Tiranti, My Love

O P E N I N G (6)

June 1, 2015

“Tiranti, My Love,” a version of Child’s “Lord Randall,” has very old origins throughout Europe, with the oldest known variant being “L’avvelenato” (“The Poisoned Man”), which dates back to 1629 in Verona, Italy.

In the song, a son tells his mother that he has been poisoned by his lover. In most variants, it is through eating a reptile.

There are many references to it in pop culture. Bob Dylan used it as inspiration in “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall,” incorporating the lyrics into the opening lines of each verse. Lines from the ballad have worked their way into Sallinger and Steinbeck and Sayers. It is sometimes performed in a humorous tone (Pete Seeger’s “Henry, My Son” is a great example and the recording below is a marvelous testament to Seeger’s delivery of song and story), perhaps because the novelty of eating ‘eels’ is too foreign a concept to find particularly threatening.  Indeed, Niles mentioned that Mrs. Molly Ratliff,  from whom he heard “Tiranti,” “made the entire performance a little bit funny” (Ballad Book, 62). Niles, however, in his recording of the variant “Jimmy Randall” elects for a straightforward and somber performance.

Lord Randal, Arthur Rackham, 1919
Lord Randal, Arthur Rackham, 1919


Tiranti, My Love (Niles No. 9) – Collected May 15, 1934 from Mrs. Molly Ratliff in Madison County, KY

“Oh, where have you been, Tiranti, my love,
And why are you home so soon?”
“It’s I’ve been a-courting, oh Mother dear,
And I’m dying to lie down.”

“What did you eat, Tiranti, my love,
What did you eat, my son?”
“Some pizened eels, oh Mother dear,
But I ate only one.”

“One eel is enough, my little son,
Yes, one will surely do.
But two would be too many eels
For one bonny boy like you.”

“Oh what will you give the great lady
Who was to you untrue?”
“A strong piece of rope for hanging, for hanging,
And that will hardly do.”


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.

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.

Niles No. 2: The Shirt of Lace

January 24, 2014

Likely, when you hear this song, you are quickly reminded of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair.” You should be. Both tunes are originally derived from Child Ballad No. 2, The Elfin Knight.

In The Elfin Knight, an Elf, like, you know, a full-grown sprite with pointy ears, comes to the bed of a human maiden (virgin) and asks that she perform an impossible task (namely, sewing a ‘sark’ (shirt) without stitching or using tools). The implication is that if she cannot perform the task, she must have sex with him. In response, the maiden quickly tells him of some land that she will give him if he can perform several real tasks there (mostly manual labor). The Elf then quickly remembers his wife and kids, and tells her he’s no longer interested in her.

And the maiden is pleased to have maintained her virtue by the song’s end.

Though the story is less explicit in later versions of the song,  the image below quickly highlights some of their similarities.

The Elfin Knight

No. 2 in Popular Culture:

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