Tag Archive | folk songs

Charles Baxter@Grinnell

The same day I drove back to Iowa after the Minnesota Sacred Harp Convention, I went to a Writers@Grinnell event with Charles Baxter, another Minnesotan author who went to Macalester back in the day. It was billed as a roundtable, like with Danez Smith, but it actually turned out to be a craft lecture, a talk genre apparently well known to MFA students, but not to me.

The topic of the lecture was the request moment, which I guess is what it sounds like: a moment in a story when someone asks a character to do something. It makes sense to me that such a moment could be revealing. There’s the content of the request, the requestee’s reaction and response, what it means that the requester feels able/entitled/obliged to make the request, the meaning attached to the response (proof of loyalty, affection, etc.), and so on. Baxter said people often talk about the importance of what characters want, but he’s also interested in transferred desire, that is, when characters do things because other characters want them to.

Some memorable quotes from the lecture:

  • “I can’t go back to being the person I was–that’s what it means to be undone.” I believe this was just in reference to the power of stories to undo us.
  • “Don’t ever ask anybody how much that person loves you”–he pronounced this a terrible idea.
  • “Literature often doesn’t work through simple desires and fears because life doesn’t.”
  • “Often aftermaths are more interesting than violence that precedes them.” This was related to Alice Munro’s short story “Child’s Play.”

The part of the lecture that made the biggest impression on me, though, was a startling coincidence. Baxter incorporated musical examples into his talk. The first was Ralph Vaughn Williams’s orchestral setting of Poem 32 from A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. The second, he said, was a traditional ballad that exemplified how a request moment can also be a prohibition (i.e. don’t do this). He said it was called “The Silver Dagger” and asked if anyone knew it. I half raised my hand, but I think he saw me, because he said, “One person.” Maybe somebody else raised their hand too? I knew exactly why it exemplified a prohibition because it begins, “Don’t sing love songs.” Baxter proceeded to recite the entire text, which I knew, and then he played us a recording of the song. But the weirdest part is that a few hours earlier, I’d sung “The Silver Dagger” while driving on an Iowa highway, and it’s not a song I sing that often these days. I’ve talked about liking Solas’s version before, which is different from the version he played us. That was the one I was singing earlier that day.

La brune habillée en soie

Towards the end of the summer, I went through another French Canadian music phase, this time focused on albums by De Temps Antan, including À l’année, Les habits de papiers, and Consolez-vous. I came across the song “La brune habillée en soie” (The brunette dressed in silk), which I quite liked and also reinforced my impression that there is really only one Québécois song, and all songs express facets of that one ur-song. Actually, the most significant overlap I can detect is between “La brune habillée en soie” and the song “Les larmes aux yeux” (With tears in (one’s) eyes) by Le Vent du Nord. Both are from the point of view of young men who are disappointed in love. Both young men say that if they’d known things weren’t going to work out, “j’aurais pas tout dépensé mon argent” (I wouldn’t have spent all my money) on frivolities (exactly which frivolities varies between the two songs). In both cases, the object of his affections replies (and here again the lyrics are extremely close) that if he spent his money, it was because he wanted to, and how many times had she told him politely to leave because he was wasting his time?!

“La brune habillée en soie” also has the line “C’est par un beau dimanche au soir” (It was on a nice Sunday in the evening). In this case, that’s when some people come tell the young man his brunette has changed lovers, but for me the line echoed “Par un dimanche au soir” (One Sunday in the evening) from Le Vent du Nord’s “Vive l’amour” (Yay, love), which is a fair bit more cheerful. I guess everything exciting always happens on Sunday evening.

“Les larmes aux yeux” and  “La brune habillée en soie” differ in that in the former the young man never seems to have gotten anywhere with the young woman (i.e. it’s all in his head, she’s already committed to a young officer) while in the latter it seems the young man and the young woman were actually together in some sense (though conceivably it could all have been in the young man’s head too, who knows) and she leaves him. That’s probably why the second young man is more bitter at the end of the song. In “Les larmes aux yeux,” he just talks about drinking to heartbreak and saying goodbye with resignation, but “La brune habilleée en soie” ends with the vindictive lines: “Un jour viendra, ta beauté s’en ira / Chère Léona t’épousera qui pourras” (One day your beauty will be gone / Dear Léona, you’ll marry who you can (then)).

King’s Lynn

First, I did an interview recently with blogger Melinda Brasher; you can read it here.

Second, I have another musical connection for you! A fellow grad student, who is an Orthodox Christian, lent me his newly acquired copy of the St. Ambrose Hymnal since he knows I’m interested in hymnody. As far as I understand it, this hymnal collects Western hymns (such as those I might know from my own hymn singing) for use in a particular Orthodox tradition. Because, you know, despite the Schism we still have some theology in common. The other day I was reading the hymnal on the bus, sight reading the melodies in my head, as one does. I came across a hymn whose title I’ve forgotten (I’ve since returned the hymnal) but which was set to the tune King’s Lynn, arranged by Ralph Vaughn Williams (who also arranged Kingsfold). I read the tune and thought it sounded familiar, though the tune name didn’t particularly (have I mentioned I spend a lot of time reading hymnal indices?). As I mulled it over, I wondered if the melody was one of the ones in Vaughn Williams’ Six Studies in English Folksong for cello and piano, which my mother had bought years ago for me to play with my brother accompanying me. So, I investigated, and lo, I was right! The third movement, the Larghetto, is King’s Lynn!

The following is an instrumental arrangement of King’s Lynn:

And this is the corresponding movement in Six Studies in English Folksong:

Come All You Fair…

A couple of news items: 1) The Turkish translation of Wildings appears to be out! The translator is different this time. If you read Turkish or know anyone who does, the book is available through the publisher, Kırmızı Kedi, here. 2) I’ve made my Chinese New Year zines available on my Other Writing page, if you want to print your own copy.

Recently Isabelle and I were trying to figure out if we had any more folk songs in common–something we do every so often, usually to no avail–and she asked if I knew a song that began, “Come all you fair and tender girls…” She looked up the song she knew, and it turned out to be Let No Man Steal Your Thyme. When she first described it to me, I thought the words were, “Let no man steal your time,” but no, it’s actually thyme. The song starts out as a warning to young women to guard their gardens from thieving young men, and the plant metaphors are so heavy-handed that even I get them. The song also involves rue (both kinds).

The melody was a pretty minor tune that was not familiar, and most of the words I also didn’t recognize, but the opening was reminding me of a song I’d heard before. Except I thought it began, “Come all you fair and pretty ladies…” I could hear it in my head (though I couldn’t remember the gender of the singer), and the tune was different. In fact, the tune was awfully close to that of Wayfaring Stranger, which made me think I wasn’t remembering it correctly.

Later I consulted Google and discovered that Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies is a famous enough song to have its own Wikipedia page (nothing but the finest research for this pseudo-musicology series). But the text I found was, apart from the nearly identical first line, almost completely different from the text of Let No Man Steal Your Thyme. In fact, Let No Man Steal Your Thyme is a different song with its own Wikipedia page and Roud number.

I finally figured out where I knew the first line from: “You Fair and Pretty Ladies” from Anonymous 4’s album Gloryland. And indeed it does sound like Wayfaring Stranger. But most renditions of Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies out there seem to have a different melody altogether. There’s a line in the “standard” Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies, “Then they will go and court some other” that’s almost identical to a line in Solas’s “The Silver Dagger,” a song I like very much. And actually, the more prevalent tune for Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies reminds me vaguely of The Silver Dagger, mostly rhythmically…

Then I noticed this comment on a Youtube video of Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies: “Interesting that the lyrics seem to be half what I know by this title and half what I know as ‘The Water is Wide.'” Ack! It never ends!

The Unquiet Grave

One day at the end of last year, I was exploring traditional music of the British Isles on Youtube, as one does, and I happened to click on a video of a performance of Star of the County Down, followed by Tam Lin (possibly my favorite reel, but I was surprised to find the two juxtaposed in a set). I also scrolled down to glance at the comments, which I rarely do, and someone had said that Star of the County Down and The Unquiet Grave had the same tune! What?!

Star of the County Down is a lovely song with a lovely melody that gave rise to the hymn tune Kingsfold (though Kingsfold is in 4 and the song–usually?–is in 3), which I also like very much (you might know of it with the text “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say,” though other texts also use this tune). Star of the County Down is also played as a waltz; the first time I heard this done was at a bal folk in France.

The Unquiet Grave was mentioned to me as a Kate Rusby song after I discovered Rusby’s I Am Stretched on Your Grave. I like her Unquiet Grave very much also, but it certainly isn’t Star of the County Down.

After reading that Star of the County Down and The Unquiet Grave had the same melody (something something Child ballads), I looked for other recordings of The Unquiet Grave, and lo! it was Star of the County Down! So perhaps Kate Rusby’s text is adapted and her tune is original?

If you want to listen and compare, these two sisters singing Star of the County Down are cute, but I also really like their rendition. And here is Claymore’s The Unquiet Grave, which definitely is Star of the County Down!

This post brought to you by precisely zero research.

How Come That Blood

You might know that I’m a big fan of Tim Eriksen. Back in 2013 I heard him perform at the Ginkgo Coffeehouse in St. Paul, and he sang some songs from his new-at-the-time album, Josh Billings Voyage Or, Cosmopolite on the Cotton Road. I don’t remember for sure whether he sang “How Come That Blood” on that occasion, but this song is from the album, and I like it very much, for its melody and its sinister text. A young woman (presumably) is asking her love how came that blood on his shirt sleeve, and at first he answers that it’s the blood of his little gray hawk. She says that hawk’s blood was never so red, so he says it was his gray hound’s (greyhound’s?) blood. Same objection. So he says it’s his gray mare’s blood. Nope. Finally he reveals the blood is that of his “brother dear, whom lately I have slain.” Ahhh!

Anyway, not long ago I stumbled upon the duo The Vox Hunters and discovered that their song “Edward” is a version of “How Come That Blood.” The text is similar, but there are differences: in “Edward,” the young man kills his brother-in-law, not his brother, and their falling out was over a holly bush instead of a little nut tree (evidently some people have strong feelings about plants). And then somehow I found out that Sam Amidon, who’s sung some lovely arrangements of shape note tunes, had a version too. In his, it seems like it’s a mother questioning her son. My favorite is still Tim Eriksen’s rendition, probably in part because I heard it first.

In other musical connections news… Last year Isabelle taught me a 16th century French pavane by Thoinot Arbeau called “Belle qui tiens ma vie.” The other day, she heard it on the radio, specifically on KUSC, the classical music station out of USC (which I hadn’t heard of before this!). I was curious, and happily, KUSC posts what pieces they’ve aired, so I was able to look it up. To my surprise, what was listed wasn’t “Belle qui tiens ma vie” but something called “Capriol Suite” by Peter Warlock. Peter Warlock turns out to be a 20th century English composer who apparently chose the pseudonym Warlock because of his fascination with the occult. The movements of Capriol Suite are based on Renaissance tunes. I read that the suite can be considered an original composition, but the Pavane, the second movement, is quite recognizable as “Belle qui tiens ma vie.” I also recognized the first movement as a Susato dance.

Hmm, while writing this post I discovered that Tim Eriksen and Eliza Carthy’s “Castle by the Sea” and Annalivia’s “False Sir John” are clearly related (but it looks like there’s a whole big family for that song). Time to bring this pseudo-musicology post (brought to you in no small part by Wikipedia) to a close, I think.

Unorthodox Adventures

I swear this is not a French Canadian music blog. Probably.

But today I bring you another recent find, “Les Cousinages” by Genticorum.

The text is from the point of view of a newly wed man. On the first night of his marriage, a man comes knocking on the door, and his wife says he’s her cousin. They invite him in, feed him, and set up a bed for him beside theirs. That night, the husband discovers his wife in the arms of her “cousin.” He sarcastically concludes, “When one has a beautiful wife, all men are her cousins.” It’s quite funny. (Actually, it’s pretty misogynistic… As an aside, I have this–quite possibly mistaken–impression that English folk songs tend to be about badly-behaved men while French folk songs tend to be about badly-behaved women. I can already think of exceptions, but I think it’s time to close these parentheses.)

There’s lots of information about this song in Chantons la chanson by Marc Gagné and Monique Poulin, another book published by L’Université Laval. There, it’s entitled “Le Premier Soir de mes noces” (“The first night of my marriage”), or “Le Mari et le Cousin” (“The Husband and the Cousin”). They recorded the version sung by Rosée Doyon of Beauceville, Beauce. The tune looks different from Genticorum’s, and the text is too (even the nonsense is different!). Astonishingly, they include a phonetic transcription, in the International Phonetic Alphabet, of the words as sung by Rosée, and it’s full of characteristics of Québécois French.

According to Gagné and Poulin, versions of this song are widespread in Canada, France, and Belgium. They make this observation (my translation): “The anonymous authors of traditional songs seem to have had a particular taste for narrating certain unorthodox adventures of conjugal life.” Finally, there is apparently a word in French, maumariée, which looks to be derived from “badly married” and specifically means “a traditional song about conjugal misfortune.”