Girl Friday #9: Little Blue Ballads
I had started this post last night, but came back tonight to find whatever I had written, gone with the wind. No matter, really. I passed the evening quite pleasantly and it brought an insight or two.
I took my kids to a roller skating event to meet another friend, and his mother and I spent the time talking. She is a hard-working single mom like me, who grew up as a true West Virginian, a little south of the area where I was born and raised. At some point in discussing jobs and life and deciding where to go and what to do, she confessed she didn't really want to be here. What a relief it was to know someone else felt that way!
I can't say for sure what makes us each feel that way, but I suspect some of it has to do with the places we knew as children. Life in a place where there are real hills and valleys is just a bit different. She is a skier, and understands and knows the feeling of the deep breath that goes along with a view from the treetops. Although I can function in most any setting, it is my rural sensibility that ultimately pervades my life approach to most things.
The other night I was paging through my copy of Folk Songs of the Appalachian Mountains. This thin little volume was compiled by balladeer and guardian of mountain life, Jean Ritchie, now into her 80s. The Ritchie family hailed from Perry County, Kentucky, and her life's work emanated from the seriousness with which her musical family regarded the mountain ballad as a treasured heirloom both to be exercised and passed down. The book is a treasure, known fondly in folk circles as the blue book, full of Child ballads, lyrics, party songs, hymns, and stunning photos that depict Ritchie's life. I remember opening it for the first time several years ago, still with a young nursling, and being struck by the photos of women breastfeeding their babies -- something you see rarely today. There are photos of men and women and children playing instruments, stringing popcorn, quilting, church-going, crossing the tracks, being baptized, working in the garden, boiling their laundry, swimming in the pond, loving and rocking their children. Except that I never did see my own mama boiling the laundry, it was a life not too far from what I knew as a child, and its a life that no amount of wealth will provide in a place like I am now, because it's just too weird.
Life is simple. The collection of these simple songs, is not. Jean Ritchie, a simple mountain woman, is a dedicated tradition bearer who is capable both of living in her culture and protecting it in an objective, straightforward way that lends it credence among the rest of the world. That's a pretty thin line to tread, gossamer really. She is one of my true heroes.
Jean Ritchie had this to say about Barbry Ellen/Barbara Allen:
"This Ritchie version of 'the song everybody knows' is our family adaptation of the tune and text that is found in the part of Knott County Kentucky wherein my father, Balis Ritchie, was born and raised, and where the first twelve of us were born. We knew at least three other tunes in the family, but this one is my own favorite."
There are hundreds of versions of this song, and so I'm just going to lead you to this sample of Ritchie singing her favorite version.
All in the merry month of May,
When the green budes they were swellin'
Young William Green on his deathbed lay,
For the love of Barbry Ellen.
He sent his servant to the town
To the place where she was dwellin
Sayin, Master's sick and he sends for you
If your name be Barbry Ellen.
So slowlie slowlie she got up
And slowlie she came a-nigh him
And all she said when she got there
Young man I believe you're dyin.
Oh mother, o mother, go make my bed
Go make it long and narrow
Young William's died for me today
And I'll die for him tomorrow.
Oh she was buried 'neath the old church tower
And he was buried a-night her
And out of his bosom grew a red, red rose
And out of Barbry's grew a green briar.
They grew and they grew up the old church tower
Until they could grow no higher
They locked and tied in a true lover's knot
Red rose wrapped round the green briar.