By Adam Cantor
Plucking the threads of tradition, whether they be the old words, or the old melodies, and weaving them into new performances adds a haunting sublimity to the music. Tunes that have been passed down from one generation to the next, evolving a little on the tongue of each singer, are filled with beguiling psychological complexities. Bleak words are pinned onto wonderful melodies, and there is never an apology for the frank descriptions of the darkness of life.
In The Butcher Boy, a father calmly cuts his daughter down from where she hangs in her bedroom, and reads the suicide note placed in the bosom of her dress. In Little Sadie, a man who has gunned down his lover in the street recounts his own arrest after a botched attempt to flee from the law. Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies, the title track of Oxlip’s album, reminds us that young and hopeful love is an illusion, and that sooner or later every heart grows bored.
The magic of singing the traditional songs is that they remind us all the best music belongs to us all, and is owned by nobody. There is no one performance that is so definitive that it requires a lawsuit to prevent anybody else from taking up parts of its lyrics or melody. It is the opposite: sharing the song, and adding to the catalog of versions makes the tradition stronger. In this way, the variations become a badge of uniqueness, and it is a way of keeping a song alive across generations, and over hundreds of years.
All of this philosophizing about the music having been offered, I must tell you I love these particular variations of the songs. There is a blend of old-timey instruments; clawhammer banjo and so on, mixed in with electric guitars, slow rock rhythms, and tinges of psychedelia. It is a fusion that works very well.
It is interesting to note that in some songs the lyrics dropped away entirely, or merged into the background of the music in such a way that I could no longer tell what was being sung. This was wonderful in the sense that, with songs I knew less well, like Old Paint, I found myself looking up the lyrics, and then falling down into the histories and traditions of each tune. Moreover, the blurring of the words here and there reminded me of how history functions, and how things are lost and found through the transmission of memory. What a good album.
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Having said that much jacket copy I provided (quite willingly) for Oxlip’s album, I want to add to the above thoughts by saying this:
Oxlip’s re-imagining of these traditional tunes falls ostensibly into the same kind of category as the psychedelic bands who were working in this style in the late sixties and early seventies: Fairport Convention, Pentangle, and Steeleye Span, and extending as far as Led Zeppelin (sometimes). In these acts, the traditional melodies blended into the psychedelia. As I said before, the antique energy of the lyrics added to the mysticism.
Going back a bit further in time, it is hard to say where to draw a line between people like Woody Guthrie, or Lead Belly, who you might say were living in the traditions of the music they played, versus Shirley Collins (who was also married to famed archivist Alan Lomax), or the Seeger Family, or Bob Dylan, who leaned the tunes and disseminated them, even if they weren’t originally born into the tradition.
Bob Dylan travelled a long way from sitting by Woody Guthrie’s bedside as Guthrie died, to turning the folk melodies he had learned and transforming them into psychedelic rock anthems.
The old tunes, meanwhile, made it onto country radio, and old 78 recordings, too, back in the twenties and thirties. People who were raised learning the music surrounded by the most dire sorts of poverty became internationally famous, thanks to the new technologies. June Carter was the daughter of Maybelle Carter, one of the original superstars of country music, and later June married Johnny Cash. Johnny Cash in his early days was on tour with Elvis.
Meanwhile, the skiffle acts who performed upbeat versions of the early bluegrass and country tunes they heard coming over from America. Skiffle and Elvis were two foundations of the work of the Beatles, whose work is indivisible from psychedelic music in the late sixties. Jimi Hendrix, who started off touring with Little Richard, and (among many other things) recorded a version of a Bob Dylan song that is more famous than the original.
Little Richard, meanwhile, started out by taking the gospel music and blues that surrounded him in his childhood and fusing it into the frantic and upbeat shape of rock and roll, thus influencing Elvis, and the Beatles, and everybody else.
This is not even getting into whatever the fuck is happening in Ireland.
Leaving the blues and rock and roll aside for a second, many of the fiddle tunes played in the Appalachian mountains, tunes which eventually became the backbone of bluegrass, old-time, and country music, originated with melodies that came over from the England, Scotland, and Ireland, and then were preserved in surprisingly familiar forms in the isolation of that region. It isn’t at all unusual for a musician playing Appalachian music to discover that there is a tune with an entirely different name, but nearly the same melody, that is still being played on the Islands off the coast of Europe someplace.
Cultural artifacts and notions evolve as they are separated by distance and by time from whatever fixed point in the past we choose. The notion of a a particular melody as it exists in a single family, say three hundred years ago, changes if the family splits apart, with one sibling (for example) being deported to America, and the other remaining in England. The sibling in America remembers the tune, and generally what it was like to be an English person, but the new geography, and new influences still change the tune and the culture over time. The deported sibling’s descendants start to incorporate the banjo (an instrument of African origins) in with the fiddle and syncopation, and a particular lilt enter into the performance.
Meanwhile, the sibling who stayed in England also has descendants, and these descendants endure the industrial revolution, and the emptying out of the countryside into factories, and they fight the Germans a bunch of times, and the French once or twice, as well. An Empire rises then crumbles around them. They have a notion of the old England, but it is very much informed by its own interpretation through the lens of the present. The descendants cannot truly see they way those people thought and lived, so they dress the melodies in the sensibilities of the present, yet allow them to channel feelings about the past, even if the instrumentation and presentation are entirely different.
Consider the case of the legendarily awesome British TV show Robin of Sherwood. It isn’t that the mystique of the Middle Ages ever left the consciousness of the British people. Chaucer, Thomas Malory, William Shakespeare, Walter Scott, and so many others, either stayed relevant, or reached into the iconography of that historical bag and then blended it with the particulars of their own era.
The Pre-Raphaelites blended Art-Deco flourishes with the medieval, and meanwhile architects revived the Gothic in their structures. Furniture makers (and sometimes novelists) like William Morris built their Arts and Crafts style furniture to reflect the aesthetic of that time. It was not only a style, but also a philosophy, based on an imagined way of living in a simpler and more authentic time.
Later on there was that whole thing with Errol Flynn. But really, Robin of Sherwood was a more important cultural event than any of these. It wasn’t only that the show easily imagined an ancient time when men with incredible, lion-like mullets could bound through the mythical woods about Nottingham in leather pants so tight that it could only be the help of wizards that enabled them to stay so nimble, but it was the music, moreover, that made the event so special.
Clannad; the band that originally launched Enya, provided a soundtrack that evoked the era of King John, and Richard the Lionheart, through the lush application of synth pads and layered vocal harmonies in what we now always imagine immediately as evocative of an era of swords and armour.
It is not that Clannad specifically had to use any original Irish or English folk melody, so much as they understood that the melodies always moved in certain ways; in certain patterns between the notes, and always in certain modes. Sometimes they were traditional tunes, and sometimes they were not, however, the application of each in equal measure on their albums, and for the TV show, did a lot to help create the semiotic cues that are now so common that only a seconds are all we need to fall instantly into the head space of a world where mud and arrows were a common occurrence.
While Enya was out of the band by this point, her contributions to the early sound of Clannad were integral. She herself later provided some of the iconic music for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. Needless to say, Tolkien figures largely into these re imagining of the music and aesthetics of these eras. It is not only that his vision is specifically about how traditional ways of being are consumed and poisoned by industrial sprawl, but also he imagined his characters as constantly in song, and constantly recounting their adventures through ballads. Her gave us the lyrics without the melodies, but when we scanned the metre, we always knew that the melodies absent from the page were structured to the traditional forms.
After Lord of the Rings, pretty much anything in the nebulous (at least as far as TV writers are concerned) centuries between the fall of the Roman Empire and the arrival of Columbus in the Americas has been musically signified by vaguely Northern European female wailing over synth drones. Both Norse themed TV shows on Netflix; Vikings and The Last Kingdom, have this. God knows how many movies about stabbing people with swords and so on have this.
Game of Thrones, to their credit, got away from the formula (a little bit)…but they fucked up everything else, so let’s not give them too much oxygen.
Back in America, the sense of traditional music and its ability to immediately ensconce the views in a specific (or slightly non-specific) space and time is just as prevalent. Just a few notes of slide blues can take you back to the South, and (for better or worse) the Jim Crow era. Just the right pull on a violin bow, or pluck on a banjo can take you into the Old West. It is a great shorthand that has been built up over a long series of offerings into the discourse, none of which are based on any kind of historical accuracy or any actual tune, so much as they are upon our collective perception of what those times represented.
This sort of phenomenon is so common to the human experience that the complexity of virtually any example I choose would be nearly impossible to express in its entirety. Cultural studies professors love to describe it as an element of our unending diaspora. It is both an element of diaspora, and it is a performance (both collective and individually) of culture that is evolving over time. This is taking us a bit of a ways away from Oxlip’s album, but in other ways it isn’t.
OXLIP releases new Psychedelic Traditionals album:
COME ALL YE FAIR AND TENDER LADIES
Announced for release 05/27 on World Peach Records