Musical Trails?

The other night I was watching that documentary about country music, and one of the central characters of the episode was Dolly Parton. She talks about her song “Jolene,” as do other people, putting it in the context of the time, and in the context of country music in general. But I sat up and listened, hard, because I was hearing something else.

The tune kept hanging around, but not quite the way she does it. And there was a sense of supernatural. The melody has a definite Celtic sense, and I was trying to come up with the folk tune. Since my memory has a huge stash of folk ballads stuffed into odd places, it didn’t take too many hours before the solution popped up.

It’s this setting of “Cruel Mother” or “Greenwood Sidie.” (Better acapella version at the bottom of the post).

My mother sang this to me as a lullaby with slightly different lyrics, and I listened to another recording of this version (Odetta? Judy Collins but with this tune? Nope, Ian and Sylvia) a lot growing up, enough that I remember it very well, and sing it from time to time. It is creepy, and the element of supernatural is very strong.

So Dolly Parton did not copy the tune, but she caught the “sense” of the tune. Which explains why I thought about a supernaturally beautiful woman as Jolene.

Well, the old ballad, and because my mind latches onto story fodder far too easily.

Ian and Sylvia:

15 thoughts on “Musical Trails?

  1. I’ve often thought about how old folk songs tend to be “morality plays” – short, simple, yet conveying a sense of either good or evil. In that sense, I see them as musical stained glass windows. The original purpose of such windows was to portray Biblical events to people who couldn’t read or write. I wonder whether old folk songs were intended to convey moral messages – for good or ill – in the same way, to people who might not think much about the rights or wrongs of an issue, but could carry a tune and remember it?

    • Some music historians have speculated that the Scots-Irish in the US kept so many of the murder songs and other “hard” ballads (“House Carpenter” for example) because they fit with the Calvinist leanings of the main Protestant denominations in the uplands. The evil-doers get punished and punished hard. The popular (mis)interpretation of predestination meshed with the story-songs, and so they survived and remained rather popular.

  2. Heh.
    I remember when Enya released “Memory of Trees”, and I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to recall what hymn “Once You Had Gold” used for the melody.
    (Also, using Latin-English and Gaelic-English dictionaries to get rough translations of the lyrics. It amuses me that she and Ronnie James Dio are two of the most overtly Christian artists in recent history, and no one seems to realize it.)

  3. Why is so much country/folk music so depressing? A mother who murders her twin babies, a desperate appeal to a man-stealing vamp, husbands (and wives, and boyfriends, and girlfriends) who cheat on their partners, or leave for another woman, or even threaten to kill their partners… I mean, I thought “Rickety Tickety Tin” was a legit folk song, until I discovered that Tom Lehrer wrote it as a satire of typical folk ballads. It’s perfectly in line with this “Greenwood Side,” and with numerous other Irish and Scottish (and American country/folk) songs I’ve heard.

    • The great Gaels of Ireland
      Are the men the gods made mad.
      For all their wars are merry
      And all their songs are sad.
      — The White Horse, G. K. Chesterton

  4. Why all the depressing themes in country/folk/bluegrass?

    One of the traditional functions of popular music is to comment on current events or notorious true crimes. The comment is traditionally supposed to tend toward supporting doing right instead of wrong, and why wrongdoers should suffer divine and human justice, because poets are supposed to support God, law, and order. It is also acceptable to criticize legal injustice with the aim of allowing leaders to course-correct.

    OTOH, it is also acceptable to express the emotions and thoughts of the people, or of a segment of the people, or of the relatives of a criminal, so that leaders and people become aware that various opinions and wrongs exist. Again, this is supposed to allow course-correction.

    These functions exist in most human societies, particularly in Indo-European societies and in the griot areas of Africa. (Arab societies also get this from poets, but they have to do it on the down-low because of Muhammad’s poet-murdering precedents.) But it was part of the formal legal system in Ireland, Scotland, and other Celtic areas. Even when the hereditary poet system broke down, local self-taught poets and bards kept it up. And when people moved to America, they also kept it up. (And women poets, bards, and singers were also part of the system, all the time.)

    This blended with the medieval idea that music should talk a lot about love, lovesickness, and lovers’ complaints about cruel lovers, and with the ancient idea that music should include songs about war, laments over the dead, solemn/sad/warning songs of religion, and other depressing topics. All these things provide pity and catharsis, and act to bind a community together.

    That said, there are also lots of cheerful or uplifting songs of love, war, religion, daily life, etc. Many country songs give explicit strategies, tactics, and slogans for surviving tough times and feeling better.

    But the chances are high that there will be a song about burying somebody in the backyard or down by the river sidey-o, especially if there was a notorious case up at the courthouse just the other day.

  5. Apropos of nothing much, I was over on Fr. Hunwicke’s site, and a commenter left a link to a Norfolk church site, and there was a quote from a diary entry by its (apparently famous) parson — who had met the woman soldier Hannah Snell, and had a cousin who had been in the same unit!

    And it seems that people genuinely did not realize she was a woman, even over a 21 year span of service in the British Army! (I mean, you have to wonder sometimes, given that some women soldiers seem to have been an open secret. Hannah Snell was somebody I’d heard of, but didn’t know much about.) She went to India and everything.

  6. At one point my mom pointed out that a lot of “cowboy songs” were lightly re-purposed “sea songs,” which were frequently rooted in the same stuff that gave us “Irish” (largely bar) songs.

    You can sing them even if you can’t sing, and they tell a story, and frequently because the Irish are freakin’ depressives you get a good bawling out and feel purged of that danged black dog.

  7. I think Foxfier hits it. These songs go back to time immemorial, the words may change to keep up with the times, but the sentiment remains the same. The sea chanty is usually a song of loss, with a rhythm that allowed the sailors to turn the capstan or haul the lines, thus they are very ‘easy’ to remember and to sing, as the rhythm was that of the ships.

  8. On the subject of Jolene, I’ve always thought the desperate tone is rather interesting, especially given the real life circumstances around it. Jolene was a bank clerk who had her eye on Mr. Parton. My thought has always been, “Are you telling me that DOLLY FREAKIN’ PARTON can’t do anything but weep when confronted with a bank clerk? I’m not buying it!”

    • Eh, an awful lot of guys’ side-girls are obvious downgrades from their wives, even before you consider the betrayal involved.

      Humans iz craaaaazy.

      • Oh, I can believe that Mr. Parton might be tempted by the bank clerk. What I can’t believe is that Dolly couldn’t come up with any way of fighting back besides desperate pleading.

  9. Not just the school of Hard Knox, but also the older stories that go back 1000-1200 years to the feuds among royal lines, the Campbells, and the Lords of the Isles; and the subsidiary feuds and fights with retainers and sept chiefs.

    Thanks for the musical expedition. I hadn’t thought about this song in years, but the tune popped back in. I couldn’t put a source on it, but had heard it before. The tune is meant to catch spirit and mind, and let you write the desired lesson into the lyrics. Even should you forget most of the words later, the music wove the lesson into you mind.

  10. Other singers try to sing Dolly Parton’s songs, and usually disappoint. That’s because Parton, more than most singers, is a storyteller. She’s telling a story in character.

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