Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Me and My 400-Year Itch

Early in my journey down the trad path, I had stumbled across some recordings with Mark O’Connor, Yo-Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, Bela Fleck, and Edgar Meyer. Some were compilations and others efforts by some formation of any two or more of them. All were intriguing to me, having studied classical music but coming out of the Appalachian foothills.

On my way to work this morning I was enjoying Grammy-nominated Fiddler’s Green, in particular a track that features bassist Meyer with Tim on vocals and fiddle. The simplicity and virtuosity at the same time was what drew me into this music in the first place. If I have adopted a truth about traditional music, it’s this: You can’t hide behind it. Not only are the stories and the sentiments raw and honest, but the lines of the music are pure and unadulterated.

There’s something else that I realized I truly enjoy about traditional music. When I listen to what we might consider an old mountain ballad, I’m really listening to a song that has held together even longer, probably four or even five hundred years. That’s a hell of a long time ago. I love this.

Intellectually, I love progress. I was absolutely awestruck at the news about NASA’s recent accomplishments (read Jim’s post and enjoy his unrestrained joy on the topic – he’ll have you dragging your kids outside to look at the sky in no time!) and enjoy having the secrets of the world revealed to me. But I also especially love old stuff, and old places, things that tell us about our human past. I love walking on battlefields, running my hands along the open pages of a very old book, standing in the middle of a vacant area lined only by stones where someone’s house once stood three or four hundred years ago, sitting on the banks of the James River where John Smith landed himself in a heap of trouble over a young Native Virginian named Pocahontas. And of course, I love to hear music, any music, played just the way it was played when it was brand new.

Songs like this one are particularly illustrative of the nature of these ballads – you’ll think you’re hearing one song, then suddenly you’ll hear a phrase or verse from a different ballad make an appearance. Also, throughout the repertoire, seven years seems to be a standard period of separation -- you see it in "Pretty Fair Maid in the Garden", in "The House Carpenter", and all kinds of other tunes. I wonder if it has anything to do with the seven-year itch -- and more importantly, what do these guys think, bailing on their women and expecting things to go on "like nothing happened" after a seven-year hiatus?! Just like a man. Sheesh.

ANYway, this is the arrangement I listened to this morning; the melody actually ends on V rather than the tonic, as though it will go on forever. Kind of like, well, this blog entry.



I've Been a Foreign Lander
(Trad.)

I've been a foreign lander
For seven years or more
Among the brave commanders
Where wild beasts howl and roar
I've conquered all my enemies
On land and on the sea
But you my dearest jewel
Your beauty has conquered me

I can't build a ship love
Without the wood of trees
The ship would burst asunder
If I proved false to thee
If ever I prove false love
The elements would moan
The fire will turn to ice love
The sea will rage and burn

Have you heard the mourning dove
She's flying from pine to pine
She's mourning for her own love
The way I mourn for mine
I lie awake out in the night
I see the shining stars
I wonder if you see them too
Wherever you are

I've been a foreign lander
For seven years or more
Among the brave commanders
Where wild beasts howl and roar
I've conquered all my enemies
On land and on the sea
But you my dearest jewel
Your beauty has conquered me

2 Comments:

At January 19, 2006 8:17 PM, Blogger Darkneuro said...

OOoh, yes. History. Gimme gimme gimme... It's why I started listening to jazz, actually. It's why I listen to the old spirituals, it's why I know where Great Grampa was born and died. Love the history.

 
At January 20, 2006 9:38 AM, Blogger Mando Mama said...

Indeed, N. I love how if we look back a few years or three hundred, it just allll kinda comes together.

I truly believe that music is as superior a historian as any scholar. And I'm fascinated especially by its evolution from a little ditty in England or a slave song from a Virginia tobacco field, up and through and along the Appalachian Trail, until suddenly it's a parlor song in New Hampshire or a favorite blues tune we figured Ray Charles invented.

Good LORD I'm a geek.

 

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