Aug 262013
 

‘Getting back to one’s roots’ — I’ve always loved that phrase, so often used in digging deep in to music.

So where are these ‘Roots’? Can only be, LV’s neighboring region to the East — Appalachia: where the atmosphere is a thick blanket of Trees and Isolation, and all exists in constant meditative solitude.

There the border across time is so permeable, so thin, that you feel that the old world of looms and snakeskin could bleed over into the present at any moment. Time is still standing still there, where beneath that canopy of green, things archaic are preserved forever in amber.

Black willow, black maple, black walnut, black cherry (almost sounds like a chant) — the ageless and mysterious community amid which you make your way, enveloped in mist, hunted by shadow, that is the trail through Appalachia. You can find online booklets by the locals with titles like Common Myths about Appalachian Forests — because this place is mythic. As to its stories. As to its trees. (As to its song.)

Trees are mythic. They’ve always been mythic. Weeping Willows, made immortal in countless songs; the noble Oak, grandfatherly, of doors and Druids and calendar stones. Sycamores, as written of in the Egyptian Book of Dead; watchful Birches of winter; the Cedars of nostalgic chests, discovered in dusty houses; Crab Apples and Chokecherries that even a starving squirrel might decline; wild Hemlocks dealing death to ancient philosophers– and the fabled Cherry. Cherry orchards are supposed to be a transition place from this world to the next; but the cherry is also a fruit associated with virtue and purity, good deeds, and virginity. The ultimate myths are the ones whose meaning escapes attempts to define.

If legends preserve the lore of the trees, the trees preserve the lore. Appalachia is where our most ancient and most mysterious songs still sing. Its forests, as with the red-orange, fossilized tree resin embedded in coal seams, embalm music; mummify folksongs; preserve culture that is centuries old, because of the near-impenetrability of the isolation that they themselves create.

But some trees, like the songs that weave airborne around them, tower, ancient-rooted, above the rest — here’s one:

Cherry Tree Carol Lyrics #1: http://mudcat.org/@displaysong.cfm?SongID=1149
Cherry Tree Carol Lyrics #2: http://mudcat.org/@displaysong.cfm?SongID=6042
Cherry Tree Carol Lyrics #3: http://mudcat.org/@displaysong.cfm?SongID=6041
Cherry Tree Carol Lyrics #4: http://mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=11760

On Arborea’s (they’re named for ‘Trees’) latest album, Pale Horse Phantasm, there is an eerie, vulnerably beautiful version of The Cherry Tree Carol, an old Celtic or English ballad that has Kentucky roots.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hDw3gzYpQ_U Cherry Tree Carol – Arborea

The Carol first popped nationally from Kentucky legend Jean Ritchie (a still-living example folklorist and authentic singer in one), followed by more famed folkies like Peter, Paul & Mary; Joan Baez; Judy Collins.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7FeXU7PlWc Cherry Tree Carol – Jean Ritchie
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YNeQNQdo8TM Cherry Tree Carol – Judy Collins
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_EU1Tq9qEg Cherry Tree Carol – Shirley Collins
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CVTganOzERI Cherry Tree Carol – Sting

Jean Ritchie is a longtime, frequent poster, under the handle ‘kytrad,’ to the music folklorist site Mucat.org (which is the best site online to find an origin of a particular traditional ballad).

The Carol has come down among Ritchie’s own family traditions (she has posted some very interesting quotes from family elders on the subject), albeit in humble form — she talks about a Granny sitting in a creaking rocking chair, ‘rasping’ out the tune. Ritchie is someone who didn’t need to catch this song — just let it out of its brown-jug bottle (, transform it, and watch it grow). And from those small beginnings it has grown, acorn into oak-tree-like, into a giant among Americana.

Speaking of: tucked away, for nearly 600 years until its death was officially pronounced in the late 1930s, when it was hewn down, just on the border between the (especially) wild WV counties of Logan and Mingo — the legendary Mingo Oak; the largest white oak in the world. Truly a wild tree, that: eight feet in diameter at breast-height; its first limb 66 feet above the ground; 146’ tall; and with a circumference at ground line of 30 feet, 9 inches, it finally succumbed to ‘black lung’ (you know, the fatal and lingering illness coalminers get, only this time a tree actually died of it from an eternally-burning gobpile, of low-grade coal refuse, located nearby).

When it was cut down, they took sections of it, ‘discs,’ out and preserved them in museums around the State, where you can still go and see them (the sections look sort of like huge, wooden LP’s — pictures are online). Always the region has been the favorite, rich, and secret hunting-ground of treasure-hunters after Tales not just Tall, but Taller; after the Largest-Than-Life: freaks of nature, relics of culture, impossible and miraculous things that challenge and inflame imagination.

Jean Ritchie was not the only person whose attention the Cherry Tree of the Carol drew: English musicologist Cecil Sharp was a treasure-seeker to Appalachia, who from 1916-17 recorded and documented old songs of British Isles origin, including TCTC. A William Wooton, from Hindman in Knott County, in Eastern KY, records the first-known documented version – which he collected from Sharp (great name for a musicologist, btw — wonder if he knew Flatt’s family?).

Kentucky writer John Fox went, in 19-aught-8, to Appalachian roots for inspiration for his book about a young KY geologist who traveled East to seek his fortune, intrigued by stories of a legendary tree, On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine.

Here, quoting from Barnes&Noble online, a bit of the blurb about the book’s premise:

“The tree the ‘lonesome pine,’ from which the story takes its name, was a tall tree that stood in solitary splendor on a mountain top. The fame of the tree lured a young engineer through Kentucky to catch the trail, and when he finally climbed to its shelter he found not only the pine but the foot-prints of a girl . . . “

(–and so on, yadda, yadda, yadda — because, in fact — according to Wikipedia on this actual type of tree, the ‘lonesome pine’ — Pinus pungens [‘smelly pine’? — maybe that’s what’s used in PineSol] — is really ‘a tree of modest size (6-12 m).’

So much for ‘a tall tree’ standing ‘in splendor.’ (It’s amazing how these legends can exaggerate things, isn’t it?)

But what is true that the blub says, that does make the smelly-pine remarkable, is its isolation. The table pine (aka ‘table mountain pine,’ aka ‘lonesome pine,’ aka ‘smelly pine’ [so, I guess, no wonder it’s so lonesome — my, how these legends shrink back down to size once you really come to look at them]), is found only in the (isolated) Appalachians — in a northeasterly to southwesterly swathe from S Central PA to the Westernmost tip of NC (and covering the entirety of WV’s Eastern panhandle).

But you don’t have to be a forester or look at a map to see it is an isolated tree: every lonesome pine is found either growing off by itself, or else in little, clumpy groves of smelly-pine — rather than in the larger forests where other pines typically grow. (And as for the picture we are given of its standing silhouetted high on a mountaintop for all to see — it more looks as if it grows in flattish, ‘tabletop’ areas nestled in the hills.)

But the best thing, probably, about the Lonesome Pine’s Appalachian isolation, from its publicist’s, Mr. Fox’, point of view, is that hardly anyone’s ever seen one — so no one’s is in much of a position to contradict you if you want to lie about its impressiveness and size.

I myself kind of think Fox’ idea of this young man who goes off in search of a legendary tree might have been based on Fox’ own experience. Fox himself spent time in the Eastern VA coalmining region where his book takes place (his hero is a young geologist, after all) — and to get there Fox might well have had to travel through Southwestern WV — and have gone to see the famous Mingo Oak. So the great and poignant Lonesome Pine, as we have all come to imagine it, might really have been not a pine at all, but a great white oak; a tree that, had we no means to preserve it, might have survived only in the lore of Appalachians and otherwise written off as myth.

Appalachia is a place that specializes in the creation of legends — of course some true, some not. From its start in Fox’ tale the ‘Lonesome Pine’ grew to fame via numerous, spin-off works, including three films, among them Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West, with the (perhaps annoying?) little song we all know: ‘In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia/On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine.’

But if Fox played a little fast and loose creating legend, and gave credit for his literary inspiration to the wrong tree, he seems to have come by this finger-crossing honestly. He hailed from the little KY town of Paris, in Bourbon County, which boasted some 300 souls at its inception and has around 8,000 now (and, to keep you from confusing the great with the small, Wikipedia does give you a warning that this is not Paris, France). And, speaking of (deliberately conflating the large with the small), one site in Paris, the Shinner Building (vintage 1891), actually made it into Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, as ‘the world’s tallest three-story structure.’ (C’mon.) But they’re not done yet, these Parisians: just six miles east the astonished traveler will come upon the Cane Ridge Meeting House, of exactly a century earlier, which is ‘said’ (note that ‘said’– because how could you prove it?) to be ‘the largest one-room log structure in the country.’ (Take that, Eiffel Tower.)

Now, I can’t say I have much in common with those modern treasure-hunters who go antiquing — but I will admit that I’ll spend half the day chasing a local historical site, no matter how small (or couldn’t you tell?). Human beings have always felt a thrill in doing that sort of thing. So, now that we no longer have to hunt down our food, we invent reasons to go out and road-trip or to head to the mall. At one point in our cultural evolution, and not too far back in the forested fortresses of Appalachia, what people went out ‘hunting’ was trees (sort of as if they were prey that couldn’t run very fast). It was a huge, community-party deal — felling, cutting up, dragging away a mammoth tree, very like when great, white hunters return with big animal kills.

But unlike animals you kill and eat, or previous stones you find, trees uniquely metamorph when they’re cut down. You can take the wood from a tree and make it into other things. You can carve things out of it; if you carve something like a mask, the tree can seem to be coming to life again, in a different form. A single, woodworked tree might live on, scattered around, in many different forms. (It might even become a relic — survive the ages — live to become Big Game, for antiquers, yet again.) (It’s just like the deathless and haunting Red Violin, in the film of the same name, I wrote about last time.)

The Mingo Oak’s transformation, and afterlife, actually began long before it ever even fell ill. From the area’s earliest settlement days it was ‘the church in the wild woods,’ where were set up pulpits and benches for Sunday services. And, in excellent Red Violin tradition, part of the great Oak after its death, in the form of a pulpit, resumed life in a local church.

Great trees and ancient forests go together with outdoor sanctuaries as if they were salt and pepper. The Cherry Tree Carol is a part of sacral music and presents a charming vignette of a miraculous, transformational tree: the story is of Mary and Joseph stopping enroute, on their travels, to rest beneath a cherry-tree — which the unborn Baby Jesus inside Mary then commands to bend down and give some cherries to his mother (and the tree of course complies).

It sounds kind of nursery-tale to us, but in the Middle Ages, Ripley’s B/I/O/N stories like this, of ‘Real Marvel and Miracles That Are TRUE, Honest Injun,’ were taken seriously and held a lot of oo-oo-oo feeling for the people, who were quite gullible in lieu of science . (But even we can experience something of what they did in settings like the heavily forested parts of WV where, once you’re out there alone, it’s easy to start believing anything. The atmosphere will do that to you — and the darkness and deepness of anything that we can go and stand in is not aboriginal forest — that was cut down from Appalachia by timber-hunters starting in the late-18th c. Original, aboriginal forest was apparently something that we now can imagine only with difficulty. It has become for us only a myth.)

What pagan religious influences live on in the Carol are obvious, from when the people of Britain, long before they were Christian, had been Druidic and had invested the trees of their forests with magical numen. That more ancient pagan strain was of course absorbed, very purposefully, by the Christian Church, with the result that a lot of pagan lore, like that surrounding the cherry-tree, found its way into songs that were sung at the newly-Christianized, old pagan festivals, including Christmas.

The Cherry Tree Carol, which is found in numerous variants on both sides of the Atlantic, contains some pretty obscure references going back also to purely Christian sources, of the Middle Ages. It harks back to the Biblical myth of Eden, in its theme of a couple sitting beneath a tree, eating fruit (only in this case of course the Eden experience goes just right).

The fact that it was sung at Christmastime embroiled it in the Church’s calendrical conundrums: its lyrics have the unborn Christ Child say, ‘On the fifth day of January my Birthday shall be/When the stars and the elements shall tremble with fear.’ So we see Medieval astrology playing a role in the song foregrounds predictions and cosmic resonance as among ‘stars,’ ‘elements,’ and divine and worldly events. It seems surprising that Baby Jesus would prophesy that the world would ‘tremble in fear’ on the Happy Day — but that kind of apolcalyptic language is exactly in keeping with astrology-talk of the time.

As among the Age’s many controversies, there was a pretty raging argument over the exact date when Christmas fell, that arose from the discrepancy between the Julian and the Gregorian calendars; Christmas Day (something like in a story by Charles Dickens) actually migrated around for a few centuries, growing later and later, as it advanced through the days of the first week of January a day at a time, ‘gaining a day’ every 50 or 100 years. As a result different versions of The Cherry Tree Carol, as they have come down, will actually have Baby J. giving his coming natal day as the 5th, 6th, or 7th, depending. (Small wonder the Church finally nailed the wandering holiday down to Dec. 25, regardless.)

Not that that made everyone happy. Jean Ritchie did a post, dated 12/15/02, on what she termed ‘a small observation, not provable,’ to the effect that she could remember her old Granny Catty Ritchie (the one who rocked while singing The Cherry Tree Carol) was ‘still quite touchy on the subject of the Christmas date and she ALWAYS observed Old Christmas, telling us in no uncertain terms that December 25th was just “a newfangled notion.” ’

So, contrary to what you might expect — not just did the song come down, in all its Medieval sophistication and complexity, to ‘unsophisticated’ Appalachians, such transplanted lore also brought with it and preserved things like long-forgotten topical debates from those old, old times (so that people here, deep in the Appalachian wilderness, centuries later could still get about them!).

More as one might have expected, the ‘common people’s original source for The CTC was from early English broadside; but, back behind that, there was lurking a source that derived from Biblical Apocrypha — the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, to be exact. Now, that is a bit interesting, and strange, if you think about it: because the Apocrypha of course were those parts of the Bible that go back as far as all the rest of Biblical text, but that the Church Fathers decided to exclude on the basis of their not being ‘genuine’ — that they weren’t really written by the Apostles.

A lot of times the Church decided that because the Apocrypha, which were written by the ‘Pseudo-‘ writers, were often the liveliest, the most controversial, and of course the texts least in keeping with Church C.W. — so from our modern point of view, they are among the most interesting account to read. For anyone who wants to have a look at the sections of the Apocrypha that The Cherry Trail Carol’s lyricist drew on, it can make for some pretty remarkable reading:

http://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/cherry_tree_carol-bradley.htm

The Apocryphal story The CTC drew on shows us a humbly conceived, charmingly dressed-down domestic moment within the divine family; a moment of very humanly sour grapes from Joseph, for various reasons (depending on which source you look at): either because Mary has made one of those impossible requests wives standardly seem to make of their husbands (just to keep us on our toes, I guess, or maybe to test our sincerity), ‘Honey, can you go up there, 40 feet off the ground, now that you’re tired, and get me some cherries? (in response to which Joseph is kind of leery because they are growing so nowhere close to the ground); or because Mary picks just this moment to reveal to him that she is expecting (and his reaction is perhaps understandably less than thrilled: ‘Why don’t you go get the man whose child it is to get you some cherries?’); or because he questions her priorities at time like this (‘Fruit?? How can you expect me to be thinking about fruit when we’ve run out of water?!’).

This unexpected, comic side to medieval sacred song and story fits right in with the Cherry’s ancient mythic associations: there is life in the fruit of a cherry-tree. Its famous ‘stone’ (rhymes with ‘bone’) is an unusual, a strange-looking, an odd and unexpected form for a seed to take. It looks dead — we call it a ‘stone’ — but life is inside it nevertheless, kind of ‘miraculously,’ as it has been inside Mary miraculously conceived; and as life exists, and is seemingly able ‘miraculously’ to transform and resurrect itself, within a tree.

At its center the Carol’s story is also about disagreement between Joseph and Mary as to whether they more need to go about getting some water (from the cherry-tree’s roots, which is what Joseph thinks should happen); or whether they should get some cherries (from the tree itself, which is what Mary wants to do). (Myself, I’d tend more to go along with Joseph, but you know pregnant women, forever eating.) But — in the spirit of ‘Ladies First’ — the Christ Child (who in this song of course has beautiful manners even while still in utero) tells the tree to bend down and give his mother what she wants first — and then, Joseph, the tree-roots can give them all some water.

The comic quality hiding behind the song, that we see so clearly in its ancient Biblical source, actually inspired this wonderful Cherry Tree Carol spoof:

http://mudcat.org/@displaysong.cfm?SongID=4677 (really you should not miss this)

–here a ‘pickle-tree’ (you know, pickles and ladies-in-waiting; pickles and teething babies; the stork mascot on the jar of Vlasic pickles . . .) miraculously appears and rains down pickles on the 2 ½ of them. This little cherry-tree song, for all its age, is a very pregnant mythic source, indeed.

But the person who is responsible for this send-up did it based just on the Cherry-Tree song; they were able to see the humor just by looking at the ‘Tree’ — at the derivative Christmas carol; they didn’t need to go back to the song’s Roots among the Apocrypha.

But wait ! We’re referring now to very old and traditional Cherry Tree Carol not as something that returns us to our Roots — but as a Tree, sprung from Roots that are even older.

Behind and beneath every root-source that one can find one can find another, deeper root. We can start with the fruit of the Tree that’s in front of us — but there is always more — more revivifying liquid, more water, more to drink — at its Root.

You can still go and see the stump of the great Mingo Oak, if you’ve a mind. Even with so little of it left, your imagination will fill in the gaps, and you will find yourself awestruck. With a little ferreting out, and adventurer-like exploring, plus a little faith, you can nearly always manage a return to the Roots and find something; to the Water; to the Source — and be carried along by some new spirit of inspiration.

Ah, Mountain Mama — Appalachia: hunting ground for scholars, the romantic-minded, and those of us with antiquarian turn. There’s more in your music than just the music.

More in you than just trees . . .

More to come.

Music Links:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7FeXU7PlWc Cherry Tree Carol – Jean Ritchie

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YNeQNQdo8TM Cherry Tree Carol – Judy Collins

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_EU1Tq9qEg Cherry Tree Carol – Shirley Collins

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CVTganOzERI Cherry Tree Carol – Sting

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hDw3gzYpQ_U Cherry Tree Carol – Arborea

Jul 252013
 

When the ‘Songcatchers’ (be they musicologist-folklorists like Cecil Sharp, Olive Dame Campbell, or John Lomax, or just curious traveling salesmen like Max Hunter) ventured into the smoky, mysterious Appalachian mountains to capture ancient sounds on (at that time) modern recording equipment almost a hundred years ago, one of the rare birds of melody they caught from among the Celtic (Scotch, Irish, or Welsh) and English ballads, whose habitat the area had long been, was ‘Black Is the Color [of My True Love’s Hair]’ (earliest recording by a Lizzie Roberts in 1916 — cannot locate an original recording — disappointment) — a bit-of-living-legend song that is still sung today.

And so, in that winged and elusive flight trajectory that it seems that only music can describe, a lonely song from a forgotten voice defies all odds and is recorded by a passing stranger with the latest technology; but, the passing stranger being himself but an obscure ‘lore-ophile,’ the song again must defy and beat the odds, and somehow be heard by the right people, who can and will record them commercially, or perform them in high-profile venues, so that the song attains popularity, ultimately widespread recognition and even fame, becoming not a ‘household name’ or ‘household word,’ but a ‘household song’ — and then the song can really take off and soar above the ridgeline, being replicated over time by numerous artists; sung in many different versions and styles, as if it found escape out of the mountains on a bird’s wing.

Such blessed songs survive — they fly free — by being captured.

They then go on to complete the life-cycle of the freeborn song — the ‘Written By . . . (?) Anonymous’ song — by being returned, via breath and vibrating string, back to the archaic, ‘naïve’ fonts of musical and lyrical invention from which such songs so often spring: the singing, the burbling, the spurting forth from plain-folk, dabbling rivulets; first (doubtless), in the form of the heartfelt, or the longed-for, the inescapable human experience of joy or heartbreak; and thence, on their way, to and through other hands, molded more by the imaginary, the sympathy, the resonance that is awakened in the memories and hearts of those hearing the song who catch its spirit — and out of these sensitive hearers who are themselves musicians the song can again be reborn.

But the free song can only can only become immortal if it flies first into the cage of reproduction, repetition, popularization, and for a time sojourns there before escaping back into the ‘wild’ of re-creation.

These songs, which swoop and swirl and dive, trailing tail-feathers of enchantment in their wake, are not like songs we used to hear and might even still feel nostalgia for (if we do ever hear them again), like ‘Heat Wave’ by (was it?) Martha and the Vandellas — those songs-of-the-moment, famous, briefly hits and ‘Top 40’ — one of those songs that can get unwelcomely ‘stuck’ inside one’s mind for hours (days! even) — or which can evoke for us as individuals a rich assortment of memories and associations from times-gone-by; but which songs, in the end, only ever live a single life, in essentially just one 45 rpm version, sung by one, defining group; remembered by a young generation, yes, for their lifetime — but essentially forgotten, consignable to dust heap, after that.

The songs born unfree are limited by their Martha-and-Vandellas, form; that all-too-memorable, single form we all know them as and know them in — whereas songs like ‘Black Is the Color’ achieve immortality precisely by mutating from one variant, one ‘personality,’ one interpretation to another, as they pass from one voice, one instrument, one recording label to another. They are sort of reincarnated beings, like human Orientalized mysteries, flitting from one of their forms, their ‘lives,’ to another; songs, melodies, lyricism so great (often so simply great) that a single form, a single ‘body,’ is not big enough — not great enough — to contain them. Nor is one artistic mind, by their performer, a single artistic talent, great enough to do justice, to explore, to exploit and exhaust, all the potential for beauty, breadth, and depth that is within them.

Unlike other, more limited species, such magical songs contain a time-defying variety within themselves.

Have you chanced to catch the film The Red Violin? A fairy-tale-like story set in Italy in, perhaps, the 17th c., it is the same idea: a master violin-maker, hard at work on his masterpiece violin, loses his beloved wife; and as his finishing touch, in his overwhelming grief, he stains his greatest Violin with her blood.

The Red Violin’s first owner becomes a violinist possessed; accomplished; perfect both technically and artistically — but dies passionately tragically-young. And the Violin, against the odds, gets passed to another’s hands; same thing. Wherever the Red Violin ends up, genius touches its owner. Claims the very life’s blood of its owner. It becomes the Violin of a little orphan boy with a bad heart, living in a monastery; so great does this boy become, and so quickly, that he is summoned to play before a King. The terrified child performs brilliantly up to the finish — then dies, then and there, of heart attack. The Violin is buried with him — but, of course, somehow escapes the grave and goes on to ‘live’ again — in each case making of its owner and player an artist greater than he ever could have otherwise been.

Songs like ‘Black Is the Color’ appear to be British in origin, which seems unsurprising, considering that the settlers who made their home in the Appalachian foothills were largely from the UK. It was not, however, just the Scotch-Irish who made their home there, but also Welsh, Italian, and Eastern European immigrants — and, if one looks closely, Native American ancestry is also visible in the people of the region. What I notice is that songs like ‘Black Is the Color’ are presumed to be either Scottish, Irish, or English in their derivation — with which one being determined, apparently, by the heritage of the person recording it — but it makes most sense to me that this song would be Highland Scotch, Irish, Scotch-Irish, English, or even Welsh (a very musical culture that is, in the game of assigning musical origins to songs, for some reason often overlooked).

Louisville native John Jacob Niles claimed to have composed the tune that we associate with the song today because the tune originally (or ‘originally’) associated with it was supposedly horrible; the only way to disprove that would be to hear the Lizzie Roberts’ version and other early recordings. However, I did find one recording that was made in the Ozarks during the fifties that did have a horrible tune.

(Here are some: Cat. #0138 (MFH #682) – As sung by Mrs. “Bobbie” Barnes, Eureka Springs, Arkansas on June 21, 1958
http://maxhunter.missouristate.edu/songinformation.aspx?ID=0138
[a version that is similar to John Jacob Niles’ tune]; or

Cat. #0242 (MFH #682) – As sung by May Kennedy McCord, Springfield, Missouri on September 23, 1958

http://maxhunter.missouristate.edu/songinformation.aspx?ID=0242
[a completely different tune].)

The Appalachian ballad — whether you wish to call it Highland or Lowland Scotch, Irish, Scotch- Irish, English, or Welsh — it doesn’t matter because the tune most likely had its origin in the ‘broadside’ (the first non-musical way to share music — anonymous posters that were sold during the 1500s and later that featured music, news, and music). So a lot of the ‘traditional’ music we associate with Appalachia today actually passed through an earlier phase of commercial publication. (Kind of makes one rethink the idea of songcatchers’ out looking for ‘authentic’ or ‘traditional’ songs.)

Kentucky bard John Jacob Niles’ version is undeniably beautiful; who cares the relatively recent vintage?

Civil rights activist/jazz chanteuse Nina Simone’s version is perhaps the most beautiful of all recordings, but since every melodic touch she sings turns to gold — that is to be expected. Joan Baez’s version is surprisingly not bland hippy-dippy, and is also very beautiful. Jazz vocalist Patty Waters does an avant-garde version in the Appalachian style that is full of disturbed musical notes, pitches, howls, and screams, lasting for thirteen minutes, and which sounds like something local avant-garde Appalachian musician Cynthia Norton, aka Ninnie Novel, might do. And English singer does a Renaissance and Baroque music style that sounds like it came from a Cadfael episode (you know, the 80s TV series, based on the novels of ­Ellis Peters, where a 12th-c English monk played by Derek Jacobi solves mysteries).

The version that got me on this ‘Black Is the Color’ kick is by wife/husband duo Shanti and Buck Curran, aka Arborea, which has played in Louisville two separate dates in July. (Uncle Slayton’s which will be closed by this printing, and Clifton’s Pizza, of all places — O tempora! O mores!) Arborea specializes in resurrecting old, presumed-to-be Celtic/English ballads like ‘The Cherry Tree Carol’ or their version of what we know as ‘The Streets of Laredo’ (retitled ‘I Was on Horseback’).

The best music, I might add, always comes from the musicians who combine old music with original compositions, such that in the end-product you cannot tell which is which; example: Loreena McKennitt — most famous for her Celtic folk and European-inspired music — and of whom Shanti Curran of Arborea (although she swears she is not influenced by) sounds like the next evolution. This same ancient st(r)ain also bleeds into other types of music such as Sixties British Rock: when I first heard Low Cut Connie’s ‘Rio,’ I thought it was a forgotten Stones B-Side, complete with even the recording-sounding, aged garage; and when I first heard Aloe Blacc’s ‘I Need a Dollar,’ an illusion was created in my mind that I had heard the song many times on oldie stations, and I was surprised that the song did not come out of the heady Motown, Civil Rights era, so much did the male vocalist sound very similar to Nina Simone. Arborea has done this as well with ‘Song for Obol’ (an ancient Greek coin that was put in the mouth of the dead as a payment to Charon, Ferryman of the Dead), a song which was written by Shanti Curran but could very easily have been an old or ancient piece.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z1Kr3F3SxZw John Jacob Niles

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gwYroTUqmyE Joan Baez

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aneDpn5QNY0 Nina Simone

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P1Pj0LaFhA4 Alfred Deller

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A6SOhYwa8s0 Twilight Singers

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qFApa21pH0U Ester Ofarim

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dTF_NyJuBAo Patty Waters

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=547gC9PtcP4 Arborea