Where’s the gore? Where’s the grisly fright? My Halloween series has been featuring atmospheric fantasy poems so far, a mode I personally like, but I suspect there are some in my audience that want things more corpse than incorporeal ghosts.
Well, I’ve been saving this one up for you, wanting to work out a full folk-rock arrangement. Given that I play all the parts, it’s taken awhile to complete, but the stars aligned and it’s ready for you to hear. Who’s the poet and word-supplier this time? Robert E. Howard.
“That Robert E. Howard?” a few of you may be asking. Yup. Conan etc. No, not the red-haired antic Harvard-educated TV comic. The other one. The character who helped put the sword to sword and sorcery. And today’s poem didn’t appear in The Dial, Poetry, Others, The Criterion, or other early 20th century magazine of emergent literary art. “Dead Man’s Hate” first saw print in the pulp Weird Tales.
No, not the charmingly mysterious Bob Dylan short musical film, this is Howard’s own 1929 sword and sorcery story as illustrated in Weird Tales. Besides the putative Dylan connection, note that freshly severed head. Our hero’s kingdom is beset by many evil things that aren’t what they seem, including the now familiar shape-shifting snake-headed lizard people trope.
To the small degree I know Howard’s work, it is through a late friend of mine who appreciated the literature of H. P. Lovecraft and his circle which included Howard. That friend was always careful to frame Lovecraft, Howard, et al by noting their racist and racialist elements. He could have gone on to note that they weren’t consistent literary craftsmen either. Given their needs to sell by the word to late-paying pulps, they perhaps couldn’t afford literary polish — but that their stories can still have power for some readers, despite all that, says something too. Howard’s “Dead Man’s Hate” has no problematic racialist elements* and I think it has the on-rushing narrative power of a Child or broadside ballad in telling its gruesome story of a hanging.
As I said in opening, the music took a bit of work, and perhaps in coincidental honor to Howard’s pre-WWII Texas upbringing, I used twin violins as the lead instruments — but this unconventional folk-rock style song isn’t really Texas Swing. Besides a twanging Telecaster, electric bass, and drums, there’s a pump organ and some vox-humana-like notes in there too. You can hear my performance of “Dead Man’s Hate” with the player gadget below. No player visible? This highlighted link is an alternative way to open an audio player to hear it. Looking for those less gritty Halloween pieces? Check out our last six Parlando Project posts for a range of other ghosts and gothics.
*Well, there is this: the man being hanged has a distinguishable Irish surname, and the one celebrating this event has the WASPey name of Adam Brand. Hangings in American westerns often read to me as conscious or unconscious wrangling with the history of American lynchings of Afro-Americans and other outsider groups. As to racism in Howard’s pre-WWII Texas, my father spent part of his childhood there, and it was pretty much baked-in according to his recollections. Poor Howard, dead and gone, left me here to sing his song — and Howard might not have lived long enough to see what he was indurated with. I’ve come to believe the Muses, a useful name for the unlimited forces that inspire art, are capable of bringing in viewpoints and power that their human receivers would have difficulty expressing.
Is it even possible to mention Stonehenge without risking the unbidden memories of the feet-to-inches comic debacle from Spinal Tap? Well, that’s one reason I’m a little hesitant to introduce today’s piece in our Halloween Series this year.
But still, I’ve been talking and singing about ghosts, ancestors, spirits, and their home fires a good deal, and I remembered this performance by the LYL Band of this song I wrote after visiting an altogether homier set of Neolithic English standing stones at Avebury several years back. I understand Stonehenge is fenced off, and that enforced distance probably does little to staunch the tales of quasi-Medieval druids with magical rites floating stones in the air. Avebury’s large henge basically had a country hamlet grow up inside it, there’s even a pub in the midst of the circle. You can walk right up to the stones, feel these cool earth-aerials, measure them against one’s own height and age. A walk around the Avebury henge is a good walk, and one may also look over the equally amazing earthen ditch-works that are part of the site. As you stroll a flock of official government sheep wander the grassy meadow keeping overgrowth at bay without internal combustion clatter. So at Avebury, as I was walking around all this, I did not think of druids. I thought of men and women who dug and moved that earth, dug and moved those stones, erected them watching over each other.
There are several rings in the henge at Avebury, and the stones are individual in shape and size, furthering the thoughts I had while visiting the site.
Did they have some chieftain or matriarch who planned and ordered its construction? Perhaps. What belief was being expressed in large rocks? Some likely, at least to the level that metaphor asks of us. But as I said, I thought of who did the work — the sweaty, hard-breathing, hand-callousing work. They worked stones with stones, dug with pickaxes made of antlers. At night in what huts did they sleep, on dried grass beds perhaps? And in that night they no doubt slept hard after their day of work, dreamt dreams harder than those of old poets who need only to move words around. If the energy of the earth and sky was transmitted up and down those big stone antennas, so too must the energy of their dreams be drawn in there. And I was there where they must have slept, dreaming under night breaths, their aches soothed by the rest. Dreaming of what? Children, parents, lovers, siblings, colleagues, whole days of rest, the mighty thing they would construct, a story, a prayer, a melody, the little joys of a meal or exactly good weather?
Not druid magic in my thoughts at Avebury, but I felt those dreams might be — no must be — harder than the dulling mutes of time. They sparked around in their heads, and when their heads became skulls and then dust, where is that spark, and can we read it still, tune it in? A belief, at least to the level of metaphor, felt we could. That’s the song.
Here’s the songsheet. If you ask for scenery to back your performance of this, get the measurements right.
The player many will see below will play “Avebury Song #2,” and if you don’t see it, you can use this alternative highlighted link. I hope to complete at least one more new Halloween piece to present here yet this month, though the moving pieces of my life doesn’t make that sure.
Our Halloween series continues with the voice, music, and words of Dave Moore today as I present his piece “Sam and the Ghosts.” And as bonus autumn content, this one takes place in a garden just past harvest time.
I haven’t kept a garden in decades, but Dave and long-time friend of this blog Paul Deaton do. They remind me that at about this latitude north, October is the time to have removed the final products and to prepare the bed for the interval until spring planting time returns.
I may not have done this for decades, but this process goes back — way back. Folks were planting crops in the Midwest long before colonization. The mound builders here, like the earthworks and standing-stone raisers in the British Isles, fed themselves on the invention of agriculture. So in that way, every garden — that small geographical gesture — is a memorial. William Blake said the rebellious angels of art must need to drive their plows over the bones of the dead. I don’t think he was speaking of colonization or commerce when making that point, but his maxim is true reportage anyway. Whether we are speaking of poetry or music or tomatoes, were we plant has likely been tilled before by dead people. Isn’t it proper then that we should honor them before we make our gestures in the soil?
The song sheet Dave handed me the day we recorded this song a few years back.
In Dave’s poem which he made song, Sam* has forgotten this. Some ghosts remind him. In his poem they are ghosts of settlers. Outside of the poem, they are people created by Bob Dylan.** Those definite levels in history are not the beginning, not the end. Who knows who ran the land from where the settlers’ family left to come to America? Then we do know who lived the land, and were so harshly displaced before the settlers’ opportunity. Who knows, maybe Hollis Brown’s farm is no longer farmland now after some other money has changed hands. How many songwriters are tilling Bob Dylan’s land?
Every seed you plant came from somewhere before you plant it. Every land has ancestors. Every garden is, or should be, a memorial. Winter will bury our gardens, turn our blank pages to blank pages again, and we wait and expect for spring.
The ancestors expect for spring too. We are that spring. The gaps of expecting are where the ghosts live.
Today’s words are from a poet who’s been forgotten, but this one poem seems to have outlived all her other work largely because it’s a fine short ghost poem with a definite shiver from an ambiguous ending. The poem was called “All Souls’ Night, 1917,” and it was first published in 1920 in the author Hortense Flexner’s first collection Clouds and Cobblestones. That book’s acknowledgements indicate “All Souls’ Night” was never accepted by any of the many publications Flexner had published in toward the beginning of her career, and a selected poems published shortly after Flexner’s death in 1972 does not include it. So it was never her most famous or noteworthy poem while she lived.
Why did I hear of it, why is it out there on the Internet in 2022 to be read? Because of its eerie qualities “All Souls’ Night” has made a number of contemporary lists of Halloween poems.* To read or hear it once is likely to impress you of its value as such, and you can read it here with this link, or listen to my brief musical performance below. Our discussion has spoilers, so read or listen first. My performance is only 2 minutes.
I’ve looked at clouds and cobblestones from both sides now, and still somehow…
Now that you’ve experienced “All Souls’ Night,” let’s suppose you’re interested in at least a few questions that the poem might bring to mind after you read its 12-lines with their unambiguous chill. Yes, there’s a window here — just as there was in Sara Teasdale’s nursery last time — but either side of this window’s glass has questions.
Outside the window, there’s a date 1917 ending the original title. The poem internally mentions nothing about World War I which was ongoing that year and would still be a universal memory when the poem was published. Several other poems Flexner wrote and published around this time deal with the war, and one short play of hers, Voices, that was produced on Broadway in 1916, is about the despairs of war.**
Given that WWI is no longer in most any living soul’s memory, I’ve chosen to drop the 1917 in today’s title, as have some of the re-publishers of fantasy or Halloween poems that are featuring it. Outside this poem’s window we only know there are “hosts of lovers, young in death.” Maybe it’s me, but when I first read the poem, I thought the many lovers would be pairs, many of the lovers throughout time who are now dead and stayed in their passionate youth, and the poem does not directly disabuse that notion. But in the 1917 WWI context, one presumes the dead were soldiers, freshly dead. Whatever Flexner’s intent, I think the former has, potentially, greater impact today, even with our current European war. Can we simultaneously allow how Flexner might have intended her ending to be read, and allow how you or I as a modern audience can see the two groups or characters in this poem?
In the poem’s ending, the poem’s speaker, in a warm room next to a fireplace on the other side of the window asks that their warming fire should be allowed to die down, to eliminate the warmth and light on their side of the glass. It’s implied the poem’s speaker is there with others, a party perhaps, as the fire has been set for cheer in the poem’s opening line. With the onrushing crowd of ghosts outside, the insiders are now told at the end: hush, dim the light, turn the room cold so that the ghosts are unaware of them. This is an ambiguous statement if you think about it.
It can be read three ways I think. One, this is simply self-preservation, the ghosts might be vengeful toward the living. In the WWI context the dead might blame them for starting or not stopping the war. Or the folks inside may be smug, and the ghost lovers are their opposite. The insiders may be saying those outside lovers are the not-the-elect living, and that they would steal the warmth, which the insider speaker concludes they will not be able to use, being they are creatures who didn’t stay living and warm. Or lastly the poem’s statement may be one of pity: we shouldn’t be happy, we shouldn’t flaunt our warmth and light to those dead who now can have none of those things.
If, in the WWI context, Flexner has the ghost lovers to be likely the partners of the not dead inside, then the last reading is the most likely. But the reality of any of those readings is that the cheer, the warmth, and the joy inside the glass must cease. At least for the night, the light and temperature must equalize to death-like on either side of the window. That is the poems genius: it’s chilling on both sides.
At the time of the performance, I went more with the middle reading in my internal approach. I was tempted by that contrast, even if my reading isn’t correct, perhaps because I see so much in our current culture where the other is cast as undeserving. Their desires are a distorted, improper grabbing for joys, things they haven’t earned as members of “the elect.”
This touches on religious beliefs, so one more factor: the poem references All Souls’ Day, a Christian religious holiday. I’m not sure if Flexner wishes to put a religious overlay on her poem, other than an occasion for ghosts. The Flexner family were 19th century German Jewish immigrants to America, and beside Hortense, there are several notable members. The foremost Flexner was her uncle, Abraham Flexner who I see credited with (among other things) the founding of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, the eventual American home of Albert Einstein. Abraham was raised Orthodox, but became an agnostic. I have no info on what religious customs Hortense Flexner may have been knowledgeable about.*** All Souls Day as a traditional Roman Catholic holiday was devoted to praying for those dead not in heaven, in purgatory, and was separate from All Saints Day, which was reserved for the saints who got right into heaven. Protestant Christianity dispensed with those twin holiday distinctions and more or less considered it one holiday.
OK, here’s the part about my short musical performance of “All Souls’ Night.” I got out the virtual orchestral instruments again and started writing orchestral string parts to go with acoustic guitar. To help with the ghostly air there are two non-acoustic instrument tracks that are mixed at an almost subliminal level: a somewhat overdriven electric piano and a suitably unreal synth patch. You can hear it with the graphic player were it’s seen, or with this backup highlighted link. I still have other pieces planned for our Halloween series this year, so check back or click Follow to experience them.
*Poets.org, a long-time online poetry repository, has “All Soul’s Night, 1917” as it’s only Hortense Flexner poem, and references it under themes where a search might find it, but I may never know what the Ur-source is for this poem’s revival.
**Don’t think big time. There were more theaters then, and the Broadway theater where it was produced was The Princess, which sat only 299, and we don’t know how long the run was. I have watched a low budget amateur performance of Voices. It’s an earnest to a fault two-hander with a young French WWI-experiencing girl and another mysterious character who turns out to be Jeanne D’Arc.
***I went down a happy rabbit hole reading about the Flexners. Hortense was a feminist and a suffrage activist, college educated and eventually a literature professor at two of the “Seven Sisters” women’s Ivy League schools. She’s also some kind of relative to Kenneth Flexner Fearing, a lefty poet who became a pulp-noir novelist around mid-century.
I risked taking the charm and playfulness out of Emily Dickinson’s ghost poem last time by trying to puzzle out exactly what she saw. I won’t risk that today. This next poem in our Halloween series was written by a poet, Sara Teasdale, who wrote some complex adult love poems — but with this one she portrayed a child’s wonder. Well, a child with a little taste for tea parties with witches, but still.
Sara Teasdale. Want to come to my tea party?
Teasdale was roughly a contemporary in her childhood in St. Louis with T. S. Eliot, but Eliot decamped for Harvard and then Europe — so as far as I’ve been able to find out, the two poets never met. I think Teasdale’s poem requires no further explanation, so I’ll just urge you to listen to it below. And here’s a link to the text of the poem if you’d like to read that.
Another simple musical accompaniment here, this time just some acoustic guitar. You can hear Sara Teasdale’s “Dusk in Autumn” with a graphic audio player that many will see below. However, there are ways to read this blog that won’t show the player, and I also provide this highlighted link to click, which will allow those who don’t see the player to access the musical performance.
Here, as promised, is the start of a series of Halloween-themed posts. Today’s audio piece uses words from 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson, and as usual for her it’s titled using the poem’s first line: “The only Ghost I ever saw.” Dickinson is no stranger to the gothic, but she often approaches it playfully — and that seems to be the case here. Here’s the full text of the poem along with chord-sheet notations for the 12-string guitar part I accompany it with today.
Sing along with Emily and the tree ghosts
The surface “plot” of this poem is straightforward, if detail sometimes puzzles. The poem’s speaker (presumably Dickinson) has seen a ghost once. She describes the encounter using some expected and unexpected description, and then closes with a puzzling final line. Since the description of the ghost is most of the poem let’s examine that closely. We first learn the ghost is dressed in “mechlin.” What’s that? A type of Flemish lace. The ghost has “no sandal on his foot.” The ghost moves soundlessly but with some speed, bird or dear-like. The ghost’s “fashions” are “quaint.” It might wear mistletoe. The ghost makes no footfall noises, but is not noiseless either. It’s said to laugh “like the breeze.”
This sort of mystery with detail is a format which suggests a riddle to me, and Dickinson did write riddle poems. So, is the ghost a metaphor for something else she’s observing? One could hazard a guess it’s snow, which might sweep in on winds like this with frosty lace, but the ghost is said to step “like flakes of snow.” It could be wind —and cold currents are often felt as “ghostly” — except again, Dickinson spends at least three lines in her short poem describing its actions as like a breeze. Snow like snow or breeze like breeze would be tautologies.
If it is a riddle, my best solution is that she’s viewing a tree in a grove of trees. Bark or moss, or even more likely the light filtering through small branches is the lace mosaic. It has no sandal to walk on the ground, its foot is in the ground — and note that Dickinson says no sandal on his foot (singular), not feet as in a human ghost. It steps in the wind in its swaying, but the noise in that movement isn’t from the foot of the tree, which stays stationary. And the branches dart back and forth like a deer leaping or a bird hopping. The prime clue is that mistletoe. Mistletoe is a parasite plant, it only grows by embedding its roots in trees. The branches make noise, the laughter, and in the path of the breeze the laughter would spread to other formerly still and pensive* trees around. Dickinson knows botany, I understand she and her family cultivated trees, and she has written other riddle poems with plants as answers.**
So my reading in summary: Dickinson is viewing a tree, perhaps one of the trees that surrounded the Dickinson homestead in autumn, and those flakes of snow its branches are stepping “like” are also appearing snowflakes in an approaching cold-front. The “interview” is cut short as the day is appalling — growing pale.
Is that an all-too-much a Scooby-Doo “There’s no such thing as ghosts” ending? I’m not certain of it, and the poem charms without the above, letting it stay in mystery. If that’s your worry, who’s to say — particularly at Halloween — that the trees aren’t sentient spirits?
You can hear my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “The only Ghost I ever saw” with my own musical setting using a player below if you see it. Is that player an invisible ghost for you? Well, summon it then with this highlighted link that will open a player.
*In the handwritten manuscript, Dickinson shows that she considered “smiling” instead of “pensive” in the poem.
To complete our Halloween series, here’s a poem by Robert Frost suitable for All-Saint’s and All-Soul’s Day: “In a Disused Graveyard.”
When I was a child and my father was alive, there would be times when my six sisters and I would be corralled up inside a Fifties American car for some long two-lane trip to a grandmother’s house or other destination. Yes it was crowded, and the wave-rolling suspensions of those pastel and chrome cars added another element: the possibility that one of us would vomit or simply rebel against the length of an uncountable trip.
To counter that, liquid Dramamine was administered to the younger kids from paper Dixie cups. This was given to suppress nausea, but the side-effect of sleepiness was welcomed too. Half of us might be drowsy to asleep and the other half just bored.
For that older half, my father introduced a car-ride game to help us endure the drive. It was called Zip, and I suspect it might have been something he learned with his family of mostly brothers back in the Model A era. Zip had simple rules. In the game, a handful of objects that could be spotted beside our rural roads could score points. A white horse would score 1 point. An old man with a white beard riding a bicycle would score 100 points. And cemeteries would score 10 points. The scoring child would need to shout “Zip” before any other and explain what scoring object they had spotted. It was an odd scoring system. White horses would be rare, and any spotting was subject to suits regarding — well spotting. Was that horse completely white? Did it count if it had a small blaze on the forehead? These days I am an old man with a white beard who rides his bicycle often, and I am still reminded that I could win most Zip games by spotting myself (if that is possible). I can’t recall any of us scoring a come-from-behind miracle win from such in those days though,.
This meant cemeteries were the scoring thing. Any church steeple coming into our vision put us on the edge of our sagging seat-covered seats, tongue leaning on the fence of our teeth ready to “zip!” But the subtle player knew more, knew that some older farmhouses might have a private graveyard, or that there might be one where a church no longer was, its congregation consolidated in the ebb and flow of settlement.
Such would be Robert Frost unconsoled graveyard in his poem, with only past parishioners, homesteaders, and villagers buried there. And now we, as we travel our own roads, are picking out our own personal graveyards: grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, friends, spouses. No farmhouse, no church, no village anymore.
“Sure of death the marbles rhyme” — also 10 points!
In such a graveyard the old stones, now much dated, contrast against our presence, alive, visiting such a place. Can this not seem to say there is a line between the living and the dead, a border, an underline — a place here, and a place there? As Frost reminds us, no, that’s a lie we act as if we believe, mostly, even if it can hardly fool a rock.
There are religious believers who pray for the dead on these first two days in November. And we could be praying for ourselves too once we reach an age of really knowing. Slightly premature ghosts, then we pray for those who’ve come to terms. After all, Yogi Berra was said to have said: “If you don’t go to other people’s funerals, they won’t go to yours.”
By and large Halloween is a fun holiday, so as we continue our Halloween series here let’s have some fun with a classic poem of intimated horror — or rather a parody of same.
The man supplying our fun is Louis Untermeyer, an American 20th century poet, critic, and anthologist. And his subject? To stitch together a strange parodic monster using the nursery rhyme “Jack and Jill Went Up the Hill” with De La Mare’s poem “The Listeners.”
Untermeyer figures that if De La Mare’s tactics can make a man on horseback knocking and getting no answer scary, then it just might work to make a children’s poem a thing of considered horror. Well, unanswered doors, if not things of terror, are a matter of disappointment for trick or treaters, so maybe “The Listeners” has a built-in advantage as a Halloween piece? Let’s see what Untermeyer can do with his mashup:
I made an unusual choice for musical variety: the instrument playing lines in the left channel, including the A# G# F# motif at the start of each verse is a Bass VI, not a conventional electric guitar..
I decided to play it straight on my performance of Untermeyer’s parody, as if it’s as bleak a tale as the old murder ballad “Pretty Polly” — only with a water-pail and a dreadful accident instead of homicide. If I was to have Alfred Hitchcock drolly appear at the end of my performance, as he would in his TV show of my youth,* he would explain that local search and rescue units found Jack and that he’s recovering — but during that event they tested the water in the hilltop well and found it subtly yet dangerously poisoned.
In the last two posts I’ve mentioned how early 20th century Irish poet Joseph Campbell used the concision of Imagist poetry to present eerie folkloric material. However, today’s piece, written some 70 years later by Dave Moore, shows how the reiterative storytelling methods used in many traditional ballads can still work. Because of the way it tells its story, it’s somewhat longer than usual pieces here, but well worth 8 minutes of your time.
I quite vividly remember the first time I heard this song. I’d known Dave for over a decade then, but there was something new: he told me that he had written some songs and I offered to record them. I setup a cassette recorder in his living room where a patinaed old upright piano sat against a wall next to a set of framed pocket doors that he and I had spent some time stripping a few years before. I had a pair of Radio Shack microphones to hook up to record him. I think one of my mic stands was a second-hand-store gooseneck floor lamp that had given up its socket for a mic clip.
I don’t recall most of what Dave played and I recorded that day. Maybe four or five songs, but the last one was the piece I’ll perform for you today. Dave was a powerful, pounding piano player in those days, and the old upright was ringing out pretty good as he gave forth the lyrics of “They’re All Dead Now” loudly over the top of that. By the end of its 11 verses, his voice was getting ragged — but the story he was singing was powerful enough that it probably should wear one out. He finished, and his voice was too.
The tape I made is now long lost, though “They’re All Dead Now” remained recorded in my memory. Also to my recollection, that day was the day that the idea of the LYL Band that you’ve sometimes heard here as part of this Project took hold.
I think we may have tried to play or record it once or twice since, but it’s a difficult piece to bring off. Effective singing of long ballads in this kind of traditional form and length is extraordinarily difficult. While trained singers have built up stamina and technique to do that, this untrained singer will testify that it is as wearing as singing a set of hardcore punk — and since traditional ballad singing often uses sparse accompaniment, you have nowhere to hide and nothing else to bring the fury or shock to the audience other than the song’s story and one’s voice. Which is why, even in folk clubs among aficionados, long ballads are an iffy thing. The emotion too often invoked is boredom. Polite audiences will not throw things at the ballad singer, but they will fall into talk among themselves, and some will drop their eyes to half-mast and tune out to thoughts of more exciting music or leaf raking.
But of course, these songs can work. To build up to doing this performance I listened all morning to June Tabor recordings. Tabor (and Anne Briggs) are two of the best I know at performing this kind of material, and Tabor often uses instrumental backing (Briggs more often sang unaccompanied). I wasn’t ready to expose just my bare voice for this piece.
The piano part you hear is actually two piano tracks. Here I was thinking of the simple repeated motifs that John Cale,* with his association with what was called Minimalist composed music, would sometimes play. I added a synth part, which is more faithful to what Tabor would sometimes use, where the easy to transport and amplify electronic instrument serves almost as some droney acoustic folk instruments might at a traditional ballad sing.
I sang my vocal at my most energized part of the day and managed about four takes, and what you’ll hear is the best of that. I wouldn’t say my vocal timbre is pretty, but then maybe this song can survive that.
Yes, Dave’s song. I still think it’s a great song, same as the first time I heard it. The story it tells is historical,** it happened on the West Coast of Scotland just as the lyric says in 1618. Though it’s heavily refrained and has those 11 verses, it still doesn’t waste much time, dropping you in media res and progressing in presenting a horror that should be more frightening than witches.
Illustrating your 17th century Scottish Facebook feed: political instability, patriarchy, and religious fervor (or excuses).
I used to dream of hearing a great singer sing this song, but folk music’s principles say that a song needs singers rather than necessarily waiting for that. June Tabor is my age,*** I’m not sure she still performs. Rhiannon Giddens, the ball is in your court. Contact me.
*Yes, I’m still on a Velvet Underground jag this month.
**You might think 1618 is fairly late in the ugly history of witch prosecutions, but if you go to this account from the town of Irvine in Scotland I link here, you’ll read that “In 1650, a total of 17 women were also executed for witchcraft – 12 in March and 5 in June. Other burnings similarly took place in the town in 1662 and 1682.” So, there was enough of this that the story of Margaret Barclay, John Stewart, and Isobel Crawford is sometimes not included in round ups of the atrocities. Walter Scott did his own investigation in the 19th century, and the Irvine hyperlink above includes some of Scott’s account.
***October – besides being the occasion for this week’s Halloween series – is also Dave’s birthday month. Happy Birthday Dave! Age has taken some ounces off of Dave’s keyboard pounding, but I still hope to present more of his voice here as part of the Parlando Project.
Are you familiar with the song “Reynardine?” You might be. It’s been performed by many of the best performers in the modern folk revival: Anne Briggs, Fairport Convention, John Renbourn, June Tabor, Bert Jansch and others.* Today as I extend our Halloween series, I’m going to introduce you to a version of the song you haven’t heard, a version that I’ll maintain uses more efficient and effective methods to convey an air of mystery. There’s supposition that this version may have been an indirect catalyst in the way the song you may know was presented, but this little-known version’s lyrics are so good that singers should consider using them in contemporary performances.
Where did I find this new version of “Reynardine?” In the 1909 book of collected poetry by Irish poet Seosamh MacCathmhaoil (AKA Joseph Campbell) titled The Mountainy Singer.
I’ve spent a day or so in hurried research on this, even though long-time readers (or readers of our last post for that matter) will know that Joseph Campbell** has been of interest to me for a couple of years now. Here’s the shortest version of what I know that I can make.
Songs related to “Reynardine” go back to the early 19th century in the British Isles and the U.S. Wikipedia gives us a representative early (1814) example, and this helpful page gives us a catalog of later 20th century versions. The older versions sometimes vary the name of the title character and contain no supernatural elements. The typical plot is a broadside ballad variation of what is still a staple romance-story trope: a woman meets an erotic stranger who she thinks may be disreputable and possibly stranger/dangerous — but who also may be wealthy or noble (Reynardine claims to have a castle in most versions.) Over several verses there may be Victorian code-words like “kisses” and “fainting,” and the title man may leave the lady wondering where he’s run off to.
Skip forward to the early 20th century: in 1909 (the same year that Campbell as MacCathmhaoil publishes “The Mountainy Singer”) a musicologist Herbert Hughes publishes the first volume in a series of successful song collections titled Irish Country Songs. A great many songs that will be featured in Celtic and general folk-revival recordings, performances, and song anthologies are included in Hughes series of books.*** Hughes’ printed version of “Reynardine” is shorter than most extant versions, a verse and a once-repeated refrain, and it’s even called a “Fragment of Ulster Ballad.” In a footnote at the bottom there is this note, unsupported by any of this song’s lyrics:
In the locality where I obtained this fragment Reynardine is known as the name of a faery that changes into the shape of a fox. -Ed.”
A century-old song, with many collected versions, and this is the first time that “Reynardine” is said to have supernatural elements. Where did Hughes get this? I don’t have a direct link, but there is our version of “Reynardine,” published in the same year by the Ulster-native Campbell who is not credited on Hughes’ score, though Campbell/ MacCathmhaoil is credited in at least two other songs in Hughes’ Irish Country Songs. The supposition is that Campbell is either “the locality” — or that Hughes and Campbell shared a traditional source which has left no extant song version that indicated to both of them that Reynardine is a supernatural creature.
Footnotes! Pretty scary boys and girls! Herbert Hughes’ songbook presentation of Reynardine that likely changed how the song was viewed.
Did some of the later 20th century folk revival singers know of this footnote? Possibly. One highly influential revivalist A. L. Lloyd sang a version that included at times a remark that Reynardine had notable teeth which shined. In pre-dental-care England this detail may have been enough supernatural evidence. Furthermore, he wrote of the were-fox context in liner notes more than once 50-70 years ago which led other performers to explain the song that way, either as their own subtext or to audiences.
But here’s another mystery — and I’m saying, a useful one — why isn’t Campbell’s version of “Reynardine” known and sung? Let’s look at it. The chords here are the ones I fingered, though I used Open G tuning and I formed the chords while capoing at the 3rd fret, so it sounds in the key of Bb. But the music “Reynardine” is sung to isn’t harmonically complicated (you could simplify the chords), and a better singer than I could better line out the attractive tune used by myself and most performers. ****
I made one change to Campbell’s masterfully compressed 1909 lyric. I use the more instantly recognizable, less antique word “lover” where Campbell had the easy to mishear “leman.”
Poets and lyricists: this is a marvel. No need of footnotes or spoken “this song is about…” intros. The supernatural element is subtly but clearly introduced. The refrained first stanza was as published by Hughes, and is commonly sung in modern versions. The second makes the bold move of changing a folk-song readymade where some damsel’s lips are found to be “red as wine” with an animalistic short-sharp-shock of Reynardine’s “eyes were red as wine.” The third stanza lets us know he can be a fox in form, subject to fox hunters with the brief but specific statements of the horn and hounds. Another subtle thing: Campbell repeats the “sun and dark” all-day-and-all-of-the-night lyrical motif to tell us this isn’t an ordinary fox hunt scheduled for seasonable days befitting rich people’s leisure, but a 24-hour emergency. The hunters know this fox isn’t normal. The refrained first verse reminds us that the lover may know that the were-fox can also take a human form, and make use of human defenses, such as castles, which the assiduous hunters do not.
As a page poem this has the vivid compression that Imagism preached. Compare the efficiency of this story-telling to “La Belle Dame sans Merci” which has its sensuous pleasures, yes, but takes it’s time getting to the point. The two poems convey essentially the same tale, but Campbell can leave us with an equally mysterious effect using so few and aptly chosen words.
**Obligatory statement: no, not the Power of Myth guy. I suppose it could be worse, Campbell could have been named James Joyce or Sinead O’Connor, and confused us too.
***Besides “Reynardine,” Vol. 1 includes another popular folk-revival song, erroneously considered to have wholly traditional lyrics: “She Moved Through the Fair” which Hughes’ correctly credits lyrically to Irish poet Padraic Colum.
****I was somewhat working from a very rough memory of Bert Jansch’s version on his Rosemary Lane LP. It’s a good thing I was rushing this and didn’t stop to listen to Jansch — his version is an acoustic guitar tour de force. If you’d like one performance to demonstrate why I, and many acoustic guitarists, revere his playing, that would be a good choice.