kniteracy: You can get this design on a card or a picture to hang! (performing)
I've hinted at this before, but it's time to lay it on the table: I'm doing research for what to me is a fascinating bit of musical 'what-if'.

First, because there were some questions about what I meant by 'ballad' in this week's Geeking on Ballad Singing post, a quick definition, which I am going to keep pretty narrow for my purposes. At the Traditional Ballads Homepage, I found the following definition, which I'll place behind a cut tag, since it's long. It's from George Kitteredge's introduction to Child.

Ballad Definition )

This definition outlines what is, for me, the major distinction between a ballad and any song that tells a story. There is no personal reflection at all. It's not a story being told and then talked about by a person; there's no emotional involvement, unless you count moralistic warnings to young women as emotional involvement (and I have known a few people who might). ;)

Now, further to that above definition, there are ballads which are commonly called 'magical' ballads. These are stories in which magic or fairies or mythical or mystical creatures are a central and underlying element. Even some ballads that have magical-sounding names (The Elfin Knight, Lady Isobel and the Elf Knight) aren't all that magical when they're sung. Even Scarborough Fair, a version of the Elf Knight, for all its impossible task enumeration, does not, in the form that it's usually sung, have a central theme of magic or fantastic events. So when I use the term 'magical ballad', I'm using a fairly narrow definition. And in the Appalachians, ballads like 'House Carpenter', which has a ghostly theme but ends with a 'wages of sin' sort of lesson, don't really fall into the magical realm, because they are about the wages of sin.

As a preface, and some of you already know this, there's no solid (and not much tenuous) history of magical ballads surviving in America. Numerous theories have been posed for this: for me, the most believable is the one that says the people's lives were too hard and too basic and too grounded in focused protestant religion for those songs to carry on. While murder, abduction and incest ballads (no jokes about Southern US inbreeding, please; I really think I've heard them all) all thrived, because people were singing about things they knew, the big magical ballads just didn't have context in the Appalachians, and not really elsewhere in America, either. The 196(mumble) Jean Ritchie Songbook has one song in it with one line about a character being of elfin or fairy descent, and her notes on that song mention that the song collector who heard her sing that song was flabbergasted to hear a reference to magic and fairies in an Appalachian ballad.

But let's delve into the fascinating and compelling world of 'what-if'. What if, alongside the hard working life, alongside the deeply literal religious life, there had been a tradition of mystical ballads, taken, like the murder ballads and love ballads, from the countries all those people originally emigrated from? We know that generations of folk wisdom and folk magic did not die out completely-- many people who knew my Alabama grandmother, for example, swore she could cure warts with a potato.

What if the big magical ballads had survived in the Appalachians? What would they sound like? What motifs from their English and Scottish sources would they keep?

I will let you in on a little secret: I'm already working on Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer, and I have been for awhile. Don't worry: I'll share the fruits of my labour; I'm just not comfortable sharing songs or extractions in progress publicly.

So, let's say I were thinking of doing a series of these, maybe a lecture's worth, a workshop's worth, maybe a concert's worth of alternate musical history. I know that wouldn't appeal to all of you. But might it appeal to some of you? What's your favourite magical ballad? Which magical ballad do you think is often overlooked? Is there one you've only seen the source words for but never heard? What kind of tune do you think those songs would have if they were moved to Appalachia?
kniteracy: You can get this design on a card or a picture to hang! (performing)
Warning: there is a poll in this entry. It's a short poll, and it's not for everybody. I only want people who sing ballads to answer it. Now, that doesn't mean that only people who perform ballads can answer the poll: I want everyone who's ever learned and sung a ballad, even just for themselves, to answer this question. I'll put most of the discussion behind a cut-tag, and then I'll put the poll down at the bottom. Please tell me more of your feelings about ballads in comments, too.

Ballad Singing -- Just My Approach )

What's your approach? If you're a ballad singer, answer my poll, and leave your thoughts in comments!

[Poll #776874]
kniteracy: You can get this design on a card or a picture to hang! (two sisters)
Weird Moments in Folk Song

Consider the song, "The Bitter Withy," which attempts to answer the questions, "Was Jesus a big old pompous brat as a kid?" and, possibly more importantly (your mileage may vary), "Was Jesus a kid who got away with murder, or at least partially involuntary manslaughter?"

Now, the words to one version of this song, from Mudcat's Digital Tradition Database, are below, so feel free to refer to them as we go along. This isn't the version I know best, but the story is almost identical.

So in the story, Jesus asks his mum if He can go out and play ball. She says, like many mothers might, "Sure, but don't you get in any trouble!" and off He goes.

He encounters three boys and asks them to play with Him, but they are all rich children of rich parents, and they think themselves too good to play with Jesus.

So Jesus makes a rainbow bridge to run over the river on, and the three rich boys follow Him and are drowned.

When he comes home, the rich mothers call Mary out to tell her that Jesus is responsible for the drowning of their sons! Mary is quite upset by this (after all, three boys are dead), so she takes a handful of withy twigs and gives Jesus three lashes.

Jesus' response to this punishment? He curses the withy tree.

Now, I've got (and have always had) some questions about this song, which I think was first collected in the early part of the 20th century. First of all, what kind of tree is a withy? Is it likely to die young? Secondly, why would a ballad commonly sung in England in 1912 portray Jesus as such a brat? There are "cleaned-up" versions that have Mary suggesting He kill the boys and Jesus admonishing her that no, there is too much good in the world for him to do. And, if you were a small boy getting lashed with a handful of twigs by your mum, would you be angry with her, or would you curse the tree that gave its twigs to make the switch?

What do you think? No matter your faith or opinion of Jesus personally (assuming you've met Him), isn't it a little odd that He'd be portrayed this way in a reasonably well-known song?

Words to the version of this ballad that Cecil Sharp collected below the cut. )
kniteracy: You can get this design on a card or a picture to hang! (two sisters)
I didn't write this. I discovered it yesterday while trawling through mp3s to make a playlist of ballads to make me happy while writing. The lyrics are by Holly Tannen, who is singing the version I have transcribed here. She's a California folk singer who also sings straight ballads and a variety of other stuff-- I've heard her and heard of her over the years, but this one really caught my ear; I think you'll see why when you take a look at the lyrics.

The tune is one of the more common "Tam Lin" tunes; those of you who are folk music fans probably know it as the tune Martin Carthy sings. Anyway, I will very likely sing this. I really like it. Apologies for my need to mock what I love most. :)

Lady Margaret and Young Whatshisname )

As for what else I discovered yesterday, let's just say you never want to hear Doris Day sing "Barbara Allen." Really, you don't. But the Queensryche version of "Scarborough Fair" is not bad at all.
kniteracy: You can get this design on a card or a picture to hang! (Default)
Here are the top answers to this poll, which is now closed. (Well, I don't know that you can actually close a LJ poll, but I'm not going to be checking answers any more, and I'm going with the numbers I have in front of me; I think three days is long enough.)

I only looked at things that got at least five votes: luckily, lots of things got more than that.

But show us the results, Harper! )
kniteracy: You can get this design on a card or a picture to hang! (two sisters)
I've been familiar with "Two Sisters" for a long time, and of course I love all the English versions with harps and stuff, but I fell in love with a "Wind and Rain" version I heard on an Armstrong Family CD years ago, and that's the version that stayed with me.

I don't particularly like "Bonny Swans" versions, although [livejournal.com profile] bardling sand me a "Binnorie" one that I liked very much.

The "Wind and Rain" version I learned so long ago was very short, and I knew there must be a little more to it. Now, some Appalachian versions add a tag where the miller/fellow who builds the instrument from her bones is hanged for her murder, and some add a version where the sister is executed because she is accused by the sister, but I'm not sure I like that ending. But it can be evocative when you add a little imagery.

Anyway, here's the version I'm working on learning:

Two Sisters/The Wind and the Rain )
kniteracy: You can get this design on a card or a picture to hang! (performing)
I talked about ballad extraction earlier today, and I said I'd post the road to my Little Sparrow if people were interested. Well, two people are interested already, and that's enough for me, so here you go.

The path to Little Sparrow )
kniteracy: You can get this design on a card or a picture to hang! (performing)
I come from two arrested singing families. By this, I don't mean my parents spent time in the slammer; they were both fairly mild-mannered people who would probably be quite surprised to see where I am and what I'm doing these days.

Tell us a story, Harper. )

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