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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Forest Mountain Hymnal

For the last 6 years or so, Jonathan and I have played together as a band called Forest Mountain Hymnal. In anticipation of this project taking a great deal of our time, we have just released a full-length self-titled Forest Mountain Hymnal album, consisting of all of our best tracks off various EPs as well as some previously unreleased recordings.

We hope you’ll take a listen and enjoy! Some songs are original, some are folk tunes. All of them, as ever, were recorded in either our home here in Tennessee or (older tracks) in our apartment in France.

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

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,