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Dives, Lazarus, Molly, and Tenbrooks - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
Dives, Lazarus, Molly, and Tenbrooks

The meme going about asking, in effect, What was TOTP the day you were born?, has led to some interesting responses.  Two of my American friends, in fact, drew me into a conversation[1] in which I outed myself, as it were, as having – in my usual odd fashion of collecting curious knowledge, magpie-like – some interest in American old-time, roots, bluegrass, and country music.


No, I am not Alex Massie in disguise.


Although I cannot speak for Massie, and shouldn’t care to do on a bet, I imagine that his interest is not dissimilar to mine.  Child’s collection of ballads, with Percy’s Reliques, is, as Smith and Niles and Lomax have amply shown, the rootstock upon which American folk and country music have flowered.  Long before Ricky Skaggs and Ry Cooder did a series of gigs with the Chieftains, anyone who cared to follow the researches and song-collecting of Sabine Baring-Gould or RVW or Roud or any folk society in these Isles[2] would be aware of this simple fact.  I have been very fortunate – I don’t dare say, privileged: it provokes a Pavlov response, and frankly, I’d rather have a pavlova – in having made the acquaintance of a number of musicians, in all genres of music.  I am not fool enough to minimise the huge influence of Black music on all American music: no one who spent five minutes with Eddie ‘Cleanhead’ Vinson, or Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown, or BB King, or Koko Taylor, could maintain such a daft argument; and no one who sat a masterclass taught by Maynard Ferguson could deny for a moment that Black American music has moulded music all ’round the world, whether played by a trad jazz band in West Africa or a Canadian trumpeter (or Melly or Humph, or Mr Acker Bilk with a German swing band): whether through the influence of jazz, or of blues, or of any bar of music written in America or by Americans from Nashville to Tin Pan Alley to the Brill Building.


Nevertheless, the folk and country strains in American music are fundamentally British: one cannot listen to them and not hear the echoes and overtones.  Maria Marten and the Red Barn haunt the American imagination as surely as they do the British; the figure of the Unfortunate Rake – accompanied as it were by melodic Spanish ladies – stalks the Streets of Laredo, and also occupies a mortuary place at St James Infirmary in New Orleans.  Young Beichan, Hind Horn, James Hatley o’ the Lee, Dives and Lazarus, all live on in the mountains and hollows of Appalachia, and, guised and mumming, caper through even the most recent American lyrics.  The twa corbies flap across American skies, and Barbara Allen remains an equivocal exemplar for cold, aloof women musically reproached by dying suitors, themselves rustic Lords Randal, across the New World.  The broadsheet ballads of highwaymen turned off at Tyburn are the Folsom Prison Blues, and the plaints of lads who, despite their mothers’ pleas, take to crime and find themselves turning twenty-one in prison doin’ life without parole.  The ‘bad men’ of America are Dick Turpin’s sons, as surely as the cowboy is Robin himself, the free man and noble outlaw of the greenwood: as surely as the Jack tales of Appalachia are the trickster tales of Merry England.  The Devil who fiddles in Georgia is the fause knicht upon the Hielan road; Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard dwell forever under the name of ‘Shady Grove’; and Pancho and Lefty have pursued their banditry from Jedburgh to Newry to the West Country.


And what, you will ask, then happened, when the British-derived minstrelsy of rural, white America was mixed and stirred and transmuted, melded with and made new by blues and jazz and Black Gospel (for there is a white Gospel tradition, as distillation of Dissenting hymnody, that is as thoroughly British as is bluegrass itself)?


Rock and roll, of course, is what happened.  And mark what followed.  Elvis Presley was the primary medium through whom Black American music – appropriated, yes, and made palatable to white America: there’s the stuff of many a (rather unoriginal) academic-thesis-cum-acafen-LJ-post in all this, which we may take as read – Elvis was the primary medium through whom Black American music was brought, if in an etiolated fashion, to white America …and to Britain.  Other artists as well, who straddled the colour bar in music, Ray Orbison, Carl Perkins, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, reinforced this new movement forward.  John Mayall listened, and became an evangelist of the sound.  The Beatles and the Stones formed, soon expressly to re-import to America the new American sound; Eric Clapton vindicated Robert Johnson to an America that had had no use for that greatest of blues guitarists.  From this confluence of blues, rhythm, rockabilly, and the British-born ballads of Appalachia and the Ozarks, mediated through the enthusiasm of young British converts and rural white Americans, came all of rock and roll, the soundtrack – like it or not – of our days.  Well might Tippett, who, after all, included Black American music in his oratorio, have taken instead Elvis or Buddy Holly or Chuck Berry as the true Child of Our Time.


How, then, can anyone not be fascinated by this remarkable, global phenomenon?

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sgt_majorette From: sgt_majorette Date: February 8th, 2010 12:05 am (UTC) (Link)
Music, says a child who wept over a poem called "The Minstrel Boy" before she realized that there were such things as white minstrels, is music. Nobody looks at me funny (except as a critique of my instrument) when I bust out with some bluesy Balkan madness.

Excuse me while I go back to my annual attempt to memorize phonetically "Eamonn an Chnoic"...
wemyss From: wemyss Date: February 8th, 2010 04:21 pm (UTC) (Link)

Would that this were more widely known.

As Eustace Scrubb might have said.
noeon From: noeon Date: February 8th, 2010 05:53 am (UTC) (Link)

Appalachian Wellspring

I remember hearing Vaughan Williams's Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus as a child and being shocked at how familiar it felt. Femme and I recently realized our favorite hymns are both set to the same Irish traditional (and yes, of course it's Slane).

And then learning to hear Chuck Berry in the Beach Boys and appreciating the nuances of the Beatles persiflage. And that all happened in just a few YEARS. How much wilder is the growth of traditional and popular music across oceans and through centuries.

It's as if we keep encountering music for the first time and we simultaneously realize we know it well.

Culture as a membrane is more permeable than we think, our makeup is made of things we cannot quite imagine, and perhaps these songs have travelled through all of us many, many times under many guises.

ED. And nothing beats reading Prudentius and realizing it's something your mother sang to you as a child. And being able to sing it in Latin against the 16th century setting that still feels like a lullaby.

Edited at 2010-02-08 06:21 am (UTC)
wemyss From: wemyss Date: February 8th, 2010 04:21 pm (UTC) (Link)

Fons et origo?

Lovely, isn't it.
noeon From: noeon Date: February 9th, 2010 01:20 pm (UTC) (Link)

ipse fons et clausula

femmequixotic From: femmequixotic Date: February 8th, 2010 06:13 am (UTC) (Link)

Music would play and Felina would whirl

It's funny, Noe and I were just talking last night at dinner post-church services about American country genres of the past century and how they were woven from the threads of jazz and blues and black gospel and white gospel and the Scots-Irish-British folk traditions that fill the smokey blue mountains and foothills of the Appalachian range, and how our own histories intersect with that region and its music.

I was raised with Johnson and King, with the ballads of love lost or won (or lost again), with Barbara Allen and Handsome Molly and Cripple Creek, with the old, twangy hymns, with Amazing Grace and How Great Thou Art and Peace In The Valley, with fiddles and guitars and dulcimers and dobros. Music was all around, whether sung in church or by my grandmother in her kitchen or coming from the scratchy rotation of my father's vinyl records on the stereo--and oh, how I loved lying on the floor in a pool of sunlight listening to the stories spun in music by the Carters, or by Willie Nelson, or by Marty Robbins (I will admit to this day there's a part of me that longs for a Felina with eyes blacker than night, wicked and evil while casting a spell).

The past couple of years have found me discovering (or perhaps in some cases rediscovering) British folk musicians, and I've been struck by how familiar they are. Sometimes literally, stumbling across a folk song that my grandmother would sing (always off-key but with great gusto and joy), and sometimes in the feel of the music itself, with elements that remind me of another song or two, and I can trace the musical history. It always delights me, and moves me, actually, to know that something that I consider such a vital, entwined part of myself and my history has its roots so deep in other cultures and in other histories besides my own.

Music is such a human experience. I love that it crosses borders and cultures. It's just so universal, so filled with emotions that everyone can understand because we all feel them in some way or another. I can't imagine life without it.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: February 8th, 2010 04:22 pm (UTC) (Link)

Spot on.

And what a joy it all is, to be sure.
magic_at_mungos From: magic_at_mungos Date: February 8th, 2010 10:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
You a Cash fan as well?
wemyss From: wemyss Date: February 9th, 2010 04:22 pm (UTC) (Link)

Immensely so. And still more of his in-laws.

I walk, as it were, the line.
magic_at_mungos From: magic_at_mungos Date: February 9th, 2010 10:31 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Immensely so. And still more of his in-laws.

I haven't heard any of the Carter music. Any must listens?
wemyss From: wemyss Date: February 10th, 2010 09:08 pm (UTC) (Link)

These will do to be going on with - merely as an introduction, mind.

magic_at_mungos From: magic_at_mungos Date: February 11th, 2010 11:42 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: These will do to be going on with - merely as an introduction, mind.

Ooh shiny. Very bluegrassy
avus From: avus Date: February 13th, 2010 06:08 am (UTC) (Link)
Ah, you stir memories. I was, in an earlier life, a musicologist & conductor, w/ a planned PhD based on 19th American popular religious music -- the beginnings of white gospel & the even earlier American Shape-Note Folk Hymns with their distinctive melodies and their equally distinctive harmonies, done largely on the Southern frontier in the first half of the 19th c. With that was my interest in the emergence of the Black Sprituals & other slave songs, first published in "proper" rhythms & choral harmonies by the post-Civil War Southern black colleges & their travelling singers who supported these colleges.

You point to many sources, and many are indeed, as you say, Brit & Black. Many shape-hymn tunes were traced back to the Child Ballads by the first collector/publisher of this music in the scholarly world -- George Pullen Jackson. (Jackson, sadly, tried to show that there was only Child/Brit influence in black spirituals. There's some, certainly, but his early 20th c. Southern "heritage" was showing and covering up what should have been a better ear with better sense.)

What I'd add, too: I've heard the music & read the arguments tracing them back to England, Germany & Africa. For all that, which is true, I can also hear, just as strongly, a distinctive & creative American merging and American addition from an American experience. Not denying the rest & its undisputed value, simply highlighting an equally important and creative "more". That's there, and it's just as distinctive as British rock, at least the what I've heard, which also has a distinctive Brit cast, not merely a Brit aping an American music. From what I've guessed, it's from the Brit working-class urban experience, with all its post-WWII strengths & struggles. Though here, I'm ready to be corrected by your better-tuned ear & much finer & vastly learned sense of the history & culture.

White Gospel, by the way, before it nestled itself into rural America, was first an defiantly urban music, born out of a fairly distinctive urban & technical revival. (With revival roots, of course, not only in the frontier revivals of the early 19th c. Great Awakening, but the earlier Brit revivalists of the 18th c. Great Awakening, and the even earlier American puritan revivalist, like Jonathan Edwards.) Yes, I'll grant that white American gospel likely had its dissenter tradition, though my ear does know that sound. But I suspect more-so, its immediate parent was the American genteel & urban popular music, and most especially the early urban American Sunday School music, many of whose composers & publishers became gospel composers hardly missing (or changing) a beat. Though here, too, there was something creative & fresh that was distinctive & powerful & urban & American, reflecting the struggles of Reconstruction, mass industrialization & displaced rural America & the German & Irish immigrants. (That Gospel music, by the way, was quickly exported to England, by Moody & others who originated it in the States. The most extensive single collection of 19th c. white Gospel music I've ever found -- some 1200 hymns -- was published in London!)

Ah, but while this is fun, I ramble too much and I must be in bed before another busy workday.

Just taking a moment to lurk on lj. Jane sends her love, and we wish you & yours all good things.

Dave, aka avus

P.S. Found anything yet on the best way to brew a proper cup of tea at 8,000 feet? *grins*
wemyss From: wemyss Date: February 13th, 2010 03:30 pm (UTC) (Link)

Curious that you shd ask.

I've found it's no use badgering old ICS types: they'd servants at Simla. Yr real difficulty is that yr water's not sufficiently hot. Warm the pot for rather longer. be certain you've a tea cosy for it, bring the water to a more roiling boil, and steep a trifle longer, is the consensus, although I am still baffled for actual advice as such. Try it and let me know.

Early British rock and roll, to turn to another topic, was highly informed by skiffle, jazz, the blues, and generally American demotic music: Leadbelly and Cannonball, as it were. It was certainly taken up by lads who lived in sink estates and went to secondary moderns; on the other hand, it was also taken up by grammar school and public school chaps (Mick Jagger was up at LSE when he formed the Stones).

To a third point, tonic sol-fa - a precursor of shaped-note singing - was still known to rural C of E choirs in the '50s and '60s in the UK.

A fascinating melange, really, and as you rightly say one that takes on adaptive colour wherever it finds itself.

My love to Jane: I trust all is well for you both.
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