Schingle's Blog

May 26, 2010

Family Life and Mysteries

Filed under: Folk tales and songs — schingle @ 8:48 pm

There are many recurring themes in the Child (and other) ballads.  One of the most common is family.  Following are synopses of a selected few oldies-but-goodies that show the more unsavory (with a couple of exceptions) side of family life.

I guess I’m always amazed at how “loved ones” can turn their backs on those in need. The Maid Freed from the Gallows (called “Gallows Pole,” when performed by Led Zeppelin) is one such example. There’s a woman about to be hanged—presumably for a petty crime. I’m guessing the crime is small because, if she can pay the fine—not only will she be spared the hangman’s noose, she will be freed.

So, one-by-one, family members approach (first the father, next the brother and on and on). They all refuse to pay her fines and help her out. In the end, her lover comes, pays her fine and she is freed. Sometimes family can really act like—well, family. ‘Nuff said.

Here’s another one where trickery is involved with a family member. This song dates back to some time before 1783. The title is Willie’s Lady. His family ain’t a whole lot of help either.

Willie’s in love (not to be confused with Chuck E.’s in Love), but (there’s always a but, isn’t there?) his mother doesn’t approve. Mom casts a spell on the bride to make her unable to bear children. (These songs with magic and spells just fascinate me—I mean no one questioned this stuff).

At any rate, Willie lies to mom and gives her the impression that not only is wifey pregnant, she’s popped the little bugger out. He tricks mom into blurting out the counter spell and Willie and wife are happy again.

So, in the old days, that’s the way it was with families. A lot of infighting, back stabbing and just general trickery—not like it is now. (wink, wink—nudge, nudge).

Of course, we can hurt the ones we love with more than just murder. There’s always the cheatin’ heart.

Rocking the Cradle (and the Child not his Own) is a song worthy of the old fart who married Anna Nicole Smith—-then died. The narrator is an old guy who sings of the miseries of caring for his wife’s child (obviously with somebody else). Turns out when he first met her, he was pleased as punch to have a young wife or, as he put it, a “lighthearted lass.” Of course, you can guess the rest. He looks after the kid while she spends all her time partying and/or sleeping with other men.

This one’s sort of like Kenny Rogers’ Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town. Difference is Kenny was a Viet Nam war vet with no legs and this guy’s just old. Kind of sad, but at least this old man’s got a hottie to look at, much like Mr. old guy who married Anna Nicole Smith.

Now, this next one deifnes all of humankind. Man Ain’t Nothing but a Stupid Fool says it all. The theme of the song is that any man who thinks he can have any woman to himself is only fooling himself. Turn your back for one minute, and she’s wrestling in the bushes with someone else.

Who knows? This may have been an inspiration for Dr. Hook’s When You’re in Love With a Beautiful Woman. This guy states the problem with a beauty is everyone else wants her. Talk about paranoid.

A couple of quick ones on the subject of marital infidelity. The first one is obviously Australian in heritage and is called Stir the Wallaby Stew.

Another familiar refrain. Father goes to jail, but it’s never really stated why. While he’s in there, mom cheats on him. (I mean, a lady’s got needs too, y’know). But this is just the beginning. The farm left largely untended, the sheep die and now they’re trying to sell the farm.

Good news. Dad gets out. Bad news. He sees what he’s coming home to and goes back to jail. In the end, no one really wins. Apparently this one is a good example of Aussie humor. Sure makes me want to read more.

My other song is an ancient one as it is among the Child ballads. It is called Young Andrew. It seems Andrew sweet talks a young lassie into the sack. He must have showed her a good time. Afterwards, he asks her to steal her dad’s money for their impending wedding. She does so.

Upon returning, Andrew not only takes the money, but steals her clothes, gives them to his other lady friend and sends the first one home naked and ashamed. When she gets home, dad refuses to let her in as she doesn’t have his gold to return to him. She dies.

At any rate, a little more food for thought on the subject of cheatin’ hearts. Of course the eight million different Frankie and… songs could be a chapter by itself as well. So, I leave you with this, whether or not mankind is capable of fidelity, it will always be true that “man ain’t nothing but a stupid fool.”

Mysteries can be fun or they can be vexing. When you read one you’re always proud of yourself for figuring it out before the writer tells you the solution. But, if there aren’t enough clues, or you just can’t get it, you close the book irritated or, at the least, unsatisfied. Some of the old traditional songs can provide the same kinds of visceral reactions.

One of these frustrating tunes came out a little over 120 years ago. In 1886, Paul Dresser and Max Sturm composed The Letter that Never Came. In this song, the narrator continues to ask the mail man if he has a letter for him. Each day, he is equally disappointed. (While similar in theme, this is not to be confused with the motown great, Wait a Minute, Mr. Postman).

After several verses, the lamenting singer is asked who the letter is supposed to come from which he/she won’t answer. Eventually, as the singer is dying he asks that, if the letter does come, that the letter be buried with him/her. While never revealed in the song, the even bigger mystery is, that the authors of this song took the secret to the graves with them. One source writes this may be the most mysterious song of all time.

Another of these mysterious old songs is called Black Phyllis. Among the mysteries is, how old is this song. Most sources agree that it is an old British song, probably a broadside. At any rate, the singer is caught in a storm and wishing someone would bring his love back to him. Black Phyllis has stolen her to be his reluctant bride. By the time Phyllis is done in, it is too late, as the singer’s lover is now also dead.

On a fascinating side note, a theory is espoused, with which I give some credence, that Phyllis is, in fact, syphillis. That can address the mysterious nature of the song—a venereal disease spoken about in a roundabout way. It also explains the lover’s unexpected death before Phyllis is eradicated. Just a theory—but an interesting one.

Now, the above two songs may not be technically about family, or they may be. The women are probably either lovers or wives. At any rate, they are both mysterious and fun to ponder.

While many of my pieces rant on about the less savory side of families(i.e., brothers diddling sisters, sisters killing each other, mothers killing their young, ad infinitum), this one is taking a positive spin. Though the songs may not be about great families, there’s something good to say about the families most identified with the songs.

Everybody in the world knows Will the Circle be Unbroken. Just about everyone in the world has performed it. Perhaps the best known musicians to have performed it are The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, who actually filmed a movie of the same name, with various other guest artists. I have a version by one of my favorite British outfits, Pentangle. I believe this song is most identified, though, with the Carter family (more or less the founders of modern day “Country” music—though I think of their sound as more Bluegrass).

You almost assuredly know the story of the song. The singer is witnessing the funeral procession and burial of his/her mother and recounts all of her positive attributes. It’s refrain continuosly mentions the hope of seeing her again in heaven (“a better home-a-waitin'”). This is obviously a sort of gospel number, but of course gospel music is one of the more common sub-genres of folk music.

Though they didn’t write it(the lyrics are attributed to a Ms. Ada Halvershon), the version we all know is attributed as being arranged by A.P. Carter. The Carter family is right up there among the most influential families in all folk music.

A lesser known but equally impressive family is an American family from the 1840’s called the Hutchinsons. They were from New Hampshire and often opened their live performances with The Old Granite State—a logical choice given their heritage.

This song is less impressive than the work and attitude of the family as a whole. A good quarter century 

the end of slavery they touted the virtues of abolition and were strong proponents of liberal themes throughout their performing careers. To their “Granite state” song they added the lyrics:

Yes, we’re friends of emancipation

and we’ll sing the proclamation

some time around 1862, following Lincoln’s lead. Ahead of their time, this family spoke out against injustice and deserve more notoriety than they’ve received.

Now, if you’ll excuse me. I’ve gotta hide before some member of my family reads that I wrote something positive about kin and they think I’ve grown soft.


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