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. 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.

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,

Rebecca