More than any other art form, old songs – really old songs – offer a visceral link to the people of the past. You can read Dickens and Melville, study Old Master paintings, or tune in your classical music station and listen to pieces by Bach and Mozart, but while you might be enlightening yourself into brilliance, none of that provides the communion with unknown people of past centuries that old songs do.
The vernacular phrasing of old folk ballads contributes to their accessibility, but mostly it’s for a deeper reason: Songs are creatures of any moment in which they’re sung (and heard) – not frozen in time, but continually alive and renewed as long as someone remembers and sings them.
When I first heard the term “Child Ballads” I thought it meant old folk songs for children. I soon found out that not only are the more than 300 old songs collected in the late 19th century by Francis James Child not nursery rhymes, the subject matter of some is what we’d classify today as not for children, what with all the murder and sex – though the fairy-tale quality of many might remind us that standards for what is “appropriate” for children change with the ages.
Some of the English and Scottish songs Child collected go back to the 17th century and even earlier. Yet they remain almost as alive today as they were in olden times. You can find some of the newest renditions in Anaïs Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer’s recording of seven of the Child Ballads, sung mostly in exquisitely plotted close harmony, a little reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel.
One title listeners might recognize even if they’re not familiar with the Child Ballads collection is “Sir Patrick Spens,” a song previously recorded by Fairport Convention, Ewan MacColl, and many others, in which the thoughtless King of Scotland commands a renowned seaman to sail to Scandinavia on a royal errand during a stormy season, with predictable results. In Mitchell and Hamer’s telling, it ends evocatively thus:
Long, long may his lady look
With a lantern in her hand
Before she sees Sir Patrick Spens
Come sailing home again.
But while Lady Spens may have to wait forever for her corporeal husband, his myth has never entirely disappeared from the consciousness of the English-speaking world.
One of the great but also challenging things about songs this old is their infinite malleability. Among versions of the same song you’ll find wide variations in the lyrics. Mitchell and Hamer take liberties with some of the words and even the stories. Meanwhile, melodies typically associated with one song can be grafted onto another, or you can make up your own tune. Mitchell and Hamer have worked the words into chord changes and arrangements that sound both modern and timeless, and make me think, “Well, obviously – how else could they go?” That’s a solid achievement in itself.
Only one track, “Willie’s Lady,” seems to step outside standard folk time signatures (though in fact it’s in 3/4 time), and even there the story feels at home in its musical bed (a particularly impressive wash of string work). It’s a disturbing tale in which a disapproving mother-in-law hexes Willie’s poor pregnant wife so she remains perpetually pregnant, never able to deliver her baby, until the couple finds a way to trick her and break the spell. In Mitchell and Hamer’s version, unexpected stress patterns in every verse suggest the sense of frustrated waiting, if not physical pain, that underlies the story.
By contrast, a nursery-rhyme lilt carries along “Riddles Wisely Expounded.” Mitchell and Hamer take the male and female parts in this story about a knight who sleeps with a young woman and then agrees to marry her if she can answer a series of riddles. Spoiler alert: It has a happy ending, unlike the doomed couple of “Clyde Waters” (also called “Clyde’s Water” or “The Mother’s Malison”), who go to a watery grave because of parental disapproval – there’s an awful lot of that in these old folk tales! – rather like Romeo and Juliet.
In “Geordie,” by far the most concise of the songs the duo has chosen, a wife comes to London to plead for the life of her husband, condemned to hang for stealing the king’s deer. Things don’t look good for Geordie – this isn’t one of the happy ending songs. Yet, to be precise, it ends before we’re told with absolutely certainly of his fate, a question reflected in each verse’s (and the song’s) ending on an inconclusive subdominant chord.
Then there’s “Tam Lin,” a fairy story so weird you should just look it up, and two more ballads, all retold with lyrical delicacy and melodic beauty on the duo’s CD Child Ballads.
I had the opportunity to see them perform all these songs live last night, and discovered that not only were they able to duplicate the flavor of the recording despite sparser instrumentation (just their own two guitars, with a little help from a violinist), the songs had even more impact from the stage than from the speakers at home. Their performances of these old ballads somehow came across as both heartfelt and studious. They’re respectful of age-old tradition – but not overly respectful. Mitchell’s unusual vocal quality, fully vested emotion carried via a relatively thin tone, is more winning live, and Hamer’s clear tenor is impressively precise without sacrificing meaning.
They left me with a renewed and amplified appreciation for the Child Ballads, and a feeling of gut-level connection with the people who told and sang these hoary stories ages ago, and have never stopped doing so.