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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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

Dear Balladeer

Dear John Jacob Niles,

I was seventeen when I first heard your voice. You were singing “Go ‘Way from my Window,” and I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever heard. Your theatricality. The emotion of your vibrato. The strength, confidence, of your falsetto.

That was before I knew you’d written my favorite Christmas hymn, “I Wonder as I Wander,” or before I’d heard you sing it, your version a thousand times more haunting, more beautiful than any other. Now every time I listen, I am transported to the Appalachians where you first heard the fragments of it from a young girl, paying her pennies so she would repeat it. Every time I listen, I feel the cold bitter air of the mountains in December, the crisp click of naked branches, the meagerness of a man wandering out in the vast expanse of wilderness that used to be.

And that was many years (seven years, to be exact), before my brother-in-law would give Jonathan your ballad book for his twenty-fifth birthday. Though we’d been singing folk music together several years, Jonathan and I were at once struck by what a treasure it is. To read one of your collection tales is to fall completely in love with the volume.

We began, slowly, to pick out the melodies for the songs least familiar to us. We were surprised by how many beautiful ballads have not been recorded, and so a plan slowly took shape, to learn, record, and perform selections from The Ballad Book of John Jacob Niles, especially those you did not record.

You are now gone, and so we cannot know what you would think of our plan. We use, in part, the quote of your father’s, printed in the introduction, as our permission: “Old-timey family music came from the people, and it should go back to the people” (Ballad Book, pg. xvi). Our primary aim is that we record this music so that it not be lost, so that it remain in public consciousness longer.

Our secondary aim is to grow deeper roots in the folk tradition. Jonathan and I have been playing music together since we were sixteen years old; if we are ever to dig-in and focus, now is the time, and I can think of no music or project more in-line with our tastes or values as musicians.

So though you are now gone, I write this to you as a statement of intent: Jonathan and I will proceed slowly and respectfully withThe Ballad Book, honoring it as a way in which to connect with the music of a people and land we love, our homeland and yours too.

With respect and warmth,