Thursday, March 14, 2013

Darby's Ram is Now A Deer (Kind Of)

Today's post looks at a song I've come across, identified simply as the "Hunting Song."
The version discussed below comes from Elbert Miracle, a source singer I'm still hoping to learn more about. He knew a good deal of older English pieces with his singing repertoire including a rare version of Gypsy Laddie (mentioned in the previous post), Loving Henry (Young Hunting, Child #68) and Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender, (Child #73).
Several times when going through written collections, I've been intrigued by a variant, to find in many cases that the source is, once again, Mr.Miracle. I'd like to know who he learned so many songs from. In interviews, he mostly says it's been over 40 years since he sang most of these pieces. In any case,
he has a piece, a variation on Darby's Ram, that I'll explore here.

I do not know how well this piece is known, and would like to know if others have heard it. My apologies if I've simply missed the boat on this incredible song, and folkies out there are already enjoying it!

As I said, it's a variant on Darby's Ram (or the Derby Ram), an English song with many different origin stories. The song tells about a marvelously large ram, and each verse using similes to describe the qualities of this ram (the song can get very dirty- use your imagination). The version I know comes from Sheila Kay Adams in Western NC, and one verse, as an example goes:

"The horns on this ram's head, they reached up to the moon
A man clumb up in January and didn't come down 'til June
To my fah, to my fah, diddle day."

The song Elbert Miracle shares undoubtedly is related to Darby's Ram, but it's as if a writer has used Darby's as the inspiration for an entirely different, Americanized piece.

It begins:

"There come one summer morning, there come a falling snow
I shouldered up my musket and a hunting I did go sir,
A hunting I did go."

The song begins with a humorous contradiction. Snow in the summer time? The narrator's acceptance of the circumstances tells the audience that we need to accept them too.

The narrator tracks the deer for several verses, finally finding them at a lake. Rolling up his britches, he goes in after them:

"I took my musket to my knee and I met her (?) in a circle
I shot her round the heel and I killed ten thousand deer sir
And I killed ten thousand deer."

Weighed down with so many deer, what does the narrator do? Why, hop a ride home on the sun!
"I tied my vans n’ hams n’ skins to my side
And as the sun come passing by I jumped on to ride sir
I jumped on to ride.

It bein’ right late in the evening she give a sudden whirl
I cannot stick any long sir, I’m a comin’ to this world sir
I’m a coming to this world."

Since the sun is setting, our hero looses his ride. He falls through the sky, and finds another vehicle:

"I bein’ right quick and active I caught on to the moon
Less than half an hour longer she carried me safely home sir
She carried me safely home."

The narrator takes all the money from his sales of the skins to the barn, where he can't fit all his money through the door. The song concludes:

"The man that owned this farm thought himself very rich
Whoever made this song is that lying- you guessed at the rest."

This last verse is the closest thing to a crossover verse between Darby's and the Hunting Song. Darby's Ram concludes:

"The man who owned this sheep must have been awful rich.
And the man who wrote this song was a lying- son of a gun.
To my fah, to my fah, diddle day."

In both cases, the last line implies that the singer is going to say "son of a bitch"- but veers off out of modesty, and let's the audience imagine the words.

Despite this being the only cross-over verse, the melody of Hunting Song is similar to other versions of Darby's Ram, and has the same rhyming structure as the one I know from Sheila. And Hunting Song uses comparison and exaggeration to tell its tale.

I have heard one other person sing Hunting Song in Roberts' collection. A man named Jonathan Wilder knew a similar version, and said he had learned it as a child from an African-American boarder in his community, who played it on the banjo. In Roberts' written collections, just a few folders are devoted to specifically African-American traditional songs. But I feel Roberts was classifying, in part, by popularized ideas of African-American song styles.Undoubtedly, there is a good deal of material in the collection that is passively identified as "white" that has a much more complex heritage. Who wrote this song? How was it traded around? I'd like to know more. Whatever the origin, the author showed great ingenuity in adapting a traditional song to the circumstances of his or her surroundings.

That's all for today. Please leave a comment if you know more about this piece!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Who Gets to be Liberated? Questions on the Modern Social Power of Traditional Song

 Whenever I think about social politics and folk song, I immediately think about the popular ballad “The Rain and Snow.”

It was collected by Cecil Sharp in his rambles in North Carolina in 1916, and has resurfaced several times via other musicians and source singers including Obray Ramsey, Dillard Chandler (both of NC), the Grateful Dead, Pentangle and many others.
In those versions, a husband who is repeatedly abused by his wife resorts to killing her.

Commonly, the homicide verse runs like this:
“Oh she came into the room, where she met her fatal doom
And I’m not gonna be treated this a’way.”

The first time I heard the song, the lyrics were from the perspective of a wife being abused by her husband. Being used to the version, I was surprised when I finally heard the song most people know. I realized I had viewed the version I knew as a story of liberation, though admittedly a dark one. To hear it from the perspective of an abused man killing a woman created an air of unease in me. It made me realize my own biases about gendered experience. In the world of the song, it was reasonable to me for the woman to kill her husband, but not for the husband to kill his wife, though both suffered from the same abuse.  To me, the wife “freeing” herself from her husband had a modern appeal in an old guise. But it seemed to me that the husband killing his wife was something most people probably viewed as staying in the old, tragic mythos of ballads, in which it’s expected for men to do away with female lovers in such a manner.

This experience alongside many other has me constantly thinking about the social power of traditional song. What songs get left in because of their relevance to modern politics? What songs get left out because the context is considered inappropriate by modern standards? When do songs with potentially racist/sexist etc. lyrics stay popular, because they’re protected by a privileged sense of historical value? And how do all these decisions change our perception of the past?

This is a HUGE topic, and one that I wish was being discussed all the time. I thought I’d throw out a few examples of songs from the Robert’s Collection as an entry way into exploring these questions. This post just tugs on the tail of the elephant in the room, so to speak, and readers are welcome to leave comments.

One piece I’ve quite enjoyed learning while here in Berea was shared by a man named Dan Wilder from East Pineville, KY. It’s called “Marching Away with the Spaniards:”
“A pretty little miss came steppin’ down stairs
Pulling off her slippers
Putting on her high shoes
To go marching away with the Spaniards.

Thursday night her father came home
Inquiring for his daughter
The only words that he could hear
She’s gone across the water.”

It’s a nice variation on the “Gypsy Laddie,” (Child #200). In this version, instead of a wife and mother leaving her lord, a young woman is leaving her family. Her father pursues, only to reach her on the shore as she sails away. He pleads for her to come back but the young woman happily declares she’ll stay with the Spaniards.

This song appeals to me as one to teach and sing with contemporary audiences, much for the same reasons that versions of Gypsy Laddie have remained popular:  because contemporary listeners can interpret it as a tale of female liberation.
In its history being sung, this piece has undoubtedly meant to compel women because it painted a picture of independence during periods of gender-based repression. But other versions of the Gypsy Laddie tell us that singers were of divided opinions about the lady who leaves her husband, and at times starkly conscientious of class realities. Jean Ritchie sings that the young woman’s clothes become torn and tattered and “Her gypsy found another lass and left her heart a breaking.” In Martin Carthy's “Seven Yellow Gypsies,” the lord hangs all the gypsies.  Despite how well known these versions are, I feel that modern performers rarely choose to sing them, preferring the positive ending (see Chieftans/Nickel Creek, Watterson:Carthy).

But when the “liberation” version is chosen to be perpetuated, what are we forgetting? Not all singers thought leaving the lord was the right choice. To leave out the other versions is to only tell one part of the story, to in part, forget the many voices that make these songs live so many different lives because our past is full of diverse experiences. Our concept of the past becomes homogenous.

And yet , I don’t think it’s contradictory that there are plenty of songs I’d gladly see gone from oral tradition. For example, a song often called “Bachelor Boy” or “Devilish Mary.” A version of this was sung by the Couches and comes up regularly in transcripts submitted to Roberts from students and associates. A man marries a wife. The wife exhausts him because she talks incessantly, and in some cases swears and curses. The new husband goes, cuts a switch, and beats her to death. The Couch version says he beat her so hard “her tongue it rattled like a clapper in a bell.” Wife-beating has long been used as a humorous element in many other songs in English tradition, and just two generations ago, this song was still considered funny. Surely one can distinguish that it is useful to know this song existed, but that singing it would be in poor taste to most modern audiences? And yet, I think a mistake that is often made in singing communities is confusing reverence for the culture of song-singing, and reverence for the song itself.

I often feel a double standard is presented to me in traditional singing communities. Some ballads, such as “Bachelor Boy,” would never meet approval in modern context. And yet, some songs survive because of a sense that the community is “over” the issue, or the issue doesn’t exist.  Consider “Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies” (link here for some common lyrics). This song, at its root, may be about the hurt of betrayal in love, but it makes a pretty clear statement about the inherent manipulation that men bring to relationships. So why does this song still appeal to me when I’ve had no less than three conversations recently with men who’ve been terribly hurt by their female partner’s  patriarchal assumptions that they cannot feel deeply? The liberal and radical communities I’ve been in often assume that gender issues have been resolved, that everyone is being treated equally. And I think that’s one reason a song like this one keeps being sung without any discussions around its meaning. I feel this piece has even been re-contextualized into a feminist narrative. And yet if one were to challenge the song’s philosophy, respect for its inherent wisdom as an old folk ballad might be toted over the fact that the song speaks to very real cultural assumptions that men always hurt, and women can only be wounded.

Sometimes blatantly racist songs are sung under the guise of “historic value.” Moving off the ballad path and into shape note tradition, “Whitestown,”#211 in the Sacred Harp, is a good example. The song proudly promotes ideas of manifest destiny with the first lines reading, “Where nothing dwelt but beasts of prey, or men as fierce and wild as they, He (God) bids th’oppressed and poor repair, And build them towns and cities there.” I doubt most singers would comfortably compare native peoples to wild and fierce beasts in their day-to-day conversations. But because native peoples have so little self-reputation in this country, the song continues to be sung. And through defaulting to an excuse of the song as “historic,” the present reality of native struggles is put away into the past as well.

I’m not saying it’s easy to make choices around what songs cultivate a healthy culture, but I’m saying it’s a question that should be asked, and we don’t ask it enough. There are plenty of songs I consider beautiful, that I love to sing, that still exhibit values that I don’t identify with. It's confusing, because the sound of the song itself holds meaning to me, the melody or the tonality resonate more than the words. But that's why we have to challenge ourselves to move beyond the comfort of what we already know, to innovate, and cultivate evolving material that still keeps much of the power of these older songs. Let’s revere the culture of song-singing. Let’s honor the intuition to sing, and to tell our own stories through song. Let’s learn about the past through the varied stories of our ancestors.  But let’s not let a song pass unexplored purely because it wears the cloak of tradition

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Barbary Allen- the Plot Thickens

In my last post I mentioned that I was planning on talking about choices around what to sing and what to exclude in contemporary contexts, but I thought I’d go ahead and write about a remarkable song I’ve been listening to this last week.
Barbara Allan is amongst the most widespread ballads sung today. It was noted by English administrator Samuel Pepys back in 1666, and other versions were documented imid-18th century England. The song has made its way across parts of Europe and to the U.S.- where it was easy for collectors to find an abundance of versions amongst most singing communities.
The standard tale is that a young man, who here we’ll call “Sweet William,” has come from a foreign region and courts a young woman named Barbara Allan. Barbara refuses his love, and he becomes deathly ill for want of her. She is called for and visits his deathbed, once again rejecting him. On her way home she often encounters his corpse being carried to the graveyard. Ultimately, Barbara regrets her rejection of William and dies out of sorrow.
I have to say I’ve never been a fan of this ballad. The plot has always seemed overly sappy, the characters too simple. Barbara always seemed unrealistically cruel for the small slights given to her by William. Perhaps, also, I just grew up hearing this song too much, and got sick of it rather quickly.
In any case, in my research this past week I came across a version from the Couch family that I’m very excited to learn. This version implies new complexities to the story that I haven’t heard anywhere else, and a visit by a ghost to boot!   
Called “Barbary Allen” the song follows a fairly common melody, similar to how Jean Ritchie performs it (listen here), but less ornamented. The Couch brothers Jim and Dave perform it with a banjo. It begins:

It was all in the month of May,
While the green buds they were swellin’
Sweet William come from the western states,
And courted Barbary Allen.

The “West Country” of older versions has become the “western states.” One can imagine singers of the early 20th century envisioning William freshly arrived from work out west- perhaps in Texas or Oklahoma.

In this version, as in many American versions, we don’t spend any time learning about the courtship of the two lovers. Instead, the next verse tells of William calling for Barbary to come because he has fallen ill. Then:

So slowly, slowly she got up,
And hated to deny him,
All she said when she got there,
“Young man, I see you lying.”

She hated to deny him? According to any other version I’ve read or researched, Barbary is more than happy to deny William his wants. This line about denying could be ignored as a sort of “filler” line that fits with the rhyme scheme of the verse, and has lost its older meaning, if not perhaps for some later developments in the plot.
The song goes on with the standard lines of William saying he’s “sick and very sick” and needs Barbary to be better.  Barbary doesn’t answer him at all. In fact, the next verse is just her leaving the room.

So slowly, slowly, she got up
And started off to leave him
He turned his pale face to the wall
And bursted out to crying.

These last two lines are so heartbreakingly emotional to me. A more common version of this verse would read:

“He turned his pale face unto the wall
And death was drawing nigh him.
Good bye, Good bye to dear friends all,
Goodbye sweet Bar'bra Allen.”

The William of these older versions is very sick and weak, but his last words carry a formalism and dignity. Instead here he has “bursted out to crying.” This loss of control does wonders to the song for me. One can intimate his emotions more strongly, feel his chest heave in grief, feel those sharp intakes of air between sighs.

Barbary walks home, as birds sing round her “Hardhearted Barbary Allen.”

In many versions Barbara then encounters William’s corpse being carried to the graveyard. She then asks “Lie down, lie down that corpse of clay, and let me look upon him.” She gazes down on the corpse, her “cheeks with laughter swellin’” (from NC versions). Even at this point, in the standard version, she exhibits a good deal of cruelty by laughing at the corpse.  

But that’s not what happens in the Couch version. Read on:

She looked to the east and then to the west
She saw some cold corpse standing
“Lie down, lie down, cold corpse,” she said
“And let me look upon you.”

“I can’t lie down, I can’t lie down,
I can’t lie down to save you,
I am a cold corpse of the clay,
I can’t let you look upon me.”

WOW! These verses in which Barbary is usually viewing the corpse transform here into an encounter with Sweet William’s ghost! She entreats him to lie down, and he refuses. This is where the mind of the listener can take over, and shape this encounter to have the emotionality that they most appreciate. To me, these verses are Barbary asking to be near him one more time, wanting what she had denied him in life. He refuses, basically saying it’s too late (and perhaps even bad luck) for her to look on him now.

What’s also so delightful about these verses is that the singers, probably unknowingly, are referencing older kinds of ghost encounters in British lore. As my folklorist friend Bobby McMillon has explained to me, ghosts in most older ballads were not the sort of vaporous “haints” of contemporary American lore. In older tales, ghosts were in fact the corpses of the dead themselves, come back to communicate something (for a great example see SweetWilliam’s Ghost, Child #77) Because of how the many authors of this song have interpreted these lines, William has emerged as a corpse ghost, just as many other characters do in older ballads.

We’re almost done folks! Here’s the next verse:

She turned her face all down the road
And bursted out to crying,
“O mother, O mother, you’re the one to blame,
You would not let me marry him.”

WOW, again. I’ve never encountered this plot twist before. Barbary, it seems, did desire and love William. Now, if the listener wishes, they can recontextualize the earlier line saying she “hated to deny him.” One can also understand why, when she is called to his home, she doesn’t tell him of how he’s slighted her, or that he can’t have her. She’s being held back by her mother instead, but perhaps feels too threatened to communicate this to her beloved.  Saying nothing, she leaves.

The song moves to the conclusion with the usual “O Mother, O Mother, go make my bed” verse, followed by

Sweet William died on Saturday night
And Barbary died on Sunday,
Her mother died for the love of both,
And all were buried on Monday.

The traditional briar and rose grow out of each other’s graves, and the song finishes with:

They lapped and tied in a true lover’s knot
And then they died for longing.

“Overlapped” has become “lapped,” which feels more affectionate and intimate. And usually the union of the briar and rose represent a completion, but not here. Even the last words imply a deep tension, a wanting that can’t be fulfilled.

Whew! Congratulations for reading this far down the post. I will try and refrain from picking apart most ballads to this degree of detail, but I was so thrilled by this rare version and wanted to share why I thought it made such a rich story.

A phrase I often hear about the art of writing well is “show don’t tell.” It surprises me to see how closely the old ballads adhere to that philosophy. We are not told what a character is feeling as often as we are simply told what they are doing. The ballad doesn’t tell us that William is very sad, instead we see him “bursting out to crying.” We know how he feels, we don’t need the story to tell us directly.
In part, that’s because the job of conveying emotion is assigned to the singer’s voice. This doesn’t mean the singer necessarily dramatizes the action, but it does mean that the singer’s tonal quality, the ornamentation, the voice breaks, all add up to a strongly visceral experience for the listener. It’s no mystery that the high, nasal tones, and the purposeful voice breaks in many Appalachian songs are innately reminiscent of the sound of human wailing, of human cries.
The song tells the story, the singer conveys the emotional tone, and then the listener decides to what depth they will feel what they are hearing. Listening to ballads in innately participatory, because the song asks you to interpret and explore the emotionality behind it. Even as they tell of relationships from long ago, ballads ask for reciprocation, they ask for a contemporary relationship with you, the listener.

That’s all for now.
In Song and Solidarity,
Saro LT

 An interpretation of Barbara Allen by contemporary illustrator Charles Vess.