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March 2013

Tunes for a Monday Morning

An old edition of the Child Ballads

The first two songs today come from Child Ballads, a lovely new album from American folk singers Anais Mitchell (yes, she was named after Anais Nin) and Jefferson Hamer. The album is exactly what you'd expect from the title: songs drawn from Francis J. Child's great collection of English and Scottish Popular Ballads, first published (in ten volumes) in the 1880s and '90s. Although deeply rooted in the landscape and folk tradition of the British Isles, these songs made their way over to the New World with Anglo-Scots immigrants and thus became a vibrant part of America's folk heritage too -- particularly in the eastern Appalachian, Blue Ridge and Smoky mountain regions. Francis Child was American himself, a scholar of literature, language and folklore at Harvard University in Boston.

Above: Mitchell & Hammer perform "Willie's Lady," Child Ballad 6, at a recent Folk Alley Session.

Below: "Tam Lin," Child Ballad 39, a faerie ballad from the Scottish Borders.

There have, of course, been many fine poems, short stories, children's books and fantasy novels based on the Tam Lin ballad. The latter includes Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope, Tam Lin by Pamela Dean, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, Winter Rose by Patricia A. McKillip, An Earthly Knight by Janet McNaughton, Deersnake by Lucy Sussex, and The Queen of Spells by Dahlov Ipcar.

Carrying on with the Child Ballads theme:

 "The Dowie Dens of Yarrow" (Child Ballad  214), from the album Fairest Floo'er by Scottish singer/songwriter Karine Polwart; and "The Elfin Knight,"  Child Ballad 2, from the album The Girl Who Couldn't Fly by singer/songwriter Kate Rusby, from Yorkshire.

Reaching into the past, below: "The House Carpenter" performed by Pentangle (with John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, and Jacqui McShee) during the 1970s folk music revival. "The House Carpenter," a.k.a., "The Daemon Lover," is Child Ballad 243. Many of the mythic writers/artists of my generation grew up during the folk revival and were strongly influenced by it.

And one more: "Jock O'Hazeldean," Child Ballad 293, peformed by Maddy Prior at London's Cecil Sharpe House (The English Folk Dance and Song Society) in 2008. Prior, of course, was the lead singer in the '70s electric folk band Steeleye Span.

If you're in the mood for  few more ballads, try: "The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry" (Child Ballad 113), performed and explained by Scottish singers Caorolyn Allan and Jenny Keldie;  "Twa Sisters" (Child Ballad 10) from Scottish singer Emily Smith (and Julie Fowlis does a lovely version too); Anachie Gordon (Child Ballad 239) from Irish singer Mary Black; "The Famous Flower of Serving Men" (Child Ballad 106) from the British folk stalwart Martin Carthy; and  "Hughie Graeme" (Child Ballad 191) from the great June Tabor.

If you love ballads and folk music, I hope you know about John Boden's wonderful site, A Folk Song a Day. I'm addicted to it.

For a history of the folk revival in Britian, I recommend Electric Eden: Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music, a fascinating book by Rob Young.

And no discussion of ballads is complete without mentioning Charles Vess's  The Book of Ballads, an absolutely magical volume of ballads rendered in narrative graphic form. The book won the Eisner Award, and the original artwork (all 132 pages of it) is now housed in the Library of Congress collections.

Book Recommendations


The Dog's Tale

Tricks & Treats 1The Dog's Tales: a series of posts in which Tilly has her say....

How to Train Your People to Give You Tasty Snacks

Step 1: Sit down and stare with Soulful Eyes. Sigh if needed.

Tricks & Treats 2

Step 2: Shake hands when you request your treat. This will impress them with your good manners.

Tricks & Treats 4

Step 3: Once you've mastered the techniques above, you are ready for the Prairie Dog Pose. For extra treats, combine it with Soulful Eyes and The Sigh from Step 1.

Tricks & Treats 5

Notice the paw position here. Paw position is crucial.

Tricks 5

Step 4: The Standing Pose is a Master Level move requiring strength, balance, and agility. You must stand up without bracing yourself, and maintain the pose long enough to differentiate between a Stand and a Jump. When you've mastered the Stand, your People will be putty in your hands. Use this power wisely.

Treats & Tricks

Do cuddle your People after their training sessions. This reward will reinforce the training and lead to future snacks.


Art stands on the shoulders of craft

From The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life by Ann Patchett:

"Why is it we understand that playing the cello will require work but we relegate writing to the magic of inspiration? Chances are, any child who stays with an instrument for more than two weeks has some adult who is making her practice, and any child who sticks with it longer than that does so because she understands that practice makes her play better and there is a deep, soul-satisfying pleasure in improvement. If a person of any age picked up the cello for the first time and said, 'I'll be playing in Carnegie hall next month!' you would pity her delusion, but beginning writers all over the country polish up their best efforts and send them off to The New Yorker. Perhaps you're thinking here that playing an instrument is not an art in itself but an interpretation of the composer's art, but I stand by my metaphor. The art of writing comes way down the line, as does the art of interpreting Bach. Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means to get to the art, you must master the craft.

''At one time I thought the most important thing was talent. I think now that the young man or the young woman must possess or teach himself, train himself, in infinite patience, which is to try and to try until it comes right. He must train himself in ruthless intolerance - that is to throw away anything that is false no matter how much he might love that page or that paragraph. The most important thing is insight - that is to have curiosity, to wonder, to mull, and to muse why it is that man does what he does, and if you have that, then I don't think the talent makes much difference, whether you've got it or not.'' - William Faulkner

''I think people become consumed with selling a book when they need to be consumed with writing it.'' - Ann Patchett

"If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish but because you long to write well, because there is something you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled with sticky sediment: The only way to get the clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the fresh water underneath.

"Does this sound like a lot of work without any guarantee of success? Well yes, but it also calls into question our definition of success. Playing the cello, we're more likely to realize that the pleasure is the practice, the ability to create this beautiful sound -- not to do it as well as Yo-Yo Ma, but still, to touch the hem of the gown that is art itself."

And for those of us who want to write as well as Yo-Yo plays the cello, to use words as fluidly as he moves his bow across the strings? Then the need for practice, work, experience is all the stronger...and to this I'd add: living our lives as richly as possible, so that we have something to say.

''Just keep writing. Keep reading. ''If you are meant to be a writer, a storyteller, it’ll work itself out. You just keep feeding it your energy, and giving it that crucial chance to work itself out. By reading and writing.'' - Robin McKinley Video above: Yo-Yo Ma playing the Prelude to Bach's Cello Suite 1. Photographs: "Cello Hands" by Paul Clarke, a woman writing, and Tilly in the studio, practicing the work of being a writer's muse.


Elucidating the world

Waterfall 1

''I’ve never known a writer who didn’t feel ill at ease in the world. Have you? We all feel unhoused in some sense. That’s part of why we write. We feel we don’t fit in, that this world is not our world, that though we may move in it, we’re not of it. Different experiences in our lives may enforce or ameliorate that, but I think if they ameliorate it totally, we stop writing. You don’t need to write a novel if you feel at home in the world. We write about the world because it doesn’t make sense to us. Through writing, maybe we can penetrate it, elucidate it, somehow make it comprehensible. If I had ever found the place where I was perfectly at home, who knows what I would have done? Maybe I would have been a biologist after all.'' – Andrea Barrett

Waterfall 2

Waterfall 3

“If it is a human thing to do to put something you want, because it's useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people, and then later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a solider container or put it in the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred, and then the next day you probably do much the same again -- if to do that is human, if that's what it takes, then I am a human being after all. Fully, freely, gladly, for the first time....

"[T]he proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words. Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us." — Ursula K. Le Guin

Waterfall 4

Waterfall 5

''Stories nurture our connection to place and to each other. They show us where we have been and where we can go. They remind us of how to be human, how to live alongside the other lives that animate this planet.... When we lose stories, our understanding of the world is less rich, less true.''  - Susan J. Tweit

Waterall 6

"Maybe the most important reason for writing is to prevent the erosion of time, so that memories will not be blown away by the wind. Write to register history, and name each thing. Write what should not be forgotten." - Isabel Allende

Waterfall 7Images above: Black dog in an Alan Lee landscape, March 2013.