Why This Matters.

Why (1)

Many of you might be wondering why we chose this project, and while we’ve explained some of our personal motivations here and here, that still leaves the bigger question of why we think this matters unanswered. Here’s the thing: this project matters deeply to us, and we hope it will matter to some of you too.

It matters because there is a rampant misconception about the history of the music and the people of the Appalachians.

I will delve more deeply into this in a research piece I’ll be publishing on the blog this summer, tentatively titled “The Myth of the Hillbilly,” but the basic idea is this: a part of our Southern identity has been co-opted by Hollywood and by music producers, such that when you mention Tennessee to many people across our country (or globally), an image of a happy, ignorant, and barefoot banjo player pops into mind, blissfully picking some stupid tune like Dueling Banjos.

It is convenient to think of people in Appalachia as shallow, stupid even, because that means they might feel their poverty and their destitution less deeply. A caricature singing up-beat, humorous tunes is far easier to ignore, to write-off, than a troubled and poor farmer or miner singing sad songs a hundred years in the making.

Unfortunately, these stereotypes are now so widely accepted that they have been adopted by many around the South as part of our heritage. I do not deny that stereotypes often contain some truth, however, I find it unsettling how fully many now take up the title of “hillbilly” with pride. It is meant to be derogatory, folks.

What happens when you look at authentic songs, though, is that a very different culture and people come into focus. Their songs are heartbreaking, their stories tragic.

These songs John Jacob Niles collected are such genuine articles. They are the true culture of a people long trivialized and stereotyped.

If you are a Southerner, especially from the Appalachian region, we hope you’ll adopt them as part of your identity, your history. They should make you proud. They are beautiful, intelligent, and have a rich poetry to them.

They are part of our shared story, and should provide many with any alternate version of Appalachian culture to be proud of. We believe that matters.


Niles No. 1: The Riddle Song

John Jacob Niles grouped his ballads according to their corresponding Child Ballad (Francis James Child was another ethnomusicologist who collected ballads in the United Kingdom in the 19th century), and so his book begins with songs derived from Child No. 1, “Riddles Wisely Expounded.” Since we’re recording songs as they appear in the book, “The Riddle Song” becomes our first song in this project.

It is hard to imagine a better beginning, though. The way I see it, The Riddle Song is a perfect first song, for the following reasons:

1. It has been performed, a lot. Unlike most of the songs we’ll do for this project, this ballad is very well known, and has been recorded many times. It even appears in a few movies. It is a little done. Our challenge, then, of making this song relevant today is all-the-more difficult. If we’ve succeeded, then we’re on the right track.

2. The reason why it’s so done, though, is because it is about the impossible realized. It is about paradoxes resolved, the way in which something that seems improbable proves true. In a sense, that means it is about quotidian magic: how wonderful that sleeping babies do not cry, that cherries in bloom are without stones. Through playing these ballads, we seek to reconnect with our ancestors – how marvelous then that what proved miraculous to them those decades ago still appears so to us today.

3. Dear Balladeer is, in some sense, a riddle unto itself. John Jacob Niles was an incredibly enigmatic figure, blurring the distinctions between folk song and original, fantastic and fact. So too, the truth of the folk song, so dearly felt, often lies just beyond reach, the stories that inspired these songs long past, their authors long dead.

4. It is a treasure of a lullaby. Sing it to your little one, as we have done, and feel the softness of the last line, “A baby when it’s a-sleepin’, there’s no cryin’.” Your hope, of course, is that by this line of the song you’ve lulled the baby to sleep.

The Riddle Song (Niles No. 1 B)- Collected 1933 from Wilma Creech of Pine Mountain, KY

“I gave my love a cherry that hath no stone,
I gave my love a chicken that hath no bone,
I gave my love a thimble that hath no end,
I gave my love a baby that’s no cryin’.”

“How could there be a cherry that hath no stone?
How could there be a chicken that hath no bone?
How could there be a thimble that hath no end?
How could there be a baby that’s no cryin’?”

“A cherry when it’s a-bloomin’, it hath no stone.
A chicken when it’s a pippin, it hath no bone.
A thimble when it’s a-rollin’, it hath no end.
And a baby when it’s a-sleepin’, there’s no cryin’.”

Jonathan Moody: vocals, barritone and bass recorders, guitar, mixing

Rebecca Moody: vocals, piano, glockenspiel