Notes on Week 4 Playlist

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Why do people still sing these old songs? One reason struck me as I put together this week’s playlist: they’re simple and direct enough to be performed effectively by an untrained voice, but deep enough to challenge any singer. This week we’ll hear eight versions of four Child Ballads, and we’ll hear some very different approaches to these traditional texts.

The first of our four House Carpenters is the Clarence Ashley version from the Anthology. The text is very close to the broadside text I handed out in class Tuesday. Included in this week’s readings are the variant texts for this ballad collected by Child and Sharp. The next House Carpenter was sung by Mrs. Texas Gladden of Salem, Virginia in 1941 and recorded by Alan and Elizabeth Lomax as part of the Library of Congress recordings. Her text is very close to Ashley’s. From Texas Gladden to Joan Baez is quite a distance, isn’t it? This recording is from Joan Baez in Concert, released in 1962. There’s a lot in the Baez text that I didn’t see in any of the Child or Sharp versions. Dylan’s was recorded for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, but didn’t make it onto the record. It was recorded in March 1962, and Dylan was about to turn 21. Note that these versions confirm Harry’s observation that the supernatural theme of the early versions is downplayed in America. This happened to many of the old songs.

The next two songs are drawn from Art Rosenbaum’s superb collection, Art of Field Recording, Volume I. You may recall that Dan posted a note about this collection a while ago. Mary Lomax sang Lord Daniel to Rosenbaum in 2007; Child notes the ballad’s “earliest impression” in 1607, and publishes it as Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard (Child no. 81). Ms. Lomax learned it from her father, becoming another link in a 400-year-old chain of oral transmission. I’d bet that Mary Heekin’s Lord Randolph is the only Child Ballad (as Lord Randal, it’s Child 12) collected on East 95th Street in Manhattan. Heekin was born and raised in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, she is far from the impersonal singer of songs lauded in the ballad books – she puts everything she’s got into it! Rosenbaum recorded this on April 14, 1962.

It’s likely that Barbara Allen (Child no. 84) has been (at least in the U. S.) the most-sung of traditional ballads. Your CD has two versions, the first sung by Rebecca Tarwater in 1936, and collected by Charles Seeger, Pete’s dad. Ms. Tarwater adds some bluesy touches to the song, which she learned from her mother. Last is Jean Ritchie’s version of the same song. I got this from a CD called The Rose and the Briar: Death, Love and Liberty in the American Ballad. The CD is a companion to the book of the same name, in which twenty-two writers pick a ballad and write a little essay about it. The essays (and the choices) are of uneven quality, but the best are inspired, and testify to the power of the ballad. Enjoy your listening.

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