Modern Folk Music

For reasons known only to my musical hind-brain, two modern folk songs have become linked in my head, and they tend to run together as ear worms from time to time. I first heard both of them on a very eclectic radio show that would have Ian Tyson, Loreena McKinnet (all of “The Lady of Shallot” or “Mummers’ Dance,” not the radio edits), modern country, alternative, and I-have-no-idea music, so long as it was melodic and didn’t violate FCC rules.

Those songs are “Crossing Muddy Water,” and “Transit (Somewhere near Paterson).” Both are ballads.

“Crossing Muddy Water” strikes me as a song derived from “The House Carpenter,” but told from the other side: the abandoned husband’s point of view. In “The House Carpenter” and all the related songs, the woman abandons her husband (who has a good, steady job, like being a house carpenter) and her children for either an old flame or a passing stranger. She always comes to a bad end, but what about the family she abandoned?

John Hiatt, “Crossing Muddy Waters” (C) 2002

“My baby’s gone and I don’t know why
She let out this morning
Like a rusty shot in a hollow sky
Left me without warning
Sooner than the dogs could bark
And faster than the sun rose
Down to the banks in an old mule car
She took a flatboat across the shallow

Left me in my tears to drown
She left a baby daughter
Now the water’s wide and deep and brown
She’s crossing muddy waters

Tobacco standing in the fields
Be rotten come November
And a bitter heart will not reveal
A spring that love remembers
When that sweet brown girl of mine
Her black eyes are ravens
We broke the bread and drank the wine
From a jug that she’d been saving

Left me in my tears to drown
She left a baby daughter
Now the water’s wide and deep and brown
She’s crossing muddy waters

Baby’s crying and the daylight’s gone
That big oak tree is groaning
In rush of wind and river of song
I can hear my sweetheart moaning
Crying for her baby child
Or crying for her husband
Crying for that river’s wild
To take her from her loved ones

Left me in my tears to drown
She left a baby daughter
Now the water’s wide and deep and brown
She’s crossing muddy waters”

Lyrics copied from:

The other song is much, much more modern, and seriously strange. It’s also longer, over five minutes, so I’ll just post part of the lyrics. It’s about . . . Well, I guess the fate of people who won’t have a moment of mercy for someone who needs help. That’s also a very long folk tale and song tradition. Think of the three sons of the king going out, and only the youngest helps creatures and people in need. He in turn gets aid from those he saved/assisted.

For the longest time, I thought the name of the song was “Somewhere Near Paterson (Delaware Water Gap).” It’s actually “Transit,” by Richard Shindell.

(C) 2000 Richard Shindell. “Transit“. From the Album “Somewhere Near Paterson.”

“The merge from the turnpike was murder, but it’s never a cinch
It was Friday at five, and no one was giving an inch
They squeezed and the edged and they glared
Half them clearly impaired by rage or exhaustion
The rest were just touchy as hell

Somewhere near Paterson everything slowed to a crawl
The all-news station was thanking someone for the call
It’s a van from St. Agnes’s choir
There’s a nun out there changing a tire
By the time they got by her, tempers were out of control

So they all hit the gas in a dash for position
Bobing and weaving and flashing their highbeams
Fliping the bird and screaming obscenities
A well-insured hoard hell-bent on Saturday . . .”

By the time you get to the end of the song, it’s gotten so very strange, but that’s true of a lot of ballads, or at least the ones I tend to remember. There’s a definite supernatural element, and there’s justice for an innocent denied aid. I don’t really like his description of the drivers and what he seems to be implying, but I love the harmonies and the word-painting.

Why are these linked in my mind? No idea. They just are. Two modern folk ballads, both that build on very, very old roots and follow the same pattern as the old songs.


9 thoughts on “Modern Folk Music

  1. “Transit” gets seriously strange. That’s a long haul to bring that entire crowd in for hope of salvation, but only if they listen and sing.

    The referenced highway is I-80 west in north Jersey. There’s a set of massive interchanges for the Turnpike, Parkway, and I-80 that creep westward to the I-287 interchange. Eight lanes of traffic each, completely full at rush hour, funneling first four and then three lanes of traffic to the PA border. The expressed attitude is even more insane than in the ballad.

    • Dang, didn’t think of that! Great catch. I was too focused on cars and trucks to recall that metaphor.

      Hell is the exit ramp tollgate that only takes exact change – but you never have it, and have to keep going back ’round. Worse than Charley constantly riding the MTA in Boston.

  2. I can’t help it, the fist one reminded of “Thank God and Greyhound, You’re Gone.” I’m evil, I know.

    • Evil, or a guy, which some really unhappy people think are synonyms. [One of my best friends has to remind co-workers on occasion that he swore to use his powers only for good. I’m . . . not entirely sure some of those co-workers are fully convinced.]

  3. For a great rendition of a classic old folk ballad, check out Fairport Convention’s version of “Matty Groves” from their “Liege n Lief” LP, when Sandy Denny was the lead singer. It is a cautionary tale of why you shouldn’t cheat on your spouse (or cheat with someone else’s spouse)!

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