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Posts Tagged ‘murder ballads’

The songs float in the ether, remnants of tunes carried to my ears. To hear fragments of such things as an adult is haunting in itself, like poetry, like electricity, like wind, snow, heat.

Family Movie Night has turned from features such as The Incredibles (I think everyone but me knows the entire script by heart) to somewhat more grown-up titles. Of course, the kids have their own viewing of almost anything they want nowadays and LOTR marathons abound on long weekends.

Last Friday night, before Paul’s long trip to Deustchland (which we affectionately call Deustchland über Alles), we had the pleasure of exposing the children to their first Coen Brothers’ movie, Raising Arizona.

While I’ve seen the movie more times than I can count and was aware of the song Ed (Holly Hunter) sings to Nathan Jr., I don’t think I ever paid as close attention as I did this time around.

Down in the Willow Garden:

We all sing strange lullabies to our babies, usually not knowing where they come from. I don’t know any murder ballads by heart, but I still sing All the Pretty Little Horses to my girls. It is a haunting tune, also sung in a movie—Silkwood—with Meryl Streep singing it to Cher as they swing on the front porch at night. That was the first time I paid close attention to it and was compelled to hunt down the lyrics (before the Internet!!!).

Even I didn’t have the heart to sing about the babies’ eyes being pecked out and I still don’t. My kids know the words as we have them in a few different songbooks. I suppose, then, mine has been a sin of omission.

There’s a tendency to make the lyrics of some songs more palatable, a revisionist move and one of the casualties of the Politically Correct movement that overtook everything about 25 years back. In children’s lullabies, it is a sign of our inability to cope with the underlying spirit of certain eras. Music IS history.

Here’s a book that bothers me (click on the link, okay my pets?). At first glance, it seems to be inclusive and embracing, I suppose because the people pictured are African American, but it actually robs the history right out from us. Cake is shown and butterflies come around (you’d need a copy in hand to see all of the pages). While some verses of the song cannot be attributed to slaves, some of them tell us what undoubtedly the slaves were not allowed to say in plain English, the code hidden in the words that tell it like it was. This is one way slaves communicated right under the noses of Whitey—through imagery and innuendo. Music was a survival tool and helped to convey information that helped people travel north to Canada (often coded as Canaan in spirituals) via the network of the Underground Railroad. To be able to sing one’s pain (which was more often couched in the stories of struggle from the Old Testament*) in a non-religious text was even more complex, as we can hear in the original lyrics to All the Pretty Little Horses. I cannot abide by the happy pictures in the book. The melody gives it away—it is a mournful song, of grief and sorrow—and the happy characters do not tell the story that the song is trying to tell us.

Read the afterward to the reconfigured lyric in Sylvia Long’s book of Hush Little Baby. The zeitgeist of political correctness was swallowed hook, line, and sinker by this author. While I find the new lyrics sweet and the illustrations quite pretty, to fear that our children learn EVERYTHING THEY NEED TO KNOW FROM ONE LULLABY’S LYRICS displays an immense hubris. To forget and sweep under the rug the richness of our folksong heritage is a crime. It is revisionist and points to our lack of ability to trust our parenting to have mettle and our children to have backbones.

As songs traveled and shifted across the ocean and up and down our country, words changed places within songs, jumped to other songs, were added and left behind. This is WHY they are folk songs—they belong to the people. The words may have been written down at times, but more likely not. To publish a book with revised lyrics is an entirely different matter. It is no longer a folk song. In this instance, it is the author’s whim. I wouldn’t mind so much if the original lyric was presented somewhere in the book, but her ENTIRE point is that the original lyric is–gasp–DANGEROUS to children.

Next two flicks on the docket for Family Movie Night? Rushmore and Down by Law and we all know about the songs in those.

Another one I used to sing to my babies. Let’s not shy away from death either. God bless Elizabeth Cotton.

*Wade in the Water is not just the story of struggle that harkens to the Jews in the Bible, but also contains the very symbolic language to which I also refer in this post. For instance, the colors that the “children” wear may have been worn by people helping the slaves cross north at different stops along the way. But you already knew that, right?

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two steps forward, don’t say I didn’t warn you….

Is this a modern murder ballad? Not exactly, but I do think of it sometimes on this day.

I’ve been listening to a lot of Tim Eriksen lately, having heard him play last week and having bought his latest CD in the latest manifestation of who he’s been playing with this time around.

Back in July, when I was on the Cape doing a poetry workshop with Dorianne Laux and Joe Millar (so Beat, that Joe! You gotta check out his stuff), I left them with a parting gift of Tim’s CD Soul of the January Hills.* Finally, last Friday night, I re-bought it and have been playing it in my car. It’s got at least 2 (off the top of my head) murder ballads and I’ve been thinking about Lady Margaret, aka, Sweet William, too, lately. I’ve used a link to the wiki page for Sweet William, a little lame, I know, but there must be hundreds of places to look up more thorough information on that particular Child Ballad. You’ll have to do your own research and discover your own personal favorite version. There are lots. I love The Knitters doing it, but it’s no where to be found so I can share it here. I just love that John Doe and Exene singing that old timey stuff together.

Here’s the modern murder ballad for today, courtesy of The Dream Syndicate and youtube:

* if you can buy only one of Tim’s CDs, this is the one I recommend. But maybe that’s just me, lover of a capella and haunting ballads about love and death. When you read the liner notes, you also realize what an amazing tour de force it is. One take, not rehearsed. Damn.

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