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.
But the rest of you can hear my best at transforming Dave’s song right now. There’s a player gadget some will see below, and otherwise this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.
*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.