well, my own true love
Fare you well, for a while
I’m going away, but I’m coming back
If I walk ten thousand miles

And who will shoe your feet, my love?
And who will glove your hands?
And who will kiss your ruby lips
When I am gone to a foreign land?

Father will shoe my feet, my love
And Mother will glove my hands
And you may kiss my ruby lips
When you come back from a foreign land

Don’t you see that lonesome dove
Flying from vine to vine
She mourns the loss of her own true love
Why not me for mine?

“He’s Gone Away”

I’m goin’ away for to stay a little while,
But I’m comin’ back if I go ten thousand miles.
Oh, who will tie your shoes?
And who will glove your hands?
And who will kiss your ruby lips when I am gone?

Oh, it’s pappy’ll tie my shoes,
And mammy’ll glove my hands,
And you will kiss my ruby lips when you come back!

Look away, look away, look away over Yandro,
On Yandro’s high hill, where them white doves are flyin’
From bough to bough and a-matin’ with their mates,
So why not me with mine?

The notes for “He’s Gone Away” say it’s “of British origin” and that “[o]ther mountain places in the southern states have their song about going away ten thousand miles.” Particularly noted is the “exceptional theme of the white doves flying from bough to bough and mating,” so I thought it was interesting that Crowfoot’s version also includes the dove, though in a different way.

Then, much farther along in the book, I came upon “Who Will Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot?”, which Carl Sandburg heard from one Prof. Frank C. Senour. There is only one verse, and it’s almost identical to Crowfoot’s:

O, who will shoe your pretty little foot,
And who will glove your hand,
And who will kiss your ruby lips
When I’ve gone to the foreign land?

With this song, however, Sandburg includes two other texts. The first, “Fair Annie of Lochyran,” is from Alexander Whitelaw’s “Book of Scottish Ballads” and is a bit further removed from the texts I’m most interested in. The second, however, given to Sandburg by R. W. Gordon (I don’t know who any of these people are), made me very excited. The text is entitled “The True Lover’s Farewell,” and the first three stanzas are more or less those I’ve already shown (ten thousand miles; a series of questions about shoes, gloves, and kisses; answers about father, mother, and the lover), but the fourth and fifth are these:

You know a crow is a coal, coal black,
And turns to purple blue;
And if ever I prove false to you,
I hope my body may melt like dew.

I’ll love you till the seas run dry,
And rocks dissolve the sun;
I’ll love you till the day I die,
And then you’ll know I’m done.

These verses strongly recalled another song I love, “The Blackest Crow,” from the album Converting Grace by Molly & Maggie and The Ephemeral Stringband. Specifically, the third verse:

The blackest crow that ever flew
Would surely turn to white
If ever I prove false to you
Bright day would turn to night
Bright day would turn to night, my love
The element’s would mourn
If ever I prove false to you
The sea would rage and burn

The most obvious similarities are the presence of the crow and the line “If ever I prove false to you,” but there’s also the sea. Also, the end of the second verse of “The Blackest Crow” is “You are the one I will adore / Until my dying day,” which is similar to the third line of the fifth verse of “The True Lover’s Farewell” above (“I’ll love you till the day I die”). The crow turns a different color in each version, and “The Blackest Crow” seems to make more sense in that a black crow turning white is anomalous (just as the lover proving false would be). In “The True Lover’s Farewell,” a black crow looking purple blue just sounds like a trick of the light. It’s presented as a fact, not an event connected to the lover’s potential falseness, and it kind of comes off as just setting up the rhyme with “dew.”

Now, the reason I got so excited about this text in The American Songbag is because it contained in one song textual elements of two songs (Crowfoot’s “Winter’s Night” and Molly & Maggie’s “The Blackest Crow”) that I had previously never connected. This may not be terribly surprising, given that these songs share a common theme, but still. Additionally, Sandburg’s notes on “Who Will Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot?” conclude with: “A little book could be written around this song and all its ramifications in the past.” Indeed!

The American Songbag, Part I: First Impressions

This summer, my mother went to an estate sale and came home with several songbooks. One of them was The American Songbag by Carl Sandburg. I was surprised to learn that this was the same Carl Sandburg as the poet! Further poking around revealed that The American Songbag had its own entry in Benét’s Reader’s Encyclopedia. It was clearly a big deal!

This songbook is a treasure. Here’s a collection of things I’ve found amusing, interesting, or delightful about The American Songbag so far:

  • Opposite the title page is a list of other works by Carl Sandburg, including, under “For Young People,” something called Rootabaga Pigeons. Rootabaga Pigeons?!
  • The copyright page includes the following notice: “[This book] is manufactured under wartime conditions in conformity with all governmental regulation controlling the use of paper and other materials.” The American Songbag was published in 1927, but perhaps the edition I have was printed during World War II…?
  • The prefatory notes include this tidbit: “Leo Sowerby was twenty-one years old when a Chicago orchestra produced a concerto for ‘cello by him entitled ‘The Irish Washerwoman.’” Wow, can I play this?
  • Then there is Carl Sandburg’s Apologia, which I found so astonishing I think it deserves to be quoted at length: “I apologize for the imperfections in this work. I believe no one else is now, or ever will be, so deeply aware and so thoroughly and widely conscious of the imperfections in these pages.…Many considerations which have governed the selection of material…are not worth setting forth in a foreword…; they would have value chiefly and only to those who already understand somewhat the labyrinths, the twisted pathways, and roads of life, out of which this book issues. The book was begun in depths of humility…. It is a book for sinners, and for lovers of humanity. I apologize to them for the sins of the book and that it loves much but not enough.”
  • The songbook is sorted into various sections, some of which have amusing titles like “Tarnished Love Tales or Colonial and Revolutionary Antiques,” “Kentucky Blazing Star” (Kentucky gets a whole section unto itself!), “Hobo Songs” (including “Hallelujah, I’m a bum!”), and perhaps best of all, “Picnic and Hayrack Follies, Close Harmony, and Darn Fool Ditties.”

Going through the songbook page by page, I realized most of the songs were unfamiliar to me. A few I did recognize or which otherwise stood out to me:

  • “Sourwood Mountain” (p. 125): The notes say this song has many different versions. I learned one in elementary school, to a tune that is clearly related to the one in the book. The first verse is the same one I remember, but the only other verse I recall (“My true love she lives in Letcher / She won’t come and I won’t fetch her”) is not in The American Songbag.
  • The Missouri Harmony (p. 152): I was quite surprised to discover in the middle of this songbook pages reproduced from The Missouri Harmony, a shape note tune book I have only once had the opportunity to sing out of. Apparently it is said Abraham Lincoln sang from The Missouri Harmony.
  • “The Brown Girl or Fair Eleanor” (p. 156): I had to mention this song because it has my name in it! In the text, the Brown Girl and Fair Eleanor are rivals for the affections of one Lord Thomas. All three characters are dead by the end of the song, but incredibly, the tune is lilting and cheerful. Also, Abraham Lincoln may have been sung this song as a child.
  • “Weevily Wheat” (p. 161): This is the first time I’ve come across this song since I learned it in elementary school. The tune is roughly the same, though I remember singing it in a different meter. The only verses I remember are the first and the one about going over the river to the sheep. The notes say that “the Charley of this song may be the Prince Charlie of Jacobite Ballads.” I always remember knowing it was about Bonnie Prince Charlie, though somebody must have told me that.
  • “Little Ah Sid” (p. 276): This is a racist song about Chinese people.
  • “Mag’s Song” (p. 316): A second text is included with this song, and it’s actually this second text that piqued my interest. Entitled “The Orphan Girl” or “No Bread for the Poor,” it appears, I’m pretty sure, in The Shenandoah Harmony, a new shape note tune book published just this year. The text tells the tragic and melodramatic tale of an orphan girl who begs at the door of a rich man who refuses to let her in, so she freezes to death overnight. It’s like a cross between “The Little Match Girl” and Dives and Lazarus.

Coming next week: the discovery of unexpected connections between songs! (If you thought this post was esoteric, I’m afraid it’s only going to get worse. But I promise you pretty music!)

How the City of Ashara Became Grenoble

Today, I bring you an odd fact about my book that you would never know from reading it. Sparkers is set in a city called Ashara, and Ashara is Grenoble, France. By that, I mean the layout of Ashara’s streets, squares, neighborhoods, and geographic features is based on Grenoble’s. This was actually quite a late development. In 2011, in the middle of yet another revision of my manuscript, I decided I needed a map of Ashara. I wanted to know how long it would take characters to walk from Point A to Point B, the number of city blocks between key locations, what cardinal direction various landmarks lay in, and so on. Having a map would allow me to give every important place in the book an absolute location and keep the manuscript consistent with itself.

Part of the fun of fantasy worldbuilding is sketching maps of imaginary countries, but drawing an entire city street map from scratch sounded laborious and tedious. Luckily, I had just returned from a semester studying abroad in Grenoble, and I had kept the map of the city issued to us by our program. That map became the blueprint for Ashara.Ashara MapOf course, Ashara already had a geography—the Davgir River, a central market, a large cemetery—but I just superimposed these features on my map of Grenoble. Sometimes I adjusted the layout of Grenoble to conform to facts I had already established for Ashara. For instance, I decided the Drac (a real French river) corresponded to the fictional Sohadir River, but I pushed it farther west. More often, I allowed the layout of Grenoble to dictate the geography of Ashara, since much of that geography wasn’t worked out in detail in the manuscript. The result is that many landmarks in Sparkers have real counterparts in the city of Grenoble. Ashara’s Davgir River is the Isère. The bustling covered marketplace in Sparkers is located on the site of Grenoble’s Jardin de Ville. The Assembly Hall, from whence Ashara’s ruling magicians govern, occupies the same spot as the hôtel de préfecture in Place Verdun. And my main character, Marah, lives on the Ashari street corresponding to Grenoble’s rue de Chamrousse. Ashara doesn’t look much like Grenoble (for one thing, it’s not surrounded by mountains!), but it is laid out like it. So if you ever want to feel like you’re walking the same streets as my characters, you’ll have to visit Grenoble!

Next week, I might start in on a set of posts about some American folksongs. Stay tuned…

A Beginning

Hello and welcome! Today is my birthday, and to mark the occasion, I’m launching this blog. And I’m launching a blog because I wrote a children’s fantasy novel, and it’s going to be published next year! After years of being extremely cagey about my writing, I’m slowly adapting to being an author in public. For those of you who know me, I’m glad you’re here! For those of you may not, here is a brief bio.

My debut novel is called Sparkers and will be published by Viking Children’s Books in the fall of 2014. It’s about a girl and a boy who forge an unlikely friendship when a mysterious illness strikes their city. It has plenty of magic, music, old books, and snow. Sparkers was a long time in the making, and I’m very excited for it to be a real book.

While I expect to blog about writing and publishing, I’ll also post about other things that interest me. Like maybe hurdy-gurdies. I’m a first-year Ph.D. student, an occupation whose side effects may occasionally include sporadic blogging. But please feel free to ask me questions in the comments, and if I can spin my response into a post, I will happily do so.