Tag Archives: music

Review of two Rhiannon Giddens songs

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.

Factory Girl

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.


Out-of-fashion music, two ways

If you’re an urban, college-educated nontheist singing 19th-century Southern rural religious music, there are two options. You can take out the weird and uncomfortable bits and make it be about friendship:

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul?
What wondrous love is this, that brings my heart such bliss,
and takes away the pain of my soul.

When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down
When I was sinking down, beneath my sorrows ground,
friends to me gathered round, O my soul.

(Unitarian Universalist hymnal)

Or you can sing it un-retouched:

What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul,
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul!

When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down,
When I was sinking down beneath God’’s righteous frown,
Christ laid aside His crown for my soul.

(anon, published 1811 in Lynchburg Virginia, A General Selection of the Newest and Most Admired Hymns and Spiritual Songs Now in Use)

The obvious thing for a blog post to do here is to make a point about one of these being better than the other, but I’m not sure. I find it kind of icky to tidy up and happify music that is at its heart deeply concerned with Hell and who is going there.

But the hipster approach, to sing the original lyrics with no connection to the value system of people who made them, also feels weird. If this weren’t white Americans singing music by other white Americans, it would be called cultural appropriation.

But I don’t think anything bad is happening, or at least not worse than leaving urban atheists without this weirdly beautiful music.

Tradition gone bad

Yesterday at a family gathering, people were flipping through a songbook and began to sing “Sleep, Kentucky Babe.”

Various people were dismayed by various parts of the song—some by the second verse, which threatens the wakeful child with being snatched by the bogeyman, but mostly by the 1890s minstrel-show feel of the language.

’Skeeters am a hummin’ on de honeysuckle vine,—
Sleep, Kentucky Babe!
Sandman am a comin’ to dis little coon of mine,—
Sleep, Kentucky Babe!
Silv’ry moon am shinin’ in de heabens up above,
Bobolink am pinin’ fo’ his little lady love:
Yo’ is mighty lucky,
Babe of old Kentucky,—
Close yo’ eyes in sleep.

The version in our songbook was considerably cleaned up from the original, but still pretty bad. I understand people’s attachment to songs from their childhood, especially ones they learned from their parents.  But does it really fix things to change “Lay yo’ kinky, woolly head on yo’ mammy’s breast” to “Lay your little curly head on your mama’s breast”?

A similarly awkward piece of my childhood is the book “Little Black Sambo.” White people love to complain that this cherished piece of their childhood has been taken away by political correctness.

It seems likely that Helen Bannerman’s original 1899 book was about a Tamil or South Indian child, since she traveled in India (and since tigers live there). But the names “black Sambo,” “black Mumbo,” and “black Jumbo,” combined with the illustrations, seem more American than Tamil:

sambo's family

The actual story has nothing wrong with it; it’s essentially about dealing with bullies. A young boy with a fine new outfit goes for a walk. He meets a series of tigers that want to eat him, but he bribes each of them with a piece of his clothing and praises their fancy clothes. The vain tigers argue about who is the grandest tiger in the jungle, and their fight becomes so heated that they melt into a puddle of butter. The boy collects his clothes and the butter, and when he goes home his mother makes pancakes.

Various modern authors have tried to rehabilitate the story—one returns it to India, while another sets it in the American South. But after 115 years as “Little Black Sambo” with illustrations like the above, there’s really no going back.

American Morris dancers find it easy to see that English Morris dancers should not wear blackface, but English dancers find this harder to see and tend to bring up explanations about it representing chimney sweeps or coal miners. To someone more removed from the tradition, it’s pretty clear that when your costume offends lots of people, you should change it rather than insisting they’re wrong to be offended. Be pragmatic.

I thought about this kind of thing a lot when Jeff and I were considering adopting a child from foster care. Our child could have been from any race, and I started to realize how few of the books, stories, songs, movies, etc. from my childhood showed children of color in any positive way. Now that we have a white child, I could delay thinking about it until she’s older, raising her on the same mostly white media I loved. I could try to salvage the beautiful melody of “Kentucky Babe” or the plotline of “Sambo.”

But what happens if she grows up to have a partner of a different race and multiracial children? Do I want to pass the buck to her, letting her weed out the bad old material at the same time as she’s struggling to find positive material for her children?

I’d rather Lily not have to make that editorial decision. She can encounter “Sambo” and “Kentucky Babe” when she’s older, maybe on Wikipedia. But by then they won’t have the patina of something she learned from her parents. And it’s not like there’s a shortage of good stories and songs for white children. It’s not like we have no choice but to recycle 1890s-era racism.

I love tradition. I love songs. I love books. But no song, book, or story is worth perpetuating something that’s hurtful to so many people.

(I was feeling very satisfied about this post until I remembered that I can’t imagine raising kids without watching Mary Martin in Peter Pan, despite its ludicrous depiction of American Indians. The version coming out next month may be slightly less ludicrous. I’m hoping I’ve thought of a good solution within a few years.)

La la la

If there were a songwriting competition for lyrics consisting only of “Lily,” our household would totally win.  Especially if the allowed lyrics were expanded to include “hungry Lily,” “sleepy Lily,” and “la la la la Lily.”  She has outstripped bacon as the most common topic of impromptu singing in our house.

I do actually wonder why there aren’t more songs about parenthood.  There are a ton of songs about the overpowering intensity of romantic love, but parenting is at least as intense.  There are songs about “I can’t live without you,” but your child literally cannot live without you.  There are songs about “You’re everything to me,” but you really are everything to your baby.  “Our love is forever” — you might be mistaken about that when it comes to your lover, but this relationship really is for life.

Some examples that come to mind are Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely” and John Lennon’s “Beautiful Boy.”  There are other songs about parent-child relationships in general, but not many from the perspective of parents.  Perhaps because most popular songwriters are men?

Some of my favorites about parents and children:

Room at the Top of the Stair,” John McCutcheon

For Baby (For Bobbie)” – the Peter Paul and Mary version, which is actually about a child, unlike the original

Dear Mama,” 2Pac

Everything Possible,” Fred Small



Well may the world go

My first hero, Pete Seeger, died yesterday. He was part of movements from anti-war in the 1930s, to pro-war in the 1940s, to labor and Civil Rights in the 1950s, back to anti-war in the 1960s, to environmentalism in the 1970s.  Beyond that, he was a fine banjo player and a funny and tender singer of children’s songs and traditional songs.

The transcript of the House Committee on Un-American Activities questioning Seeger in 1955 is worth reading:

MR. TAVENNER: I hand you a photograph which was taken of the May Day parade in New York City in 1952, which shows the front rank of a group of individuals, and one is in a uniform with military cap and insignia, and carrying a placard entitled CENSORED. Will you examine it please and state whether or not that is a photograph of you?

MR. SEEGER: It is like Jesus Christ when asked by Pontius Pilate, “Are you king of the Jews?”


He was insistent on creation rather than consumption, participation rather than passivity. Listening to him lead a crowd is pretty amazing. He coaxed audiences into singing four-part harmony, briefly giving them ideas for new parts.  In recordings you can hear him exhorting them: “Oh, now, you can sing better than that. Some people are just sitting back thinking they paid for their ticket, don’t need to do any work. Now, you might as well know there’s some things in this world you enjoy a lot more if you do it yourself.”

Ellen Kushner describes this experience in her (excellent) Sound and Spirit radio program on singing (starts at 26:30):

My cosmic singing master is Pete Seeger, a man who’s been singing and encouraging people to sing for over 50 years. I remember going to see Pete Seeger for the first time when I was in college. He stood there generously giving of himself, getting the entire room to sing. I was taking an intro to Buddhism course and I thought, he’s a bodhisattva! A bodhisattva refuses nirvana and instead offers to be reborn so he can help others find enlightenment. I recently heard from a friend who had just come from a Pete Seeger concert. Approaching 80, Pete’s golden voice was gone. But after years of ripping down the barriers between himself and the audience, my friend reported, all Pete had to do was shout out the first line of a song and the audience sang the whole thing right back to him. 

I wrote Seeger a letter one time and got back a postcard from him, complete with a little sketch of a banjo by his signature.  Some moments when his music was important in my life:

November 2004.
I have campaigned for John Kerry all fall and am crying my eyes out after he loses the election. A friend suggests listening to Seeger’s recording of “We Shall Overcome” (which he cobbled together from Southern labor songs and hymns.) It actually helped.

April 2012.
Anders Breivik shoots 77 of his fellow Norwegians and complains during his trial that the country is overrun with “cultural Marxists” and brainwashed with Seeger’s song “Rainbow Race” (popularized by a Norwegian singer). The country’s answer?  No riots, no return of hatred.  Tens of thousands of Norwegians gather in the rain to sing “Rainbow Race.”

One blue sky above us
One ocean lapping all our shores
One earth so green and round
Who could ask for more?

January 2013.
I am working at the jail.  My favorite client is released unexpectedly, and I know his modus operandum is sleeping on porches (he finds homeless shelters unsanitary).  Boston winter is no joke, and I’m scared for him.  The only thing that comforts me is listening to Seeger’s recording of Hobo’s Lullaby.

Don’t you worry ’bout tomorrow
Let tomorrow come and go
Tonight you’re in a nice warm boxcar
Safe from all that wind and snow

Go to sleep you weary hobo
Let the towns drift slowly by
Can’t you hear the steel rails humming?
That’s the hobo’s lullaby.

I’ll finish with Seeger’s own epitaph for himself:

Well may the skiers turn,
The swimmers churn, the lovers burn
Peace may the generals learn
When I’m far away.

Well may the world go,
The world go, the world go,
Well may the world go,
When I’m far away.


Song for Halloween: Tam Lin

(It’s a Halloween ballad about a pregnant lady.  How could I not?)

In ballads, a lot of women who fall pregnant kind of waste away and die of sorrow, saying uncomplimentary things about their lovers.  Not the heroine of “Tam Lin.”

Janet’s the type who goes someplace she’s specifically told not to go, gets in trouble for flower-picking, acts like she owns the place, and apparently hooks up with Tam Lin because by the time she gets home she’s visibly pregnant.  So she talks back to her father and returns to her lover.

But oh no!  Tam Lin is a captive of the very tricky queen of the fairies!  And he’s possibly going to be a human sacrifice on Halloween!  What’s a girl to do but hide at the crossroads, grab him off his horse, and hold onto him while he’s transformed into all kinds of beasts?  Luckily Janet is up to the task.

I forbid you maidens all that wear gold in your hair 
To travel to Carterhaugh, for young Tam Lin is there.
None that go by Carterhaugh but they leave him a pledge: 
Either their mantles of green or else their maidenhead.
Janet tied her kirtle green a bit above her knee 
And she’s gone to Carterhaugh as fast as go can she.
She’d not pulled a double rose, a rose but only two 
When up there came young Tam Lin, says “Lady, pull no more.” 
“And why come you to Carterhaugh without command from me?” 
“I’ll come and go”, young Janet said, “and ask no leave of thee.” 
Janet tied her kirtle green a bit above her knee 
And she’s gone to her father as fast as go can she.
Well, up then spoke her father dear and he spoke meek and mild 
“Oh, and alas, Janet,” he said, “I think you go with child.” 
“Well, if that be so,” Janet said, “myself shall bear the blame
There’s not a knight in all your hall shall get the baby’s name.
For if my love were an earthly knight as he is an elfin grey 
I’d not change my own true love for any knight you have.” 
Janet tied her kirtle green a bit above her knee 
And she’s gone to Carterhaugh as fast as go can she.
“Oh, tell to me, Tam Lin,” she said, “why came you here to dwell?” 
“The Queen of Faeries caught me when from my horse I fell 
And at the end of seven years she pays a tithe to Hell.
I so fair and full of flesh and feared it be myself.
But tonight is Hallowe’en and the faerie folk ride
Those that would their true love win at Miles Cross they must bide. 
First let past the horses black and then let past the brown 
Quickly run to the white steed and pull the rider down 
For I’ll ride on the white steed, the nearest to the town 
For I was an earthly knight, they give me that renown.
Oh, they will turn me in your arms to a newt or a snake 
But hold me tight and fear not, I am your baby’s father.
And they will turn me in your arms into a lion bold 
But hold me tight and fear not, and you will love your child.
And they will turn me in your arms into a naked knight 
But cloak me in your mantle and keep me out of sight.” 
In the middle of the night she heard the bridle ring 
She heeded what he did say and young Tam Lin did win.
Then up spoke the Faerie Queen, an angry queen was she 
”Woe betide her ill-fought face, an ill death may she die.” 
“Oh, had I known, Tam Lin,” she said, “what this night I did see 
I’d have looked him in the eyes and turned him to a tree.”

Old songs

I’m a little embarrassed about liking 19th-century music.  I like its lack of irony.  19th century songs were sentimental, obscene, comic, and odd, but never half-hearted.

Here’s one from the fallen-woman genre.  It probably comes from the music hall stage; I learned it from the singing of Julia Friend.

See how those London lights are gleaming
Through the frost and falling snow
Sleep on, sleep on, my blue-eyed treasure
Your mother’s got nowhere to go.