Niles No. 5: William and Ellen

O P E N I N G (2)

March 31, 2015

Our fifth ballad is derived from Child Ballad No. 7: Earl Brand. In most variants, a Lord steals or woos a maiden of a wealthy or noble family, taking her away to be his bride. A battle ensues between the Lord (here, William, in other versions, Earl Brand) and the maiden’s family. Before battle, the Lord instructs his bride not to name him — this is based in magical traditions in which to know someone’s name is to have power over them (think Rumplestiltskin). In most versions, she names him anyway, generally citing that she could have many true loves, but only one father. The Lord is then slain in battle, though he lives long enough to return to his home, where his bride and mother die of grief.

One interesting element of this ballad is that it formerly had a talking horse who instructs William and Ellen. You can see echoes of that here, though as ballad singer Solomon Holcomb remarked to John Jacob Niles, “People hain’t got no interest in talkin’ animals of any kind, and particularly, talkin’ horses” (Ballad Book, pg. 33).

William and Ellen (Niles No. 5) – Collected July 4, 1916 from Red Jules Napier, Black Jules Napier, and Chester Staffer, Hazard, KY

Lord William fetched up his bride,
He fetched up his horse.
Said, “If we fail at the watery ford,
We’ll suffer then a loss.”

His horse’s name was Pointed Star,
And then he quickly said,
“If you don’t call me by my name,
We’ll leave them all cold dead.”

“Oh Ellen, Ellen, tell me true,
Tis now you must decide.
It’s go back to your mother, dear,
Or stay and die my bride.”

There was no wedding on that day,
No wedding on that night,
For they were dead and laid to rest
With chant and candle light.

His mother died account of grief,
Of sorrow died his bride,
And there they laid the three to rest,
In churchyard side by side.

Come all young men and ladies
Who yearn for love’s delight.
Remember how Lord William’s rose
Hugged Ellen’s briar so tight.


Niles No. 3: The Smart Schoolboy


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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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