We're starting the week with a clutch of murderous, melancholy, and magical tunes from the British Isles, since after discussing the ballad collections of Francis James Child on Thursday and Friday, what else could we have but ballads this morning?
"Annachie Gordon," Child Ballad No. 239, performed by The Unthanks, featuring the smoky-voiced singers Rachel and Becky Unthank from Northumbria. Other versions include a classic rendition by the great Irish singer Mary Black, a version adapted for harp by Canadian musician and Celtic music scholar Loreena McKennitt, and a lovely performance of "Annachie" by former members of The Unthanks, Jackie Oates (Jim Moray's sister) & Belinda Hooley.
A very contemporary take on "Lord Randall," Child Ballad No 12, by Roanoke, a new trio from Rome, Italy (Ilaria Paladino, vocals; Nicola Alianellos, guitar; Marcello Puggioni, percussion). For more traditional versions of the song, try Martin Carthy's classic English rendition, Jean Ritche's Appalachian rendition, and Emily Smith's variant, "Lord Donald."
(For another decidedly untraditional performance of a Child Ballad, see Sam Lee's strange and brilliant "The Ballad of George Collins," also known as "Clerk Covill," Child Ballad No. 42.)
In the 1970s, while musicians were rediscovering and reinventing the genre of folk music, writers were rediscovering and reinventing the genre of fantasy fiction. The audience for both of these things overlapped, and it’s not hard to understand why. Fantasy writers often work with themes that hark back to the oral tradition -- to folktales, myths, and sagas steeped in the lore of our folk heritage. A number of writers who came to the fantasy field in the late '70s and throughout the '80s -- which is when fantasy solidified as a publishing genre -- were also folk musicians or singers (Ellen Kushner, Charles de Lint, Emma Bull, Jane Yolen, etc.); and music permeated their books. Charles de Lint’s The Little Country, for example, is set among folk musicians in Cornwall; Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks concerns folk-rock musicians in ’80s-era Minneapolis; Jane Yolen wove original ballads into Sister Light, Sister Dark and its sequels; and Ellen Kushner retold a classic ballad in her novel Thomas the Rhymer, and created an anthology of magical stories about music, The Horns of Elfland. Other writers, too, turned to folk music and ballads for inspiration, fleshing out the bare bones of song narratives to turn them into stories and novels.
One need only dip at random into the pages of Francis James Childs' The English and Scottish Popular Ballads to discover why this material would appeal to writers of magical fiction. There you’ll find stories like “Kemp Owyne,” in which a young woman is turned into a loathsome dragon. Knight after knight comes to slay the beast. The dragon kills them all in turn, with tears of regret on her scaly cheeks. It is only when a knight puts down his sword and kisses her horrible face that the spell is broken and the dragon turns back into a beautiful maiden.
In “The Elfin Knight,” a girl hears fairy music and longs for a supernatural lover. The elf knight appears at her request, but gives her one look and tells her she’s too young. The song becomes a riddling song (similar to “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme”) -- though this is a riddling match that is charged with distinctly sexual overtones.
In “Reynardine,” a mysterious man seduces a woman as she walks among the hills. The man is a shapechanger, a were-fox. We don’t know what he will do to her in the castle where he steals her away, but our last image of Reynardine is of his sharp teeth gleaming brightly in the twilight.
In “Clark Sanders,” seven brothers stand over their sleeping sister and her lover, discussing what they should do to this knight who has stained the family honor. Six of them agree that they should leave the couple alone, but the seventh takes out his sword and runs it through the sleeping man’s heart. When the young woman wakes, she finds her love is a bloody corpse beside her. She goes mad with grief, the song ends . . . and then the story is taken up again in another ballad, called “Sweet William’s Ghost.” The spirit of the murdered man returns to the girl’s window. She begs him to kiss her, but he will not: “My mouth it is full cold, Margaret, / It has the smell now of the ground; / And if I kiss thy comely mouth, / Thy days will not be long.”
This idea that the dead may not touch the living is echoed in “The Unquiet Grave.” A maiden sits in a cemetery for twelve months, mourning her lover. Finally the spirit appears and asks, in a rather irritated manner, “Who sits here crying and will not let me sleep?” The maiden begs it for one kiss, but she is refused by the revenant: “O lily, lily are my lips; / My breath comes earthy strong, / If you have one kiss of my clay-cold mouth, / Your time will not be long.”
Not all ballads in the British folk tradition concern magic, Faerie, or the supernatural. Other common themes are love (usually tragic), death (usually gruesome), and family troubles that make the soap operas of our own age pale by comparison: “What is that blood on your sword, my son, what is that blood, my dear-o? It’s the blood of my sister, Mother, who I have killed in the greenwood-o. . . .” (In this song, the brother is trying to avoid discovery of the fact that he’s made his sister pregnant.)
“What I like best about ballads,” says fantasist Delia Sherman, “is that they’re plots with all the motivations left out. Why did Young Randall’s stepmother want to poison him? Why choose eels? Why did Randall eat them (especially if they were green and yellow)? There’s a novel there, or at least a short story. Ballads give you classic human situations, and also some decidedly unclassic ones, exploring relationships between lovers, parents, and children, between friends, masters, and servants. Many of them deal with power and powerlessness, which is one of the central themes of fairy tales, too; but it seems to me that ballads are more pragmatic, more realistic, in their denouements. Not every villain gets his/her just deserts. I can imagine a ballad variant of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ in which Beauty comes too late and sings a plaintive last verse over the Beast’s body, about how she will sew him a shroud of the linen fine and sit barefoot in the dark all her days, for the love of him she loved too late.”
Of all of the ballads recounted by Child, “Tam Lin” has captured the imagination of more fiction writers than any other single ballad, perhaps because of its sensual theme and unusual hero: an independent, courageous, stubborn young woman, pregnant with her woodland lover’s child, determined to save him from the Fairy Queen and the unearthly Fairy Court.
Elizabeth Marie Pope’s lovely novel The Perilous Gard places Tam Lin's story in Elizabethan Scotland, while Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin turns the ballad into a remarkable coming-of-age saga unfolding on an American university campus. Alan Garner’s Red Shift -- a subtle, powerful, unforgettable reworking of the ballad’s themes -- roots the tale in Cheshire, England during three historical periods: the Roman era, the Civil War, and the present day. Patricia A. McKillip's “Tam Lin” novel, Winter Rose, is an exquisite adult fairy tale set Once Upon a Time, mixed with elements from a second Scottish fairy ballad: "Thomas the Rhymer." Diana Wynne Jones also combines the two ballads in her brilliant YA novel Fire and Hemlock, about young musicians in modern-day England -- following in the footsteps of Catherine Storr's too-little-known "Tam Lin" novel, Thursday, published in 1972, which was one of the first to bring fairy lore into the modern world. Dahlov Ipcar makes interesting use of "Tam Lin" in her short novel for children, A Dark Horn Blowing; Janet McNauthton takes "Tam Lin" and a second ballad, "Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight," to 12th century Scotland in An Earthly Knight; and Lucy Sussex weaves the transformational aspects of "Tam Lin" into her deeply enchanting novel Deersnake.
Liz Lochhead’s long, wry poem “Tam Lin’s Lady” (from her collection Dreaming Frankenstein) is well worth seeking out, as are these fine short story renditions: "Tam Lin" by Joan Vinge (from the anthology Imaginary Lands), "Cotillion" by Delia Sherman (from the anthology Firebirds), "Tiend" by Sonya Taaffe (from Strange Horizons magazine, October 2007), "The Lady and the Fox" by Kelly Link (from the anthology My True Love Gave to Me), and Hold Me Fast, Don't Let Me Pass by Alice Munro (from her collection Friends of My Youth). I also recommend two lovely picture book versions: Jane Yolen’s Tam Lin, illustrated by Charles Mikolaycak, and Susan Cooper's Tam Lin, illustrated by Warwick Hutton.
"Thomas the Rhymer" -- the story of a Scottish harper who kisses the Queen of Elfland and then is bound to her service for seven long years -- is another popular tale among fantasy writers and readers. In addition to the Patricia McKillip and Diana Wynne Jones books listed above, the ballad inspired Bruce Glassco’s unusual short story “True Thomas” (from the anthology Black Swan, White Raven), and is splendidly retold in Ellen Kushner’s award-winning novel Thomas the Rhymer.
"I had to do Thomas," Ellen recalls, "because, like every other writer, I knew Thomas was my story. He holds the mythic power of King Arthur in the hearts of poets: the artist who is literally seduced by his muse, comes closer to her than any human should to the source of his art, and is profoundly changed. He can never be at home in this world again, and yet he must continue to live in it. That’s how every writer feels, I think. Many writer friends had talked about writing a Thomas story someday, kind of like an actor playing King Lear: it’s a Great Subject that probably should not be tackled in one’s youth. I still feel a little humble about it. I don’t think I’ve written the definitive Thomas; I’ve just written my Thomas, the Thomas who addressed issues that were upon me in those years. Twenty years from now, I might like to do him again."
Ellen’s Thomas the Rhymer also drew upon the Child ballads “The Trees They Do Grow High” and “The Famous Flower of Serving Men.” The latter is the story of a woman whose husband, a knight, is murdered by her own mother. The heroine dons men’s clothes and goes to court, where the king soon falls in love with her -- while the murdered knight returns as a white dove shedding blood-red tears through the forest. Delia Sherman used this ballad as the basis of her gender-bending novel Through a Brazen Mirror -- a very fine work of adult fantasy that really ought to be much better known.
“I heard Martin Carthy’s version of ‘Famous Flower,’ ” says Delia, “and it haunted me with questions. If a mother so hated her child, why not just kill her and be done? Perhaps there was more to it than simple hatred. Another question prompted by the ballad had to do with the role of cross-dressing in a medieval culture. A third question could be stated as this: In all these ballads with girls dressed as boys, the man falls in love with the boy, not the girl. What would happen if he wasn’t relieved to discover his beloved’s true sex? In short, ‘Famous Flower’ gave me a beautiful, mysterious narrative framework upon which to hang all my favorite concerns: gender confusion, different kinds of love, the single-mindedness of the mad, foundlings and their origins.”
Patricia C. Wrede’s “Cruel Sisters” (from her collection Book of Enchantments) and Gregory Frost’s “The Harp That Sang” (from the anthology Swan Sister) are both memorable tales based on “Cruel Sister” (a.k.a. “Twa Sisters”), the ghostly story of a murdered girl and a harp made out of bone. “Alison Gross” by Midori Snyder (from the urban fantasy anthology Life on the Border) is based on the ballad of that title: the story of a man changed into a worm (or wyrm, a dragon) when he spurns the kisses of a witch. A number of works are inspired by “The Grey Selchie,” a poignant ballad of love, seals, and shape-shifting, including Jane Yolen’s “The Grey Selchie” (from her collection Neptune Rising), Laurie J. Marks’s “How the Ocean Loved Margie” (from The Journal of Mythic Arts, 2004), and Paul Brandon’s evocative, music-filled novel Swim the Moon. Sharyn McCrumb's Ghostriders, The Songcatcher, The Ballad of Frankie Silver, The Rosewood Casket, She Walks These Hills, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, and If I Never Return Pretty Peggy-o are magical mystery novels steeped in the themes of traditional ballads from the south-eastern mountains of America, as are the "Songkiller" books of Elizabeth Ann Scarborough: Phantom Banjo, Picking the Ballad's Bones, and Strum Again. Greer Ilene Gilman’s Moonwise is a fever-dream of a book brimming with Celtic balladry from every corner of the British Isles; Gilman has an extensive knowledge of the folk tradition and she works with it here to unique effect.
Artist Charles Vess has listened to and loved old ballads for more than thirty-five years. “They are great stories,” he says, “filled with exactly the things I love to draw best: magic, adventure, romance, suspense, historical settings, the lands of Faerie, and supernatural creatures that range from beautiful to hideous.”
In 1994, Charles conceived the idea of illustrating a series of comics based on traditional folk ballads. He spoke with a number of ballad-loving writers who promised him scripts for the new series, which began with a story by Charles de Lint retelling “Sovay.” The series was first published by Green Man Press, and then collected into a beautiful Tor Books edition, along with four additional tales, making thirteen ballad retellings in all -- by Neil Gaiman, Sharyn McCrumb, Midori Snyder, Lee Smith, Elaine Lee, Delia Sherman, Charles de Lint, Jeff Smith, and Emma Bull, plus two retellings by Jane Yolen, and one by Charles Vess himself. The Book of Ballads provides an excellent introduction to traditional ballads for readers not yet familiar with them, and a I highly recommend it.
In an article on Francis James Child published in Sing Out! magazine, Scott Alarik asked folk musician Martin Carthy (one of the greatest modern interpreters of Child ballads) why people should still be singing these ancient ballads today. For the same reasons they sang them long ago, Carthy answers. “Because they’re fabulous stories; because they tell you immense amounts about people and how they treat each other, trick each other, cheat and chisel and love each other. There’s an extraordinary understanding of humanity in them.”
"You do have to sometimes kick the buggers into life," Carthy continues, "find them a tune, give the lyrics a kick here and there. And they can take it; they’re fabulously resilient. I really do believe there’s nothing you can do to these songs that will hurt them—except for not singing them.”
Contemporary folk musicians have been doing a fine job of “kicking the buggers into life,” and so have writers of fantasy fiction for children and adults. I've listed a few of my favorite ballad-inspired novels, stories, and graphic works here. Now, dear readers, I throw the subject over to you: What are some of your favorites?
In the video above, Anais Mitchell and Jeffrey Hamer perform "Tam Lin," Child Ballad No. 39, from theiralbum of Child Ballads (2013). The ballad illustrations above are by Arthur Rackham, from Some British Ballads (1918). The titles are in the picture captions; run your cursor over the images to see them.
If you're interested in exploring this subject further, I recommend the following: The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, Vol. 1 - 5, by Francis James Child; The Singing Tradition of Child’s Popular Ballads by Betrand Harris Bronson; Bishop Percy’s Folio Manuscript, Ballads and Romances by John W. Hales & Frederick J. Furnivall; Medieval Lyric: Middle English Lyrics, Ballads, and Carols by John C. Hirsh; English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians by Cecil James Sharp; Earth, Air, Fire, Water: Pre-Christian and Pagan Elements in British Songs, Rhymes, and Ballads by Robin Skelton and Margaret Blackwood; Tales, Then and Now: More Folktales As Literary Fictions for Young Adults (which includes sections on fiction derived from "Tam Lin" and "Thomas the Rhymer") & Stories from Songs: Ballads as Literary Fictions for Young Adults by Anna E. Altmann & Gail de Vos; and “Child’s Garden of Verses: The Life Work of Francis James Child” by Scott Alarik (Sing Out! Magazine, Vol. 46, #4). Two good articles available online: "Francis James Child's Ballads in the Modern Age" by Stephen D. Winick; and "Alan Garner's Red Shift and the Shifting Ballad of 'Tam Lin'" by Charles Butler.
The great folklorist Francis James Child defined what he called the “popular ballad” as a form of ancient folk poetry, composed anonymously within the oral tradition, bearing the clear stamp of the preliterate peoples of the British Isles. Ballads, which are stories in narrative verse, are related to folktales, romances, and sagas, with which they sometimes share themes, plots, and characters (such as Robin Hood). No one knows how old the oldest are. It’s believed that they are ancient indeed -- and yet we have few historical records of them older than the sixteenth century. Little is known for certain about how the oldest ballads would have been performed -- but most likely they were recited, chanted, or sung without instrumentation. Right up to the twentieth century, ballads were traditionally sung a cappella, although today it is common to hear them accompanied by harp, guitar, fiddle, and other instruments.
Why do we have so few historical records? Because until relatively recently, they weren’t considered important enough to write down. With the rise of literacy, the songs and poems of Britian’s great oral tradition began to fall out of favor -- and ballads that had once been popular among all classes of society were now deemed primitive, pagan, the province of unlettered country folk. Because of this, few attempts were made to preserve ballads prior to the seventeenth century, and thus many were lost or were passed down through the years in fragmentary form. In the eighteenth century, ballad collection was still haphazard and sporadic, and the fruits of such labor were little regarded in academic circles. Universities did not yet consider folklore a respectable area of study, so manuscript collections remained in private hands, easily lost and forgotten.
In 1765, Bishop Thomas Percy came across one manuscript full of fine old ballads being used to light a kitchen fire. He saved them from the flames and published them in his book, Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Percy’s book was a great success. It was much admired by such English Romantic writers as Coleridge, Southey, Shelley, and Keats, as well as the German Romantics Goethe, Tieck, and Novalis, and sparked much literary interest in the songs and legends of bygone days. Another fan of Percy’s book was the novelist Sir Walter Scott, who collected the ballads of his native Scotland in the early nineteenth century. Scott sat at the center of a circle of poets and antiquarians who were devotees (and romanticizers) of the ancient history of the British Isles. This group did much to popularize the old songs and tales of Scotland, England, and Ireland -- but still no British university would sponsor a proper academic collection of the country’s ballads.
That job fell to an American scholar, Francis James Child of Harvard University, who was urged to take on the subject by his frustrated British colleagues. Child hesitated, somewhat daunted by the immensity of the job at hand, and then he plunged in, devoting the rest of his life to the study of ballads. Beginning in the 1870s, Child set out to track down every extant version of every genuine popular ballad in the English and Scottish traditions. He limited himself to England and Scotland because the ballads of these countries overlapped, whereas Irish ballads were a separate tradition, requiring a depth of knowledge of Ireland’s language and history he didn’t possess. His goal was to publish the collected ballads with notes tracing their histories, relating them to songs and tales to be found in folklore the world over. The result of this remarkable labor was The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, published in five volumes between 1882 and 1898. It’s a work that’s still widely used today, revered by scholars and musicians alike.
The life of the man behind these famous books is as interesting as the ballads he loved. Born the son of a sailmaker, Child grew up on the docks of Boston harbor -- until his aptitude for learning brought him to the attention of a distinguished Cambridge scholar. The boy was encouraged to transfer from his working-class school to Boston’s Latin School, after which he was sponsored at Harvard, where he graduated at the top of his class. Except for two years of study abroad, Child spent the rest of his life at Harvard, rising to become the first chairman of the newly created department of English. He built his substantial reputation on groundbreaking studies of Chaucer and Spenser, but he also had an abiding love for philology, ancient poetry, folklore, and fairy tales. The latter interests had been whetted during the two years Child spent in Germany, where he’d been exposed to the work of the folklore enthusiasts of the Heidelberg Circle of scholars, which included folk song collectors Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim, and the remarkable Brothers Grimm. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, noted Child’s friend and colleague G. L. Kittredge, “may even, in a very real sense, be regarded as the fruit of these years in Germany. Throughout his life he kept pictures of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm on the mantel over his study fireplace.”
Child was a textual scholar rather than a field collector, and he put his massive ballad compilation together by seeking out every manuscript copy of ballad material he could lay his hands on, with the help of a small army of fellow scholars searching out songs and fragments of songs throughout the British Isles. Another reason he depended on manuscripts rather than the memories of folk musicians was that the British popular ballad, in his view, was no longer a living tradition. The ballads he sought were the ancient ones -- not the “broadside ballads” that dominated the nineteenth-century folk musician’s repertoire. Broadsheet ballads were authored song lyrics designed to fit traditional tunes, cheaply printed and sold for pennies on street corners from the sixteenth century onward. These were contemporary compositions, rather than ancient poetry from the oral tradition -- though sometimes broadside ballads mimicked the language of much older songs, and determining which was which was a problem Professor Child was both intrigued and vexed by.
To the dismay of this meticulous scholar, in the absence of clear historical records he was often forced to depend on textual clues and his own best judgment. Fortunately, that judgment was finely honed by his fluency in archaic languages, and his extraordinary knowledge of folklore traditions the world over. He chose, he explained in a letter to a friend, to err on the side of inclusiveness. Where he had lingering doubts about the authenticity of a song variant, he was apt to include it anyway, along with notes outlining his reservations. His task was greatly complicated by the fact that the ballads of Britain had been so badly recorded and preserved compared with those of other countries, such as Denmark. “The ballads should have been collected as early as 1600,” he noted sadly; “then there would have been such a nice crop; the aftermath is very weedy.” Another complication was that ballads written down and published from the eighteenth century onward had been edited, censored, or “improved” by folklore enthusiasts who were literary men, romantics rather than rigorous academics. The prime example of this was Percy’s famous Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Child and other folklorists suspected that Percy had altered the text of ballads to suit the literary tastes of his day -- particularly as Percy would not allow an examination of the ballad manuscript in his possession. Working with British scholar F. J. Furnivall, Child was instrumental in persuading Percy’s descendants to finally release this manuscript, which did ideed confirm that Percy had edited and “improved” the original ballads.
Sifting through the mountain of material he collected, sniffing out alterations and forgeries, Child amassed a group of 305 songs with their roots in the oral tradition, along with variants of each song, sometimes in dozens of alternate versions. The final volume of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads was completed the year of Child’s death, but he died before writing the book’s introduction, which would have explained his method of selection and given us an overview of his work. Yet even without this, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads was hailed by critics on both sides of the Atlantic and became a cornerstone of modern folklore scholarship. In addition, Child was instrumental in establishing the American Folklore Society, serving as its first president from 1888 to 1889. But sadly, Child did not live to see that movement flower in subsequent years, and he died doubting his work had relevance to a modern age. “If he’d lived just a little longer,” says Mark F. Heiman of Loomis House, which published a handsome new edition of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, “he would have seen the golden age of the ballad collector and folklorist. He would have seen how important his life’s work really was.”
Child’s work went on to inspire a whole new generation of folklorists, men and women who weren’t quite so convinced that the oral tradition was irretrievably dead and gone. One of them was Cecil Sharp, who began collecting English folk songs and dance tunes in the early years of the twentieth century. Sharp was a trained musician, and unlike Child he was also interested in preserving the music of the ballad tradition rather than viewing ballads primarily as poetry. He noted that the Child ballads were rarely part of the repertoire of the elderly singers he listened to in the countryside; they’d been replaced by broadside ballads and other more recent songs. Sharp wondered if the older ballads might have survived among the British and Scottish settlers in America, particularly among the descendants of settlers in isolated mountain regions, where “pennysheets” of modern ballads would not have been available. Between 1914 and 1918, Sharp made two extensive trips through the Appalachian Mountains, collecting over a thousand songs with the aid of his secretary, Maud Karpeles. Sharp and Karpeles discovered that many of the Child ballads were indeed still known and performed in Appalachia, although sometimes the titles and lyrics had changed somewhat in this new setting. Sharp published these ballads in his now-classic English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, which in turn inspired new folklore studies and new collection efforts throughout the United States.
Despite the keen interest of folklorists, ballads remained a specialized interest for much of the twentieth century, until the huge folk music revival of the 1960s and ’70s. In those years, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, and other popular singers recorded ballads from the Child collections, and a Celtic music revival exploded across the British Isles, Brittany, and America. Folk-rock bands like Pentangle, Fairport Convention, and Steeleye Span updated the ballads for a new generation, while singers like Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, Frankie Armstrong, Jean Redpath, and June Tabor created an audience for traditional music played in more traditional ways.
Today, that revival is still going strong, with Child ballads performed by Jon Boden, Eliza Carthy (Martin's Carthy's daughter), Josienne Clarke, Cécile Corbel, Bella Hardy, Fay Hield, Sam Lee, Loreena McKennit, Jim Moray, Karine Polwart, Kate Rusby, Emily Smith, The Imagined Village, The Unthanks, and many, many others. (You'll find an online discography here). I particularly recommend Anaïs Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer's terrific album dedicated to Child Ballads, and Jon Boden's Folk Song A Day site. To dig further into this subject, you'll find a lot of good material in the digital archives of the English Folk Song & Dance Society; and have a look at the wonderful Full English project too.
I'm going to end today with Mitchell & Hamer performing "Willie's Lady," which is Child Ballad No. 6. In the second of this post, we'll look at the ways that writers of fantasy literature have made use of ballad material. (Part II is here.)
The illustrations above are by George Wharton Edwards, fromA Book of Old English Ballads (1896); the titles are in the picture captions. Text for this post was taken from an article I wrote, years ago, for Fantasy Magazine, and from my Introduction to The Book of Ballads by Charles Vess. (More on the latter in Part II.)
A tale from Scotland's Isle of Skye relates how music first came to those lands. A poor youth found a strange instrument (a triangular harp) floating in the waves. He fished it out, set it upright, and the wind began to play the strings -- an eerie, lovely sound the like of which had never been heard. The boy could not duplicate the sound, although he tried for many long days. So obsessed did he become that his widowed mother ran to a wizard (a dubh-sgoilear) to beg him to give her son the skill to play the instrument -- or else to quell his desire for it. The dubh-sgoilear offered her this choice: he would take away the boy's desire in exchange for the widow's body, or he'd give him the gift of music in exchange for her mortal soul. She chose the later and returned home where she found her son plucking beautiful, heavenly music from the strings of the harp. But the boy was horrified to learn the price his mother had paid for his skill. From that moment on, he began to play music so sad that the birds and the fish stopped to listen. And that, concludes the old Scottish tale, is why the music of the harp sounds poignant to this very day.
From Ireland comes another tale about the earliest harp music: Boand was the wife of the Dagda Mor, a deity of the Tuatha De Danann (the faery race of Ireland). As Boand gave birth to the Dagda's three sons, the Dagda's harper played along to ease the woman's labor. The harp groaned with the intensity of the pain as the woman's first child emerged, and so she named her eldest son Goltrai, the crying music. The music made a merry sound as Boand's second son was born, and so she named the child Gentrai, the laughing music. At last the final infant emerged to music that was soft and sweet. She called the child Suantri, the sleeping (or healing) music. These three strains of music are still found in the repertoire of Celtic musicians -- as echoed by the Scots-English ballad recounting the trials of King Orfeo (a harper in the oldest songs, a fiddler in later variants) who played three strains of music before the king of the faery underworld: the notes of joy, the notes of pain, and the enchanted faery reel.
It is interesting to note that the modern revival of interest in traditional folk music, beginning in the 1970s, paralleled the modern revival of interest in fantasy fiction (and the birth of the fantasy publishing genre in the same decade). It is not surprising that the audiences for folk music and fantasy stories overlap, for both art forms are rooted in the lore and legends of our folk heritage. Today, you'll find quite a number of fantasy novels and stories infused with folk music and traditional ballads. Bards and wandering minstrels have long been staple characters in books set in medieval or imaginary lands, and more often than not, a small, hand-held, Celtic style harp is the instrument they play. The quick-witted Morgan of Hed in Patricia McKillip's "Riddlemaster" books, for example, was one of the first (and remains one of the best) harp-toting protagonists in contemporary fantasy fiction. Patricia C. Wrede (The Harp of Imach Thysell), Morgan Llewelyn (Bard), Charles de Lint (Moonheart) and other writers from early days of the fantasy genre created memorable bardic characters, and Ellen Kushner told the quintessential harper tale in her award-winning, balllad-inspired novel, Thomas the Rhymer.
It's not difficult to see why the harp became the instrument of choice in fantasy literature, for it is one that has always been associated with magic. The earliest harps of western Europe were most often made of willow wood, a tree sacred to the Goddess, associated with the cycles of the moon, fertility, and enchantment. The strings of the harp symbolize the mystic bridge between heaven and earth; mankind stands poised in the middle, striving now toward one and now toward the other as represented by the tension of the strings (portrayed in Bosch's painting "The Garden of Delights," where a man hangs from the strings, crucified). The harp has been associated with early pagan religions, its music called "the voice of the gods," although it was later absorbed into the Christian church and the celestial choir.
It was thought that the harp as we know it today originally came from Ireland, spreading across Scotland and Wales and over the Channel to Europe. But in 1992 the music historians Keith Sanger & Alison Kinnaird published Tree of Strings: Crann Nan Tued, a thorough, well-written history of the harp, presenting strong archaeological evidence that the earliest instruments came from Scotland. (The harp is found carved onto Picto-Scottish stones at least 200 to 300 years earlier than pictorial representations elsewhere in the world.) According to Sanger & Kinnaird, these large, floor-standing instruments (triangular in frame, probably strung with horsehair) passed to Wales sometime between the 6th and 9th centuries during waves of immigration from the north, while the Irish are likely to have come into contact with the harp through their religious communities established in the west of Scotland. When the Irish brought the instrument home, they altered the shape and gave it metal strings. This is the harp we know today as the Gaelic harp or clarsach.
Sanger & Kinnaird point out that it's not entirely accurate to call the harp a "folk" instrument. For many centuries the harp firmly belonged to the aristocracy; it was not an instrument to be found (like the fiddle and whistle) in a poor man's croft. Harpers were trained and educated; they were esteemed (and esteemed themselves) quite highly compared to other musicians. For common people, the opportunity to hear the music of the harp was rare indeed. In Scandinavia, harps were noble instruments by law; a commoner who dared to play the harp could find himself sentenced to death. This gave the instrument a powerful aura of otherworldliness, surrounding harp music with magical legends and supernatural associations. The ancient Volsunga Saga recounts the death of Gunnar, brother to Sigurd the Dragon-slayer. Thrown into a pit of poisonous snakes by vengeful enemies, Gunnar kept death at bay by playing a mystical song upon his harp, enchanting the serpents to sleep. For an entire day and night he played, but as the dawn broke over the land his tired fingers fumbled and one snake sunk its poison into Gunnar's hand.
We find other magical harps in countless fairy tales, epic poems, and songs. In a Swedish tale, a young hunter saves his wife from the lust of an arrogant prince by invoking the aid of her wolf-relatives to build him a harp -- a magical harp with which to gain her freedom. In a poem from Iceland (also a ballad from Scotland) one sister drowns another in order to steal the drowning girl's fiance. The body eventually floats to land, where a minstrel makes a harp from the girl's breast bone, strung with her golden hair. When he plays for the murderous sister's wedding, the harp speaks with the dead girl's voice and exposes the bride's treachery. The Scottish harper Glenkindie (like the fiddler Jack Orion) could "harp the fish out of the salt sea, or water out of a stone, or milk out of a maiden's breast though baby had she none." He plays a sleeping spell in order to seduce the daughter in a great lord's hall, but his serving man, in pursuit of the same woman, harps Glenkindie to sleep in turn and steals the maiden away for himself. The sinister Elf Knight uses a similar trick to seduce the Lady Isobel -- but she is a quick-witted young woman and escapes the encounter with her maidenhead intact. Thomas the Rhymer is the most famous harper of Scottish balladry. The Queen of Faery (known to have a fancy for handsome mortal musicians) seduces Thomas and steals him away to Faerieland for seven years. When she sends him home again, it is with the gift (or the curse) of "the tongue that cannot lie."
In Arthurian romance, Tristan disguises himself as a wandering harper when he travels from Cornwall to Ireland, seeking the cure for a poisonous wound inflicted by an Irish hero. It is there he encounters the fair Iseult and determines to win her for his Cornish king, never dreaming that he will come to love her himself, and thereby seal his doom.
In Russia, the harp was known as a gusla, the wandering harpist as a guslar. One legend tells of a Tsar who is captured while travelling in the Holy Lands. His brave Tsarita dons men's clothes, takes up her gusla, and follows his path. Playing before the infidel king, she wins her husband's freedom. The guslars of Russia are comparable to the bards to be found in Celtic lands: trained in archaic poetic modes, severe and highly formal, which were performed as sung recitations while accompanied by the harp. In the British Isles, in ancient times, the bards were held in the highest esteem. They were scholars, historians, genealogists, valued advisors to nobles and kings, and believed to possess certain magical powers; their satires could curse, even kill a man, while their poems of praise lifted fortunes. In Ireland, the fili (a hereditary position requiring at least six years of training in one of the poetic colleges) composed poetry but did not perform it; the reacaire would chant or recite with musical accompaniment from a harper. In Scotland, these three separate positions came together in the person of the bard. While not quite as highly trained as the fili, he nonetheless composed poetry himself, performed, and generally played his own harp.
Until the 15th and 16th centuries fili and bard used formal syllabic verse. When "amhran" apppeared (one of the basic meters of folk poetry), it swept across Europe and the British Isles, carried by traveling troubadours. As the strict rules of poetry became more relaxed, the role of fili began to disappear -- sped by the political events undermining the Irish and Highland Scottish social structures. In the early 17th century, the Irish poetic colleges collapsed; in Scotland, the less strict bardic training survived another hundred years. After this, harpers began to take on roles that combined those of the fili and the wandering troubadours. Their status fluctuated, then fell drastically. The British Crown considered traveling harpers to be political subversives; Queen Elisabeth I turned the bards into outlaws, uttering her famous proclamation: "Hang the harpers wherever found." Cromwell joined in by enacted a vicious harp-breaking policy. By the time of the famous 1792 gathering of harpers in Belfast, the proud old profession of bard was virtually extinct; wandering harpers were generally poor men with no alternative means of support -- like the famous blind harper O'Carolan, whose music is still played by harpers today.
In the early 1800s, harp music and its attendant folklore underwent a public revival, aided by the efforts of the Dublin poet-musician Thomas Moore. Moore wrote poems to Irish folk tunes and published them with tremendous success; his popularity rivalled Byron's and Scott's during his day, and his songs are still sung. In 1810, modern mechanization allowed a new type of harp to be patented which permitted musicians to play in all musical keys. This brought the harp back into classical orchestras and unleashed a flood of new music. The harp become a popular parlor instrument -- particularly among genteel young ladies, who, it was claimed, enjoyed the excuse to flash their slim ankles to admirers.
Even in the area of classical music, the harp had an aura of magic and enchantment. The Victorians, with their strong interest in folklore, spiritualism and the Celtic Twilight, embraced the music of the harp with a fervor that is almost hard to imagine today. A wealth of Victorian "fairy music" for the harp was written, published and performed -- music which eventually fell out of fashion along with the mystical medievalism and Arthurianism of the Pre-Raphaelites, the spiritualism and florid fantasies characterizing the age. Despite its great popularity during its day, the existence of this 19th-century fairy music was nearly forgotten altogether until English harp player Elizabeth-Jane Baldry released her lovely CD, "Harp of Wild and Dreamlike Strain."
Elizabeth-Jane is an old friend and neighbor of mine, living in tiny, magical cottage crowded with harps, books, musical scores and art. As a harp teacher as well as a performer and composer, she is largely responsible for the fact that there are few places one can walk in our village without hearing someone, somewhere, practicing classical or Celtic harp. With her long dark hair and long skirts she might have stepped from a Pre-Raphaelite painting, and her breadth of knowledge about Victorian culture, folklore, fairies, and the history of harp music is impressive.
"The fairy music on Harp of Wild and Dreamlike Strain," she says, "is the result of a journey into the Victorian fascination with the transcendental. All the music has lain forgotten in the vast archives of the British Library, and has never before been recorded or even performed in modern times. Its composers, once famous touring virtuosi, are now long dead and forgotten. Most compelling was the discovery that so many elements of the Victorian psyche are distilled in the music: a revolt against Darwinism and the birth of the scientific age, the spectacular rise of the spiritualist movement affecting even the Royal Court, a nostalgia for our rural past as the industrial revolution tightened its hold, and the rise of the middle classes with their demand for accessible music. Furthermore, the Victorian love affair with Scotland contributed to the popularity of the harp, Scotland's oldest national instrument. There was an interest for the first time in our folk heritage. The erotic imagery of fairies was an obvious outlet for the repressed sexuality of the time. Orgiastic paintings of naked frolics became respectable provided the participants had wings! Fairy music for the harp is the essence of Victorian idealism."
Elizabeth-Jane unearthed this cache of Victorian fairy music while doing research at the British Library in London. Amazed by both the quantity and the quality of this music, she swiftly made plans to put together a recording of selections from this work. Her CD was recorded on location in the 19th-century ballroom of Buckland Manor: an eighty-five-room country manor house, virtually empty, rising from the Devon countryside like the house in a gothic romance. "As I played," she recalls, "looking out on a hundred acres of untouched parkland on a golden autumn day, the wind gusting, empty urns filled with blown leaves, I felt goose-shivers down my spine . . . knowing this music hadn't been played in a century. The last time it had been performed, the manor's ballroom had just been built."
As she plucked the rippling notes of "Ondine," a reverie for harp by Georgio Lorenzi (inspired by Baron de la Motte Fouque's tragic story of a knight and a water-spirit), Elizabeth-Jane heard a woman's scream. The recording engineers heard it too and the sound was captured upon the tape. And yet, when investigated, no source for the scream could be found in that empty place. Only later did she discover that a Victorian woman had met her death in that very room, "thrown from the balcony by a husband enraged by her extravagant spending."
The late 20th century revival of interest in harp music was, like the earlier Victorian revival, entwined with an interest in all things folkloric, fantastic and mystical. I was fortunate to be a student in Dublin in the mid-1970s, when the contemporary Celtic music renaissance was first building up its steam -- a thrilling time to see new bands like Clannad adapt the Celtic harp to a new Celtic sound, or to catch sight of The Chieftain's legendary harper Derek Bell in the smokey rooms of an old Dublin pub. The Breton harper Alan Stivell began to build a following about the same time, influencing many of the younger musicians who followed after. Stivell's "Renaissance de la Harpe Celtique" is a CD that tops the list of recommendations for anyone interested in Celtic harp music.
There are so many fine harpists working today that it's impossible to list them all here, but any survey of the field should certainly also include Patrick Ball, Dominig Bouchaud, Robin Huw Bowen, Cécile Corbel, Paul Dooley, Loreena McKennitt, Áine Minogue, Joanna Newsom, Maire Ni Chathsaigh, Nansi Richards, Kim Robertson, Sileas (Patsy Seddon & Mary Macmaster), Savourna Stevenson, and Robin Williamson. (Despite the proponderence of women harpists today, it should be noted that in the past women harpers were rare, often dismissed and slandered as "loose-living" women. In the Dark Ages it was strictly against the law for women to harp.)
"O wake once more," Sir Walter Scott once commanded the ancient harps of Scotland. "If one heart throb higher at its sway, the wizard note has not been touch'd in vain. Then silent be no more! Enchantress, wake again!"
More than two hundred years later, the harps are awake, and still making their magic.
Art credits can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) Tomorrow we'll continue "Harps & Ballads Week" here at Myth & Moor with a look at "The English and Scottish Popular Ballads" published by Francis James Child.
I posted my article "The Enchanted Harp" today in honor of one of the finest of harp novels -- Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner -- which has just been re-published in England as part of the prestigious Fantasy Masterworks series.
Based on a classic Scottish fairy ballad (Child Ballad 37), Ellen's lyrical, sensual, deeply folkloric novel won both The World Fantasy Award and the Mythopoeic Award when it was first published in 1990. It's one of my favourite books in the world, and I highly, highly recommend it.
See not ye that bonny road that winds about the fernie brae? That is the road to fair Elfland, where thou and I this night maun gae....
- from the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer
Go here to read Ellen's thoughts on using Celtic material in fantasy fiction, posted on this blog back in May. The cover art above is for the Fantasy Masterworks edition (UK) and the most recent of the American editions (illustration by Kinuko Y. Craft).
It is so quiet on this misty June morning that I can hear the distant church bells ring, while the village in the green valley below our hill is slowly waking. Tilly, too, is sleepy this morning, gently snoring on the studio couch beside me....
In this hushed early morning atmosphere, only the right music will do; so I've chosen four sublime songs by Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker, the classically-trained folk duo from London. Walker plays guitar like an angel, and Clarke has been described as this generation's Sandy Denny -- although as much as I loved Denny's music I'd argue that Clarke's range is larger, stretching from Early Music to folk and beyond. (Go here for Clarke's cover of Denny's "Fotheringay," a song about Fotheringhay Castle, where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned.) Clarke & Walker's most recent album is Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour, and I highly recommend it.
First, a simple and simply beautiful rendition of "Green Grow the Laurels," peformed backstage at The Cambridge Folk Festival. You can find the song on their 2013 album, Fire & Fortune.
Next, a traditional folk song: "The Banks of the Sweet Primroses." The video was filmed at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Music Awards earlier this year.
Third, a performance of "Tangled Tree," an original song by Clarke. The video was filmed for the Blue Room Sessions in the Netherlands. The song is from their 2014 album, Nothing Can Bring Back the Hour.
And last, "Anyone But Me," performed at The Courtyard, a cross-genre music venue in London which pairs emerging artists with an in-house chamber orchestra and choir. The song comes from Fire & Fortune.
Have a good morning, and an inspired week.
For tunes about childhood, in honor of the discussions we've been having here in the last week, go here and here.
May Day seems like the perfect time to re-visit this passage by Ellen Kushner on Celtic myth and legend in fantasy fiction, from a piece published years ago in Brigit's Feast magazine:
"For a long time, one almost felt that Celtic myth and legend had too much of an influence on American writers of fantasy," she says. "It was as though, in one little corner of literature, the sun had never set on the Celtic Twilight...lovely as far as it went, but it seemed a shame that modern American fantasists were ignoring all of the other remarkable myth and magic traditions that exist in the world. I remember discussing this with other writers and editors in the 1980s. Theoretically, I was in favor of more multicultural fantasy; but in practice, it was hard to imagine how it would work. Fantasy is, paradoxically, both a radically innovative and a highly conservative tradition. The images and tropes of the Celtic world were so pervasive. Writers could rely on a sort of mythic shorthand: cloaks and swords, weirds and geases, bards and harps...they needed no translation, no explanation; the writer could launch right into the story and expect the audience to follow.
"But fantasy literature does not exist in a vacuum. Just as popular culture, from fairy tales to folk-rock groups like Fairport Convention, Pentangle, and Steeleye Span had made us familiar with Celtic and British folkways, so, now, the popularity of world music -- whether it be healing music from Morocco, women's singing from Bulgaria, or Cajun dances from the bayous of Louisiana -- has aroused a curiosity in the world's traditions; a sense of magic and possibility, even of personal connection with places our families have come from, or places we have dreamed of.
"When I wrote my novel Thomas the Rhymer, I had spent years absorbed in British folkways. Since I was a teenage girl, I had read tales, collected ballads, even sung them. I loved them passionately, finding a deep mystery in their illogic and poesy that was very much like the magic of my favorite fairy tales and children's books. It makes me profoundly uncomfortable these days when I hear someone say, 'I've got Celtic blood in me, so I really love Irish music/Scottish legends/(what have you)...'
"I have no Celtic blood in me. There is nothing in my face or ancestry that is not Jewish. The myth of 'blood rights' has caused a lot of trouble in the 20th century. I was born in America. The Christian-dominated Western culture I have grown up in comes from the British Isles, and I love the English language. If I do need a right to the Celtic material, it is from there that I stake my claim. And so I would beg everyone who enjoys fantasy, myth, and music these days to be respectful of the traditions that appeal to you, but to also consider the myth of the great human cauldron of dreams, from which we all dip our nourishment. It is not only blood that calls to us."
Art above: Cover art and illustrations for four of the American and foreign editions of Ellen's novel Thomas the Rhymer -- by Kinuko Y. Craft, Folda, Janis Jaunarajs, and Thomas Canty. Photographs:the remnants of the Rhymer's Tower in Earlston, in the Scottish Border country, and Ellen & Tilly in Faerieland, 2013.
Today, four songs from the great John Renbourn, whose music was the soundtrack of my adolescence -- introducing me and many others of my generation to the Early Music and folk ballads of the British Isles. John died last week, at aged 70, but his music will certainly live on. (There's a really lovely tribute by Peter Paphrides here.)
Raised in London and Surrey, John studied classical and medieval musical until his interest veered to folk and blues during his college years in London. While playing at Les Cousins and other Soho folk clubs, he met and teamed up with another brilliant, folk-obsessed young guitarist, Bert Jansch. Their first album together, Bert and John (1966), pioneered an Early Music and jazz inflected folk style that they called "folk baroque."
Bert and John then went on to create the hugely influential folk band Pentangle, with vocalist Jacqui McShee, bass player Danny Thompson, and drummer Terry Cox. The group's name, representing its five members, came from the device on Sir Gawain's shield in the Middle English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
Over the next thirty years, John founded two more bands, The John Renbourn Group and The Ship of Fools, in addition to collaborating with other musicians and touring and recording extensively on his own. He released over two dozen albums, from John Renbourn in 1965 to Live in Italy in 2006. For more information, visit the John Renbourn website.
Above, John's legendary guitar skills are evident in "Rosslyn," recorded in the early 1970s. He makes it look so easy....
Below, Pentangle performs "The House Carpenter" (a.k.a. "The Daemon Lover," Child Ballad 243) on British television in 1970. The song is introduced by Bert, with John playing citar and Bert on banjo. This mix of world music rhythms and instruments with traditional English folk material was highly unusual (and controversial) at the time, and was a very early forerunner of the mixed-tradition, mixed-genre world music bands and performers prevalent today, from Loreena McKennitt to The Imagined Village.
Below, in a rare recording from the 1960s, Pentangle performs the Anglo-American spiritual "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" -- a fitting song to end on, I think. Goodbye, John, and thank you for all that you gave us, and all that you've left us.
The photograph of John at the top of this post was taken in 1970; the photo at the bottom is more recent, taken by his home in a converted chapel on the Scottish borders. If you'd like a little more music from Pentangle and The John Renbourn Group this morning, go here.
This morning, traditional music from singer/pianist/accordion player Emily Smith, who comes from Dumfries and Galloway in the south-west of Scotland. She has five solo albums, plus a collaboration with her husband, multi-instrumentalist Jamie McClennan (Adoon Winding Nith, 2009), and a compilation album (Ten Years, 2013). Her latest (Echoes, 2014) mixes musical influences from Scotland and Nashville with the aid of trans-Atlantic musicians including Jerry Douglas, Aoife O'Donovan, and Kris Drever. All of her work is terrific.
Above: " Sweet Lover of Mine," Child Ballad 1, performed at the Cambridge Folk Festival. It's on her fifth album, Traiveller's Joy.
Below: "May Colven," Child Ballad 4, recorded for her third album, Too Long Away. (That's McClennan on fiddle.)
Below: Irish singer Liam Ó Maonlaí performs "Sadhbh Ni Bhruinneallaigh" for the Scottish Highland Sessions. There is, of course, a lot of cross-over between the Irish and Scots traditions. That's Kathleen MacInnes in the background, no mean singer herself.
And last today:
"Torsa, " a gorgeous instrumental piece by Lau (the Anglo-Scots trio composed of Kris Drever, Martin Green, and Aidan O'Rourke), recorded for the Holy Moly Sessions. Their name comes from the Orcadian word for "natural light."
If you want a little more this morning, try Julie Fowlis' lovely rendition of "Ged A Sheol Mi Air M' Aineol" -- which I was unable to import to this post, alas. Jenna Reid from the Shetlands plays fiddle on this one, alongside a number of other fine folk musicians.