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
[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
[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