Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Tuneful Tuesday: Haunted Ballads

I haven't blogged much for a while (until today, when I'm going crazy blogging), and have missed a couple of Tuesdays. I'm not sure why, perhaps it's just that my hands get cold at the computer (with oil at #3.19 a gallon on our last fill, we are not keeping the thermostat set very high); perhaps a little seasonal depression (nothing serious, just lack of energy); or perhaps it's just because I've been spending a lot of time reading.

I recently read the last (alas!) two books in Deborah Grabien's Haunted Ballad series. There are only five books in all; Ms. Grabien, apparently partly because of publisher problems, has moved on now to a series with a rock'n'roll musician as the protagonist. But back to the Haunted Ballads....

The protagonists are Ringan Laine, a folk guitarist and vocalist with a successful band, but who also has another career as a restoration consultant for old buildings. The series is set in England so both the buildings and the folk songs are seriously old. Most of the music Ringan's band does are Child ballads and the like. His long-time companion, Penny Wintercraft-Hawkes, is an actor, director, and founder of the Tamburlaine Players, a theatre group which does a lot of Shakespeare and such around Britain and Europe. Ringan and Penny are fully committed to each other, but maintain separate residences, and their peripatetic lifestyles lead to many joyous reunions.

Each book centers around one of the Child ballads. I won't describe each of the plots, but the basic premise is that a ghost appears, usually in or near an old house or other building, causing a lot of trouble for Penny, Ringan, and anyone else who happens to be around. They realize that the ghost has something to do with one of the ballads and the story behind it. Through investigating the facts underlying the ballad (which the folk process has often garbled), Ringan and Penny are able to resolve matters, but not before many thrilling episodes take place. If you like Phil Rickman's Merrily Watkins books, you'll probably enjoy these books as well.

Apart from the stories, which are well-plotted and gripping with engaging characters, one of the things I appreciated most about this series was Ms. Grabien's ability to write about music. Many times in each book, Ringan's band or some other musician plays, and the description almost makes you hear the music. And it's better, in her description, than the best music you've ever heard. It's sort of the way Rex Stout wrote about food in the Nero Wolfe books.

A fun thing as I've read the books was finding recordings of the songs they're built around. Unfortunately for me, the last, The New-Slain Knight (Child 263) doesn't appear to have been recorded as far as I can tell. But here are the books, with links to some recordings that are available, and some YouTube videos where possible.

1. The Weaver and the Factory Maid
(This is an old ballad, but is not one of the Child ballads, dealing as it does with the Industrial Revolution): The apparently definitive recording of this song is by Steeleye Span, from their album Parcel of Rogues, and also included on various "greatest hits" albums. It's also available as a Digital Download ; look under Steeleye Span with the title simply given as "The Weaver." (By the way, if you are going to do any of these things with Amazon.com, you can go to RevGalBlogPals website and surf to Amazon from there, and RGBP will get a little money.)

2. The Famous Flower of Serving Men (Child 106) Here's the song as done by Martin Carthy:

This song is available on his album Waiting for Angels, and it's also available, as a Digital Download, from the late Ewan McColl combined with another ballad, Sweet William.

3. Matty Groves
(Child 81) I was more familiar with Joan Baez's version, but the version Deborah Grabien had in mind was, I'm sure, Fairport Convention's. There are a number of versions available for Digital Download, and don't forget the variant, Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard. Here is a fairly recent live performance by Fairport Convention
but for a rendition by a lesser-known band that perhaps has more youthful energy, try this one:


4. Cruel Sister (Child #10 as "The Twa Sisters") has many versions. The Armstrong Family have recorded it as "Lay the Bent" on their CD The Wheel of the Year, but it is a version that combines elements of "Cruel Sister" with the riddles that you may recall from "Scarborough Fair" as sung by Simon and Garfunkel. Deborah Grabien references the Pentangle version (available from iTunes) in her book, and it's available on iTunes.
The Dutch duo Yggdrasil does a lovely, though truncated, a cappella version here:

For a solo version with all the words, very scary, try this one:

Now, speaking of haunted ballads, there is another, longer series of mysteries set in the Smoky Mountains area which also takes its titles from old ballads. Sharyn McCrumb's series begins with If Ever I Return, Pretty Peggy-O. The connection with the songs, and the "woo-woo" element, are both more subtle in these police procedurals, but I discovered that the author actually does "Words and Music" events where she reads from the book and a folksinger performs the songs. (Check out "Words and Music" on her website.) Although I tend to think of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan when I think of the song "Pretty Peggy-O" or "Fennario," apparently it was also a Grateful Dead favorite and has inspired a lot of people to post videos of themselves doing it. This was a nice one:

4 comments:

DebGrabien said...

Oh, lovely review! Thank you.

Actually, I moved on to the Kinkaids because the Kinkaids are the books of my heart, the ones I've been waiting my entire adult life to catch up with and have the courage to put on paper. Recapturing my own lost years...

David Nelson (of the New Riders) and his band do a sterling version of "Pretty Peggy-O": I have a recent live version of that. He also covers the Appalachian version of "Cruel Sister", as did Jerry garcia dn David Grisman: "The Dreadful Wind and Rain".

My particular favourite version of Matty Groves was the original Fairport Convention cover, from "Liege & Lief". Richard Thompson's guitar, Dave Swarbrick's soaring fiddle, and Sandy Denny's voice, with all the energy and fire the song deserves.

annmagee@pacbell.net said...

Thank you so much for compiling these videos! I am studying various presentations of the Matty Groves story and the "younger" version YouTube video is wonderful! I read the Grabien book and loved that she created some strong women characters and that she moved the guilt away from Lord X's wife (and gave her a real name!). I myself don't care much for Fairport Convention (I know, heresy) but do like many other versions of MGroves, including Doc Watson, Sally Rogers, & Dillard Chandler.

annmagee@pacbell.net said...

Thank you so much for compiling these videos! I am studying various presentations of the Matty Groves story and the "younger" version YouTube video is wonderful! I read the Grabien book and loved that she created some strong women characters and that she moved the guilt away from Lord X's wife (and gave her a real name!). I myself don't care much for Fairport Convention (I know, heresy) but do like many other versions of MGroves, including Doc Watson, Sally Rogers, & Dillard Chandler.

TinaPete said...

Thank you so much for compiling these videos! I am studying various presentations of the Matty Groves story and the "younger" version YouTube video is wonderful! I read the Grabien book and loved that she created some strong women characters and that she moved the guilt away from Lord X's wife (and gave her a real name!). I myself don't care much for Fairport Convention (I know, heresy) but do like many other versions of MGroves, including Doc Watson, Sally Rogers, & Dillard Chandler.