Great Loveliness of Ghosts

Why (2)

After recording and studying a song like “King William’s Son” I’m struck by the dichotomy of the singers of these ballads and the storied songs they sing. I’ll remind you that John Jacob Niles collected these ballads from isolated, rural areas of the southeastern United States.

So lest you think Niles somehow selected only high brow folks to collect ballads from, or if somehow you’ve yet to imagine how strange it must have been for Niles to hear talk of castles and the ocean while sitting in a forest in the middle of a land locked county, I’ll remind you: these songs all came from Southerners: they belong to us. We carried them over the sea.

When Jonathan and I first read the ballad book, it was the collection stories as much as the ballads that struck us. The songs are haunting and beautiful, but it is the gift of the singers’ personalities, bestowed to all of us by Niles, that gives much of The Ballad Book its heart. 

I’d like to focus on the singers of Niles No. 2, Uncle Brother Patterson, and Niles No. 4, an unnamed singer.

Uncle Brother Patterson, Niles tells us, was “a cattle drover…[who] had once owned a very fine farm” (Ballad Book, pg. 17). He lost his property due to some unnamed illegal transgression, and later ended up in a bloody brawl and was imprisoned (pg 18). Niles writes that after serving his term, Patterson found himself a vagabond, doing occasional odd jobs (18).

He had heard his noisy relatives sing the rather uninteresting “Parsley Vine” song, and to establish his position as a singer he took me aside and sang “The Shirt of Lace” very quietly and accurately. None of the Patterson men could read or write… My notes say: ‘A very interesting melodic line. The music in the family came from a Patterson grandmother, who emigrated from Virginia at the end of the War Between the States.’ ” – The Ballad Book, pgs. 18-19

Uncle Brother Patterson, immortalized in only a few short paragraphs, leaves a haunting impression. His troubled past, his desire to prove himself as a singer and learned individual despite his illiteracy, and the ballad he gave to Niles provide a complicated and striking portrait.

However, my favorite character thus far has been the unnamed singer of Niles No. 4. Niles describes her as a “tall, angular woman of great age” (Ballad Book, 28). She does not wish for Niles to publish her name due to “family difficulties and embarrassments brought down upon her by her children” (28). Niles informs us that she is now raising her grandsons.

More than her story though, it is the stark contrast between her diction and the song she sings. As already described, King William’s Son (No. 4) is a very complex ballad. Indeed, Child writes that his fourth ballad is likely the most common folk ballad of Europe, with numerous variants. (Generally, “Barbra Ellen” is considered the most common folk ballad of North America). The song takes place by the sea, in a castle; its actors are lords and ladies who speak poetically and articulately.

But Niles provides us with some of the singer’s own dialogue:

“If a body wants to be glum-faced…there always be lots of reasons for it. Why if I worked at it, I could be as sour as any straddle-pole politician in Franklin, North Carolina.” (28)

Later, she talks about her relationship with her grandsons:

“Them cute little fellers playin’ out yonder in that cow-stomp are my only partners now… they’s young enough to mind me, and they ain’t old enough to be a botherment – not yet.” (29)

For those long used to Southern stereotypes, such diction is not surprising.  Her ballad though – so sad, so haunting, with roots so ancient – does render complexity and depth to our understanding of this unnamed character and Uncle Brother Patterson too.  These two singers are not atypical of the myriad other characters John Jacob Niles encountered, who, despite little formal education, contained inside themselves the wealth of folk knowledge and fable, passed down these long centuries.

As much as our project is a tribute to Mr. Niles, it increasingly feels a tribute to these people he collected from too, for with each song a miniature resurrection takes place, and we find ourselves in the presence of a cast of characters long dead. They are the ghosts of the South, and it is their words we sing, their melodies.

If you will, sing along with us. Join your own warble, your own inimitable timbre, to the thousands of other voices who sang these songs before you.

You will find yourself, then, with us, and John Jacob Niles, and Uncle Brother Patteson, and the woman whose name we will never know. You will find yourself in the great loveliness of ghosts.

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Niles No. 4: King William’s Son

O P E N I N G (1)

February 28, 2015

 Despite being an accomplished composer, John Jacob Niles seldom used more than one instrument in his folk recordings. Instead, Niles relied upon the theatricality of his voice and simple strumming techniques to deftly convey complex characters and musical landscapes. Here, unwittingly, Jonathan and I have channeled this idea: our recording of “King William’s Son” contains only voice, banjo, bass recorder, and drum.

As a result, it is the story of the ballad that matters most.

There are many things to love about this ballad. The melodic line is haunting, unexpected, enchanting. It has been stuck in my head since first learning it. The story is commanding and complex. Lady Isabel is a heroine worthy of both admiration and pity, we share King William’s presumed shame for the ignominy of his first-born son, and we too wish that the parrot would desist by the song’s end (hasn’t Isabel had a rough enough night already?). The classic elements of the ballad are rich and varied and the specific lyrics of this version simultaneously bawdy and heroic.

This ballad is a version of “Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight.” In other versions of this song, it is not a human ruler (Prince Jamie) but instead an elf (this might explain the reference to Jamie’s ‘slender hips’). The story is as follows: an elf knight or lord of some sort seduces a young lady, especially by singing. He then leads her to the sea, where he reveals that he intends to kill her and steal all her possessions (including her clothing and thus, presumably, her virtue). Often, he explains that he has killed many other women in a similar way. Explaining that she doesn’t wish to be seen naked, Isabel asks the Knight to turn his back so that she can undress. She then throws him to the sea. The Knight begs to be saved at which point Isabel smartly refuses, citing the other maids’ deaths, and flees, leaving him to drown. When she returns home, she must contend with her parrot, who threatens to tell her father what has happened. The parrot is then bribed with the promise of a gold cage.

As with many other folk songs, “King William’s Son” resists a straightforward interpretation. There’s the title which seems misplaced: is Jamie the main figure of this song? He’s dead by verse 7. Other versions of the song have been titled “The King’s Daughter,” which seems more fitting. Why does the ballad begin with the mention of King William, whose character has been entirely dropped by the close of the song, replaced by Isabel’s father? The exchange between Isabel and the parrot at the end feels disjointed too, as if a new story is being tacked on.  For someone more accustomed to analyzing literature, folk songs and stories can prove a maddening puzzle, since often the significance of a line or character has been lost to a hundred years of repetition and retelling, much akin to a musical game of ‘telephone.’

Lady Isabel is a compelling heroine, but a problematic one too. She is crafty enough to trick Jamie once they’ve reached the sea. She is clever enough to refuse him when he promises to marry her and make her Queen in exchange for his rescue. Indeed, her response is so full of confidence and disdain that it is hard not to cheer with her, despite some gruesome imagery: “Soon the fish will eat your meat/ Instead of eating me.” She then rides home across the countryside, leading his horse along with her, arriving at the castle in a sweat. This is no damsel in distress.

But why has she followed him there to begin with? In some versions, the elf-knight uses enchantments, but in this more straightforward tale we are told only that Jamie was the worst of the King’s sons. His reputation seems well-known. The fact that she follows him does make her seem comparatively “silly.”

Then too, once she rids herself of Jamie and flees home victorious, she is essentially blackmailed by her parrot. It is more explicit in some versions, but I love the subtlety of this “poll” when he is asked to be quiet: though Isabel has not told him any details of her misadventure, he seems well aware and reveals how “The cat was at [his] cage’s door,/and [Isabel] shooed her away” (Ballad Book, pg 29). It is a clever enough metaphor, and Isabel feels proportionately threatened. The song closes with her bribe to the bird, a cage made of gold instead of wood: “Thy cage shall be made of beaten gold/
Instead of the willow tree” (29).   It’s hard not to feel these lines have something to do with Isabel too.

It is possible that in “King William’s Son” we are seeing a combination of the parrot in “Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight” and his counterpart in another Child ballad, “Young Bunting.” In the former, the parrot aligns himself more with Lady Isabel; in the latter, the parrot sides more (and indeed seems to share the plight of) the murdered lover. The undertones of antagonism between Isabel and the parrot in “King William’s Son” seems to allude to his “Bunting” counterpart.  (For much, much more on these ideas, please read Barre Toelken’s “What the Parrot Tells us that Child Did Not” as found in The Folklore Historian: Vol. 14, especially pages 47-50, which I have drawn from here. Toelken discusses these ideas as well as the symbol of the parrot in a cage vs. the parrot atop a cage or let loose as representative of domesticity vs. sexual liberty. Toelken, of course, makes no reference to “King William’s Son” as it is an little-known variant).

It is a frustrating turn for Isabel’s audience that, while she has managed to keep her gold from Jamie, she now must cede it to the parrot. The Isabel of the last three verses feels tired and desperate, repeating lines and caving to demands.

Below are a few other versions of the ballad, including one of our own recorded years ago: “Pretty Polly.” In it, Isabel has become Polly, she is stripped of her agency, and is buried in a shallow grave.

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King William’s Son (Niles No. 4B) – Collected Summer 1936 from an elderly woman who wished to be unnamed, western North Carolina

Of all the sons King William had,
Prince Jamie was the worst,
And what made the sorrow even more,
Prince Jamie was the first.

He sang his song to Isabel,
A song like none did sing,
And she did follow him away,
A very silly thing.

They wandered over hill and dale,
They came upon the sea,
“Light down, light down, fair Isabel,
And give your clothes to me.”

“Hit’s turn, oh turn your head away,
And look at yonder sea.
I do not wish to have it said
I let you see my bare body.

“Oh turn, oh turn your head away,
Behold the yon seaside,
And do not look this way a bit
Or you’ll see me in my hide.”*

And as he stood a-waiting
And a-looking o’er the lea,
She grabbed him by his slender hips
And pitched him in the sea.

“Oh save me, save me from this death,
And when the King is dead,
I will be King Jamie
And you’ll be queen instead.”

“If you could lie to nine young maids,
You’ll lie as quick to me,
But soon the fish will eat your meat
Instead of eating me.”

She mounted quick the dapple gray,
And then she led the black
Across the fields and pastures,
A-homing she rode back.

“Where have you been and what have you done,
Your horse is all a-sweat?
Your father looked the castle o’er
And hasn’t found you yet.”

“If you would only hold your tongue,
You’ll never have to lie.
My father ne’er must ever know
How near I come to die.

“No talk, no talk, my pretty poll,
It be the break of day.”
“The cat was at my cage’s door,
And you shooed her away.”

“Well said, my parrot bird, well said,
No cat shall bother thee,
And thy cage shall be made of beaten gold
Instead of the willow tree.”

*In describing the elderly woman who sang him this ballad, Niles mentions that “In spite of all her troubles, she had a great sense of humor and was ready to laugh at almost everything, including herself… She used the word ‘hide’ in “King William’s Son” — possibly for the sake of rhyme, but more probably, I think, for humor’s sake” (Ballad Book, pg. 28) I love watching the singers’ personalities sneak into the ballad!

Niles No. 3: The Smart Schoolboy

O P E N I N G

February 26, 2015

“The False Knight upon the Road” is a fairly rare Child ballad – not too many different versions of the song were collected in the United States. In this version, a young boy on his way to school meets with the devil (disguised as a knight). The devil questions him. The child remains resolute and rejects the devil, so that by the song’s end the devil must return to hell. Niles writes, “In the case of the smart schoolboy, he would have been carried off to hell had he not been sturdy and brave and full of words, and also of answers” (Ballad Book, 21).

This song proved challenging for us. The melodic line is a bit quaint and not too nuanced. We wanted to make the song upbeat (which is not really our forte), and that too presented a challenge. We hope you’ll enjoy it. In the least, it provides a contrast to the other, more somber songs in The Ballad Book. In the notes, Niles suggests it be played demandingly. 

The only other version I have heard of the song is Robin Pecknold’s: 

 The Smart Schoolboy (Niles No. 3) – Collected Spring 1935 from Preston Wolford, a farmer and dance caller of Dot, Virginia

“Oh, where be ye going?”
Said the knight on the road.
“I be going to school,”
Said the boy as he stood.
And he stood and he stood
And ’twas well that he stood.
“I be going to school,”
Said the boy as he stood.

“Oh, what do ye there?”
Said the knight on the road.
“I read from my book,”
Said the boy as he stood.
And he stood and he stood
And ’twas well that he stood.
“I read from my book,”
Said the boy as he stood.

“Oh, what have ye got?”
Said the knight on the road.
“‘Tis a bait of bread and cheese,”
Said the boy as he stood.
And he stood and he stood
And ’twas well that he stood.
“‘Tis a bait of bread and cheese,”
Said the boy as he stood.

“Oh, pray give me some,”
Said the knight on the road.
“Oh no, not a crumb,”
Said the boy as he stood.
And he stood and he stood
And ’twas well that he stood.
“Oh no, not a crumb,”
Said the boy as he stood.

“I hear your school bell,”
Said the knight on the road.
“Hit’s a-ringing you to hell,”
Said the boy as he stood.
And he stood and he stood
And ’twas well that he stood.
“Hit’s a-ringing you to hell,”
Said the boy as he stood.

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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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.