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.

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.

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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