I listened to the “Folk Songs” album from Kronos Quartet, partly because of the two Rhiannon Giddens songs. I was interested to know the backstory on her songs, but I got annoyed by reading reviews of these songs that seemed to miss critical pieces. The only review I could find of “Lullaby” called it “sprightly”, apparently entirely missing the point. The review I read of “Factory Girl” didn’t go into the changes Giddens made to the traditional song.
Giddens is a North Carolinian of European, African, and American Indian descent, and her music often reminds me that the white folk music traditions I’m familiar with tell only part of the region’s story.
A cuckoo is a “brood parasite” that lays its eggs in another bird’s nest. The other birds go through the trouble of feeding and protecting the young cuckoo, not realizing it’s not their own. It’s the origin of the word “cuckold” – a man who doesn’t realize he may be raising another man’s child in his nest. It appears in folk music in various contexts, most often people lamenting their false lovers.
But to hear a black woman address her young charge as “little cuckoo” is even more grimly appropriate. The child is described as blond and blue-eyed, a child the speaker cares for although “you are not my own, but I’ll nurse you til you’ve grown.”
The repetition of “go to sleepy, little baby” echoes All the Pretty Little Horses, a traditional song thought to be from the viewpoint of a black mother lulling a white child.
But what of her own child? A cuckoo doesn’t just lay its egg in another nest — it pushes one egg out first. “If you see my darling girl / Treat her nice now, little baby” the speaker asks. Her voice disappears into grief before resuming the lullaby. We don’t know how many enslaved women had their children taken from them or forced into neglect so they could nurse white children. We can guess at the fears that are the flip side of the mother’s plea to “treat her nice.”
Yes, it’s sprightly. But it’s the hidden pain that makes this a gem of a song.
The first few verses are traditional. I learned the song from the singing of one of my mother’s friends, and as a teenager I found the ending incomplete. A young man courts a girl on her way to work at a factory. She turns him down:
“Go find you a lady and may you do well
For I am an orphan with ne’er a relation
And besides, I’m a hard working factory girl.”
When I was younger, I expected the song might end by him forswearing his fortune or something. But that’s it, the song ends there. She doesn’t think it can ever work, and she’s probably more realistic than he is about the reception she’d get from his friends and family.
Giddens’ version has the relationship develop instead. But one day the man goes to meet her and finds the factory lying in ashes. In one introduction, Giddens refers to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire which killed 146 garment workers in 1911, and to the 2013 collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh that killed more than a thousand people.
I like the twist on the traditional song. I like the attention to the working conditions this girl experiences when she’s not traipsing along the lane with her boyfriend.
But the last verse kind of spoils it for me:
“As I stood there, a whisper it did caress me
A faint scent of roses my senses begun
I lifted my face and I saw that above me
A thousand young butterflies darkened the sun.”
The girl and her coworkers haven’t turned into roses. They haven’t turned into butterflies. They have turned into ash. I find it a weird switchback after bringing the song in a grim direction, to try to patch it up with a supernatural ending.