Ian Tyson: In Memorium

This is starting off to be a bad winter for musicians. Granted, Jeff Beck and Ian Tyson were both high mileage as well as mature, but still. Sheesh! I grew up listening to Ian and Sylvia, Gordon Lightfoot, Odetta, the New Christy Minstrels, and others, along with classical and some old country and bluegrass. Then somehow, years later, MomRed discovered that Ian Tyson was still recording, now western music.

His father wanted him to have a career at sea, or to do normal, respectable jobs. Ian devoured westerns, books by Will James, and turned his back on the sea. Worse. He became a musician (among other things.)

It was love at first hear. I could sing along with Tyson’s music, since he was a baritone. His songs, love ’em or not love ’em, were melodic and made sense. He told stories, songs about horses and ranches, about love and revenge, about places and the people in them. I have my favorites, but there’s no Ian Tyson song that makes me go, “Ugh!” and race for the shower, ear-bleach, or yes.

So, one of his oldest, and a favorite of many Of a Certain Age: Four Strong Winds.


I also liked this one, a canoing song done at at least four times the original tempo:

“Summer Wages” is the fan favorite among SmallDeadAnimals blog readers. It’s not one that I like as much, but I can see why people (especially guys) appreciate it:

Some days, “Timberline (Fifty Years Ago)” strikes a very strong chord: “Did I hold Juanita yesterday, or was it fifty years ago?” Since the late 1980s seem like yesterday . . .

“Claude Dallas,” “Old House on the Hill,” “Banks of the Mussel Shell” are all ballads or half-ballads, eerie and atmospheric. I can never hear “Claude Dallas” without remembering a day out in Utah when my family and I were looking out over Cathedral Valley in Capital Reef National Park and feeling cold chills from the music. It had nothing to do with the beautiful, empty, landscape below us, and everything to do with the solitude.

“Jaquima to Freno” is about a vaquero, and refers to the tack used in training horses in the old Spanish style. “La Primera, and “Steel Dust Line” are also horse songs*, one about mustangs and one about cutting horses and driving from Canada to Las Vegas in winter. Ian Tyson ranched, and it showed in his music.

He badly damaged his voice in 2006 while trying to finish a concert after the sound equipment failed, and his last three albums reflect that. He was still a heck of writer and poet, and a good singer. He died December 29, 2022, on his ranch in Alberta at age 89.

(I am amused that The Guardian needed to explain that cutting horses “are like sheepdogs” in how they separate cattle from the herd. But then I’m a westerner, and have watched cutting horse contests.)

*Steel Dust is one of the foundation sires of cutting horses. Other lineages are mentioned in the song.


Polonaise: Dance, Jacket, or Sandwich Spread?

OK, probably not the third option, but one never knows. There’s also a French sauce polonaise, just to further muddy the waters.

All these things are derived from the French adjective form of Poland. The music, a form of the sauce, and the jacket all derive from Polish folk music, cuisine, or folk costume.

A polonaise gown from the 1700s. Fair Use from: https://www.costumecocktail.com/2016/05/30/winged-robe-a-la-polonaise-ca-1778-1780/
Eighty years later . . . Image source: https://cdn0.rubylane.com/_pod/item/1903041/5591/Antique-Victorian-1869-polonaise-bustle-dress-full-2o-2048-61a3115b-r-a2a2a2-2.jpg

From the front:

Source: https://cdn0.rubylane.com/_pod/item/1903041/5591/Antique-Victorian-1869-polonaise-bustle-dress-full-6o-2048-0f368201-r-a2a2a2-2.jpg

The original form was a dress with a trim bodice that opened into an over-skirt. The back and sometimes sides were looped up into a bustle, revealing the color and details of the underskirt. I suspect the idea was to keep the outer skirt away from whatever you were working on, and you had an apron on over the dress. Or it was a way to show off embroidery and lace or ruffles on the under-skirt.

The polonaise musical form is a march in 3/4 time, or so it sound like. It is stately and does not have the intimate feel of a waltz. (Keep in mind, the waltz was scandalously intimate when it first debuted. His hand was where?!? They were how close?)


As you watch the video, note that under the faster beat is a slow 1-2-3, 1-2-3. It’s a very different feel from the 1-2-3, 1-2-3 accented pattern of a waltz or minuet.

This is a concert polonaise rather than one intended for dancing, but you hear the same tension between the march feeling and the three beats to the bar. Chopin is famous for his polonaises, but other composers did and do write them.
In some ways, the polonaise reminds me a bit of a quadrille and other group dances (Irish, American) with the lines and movement. All hands are accounted for at all times. 😉

Why Sacred Harp Sounds Strange

For people who grew up with “four-square” hymns and classical music, the American (and English) style of vocal music found in hymn book such as Southern Harmony and The Sacred Harp sound very different, even unpleasant. The chords have been described as “open” and the tone “primitive.” Part of this comes from the modes used by composers, the keys and the frequently minor melodies. However, even major tunes can be off-kilter to some ears, even before you hear them done in a Sacred Harp Sing.

Just to really mess with you, musically, keep in mind that one of the greatest early-American composers, William Billings, was writing at the same time as Mozart. The sounds of the two are, let us say, somewhat different. William Billings came from an English popular tradition sometimes called “West Choir” music, because rather than singing as part of the formal choir in the chancel, people used the west choir in the church for unofficial spiritual and popular music singing when the service was not being held.

The composers and arrangers of many of the hymns in Southern Harmony, The Sacred Harp, and similar songbooks/hymnals were aiming for a harmonious setting of three or four parts. The groups of notes in “concord” or peaceful harmony, were fifths (do-so) and octaves (do-do). Thirds (do-me) and sixths (do-la) were lesser concords, used to add variety. However, discords, combinations of notes that were deliberately dissonant, added variety to the music, or could help emphasize a textual point. If the text is about the pains awaiting fallen sinners who do not repent, then lovely, sweet chords are probably not ideal. Or if the text is about spiritual warfare (“Oh When shall I see Jesus” aka “Morning Trumpet”), harsher sounds make more sense. In many ways, Sacred Harp music is text-driven almost as much as plainsong.

However, even though concords dominate in Sacred Harp, the sound remains different from, oh, “Holy, Holy, Holy” and the type of hymn harmony popularized by Lowell Mason and used in many churches since the 1820s. This is because of how the chords are “stacked.” The Do-fa-ti (one-four-seven) combination is very common in Sacred Harp, far less so in main-line hymn harmonies. The sound strikes the ear as “open,” as if it is both dissonant and missing something in the middle. Fourths are used much, much more in Sacred Harp than in other styles of American hymnody.

[For a very detailed music-theory article, go here.]

Having three rather than four parts also lends an “odd” tone to the music, since everyone picks the line that fits his or her voice the best. The top line is “soprano” but you will find other voices there. The melody is generally in the tenor* line, but not always. Even four-part Sacred Harp harmonies can be strange-sounding to ears accustomed to other modes and ways of arranging tunes.

This is not to say that Sacred harp is always simple. William Billings “I am the Rose of Sharon” is a complicated setting of the text from Song of Songs. He also has a lot of “fuguing tunes,” where the melody appears, then a round, or fugue, form the core of the hymn, before resolving into a unison once more. The link takes you to a small professional ensemble doing “Rose of Sharon.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0OFnfWtIa10

So, for a bit of compare and contrast:


The above is a trained early-music group doing “David’s Lamentation.” Below is a Sacred Harp sing doing the same setting and text.

Below is another of my favorites. Note that the text is an exultation, but the mode is minor, which seems a bit of a disconnect. You can certainly hear the “openness” in the chords.

Below is a professional chorus doing another famous Sacred Harp tune, arranged in a more conventional style:

If you don’t like the sound of “raw” Sacred Harp sing, you are not alone. As a fellow shape-note singer once said, “I’ll drive five hundred miles to sing it, but I won’t cross the road to listen to it.”

*Think of the Statler Brothers “Daddy Sang Bass (Mother sang Tenor).” That’s what they are describing.

Filk Infliction

Sorry. Busy writing. Fresh Content Tomorrow.

Hi, my name is Alma and I like filk-music. I play it and sing it.

What’s filk-music? I’m glad you asked (although you might not be.) At best, it is folk music for worlds that never existed, fantasy realms, space battle stations, car-racing elves, marching songs for armies a thousand years in the future. At worst it makes Irish drinking songs sung ten minutes before closing time on pay-day-weekend sound like grand opera or great hymns. I grew up with folk music, both of the Childe Ballad type and the “modern folk” (Weavers, Limelighters, Ian and Sylvia, Kingston Trio, Odetta.) So of course it’s a short leap from “Over the Hills and Far Away” to “Stand to Your Glasses Steady” to “Falling Down on New Jersey,” and, well . . . Continue reading

Odetta: When Folk Music meets Opera

I grew up listening to recordings of folk music. Ian and Sylvia, the Kingston Trio and Limelighters, the New Christie Minstrels; Peter, Paul, and Mary; Joan Baez, Judy Collins. But the woman whose voice I remember hearing the most was Odetta.

Odetta Holmes (1930-2008), who sang as Odetta, trained as an opera singer. It showed in her voice, richer with far more depth and control than is generally associated with the 1950s-60s folk sound. She played guitar as well, and became active in the folk-music renaissance of the 1950s-60. Her version of “Lowlands” and “The Fox” are the two I recall the best of all the versions I’ve heard.

Odetta was also active in the civil rights movement, like so many in the folk scene. The music I listened to didn’t hammer the me over the head like some “folk” songs of the era. She let the voice and the songs tell the story of working folks, sailors, soldiers, and others.

“All my Trials” is gospel. MomRed has a very low alto voice, and sang this as a lullaby. Which may explain something about me . . .

As with many operatically trained musicians, and women who do R&B*, she had a second career in her later years. I’ve heard R&B described as one of the few areas where women become more in demand as they age – it takes mileage to sing the blues well. Odetta had taken care of her voice, and did well in the 1990s-early 2000s. She died of complications of heart problems in 2008. Given what happened to so many musicians of that era, her 78 years is very impressive.**

Odetta was a contralto before contraltos were cool. If you listen to a lot of female vocalists today, outside of symphonic metal, you find very few sopranos. The 1960s made alto cool, and Odetta is one of the coolest of the cool. Her control, diction, and tone color stood out, and still stand out.

*Rhythm and Blues

**Some years ago, Ted Nugent had a sad little op-ed in the Wall Street Journal bemoaning how many truly great musicians of his generation had been done in by drugs and booze, and wondering what might have been if Jimi Hendrix and others had continued to produce and grow musically.

Folksongs in Rock: Eversleeping by Xandria

I’d never really sat down and listened to the song before. A pattern caught my ear. “Wait, seven? Seven seas, seven years, seven rivers? Hmm, that’s a folksong pattern that goes back to the Bible and a few other places.” Places like the song “Greenwood Sidie-O [The Cruel Mother]” among others . . .

The lyrics to “Eversleeping” (single version):

Once I travelled 7 seas to find my love
And once I sang 700 songs
Well, maybe I still have to walk 7000 miles
Until I find the one that I belong

Once I crossed 7 rivers to find my love
And once, for 7 years, I forgot my name
Well, if I have to I will die 7 deaths just to lie
In the arms of my eversleeping aim


I will rest my head side by side
To the one that stays in the night
I will lose my breath in my last words of sorrow
And whatever comes will come soon
Dying I will pray to the moon
That there once will be a better tomorrow


I dreamt last night that he came to me
He said: “My love, why do you cry?”
For now it won’t be be long any more

“Eversleeping” Writer(s): Marco Heubaum, Elisabeth Middelhauve, Philip Restemeier, Gerit Lamm, Elisabeth Schaphaus From the album Ravenheart (2004)

The motifs of seeking a lost love, of traveling over multiple obstacles, of dreaming of the lost love . . . Can be found all over the place. I grew up with “SiĂșil a RĂșn,” “The Wars of High Germany,” “Scarborough Fair,” “She Moved Through the Fair,” and a lot of other folk songs. Folk tales too include people traveling long distances over mountain and ocean to track down a lost love (“East of the Sun, West of the Moon,” several Russian stories . . .) And of course, the dead lover (“Hills of Shiloh,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “Bitter Green,” “Hills of Loch Lomand.”) https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/TheLostLenore

Xandria plays with those folk-song ideas a fair amount, at least in some of their albums. “Rose on the Grave of Love” is probably the most obvious (“Barbara Allen,” and a host of others). Xandria tends to be more melodic than some other Goth-rock groups, which also fits the folk-motif borrowing. And of course, mourning over a distant or deceased lover is a staple in Goth-y stories and romances and characters and so forth. Edgar Allen Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” the premise behind some of Behind the Black Veil‘s songs from Dark Sarah . . . The tropes are common, and ancient. It’s just intriguing to find them used in new ways, by new genres of music. Part of me wonders if some of this is the influence of groups like Jethro Tull, Steeleye Span, and the folk-rock side of rock, blending with the Goth and metal sides.

Since Xandria appears to have broken up [ah, band dramas!], I can’t exactly ask them, but it’s fun to speculate.

Songs that Didn’t Age Well?

“Land of Confusion” by Genesis came over the radio/music system at the regional Barnes and Noble the other day. I shook my head a little. I’ve tried to use the video for that song as part of teaching the Cold War, and it goes thud for the students. Unless you have a lot of background, or you were alive then and remember all the cultural stuff around Ronald Reagan and US foreign policy and British politics then, the video makes no sense. The song is OK, but again, leaves a listener wondering what the problem was that the song is talking about.

That started me thinking about “modern folk” songs and what still works, as compared to songs that require the listener to already know the story before hearing them. Why does “Which Hat Shall I Wear?” make sense, and “The John Birch Society” go splat? Sting’s “The Russians Love Their Children Too” still gets the point across in a way “Land of Confusion” no longer does. Some are soooo trite, or so tied into their time period that a lot of us tune them out – or flee, in the case of “Imagine” and “Where Have All The Flowers Gone.”

People have used songs to comment on policy and events going back to . . .forever. Psalm 136/137 [depends on translation of the Old Testament/Tanakh] is one. “By the waters of Babylon, we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” [NIV] The Children of Israel are lamenting their exile and cursing the people who dragged them away from Jerusalem. It’s not one of the Psalms we memorized as kids, and you can see why. But it fit the time, and place, and voices a feeling that many people have shared over the centuries. In England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, and all over, people set political texts to folk tunes, or turned current events into doggerel that became childrens’ songs. “Jack and Jill went up the Hill,” “Hector Protector,” “The Skye Boat Song,” which is a lullaby and a political statement.

WWI and WWII saw a lot of music about current events created, some of which . . . stinks. “Let’s Remember Pearl Harbor,” isn’t so great. “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” doesn’t have the same effect today, but “White Cliffs of Dover” still packs a punch. “You’re a Sap, Mister Jap?” Catchy but meh, and not universal. The ones that still work, from any conflict or political scandal, are the ones that seem to become universal.

The 1950s, 60s, and later have the same problem, if confusion and forgetability are problems. “John Birch Society” is funny if you understand what the JBS was, and Red Skelton, Pinkie Lee, and others. So, the popular culture of the 1950s and the so-called Red Scare, and the politics of the time. Or perhaps it’s not funny, now that we have the Verona decrypts and know just what the Soviets really were doing with US politics. “Which Hat,” about a hypocritical woman who claims to be all for equality and civil rights, but opposes actually doing anything, still makes sense, because her hypocrisy is so obvious. It’s not as effective as it was then, perhaps, but a lot of us still know people who are all for Great Causes of every kind, as long as the Great Cause doesn’t require any effort on the part of the person espousing it (see Mrs. Jellyby in Dickens for a classic example.) Of the two, I enjoy “John Birch” more, because the guys are having fun. “Which Hat” is more heavy handed.

Sting’s song “The Black Seam” about the coal miners’ strike against Margaret Thatcher’s policies is another one that goes thud, not the least because he gets the science of nuclear energy wrong (no surprise. “Uranium 236” doesn’t rhyme the way he needed to rhyme, so he used “Carbon 14” instead.) It’s not a bad song, but doesn’t make a lot of sense today. “Children’s Crusade,” alas, makes sense, because the heroin trade is still alive and well. “Russians” pokes at all sides in the Cold War, instead of just the US and Great Britain, and Sting used a very, very good Russian melody as the basis for the larger song. I don’t really care for any of those three, but I don’t care for the politics of the anti-nuclear and anti-war movement, either. I find myself talking back to the CD. It’s even worse for all the Vietnam War stuff.

What political songs from the 2000s will still make sense in the future? I have no idea. I don’t know what pop tunes will survive. There’s a lot of winnowing out over twenty, thirty years and more. How many folk tunes only survive because they became hymns? How many political songs from the Gilded Age are recorded today, or performed? Anyone, anyone? Bueller? Bueller?

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. Continue reading