Saturday, August 11, 2012
Bob Dylan said in a 1965 interview about folk music: "It's weird, man, full of legend, myth, Bible and ghosts."
Sometimes, the legends can be traced to actual historical events. One example is the Appalachian murder ballad "Omie Wise," which tells the story of a pregnant girl who was drowned by her lover in North Carolina.
The legends, however, can also be less historical and more mythical. One song that is common to Scotland, Ireland, and the Appalachians, under various names, is "The House Carpenter." All the versions of the song tell of a man who comes back from nine months at sea to find his love married to a house carpenter and caring for a child. He then takes her out on his ship where he sinks the ship, killing the woman and her child.
This tale of jealousy, however, takes on more sinister overtones in the Scottish version of the song, which is called "The Demon Lover." In this variant, the woman does not discover until it is too late that her former lover has a cloven hoof. It is then that the demon lover decides to drown her. (The Irish version, as recorded by Dervish, is known as "The Banks of the Sweet Viledee.")
Even more disturbing than the murder ballads are those involving incest. One such song is "The Well below the Valley." The beginning of the song alludes to Christ's conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. However, instead of revealing the woman's multiple adulterous relationships, the stranger at the well reveals that she has murdered six babies she had through incest.
Finally, one reason for the weirdness of certain folk songs is the simple fact that certain words have been lost and the story line has become obscure. For instance, the following version of "Heathery Hills of Yarrow" (also known as the "The Dowie Dens o' Yarrow") was sung by Micheal O'Domhnaill in the 1970's, and later by his sister Triona Ni Dhomhnaill on the Bothy Band's Afterhours; it tells the story of the murder of a woman's lover, but the exact motive is not clear, as it appears to be missing some verses that explain the context.