Tag Archive | folk songs

Camp Kiya

I spent the first half of last week at Camp Kiya, a traditional music camp in Tehachapi, CA. My friend Chase, a fellow student in my department, had heard about the camp, decided to go, and invited me to come too.


All packed and ready to go

We left on a Sunday morning in a rental car with one cello, one fiddle, one hammered dulcimer, a collection of Irish whistles, and camping gear and drove north across scrubby desert, through a forest of windmills in the mountains, and past a Norbertine monastery to Tehachapi Mountain Park. The park itself was not scrubby but wooded, with tall pines and live oaks full of mistletoe. We pitched our tent at a campsite on the other side of the hill from the cabins of the main camp, near some other campers’ RV.

The three and a half days of camp were filled with classes in fiddle, cello, bass, guitar, harp, mandolin, accordion, mountain dulcimer, hammered dulcimer, harmonica, Irish whistle, ukulele, and bodhran, not to mention hula, Irish, and Cape Breton dancing. Styles and genres ranged from blues to classical, old-time to Scandinavian. There were lots of opportunities to pick up a brand new instrument, but I stuck to Intermediate/Advanced Cello and Celtic and Welsh fiddle. In each class, we’d learn a tune or two by ear, plus ornamentation or, in cello class, chords. There were certain tunes that recurred across classes. For instance, both the cellos and the Welsh fiddles learned a tune called Erddigan y Pybydd Coch (Lament of the Red Piper), and the cellos, mountain dulcimers, and accordions all learned the tune Crested Hens (Les Poules Huppées).

Part of what I hoped to do at camp was get better at accompanying on cello, because a folk cellist isn’t really expected to play melody much of the time. Well, I’m still pretty bad at chopping, but I did learn some stuff. I was also pleasantly surprised to find I could hold my own in a fiddle class despite having no formal training. The Scottish Fiddlers of LA tried to recruit me (although they may have been trying to recruit everybody…).

Me at Camp Kiya

Me tuning my cello by our tent

One of the cool things about camp was that it was totally normal to be a multi-instrumentalist. In classical music circles, this is less common; you have your instrument, and that’s it (or maybe you also play the piano). At Camp Kiya, most people played two or more instruments: guitar and harmonica; bouzouki, whistle, and bodhran; harp and accordion; cello and mountain dulcimer. Another cool thing was how intergenerational camp was. There were cellists of all ages in my class. My Celtic fiddle teacher was in his eighties. There were young children doing fiddle and cello from scratch while their parents attended other classes. There aren’t that many settings in which unrelated people of all ages mix like this.

The camp’s name comes from the Nuwa (Kawaiisu) word kiya, meaning ‘laughter’ or ‘play’. Nuwa is the language spoken by the indigenous people of Tehachapi; it belongs to the Numic branch of the Uto-Aztecan family. I learned about Nuwa from Jon Hammond, a camp instructor who owns a ranch in Tehachapi and is one of three fluent speakers of the language. We all heard him introduce his seven-year-old daughter, Kiya, in Nuwa on the first night of camp and also give a blessing in Nuwa at the ceilidh.

The ceilidh was not a dance party but a camper talent show. It was held on Tuesday night at the fire circle. People sang and played and told stories and jokes. Chase and I sang a two-voiced version of Okro Mch’edelo, which, like all Georgian songs, is actually in three-part harmony. After the ceilidh, we joined the Celtic jam session in Cabin 1, wedging ourselves with cello and Irish whistle in a lower bunk in the corner.


Chase playing hammered dulcimer at our campsite

On Wednesday afternoon, after my cello class and Chase’s hammered dulcimer rehearsal, we sat in a nook on the footbridge between the mess hall and the fire circle and went through Chase’s Datvebis Gundi folder, singing more Georgian songs. As we sang, a fire crew tromped through camp, inspecting a dead pine and who knows what else. When we’d exhausted our Georgian repertoire, we also sang the tenor and alto parts of a few Sacred Harp tunes: Wondrous Love, Idumea, New Britain.

Wednesday evening was the campers’ concert. Chase performed Ode to Joy in a hammered dulcimer trio and also played with the fiddle from scratch class. I played a set with the Welsh fiddlers (with my cello class backing up), then switched to cello for our two tunes, a bourrée and the amazing Raivlin Reel. We also backed up the Scandinavian/Nordic fiddlers on the Danish (?) tune Kingo P. Here is a video (by fellow camper Alan) of me with the Welsh fiddlers. The set is Erddigan y Pybydd Coch (Lament of the Red Piper) – Tri a Chwech (Three and Six) – Ymdaith Gwyr Dyfnaint (March of the Men of Devon) – Y Lili (The Lily). I’m not sure you can hear me, which is probably a good thing, but hey, my bow seems to be moving in the right direction most of the time!

Georgian Chorus Branches Out

Last week in Georgian chorus we almost didn’t sing anything Georgian. First we learned a Greek folk song about the sea called Θάλασσα (Thalassa). Here it is being sung by an Orthodox youth choir in the UK:

Though we usually sing a cappella, this time we had a special guest accordionist our director knows from the UCLA Balkan (mostly Bulgarian) ensemble. Also, one of the grad students in my cohort served as our choir’s Greek pronunciation consultant (as he is in fact Greek). For the life of me I cannot pronounce Greek retracted [s]s.

Next we learned an Albanian folk song called Kopile Moj Kopile. Here’s a version of it, though we sang it in four parts:

The melody is curiously close to the Italian song/Israeli national anthem/theme from Die Moldau I blathered on about here. Since it sounds like this tune spread all over Europe back in the day, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s turning up in this Albanian folk song.

After our detour into Indo-European isolates, we returned to our Kartvelian roots by continuing to work on this Megrelian work song, ოჩეშხვეი (Och’eshkhvei). It’s really fun, especially the last part, which always reminds me of something French, namely Tri Yann’s Pastourelle de Saint-Julien-Marai (glad I figured that out, it was bothering me!).

Musical Detection

I’ve recently discovered some fascinating connections between songs, and I can’t help sharing them with you. This post will probably be as esoteric as that series about The American Songbag. Hooray!

First, I was introduced to Thomas Morley’s “Sing We and Chant It” thanks to Rachel Hartman’s blog. Listening to this English madrigal, I was struck by how much it resembled a hymn tune whose name I always forget. I poked around and found the hymn I was thinking of: In Dir Ist Freude (In Thee Is Joy, or, as the English text goes, “In thee is gladness”). I first remember coming across this tune when I was studying abroad in France and attending the Eglise Réformée de Grenoble. (Aside: It seemed like half the hymns we sang there were from the Genevan Psalter, and they all sounded alike and were kind of boring…) One day, back in the States, the music director of my church played this hymn as an organ postlude. I recognized the melody and asked her what it was, and she told me it was In Dir Ist Freude. You can listen to a brass ensemble version of the tune here. Its resemblance to “Sing We and Chant It” is pretty easy to hear. 

Apparently, this tune was first published by Italian Renaissance composer Giovanni Giacomo Gastoldi in 1591 with the title “L’innamorato” and a secular text about love (“A lieta vita / Amor ci invita…”). However, Gastoldi’s melody may have been inspired by German sources. The tune was then printed by Johannes Lindemann in 1594 with the sacred “In dir ist Freude” text. It seems “Sing We and Chant It” is an arrangement and embellishment of Gastoldi’s song. Also, J. S. Bach composed an organ chorale prelude for In Dir Ist Freude (BWV 615).  

Second, I discovered the wonderful song “Friendship” on Tim Eriksen’s album Every Sound Below. The title sounded like that of a shape note tune. (There is a tune in The Sacred Harp called “Friendship,” but that one is entirely different.) Anyway, the tune of “Friendship” seemed very familiar to me, and I couldn’t rest until I figured out why. I thought it was a melody I myself had played on the piano, and not that long ago. Given that my repertoire of piano pieces is very small, there weren’t that many possibilities.

I did some research on the tune “Friendship” to try to find out why it might sound familiar to me. From various sources, I learned that the lovely text Tim Eriksen sings (“Friendship, to ev’ry willing mind, / Opens a heavenly treasure”) is attributed to a Mr. Bidwell of Connecticut and was published in the Philadelphia Songster in 1789. The tune is attributed to one G. Cook. “Friendship” was a popular 18th century song that found its way into shape note books in the early 19th century and was published, among other places, in The Hesperian Harp (1848).

The melody is in the tenor line, the third one down

The melody is in the tenor line, the third one down

So, back to my suspicions that I had played this tune on the piano. The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that the piece I was remembering was the very first one in a collection of easy Handel works my mother had given me for Christmas. I asked her to photograph the music for me, and as it turned out, this Gavotte in C major was the one I had been thinking of. If you read music, you can see for yourself that the melody is very close to that of “Friendship,” and you can also listen to someone playing it on the piano here.

I was very pleased with myself for having discovered this connection. But then I found this post by Rachel Wells Hall, a Philadelphia Sacred Harp singer and one of the authors of the new Shenandoah Harmony, and I realized someone else had already written all about it. It turns out the gavotte above is the same as the chorus “Viva la face, viva l’amor” from Handel’s 1736 opera Atalanta. And what’s more, “Friendship” is in The Shenandoah Harmony, so I have the music!

Third, I heard the song “La solette et le limandin” by the Breton band Tri Yann on Pandora. I noticed that it sounded rather like a song I’d learned in elementary school, whose tune I vaguely remembered was the same as the Israeli national anthem. I looked up the national anthem, which is called “Hatikvah,” and sure enough, it was the tune I was thinking of. The words I learned in school began “Autour de la flamme quand le jour se meurt / Nos chants proclament un monde meilleur” (“Around the flame as the day dies / Our singing proclaims a better world”–apologies for the clunky translation). Funnily enough, Googling these lyrics reveals that this is a song from Lac du Bois, the French summer camp in northern Minnesota I attended once, but I definitely learned it at school, not at camp.

In any case, I tried to unearth some background on the Tri Yann song to see if any connection to “Hatikvah” was acknowledged, but instead I read that “La solette et le limandin” bore a close resemblance to a 16th century Italian song called “Il Ballo di Mantova”! Not what I was expecting. The Italian song was composed by Giuseppino del Biado, and its original text begins “Fuggi, fuggi, fuggi da questo cielo”. As it turns out, though, “Il Ballo di Mantova” has quite the legacy. It was quoted in Bedřich Smetana’s symphonic poem Die Moldau (Vltava), which I have played, and it inspired “Hatikvah” (possibly through the intermediary of a Romanian folksong–it sounds like the Italian tune spread throughout Europe during the Renaissance). A version of it is even in John Playford’s The Dancing Master (1657), under the title “An Italian Rant,” so one could do an English country dance to this tune!

The Hurdy-Gurdy Concert

So remember how I said I might blog about hurdy-gurdies? That was mostly a joke. Until now. Because on Sunday I went to a concert featuring this most splendiferous instrument. It was a performance by the ensemble Les Surprises Baroques, and the theme was “The Muse of the Countryside: A Rustic Divertissement.” The concert description is pretty entertaining:

The French aristocracy of the late baroque era has been characterized as a volatile bunch of scheming manipulators, cutthroat back-stabbers, hedonists, and Libertines…and connoisseurs of every well-developed fine art. Their cynical, and often appalling, proclivities are almost belied by their infatuation with an idealized vision of a mythical Arcadia, populated by innocent nymphs and shepherdesses and their swains.

The French embrace of all things pastoral included the hurdy-gurdy, the magnificent droning and singing instrument that had been a fixture in European peasant life since medieval times.

Join well-known hurdy-gurdy guest artist Curtis Berak and Les Surprises Baroques for a ramble through this bucolic soundscape, as imagined and realized by such composers as Boismortier, Corrette, Marais, and Rameau.


This is not a photo from the concert but a picture I took of a hurdy-gurdy player in the Harvard T Station in October 2010.

The concert was wonderful. The musicians played period instruments, including a beautifully painted harpsichord with the phrase “Sic transit gloria mundi” inscribed on the underside of the lid. Most of my exposure to the hurdy-gurdy (or vielle à roue–wheel viol–in French) has actually been through French Canadian traditional music, so I was surprised to learn that in the 18th century the French aristocracy was quite enamored of the hurdy-gurdy, so much so that it was a court instrument and noblewomen learned to play it. Personally, I found it odd to hear it played accompanied by harpsichord or as part of an ensemble that also included strings, recorder, and oboe.

Mr. Berak, the guest hurdy-gurdy player, explained how the instrument works. Most of what he said I already knew, but not the part about the buzzing bridge. Basically, one of the drone strings has a bridge (kind of like the bridge of a violin or cello) with one end free, and if you turn the crank that rotates the wheel fast enough, that free end buzzes. You can crank in a way that allows you to add rhythmic buzzes on top of the drones and the melody played with the keys. I think I must have heard that buzz before and assumed it was just the way one of the drone strings was vibrating.

In addition to the hurdy-gurdy, another beloved instrument of the 18th century French court was introduced as a surprise after the intermission (I guess that’s why they’re called Les Surprises Baroques?). This was the musette, which is a small bagpipe and thus another instrument with drones. The hurdy-gurdy and musette played a duet, and they were also both featured in other pieces.

According to the program, Mr. Berak has the largest collection of antique hurdy-gurdies in the United States (I’m not sure how stiff the competition is, though). Between two pieces, he also brought out two large portraits of aristocratic women posing with their hurdy-gurdies. These were reproductions, but they were still displayed in massive gilt frames. Mr. Berak regaled us with his theory that one of the paintings depicted Maria Leszczyńska, the Polish queen of Louis XV of France, and that the other depicted her daughter, the princess Marie Adélaïde, who was known to have played the hurdy-gurdy.

Hurdy Gurdy Lady

I’m 99% sure this is the purported portrait of Marie Adélaïde a reproduction of which Mr. Berak showed us. Image from here.

Furthermore, he suggested that one of the hurdy-gurdies from his own collection, which he showed us, might actually be the very one shown in the portrait of Marie Adélaïde. Not only that, but there was evidence of wax seals having been scraped off the side of the wooden keybox–maybe during the French Revolution! Mr. Berak’s hurdy-gurdy and the one in the painting above did bear a decent resemblance to one another, but frankly I think these appealing stories are fueled more by fanciful speculation than real evidence. That’s not to say they weren’t enthralling!

Finally, one of the pieces Les Surprises Baroques performed with hurdy-gurdy was the Concerto Comique no. 3 “Margoton,” by Michel Corrette. Apparently these concertos comiques were meant to follow operas because audiences weren’t ready to go home yet. They were also based on popular songs. The ensemble’s artistic director told us that they had tracked down the text of the song “Margoton,” and she summarized it for us. As she was describing the story, which tells of a young woman who falls into a well and the three horsemen who come riding by and ask what she’ll give them if they rescue her, I realized it was essentially identical to that of another song I know, “La Ziguezon” (“M’en va t’à la fontaine”) by the French Canadian group La Bottine Souriante. No coincidence, I’m sure.

The American Songbag, Part III: The Lover’s Lament

Today I conclude my series on The American Songbag. You can also read Part I and Part II. This post is a continuation of Part II.

Last week, I talked about finding in “The True Lover’s Farewell” elements from different songs I hadn’t thought were related. I then discovered a third song in The American Songbag, “The Lover’s Lament.” “Blendings from five or six old ballads are in this song of parting lovers,” Carl Sandburg says. This song has an A and a B text, but there is no indication as to whether they have different sources. Anyway, the verses of “The Lover’s Lament” seem to connect everything even more. Get ready for a lot of texts!

Before acquiring The American Songbag, I heard Tim Eriksen’s “Every Day Is Three” (from the album Josh Billings Voyage) and noticed its textual similarities to “The Blackest Crow.” Here is a comparison of the relevant verses of each:

“The Blackest Crow”

As time draws near, my dearest dear
When you and I must part
How little you know of the grief and woe
In my poor aching heart
‘Tis but I suffer for your sake
Believe me dear it’s true
I wish that you were staying here
Or I was going with you

I wish my breast was made of glass
Wherein you might behold
Upon my chest your name lies wrote
In letters made of gold
In letters made of gold, my love
Believe me when I say
You are the one I will adore
Until my dying day

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

“Every Day Is Three”

Oh, my dearest dear, the time has come when we must part
No one knows the inner grief of my poor aching heart
Or what I set sail or sank for the one I love so dear
I wish that I could go with you or you could tarry here

I wish my breast was made of glass and in it you might behold
Your name in secret I would write in letters of bright gold
In letters of bright gold true love, pray believe me what I say
You are the one that I love best until the dying day

The crow that’s black, my dearest dear, will turn its colors white
If ever I prove false to be the brightest days to night
The brightest days to night, true love, all the elements shall mourn
If ever I prove false to be the raging seas shall burn

Now, we can dive into “The Lover’s Lament,” whose stanzas strongly resemble selected stanzas from “The Blackest Crow,” “Winter’s Night,” and “Every Day Is Three” (as well as the other American Songbag songs I’ve mentioned—but the text of “The Lover’s Lament” is actual closer to those of Molly & Maggie’s, Crowfoot’s, and Tim Eriksen’s songs than to the others in Sandburg’s book, which almost suggests these three more recent songs were derived from this text or a connected source). Interestingly, “The Lover’s Lament” has a refrain that doesn’t look much like anything else I’ve seen.

Verse 1 of Text A of “The Lover’s Lament” is very close to the first half of verse 1 of “The Blackest Crow”:

“The Lover’s Lament”

My dearest dear, the time draws near
When you and I must part;
But little do you know the grief or woe
Of my poor troubled heart.

“The Blackest Crow”

As time draws near, my dearest dear
When you and I must part
How little you know of the grief and woe
In my poor aching heart

Then, verses 2 through 6 of “The Lover’s Lament” are similar to just about all of the verses of “Winter’s Night” (excluding refrains! Because, in fact, “The Lover’s Lament” is the first song with the shoes/gloves/kisses motif that never mentions “ten thousand miles”!):

“The Lover’s Lament”

As I walked out one clear summer night,
A-drinking of sweet wine,
It was then I saw that pretty little girl
That stole this heart of mine.

Her cheeks was like some pink or rose
That blooms in the month of June,
Her lips was like some musical instrument,
That sung this doleful tune.

[Omitting verses about shoes, etc.]

You are like unto some turtle dove,
That flies from tree to tree,
A-mourning for its own true love
Just as I mourn for thee.

“Winter’s Night”

As I walk down on a winter’s night
Drinking of sweet wine
Walking with the girl I love
The one who stole this heart of mine

My love is like a red, red rose
Newly sprung in June
She is like a violin
Sweetly played in tune

[Omitting verses about shoes, etc.]

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?

Just as a side note, I think Crowfoot’s version is an improvement upon the words in “The Lover’s Lament.” I mean, “Her lips was like some musical instrument”?!

Verse 7 of “The Lover’s Lament” shares part of its text with “The Blackest Crow” and “Every Day Is Three,” though its first half does not overlap with these other two songs, which instead share the imagery of bright day and night:

“The Lover’s Lament”

You are like unto some sailing ship
That sails the raging main,
If I prove false to you, my love,
The raging seas will burn.

“The Blackest Crow”

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

“Every Day Is Three”

The brightest days to night, true love,
all the elements shall mourn
If ever I prove false to be
the raging seas shall burn

Verses 1 and 2 of Text B of “The Lover’s Lament” are very similar to the second verse of both “The Blackest Crow” and “Every Day Is Three,” but the greater similarity is with Tim Eriksen’s song:

“The Lover’s Lament”

I wish your breast was made of glass,
All in it I might behold;
Your name in secret I would write
In letters of bright gold.
Your name in secret I would write,
Pray believe in what I say;
You are the man that I love best
Unto my dying day.

“Every Day Is Three”

I wish my breast was made of glass
and in it you might behold
Your name in secret I would write
in letters of bright gold
In letters of bright gold, true love,
pray believe me what I say
You are the one that I love best
until the dying day

If you’re wondering why “Every Day Is Three” has that title, it’s because Tim Eriksen’s version of the song has two more verses that don’t overlap with anything in “The Blackest Crow” or “The Lover’s Lament.” Also, it’s worth noticing that Text B of “The Lover’s Lament” is addressed to a man, while most of Text A is addressed to a woman, like in “Winter’s Night”. Lastly, despite the fact that “The Lover’s Lament” contains material that matches the first and second verses of “The Blackest Crow” and “Every Day Is Three,” it does not mention the black crow!

What do I conclude from all of this? I’m no ethnomusicologist, but it seems to me that there is a set of WHO WILL SHOE YOUR FEET songs and a set of BLACK CROW songs, and then there are songs that belong to both sets, pointing perhaps to some common origin or else the mixing of texts with common themes. Carl Sandburg did call “The Lover’s Lament” a blended text, but is that also the case with “The True Lover’s Farewell”? Before poring over The American Songbag, I never thought there was any connection between two of my favorite songs: Crowfoot’s “Winter’s Night” and Molly & Maggie and The Ephemeral Stringband’s “The Blackest Crow.” Now I know! And because I couldn’t help myself, I created this chart comparing the imagery in all the songs discussed in this post and the last one! Song Chart

P.S. At a recent shape note singing in Los Angeles, we sang “Forster” from Wyeth’s Repository of Sacred Music (1813), and I noticed one of the verses begins: “We’re often like the lonesome dove / Who mourns her absent mate / From hill to hill, from vale to vale / Her sorrows to relate.” Could there be a connection? Of course, this is sacred music, so the next line is: “But Canaan’s land is just before…”

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!)