Interview for Murder Ballad Monday

We were thrilled to have been interviewed by Ken Bigger of Sing Out’s Murder Ballad Monday. We’re fans of both the blog and the publication (we own a well-loved, oft-used copy of Rise Up Singing), so we couldn’t be more excited. 

Read the full piece by clicking here: Dear [Murder] Balladeer.

To Voices Strange & Beautiful

Why (7)

The first time I heard Joanna Newsom, I fully and completely thought it was a joke. A gag recording along the lines of that American Idol contestant who went on to release an album of Christmas songs, sung weakly and off-pitch.

Do you blame me? Her voice is strange. It warbles. It whines. Without having seen a picture of her (she’s really very pretty, though that shouldn’t matter), I recall envisioning some sort of banshee. Or maybe (though this would be anachronous) a creature along the lines of Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. That’s just the way she sounds to me.

But after listening to her albums over and over, I love her music. For her beautiful lyrics and instrumentation (she plays the harp) and also because of (not in spite of) her voice. In its lack of polish and perfection, it feels guileless and beautiful in its uniqueness and inimitability. Her ability to emote, unfettered by any attempt at a typical vocal, is unparalleled.

She is not alone in this category of brilliant musicians with unusual voices. Likely the most cited would be Bob Dylan. I would certainly put The Tallest Man on Earth in this category. I’m sure you can think of others. Here’s the deal: if you dislike their voices, you can either get over it and focus on their lyrics and music and love them for that, or you can’t. Some people can’t. Plenty can, as is evidenced by their success.

John Jacob Niles was a trained classic vocalist, but that doesn’t stop many from finding his voice off-putting. He had a trademark habit of pitching his voice high into his falsetto, often to delineate a change in character in a ballad. Niles’ vibrato is also very prominent.

Obviously, I’m a fan. I find the emotion of Niles’ voice and his ability to use it to tell a story completely compelling. I’m hooked. That doesn’t mean you are. And if you aren’t, I doubt this will change your mind. But in his defense, in defense of ‘strange’ voices everywhere — I can think of nothing sadder than a world in which music was only sung by people who had taken years of voice lessons and adhered strictly to convention. There would be a lot more cheesy show tunes. Can you imagine hearing “Like a Rolling Stone” sung classically? Ew.

I’ve taken voice lessons, and I am fairly certain I will never be a strong vocalist. Jonathan hasn’t taken voice lessons, but he is a great singer. He can do a mean Jeff Buckley impression. It’s pretty spot on (and I find it oh-so attractive). What’s beautiful is, it comes easily to him. It’s his voice.

I, on the other hand, can do a pretty spot-on Vashti Bunyan. That’s me. That’s my voice. It’s not particularly strange but it’s not especially ornamental either. It’s like how I talk, only set to music.

But there is a place for that kind of straightforward singing, in folk music especially. I would say the same defense applies to low-tech recordings, flawed but deeply felt. Folk music is not about being polished, and it is not about being perfect. It is about sharing stories and traditions, it is about a communal harmony comprised of singers endlessly varied.

So here’s to voices strange and beautiful. Here’s to John Jacob Niles, and Joanna Newsom, and Bob Dylan and a hundred others. Their voices beautiful because they are true, because they are authentic, because they add something to the musical landscape we share, and because at the end of the day each of us can only be who we are.

Niles No. 7: The Little Drownded Girl

O P E N I N G (5)

May 25, 2015

I have to admit, I think this is the ballad I’ve been the most excited about recording since we first selected our ballads at the outset of this project.

I am a big fan of its Child forerunner “The Twa Sisters,” and love the fairytale elements often included in other versions of this ballad. In the song, two sisters are walking by a sea or stream and the ugly sister pushes her younger, lovelier sister in the water, drowning her. This is generally done due to jealousy, either of her wealth, beauty, goodness, or lover. What happens subsequently varies, but in many versions, the bones of the drowned sister are used to make a fiddle or other instrument which only plays a song recounting the story of her murder. The older sister (and her accomplice, generally the miller, if present) is then hanged for her crime.

In this variant, the fantastic elements of the story are dropped. The sisters are not described as they are in other versions, and so the only motive for the murder seems to be the murdered sister’s “lover-ee” who she offers, unsuccessfully, to her sister in exchange for her rescue. In this tale, the miller presumably strips the murdered sister of her watches and money and is therefore hung along with the ugly sister. (In other versions, the miller either ‘pushes the sister farther in,’ or is the one who fishes the body out of the water to construct the fiddle.)

The versions of this song that I’m most familiar with are Nico Muhly and Sam Amidon’s “Two Sisters” and John Jacob Niles’ own “Bowie, Bowerie.” In “Two Sisters” the bone-fiddle is described, as is its enchanted way of recounting the sister’s death; in “Bowie, Bowerie,” there is a slight allusion to this element although you would have to have an understanding of other versions in order to catch it: “When she died the fiddles played… Her father heard how she’d been slayed.” Both of these songs are haunting and eerie and sad.

I believe what I love about this variant is how lilting and sing-songy it is, almost as if written for children. There is something sweet about its language: ‘drowndery’ is much less ominous than ‘drown.’ The drowning, death, and subsequent hanging seem all the more abrupt given the charming melody.

The Little Drownded Girl (Niles No. 7) – Collected July 16, 1932 from Patterson Whetmore in Pikeville, KY

Derry derry down and around the old piney tree,
I know a lord who lived by the Northern Sea,
He had daughters by one and by two, three,
Derry derry down and around the old piney tree.

Derry derry down and around the old piney tree,
“Sister, fish me out of the raging sea,
You may have my own true lover-ee.”
Derry derry down and around the old piney tree,

She did swim around so heartily,
Until she sank and she did drowndery.

She was stripped to her bare body,
For her gold and her watches and her fee.

They hanged the sister and the miller-ee,
On a scaffold ‘side of the deep blue sea.

Let’s Talk about Murder Ballads

Since our next two songs fall under the folk sub-genre of “murder ballads,” it seems as good a time as any for a brief thought or two on the topic.

I come to folk songs in part through a love of fairy tales. They seem to me two branches of the same tree (and I suppose if you titled that tree it would be called “stories of nascent man,” and would probably have a third branch called mythologies.)

Like folk songs, fairy tales are marked by violence. One need look no further than the Grimm Brothers’ “The Juniper Tree” to be convinced of the depth of their grimness and suddenly feel the surprise of gratitude to Disney for reworking some aspects to be more suitable for today’s children. I am very glad I didn’t, at three years of age, witness in cheery animation one of Cinderella’s step sisters slicing away at her heel to cram it into a slipper.

Maybe such plot points aren’t suitable for child cinema, but I would argue that they needn’t be left out of stories. Child psychologists generally agree that children like even these darker aspects of fairy tales, and that they can be beneficial for their developing sense of morality and goodness. Bruno Bettelheim goes into great detail on this in his book Uses of Enchantmentwhich I thoroughly recommend. Children are still pure and innocent with very black and white interpretations of right and wrong. Because of this, they like it when wicked people get punished. Then too, it helps solidify their understanding of these concepts: deceitfully cut up your heel to pass yourself off as another woman, eventually get your eyes pecked out by birds.  Message received.

This phenomenon does not diminish as we get older, which explains why thousands tune in to the ever-grating voice of Nancy Grace, eager to watch her lambaste whatever inane guest is on to talk about some otherwise unheard of murder. Watching other people get in trouble is riveting. Maybe it makes us feel morally superior as we watch: my daughter would never be caught with that boy, would never party like that, would never… And we watch and judge and are entertained, and we can play it off as learning from the mistakes of others. We can argue that by televising trials we’re discouraging future crime. Right.

So I think that’s part of what we see when there is death and murder in fairy tales and folk songs. It’s this weird intersection of cautionary tale meets juicy gossip.

One of the main differences between fairy tales and folk songs though is that characters of fairy stories seldom have names: they are Cinder-girl or Prince or King. (Rumpelstiltskin and Baba Yaga are among a few exceptions.) That is part of their appeal to children too: it is easy to imagine that you are Prince. It is harder to dream yourself into the story of Hercules.

But unlike fairy tales, folk songs often were written about real historical events. Names are often given, particulars included. In this way, ballads were and are records, musical accounts of true life murders. “Jesse James” is a great example of this, even giving the particulars of his death and naming his murderer. Our upcoming ballad of “Tiranti, My Love” is potentially based on a centuries old murder. Songs continue to serve this purpose today: Murder Ballad Monday, which recently joined Sing Out! Magazine, has broadened their discussion of the genre to include many more modern incarnations including Crosby, Still, Nash, and Young’s “Ohio” and Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane.” I’m waiting for them to write about Sufjan Stevens’ “John Wayne Gacy, Jr” – a contemporary murder ballad if ever there was one.

For me though, I think murder ballads serve as part of the “ars moriendi.” To sing about a life cut short is to contemplate how short even the longest of lives are. We mourn often for twenty or forty or fifty years or so that might have been but weren’t, and it is hard not to feel in those moments a deeper sadness that we all die soon. I love songs and literature about death because they help root me in the present, in life, by reminding me that my death will come  too and I must be mindful of time’s passing.

All of that is to say, there are a lot of murder ballads in the Ballad Book. You can treat them as cautionary tales, or gruesome gossip you wish it wasn’t part of human nature to like, or you can let them sweep over you, sadden you, help your mourn your own inevitable passing.

Or you can skip them all together and listen to Dueling Banjos and pretend that’s what Southern music really is.