Saturday, February 6, 2010

RE: Comments

My dears, you may have noticed that lately here at Blogger I have left your very kind comments unanswered. This is NOT because I do not appreciate each of them and treasure your kind words. It's THIS: for some reason, every time I try to leave a comment, here at my blog or at anyone else's on Blogger, my computer goes haywire. It begins putting up blank IE screens that multiply at an alarming rate and only cease to do so when I completely shut down the puter.

Some of you will be able to leave comments at my other blog (Fairweather Lewis); others cannot because of a glitch there preventing some ISPs from opening new accounts on Blogstream.

My computer guru Willard and I are brainstorming to try to find some way either to straighten this blog out or to put my blog into a format where I can put together my own comment settings.

Until then, know I value all your comments. Thank you all for your kindness, and hopefully we'll figure out something soon.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Take This Tune: 'At Sojer Boy's Got a EVIL Twin

This week at Take This Tune, our theme is love lost and found, as in the ballad Pretty Fair Maid in the Garden, with roots in the sixteenth century.

The faithful soldier in "Pretty Fair Maid in the Garden" is the epitome of fantasy: he returns after seven long years (unrecognizable to his true love). The fantasy could go wrong, of course; the potential for disaster is in the questions he asks, designed as a test for her. What if he’s "in some watercourse drowning" or "on some battlefield slain" or—YIKES!!!--"to some fair girl married"? The Pretty Fair Maid’s answers are apparently satisfactory, for he reveals himself as her true love, and they live happily ever after.

Sometimes, though, things don’t turn out exactly in the approved fairytale fashion. Witness the ending of Clarence (Tom) Ashley’s variant on the theme, "The House Carpenter", in which the female protagonist has married in the interim, but leaves with her old true love, only to find she misses the child she bore her husband—whereupon, abruptly, she and her partner in elopement die in a shipwreck—an ending no doubt approved in the Calvinist traditions of the mountains.

In the variant from which "The House Carpenter" sprang, though, things get downright terrifying. As noted, that soldier has an EVIL twin: "The Demon Lover".

In this I will not budge: the most hair-raising version of "The Demon Lover" I have ever heard is the one recorded by Tim O’Brien and Karen Casey on O’Brien’s 2001 CD TWO JOURNEYS. Unfortunately, it isn’t available anyplace on the Webz that I’ve been able to find (and I even used the Google). The lyrics, though, give you an idea. They begin quite innocuously, as in Ashley’s variant, with the true love having returned "from the west" to find his own true love has married a house carpenter. She’s not content though; she is seduced away from her husband and sons with almost indecent ease, and then the fun begins.

Well met, well met, my own true love,
Well met, well met, cried he
I have returned from the salt salt sea,
And it’s all for the sake of thee

I’ve come for the vow you promised me
To be my partner in life
She said, My vow you must forgive
For now I’m a wedded wife.

Yes, I got married, a house carpenter
To him I’ve borne two fine sons
It’s seven long years since you sailed to the west
And I took you for dead and gone.

(instrumental break. Then we learn she’s discontented—and perhaps a bit mercenary.)

If I was to leave my husband dear
And my two babies also
Just what have you to take me to
If with you I should now go?

I have seven ships out upon the sea
And the eighth one that brought me to land
And four and twenty bold mariners
And music on every hand.

It was then she went to her two little babes
And kissed them on cheek and on chin
Saying fare thee well, my sweet little ones
I’ll never see you again.

They had not sailed much more than a week
I know that it was not three
When altered grew his countenance
And a raging came over the sea.

(instrumental break)

And when they reached the shore again
On the far side of the sea
It was there that she spied his cloven hoof
And wept most bitterly.

Oh what is that mountain yon, she cried,
So dreary with ice and with snow?
It is a mountain of Hell, he cried,
Where you and I now will go.

Karen Casey sings her part with all the passion and intensity of a young, bored, and finally frightened—badly frightened—woman, while O’Brien sings his with an almost flat matter-of-factness that will freeze your heart stone-cold with that final couplet.

"The Demon Lover" is, according to some folklore scholars, based on the true story of a Scotsman named James Harris, who, back in the sixteenth century, allegedly abducted a former lover in somewhat the same fashion. There are other stories, variants on this basic motif, from other centuries, other places, including one from 1930s Kentucky.

Aw, heck, may as well admit it, though: the sucker had me at "music on every hand."

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Take This Tune: Heartbroke, Anybody?

This week at Take This Tune, an occasional contributor who goes by the nom de clavier of Fairweather posted a live version of Emmylou Harris’s song "Heartbreak Hill", then added this:

"Now as you know, my field of preference is classic country and bluegrass, and we've got a blue goodelin' of songs about heartbreak--but it's also a constant theme in other genres, from jazz, blues, rock, classical/opera.

So--what is your favorite song about heartbreak, and why? Start writing~~Fairweather "

Well, in between blowing my nose, fixing Mom’s supper, and letting Blackadder in and out of the house (he still seems to think the moon’s near the full), I remembered this one—and added tears to the mix. This one also seemed appropriate because it rained in the knobs all day today. (Good thing too; thanks to that interminable arctic cold snap, we’re already two inches down on our rainfall total for the month.)

The Everly Brothers, "Crying in the Rain"

Even on the funny, fast Felice and Boudleaux Bryant songs at which they excelled, the Everly Brothers could melt your heart with their angelic harmonies; this song, written by Carole King and Howard Greenfield, can break that same heart.

Take This Tune is a weekly meme hosted by my friend and fellow music lover Jamie. Each week she posts a song and invites you to blog about your thoughts about or reactions to the piece. If you’d like to participate, please click on the Take This Tune link above. Full instructions are given there.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009


We’ve all heard the story of how, way back in 1816, during a thunderstorm on Lake Geneva in Switzerland, the British Romantic poets Byron and Shelley, Shelley’s wife, Mary Godwin, Byron’s mistress Claire Clairmont, and "physician" and groupie John Polidori gave each other serious cases of goosebumps telling scary stories. There was an agreement made that all the participants would write a tale of terror. Shelley and Clairmont never completed theirs; Byron began one but abandoned it; Mary Shelley took her idea and made it into arguably the greatest horror/philosophical classic of all time, FRANKENSTEIN, or, THE MODERN PROMETHEUS.

And then, there was Polidori’s tale. Called "The Vampyre" and published in 1819, it was for many years wrongly attributed to Byron. Almost certainly, the main characters—Aubry, the wannabe man of the world, and the suave, sophisticated, yet brutal Lord Ruthven, who turns out to be a vampire—were based on Polidori and Byron themselves. Byron was at great pains to dissociate himself from its composition, and indeed from Polidori. But the story was embraced by its public, particularly by contemporary French and German Romantic poets, playwrights and composers. In 1821, it was dramatized for the stage by the German playwright Heinrich Ludwig Ritter. Seven years later, the composer Heinrich Marschner (1795-1861) and librettist Wilhelm August Wohlbruck turned Ritter’s play into an opera. DER VAMPYR premiered at Leipzig on March 28, 1828.

Marschner, according to Wiki, was the most important German Romantic composer between the two giants Carl Maria von Weber and Richard Wagner. DER VAMPYR was, in fact, quite a favorite of Wagner’s; he produced and conducted it several times himself, and once rewrote the ending of one of Aubry’s arias for his brother, an operatic tenor, who complained it wasn’t "effective enough"—an ambiguous phrase that I, at least, take to mean it didn’t give him scope to show off his high notes.

Wagner’s reworking of the aria did not catch on. In any case, the main character in both story and opera is Lord Ruthven, the vampire, a baritone role. Imagine my surprise when, last night while cruising YouTube, I found this gem: Ruthven’s aria "Ha! Noch einen ganzen Tag" ("Still a whole day"), sung by the operatic love of my life, Thomas Hampson.

I’m not sure exactly when this recording would have been made; at a guess, perhaps the very late 1980s or early 1990s. Hampson is in excellent voice, but—dare I confess—I got the giggles listening to him declaim, "Blut! Ich muss blut!" ("Blood! I must have blood!")
As to whether I would allow him any of mine?

It’s negotiable.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Ruling Days

There's a sweet old hillbilly custom that my mom and aunt still follow: the "ruling days." The old people in the mountains and knobs would make note of weather conditions on the twelve days beginning on Christmas Day, as they believed these would correspond to weather conditions in the coming twelve months. Christmas Day "rules" January, yesterday "rules" February, and so forth. The ruling days end on January 6th, to which the old people often still refer as Old Christmas--in the Roman Catholic tradition, the Feast of the Epiphany, the date on which the Magi are said to have visited the Christ Child and given him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Here in the knobs, Christmas Day's weather was cold and cloudy, windy with rain late in the day. January, therefore, will be cold and rainy, especially toward the end of the month, according to the old people. Yesterday, February's ruler, was cold but sunny, while today, March's ruler, is sunny, mild (48 degrees) and breezy.

Right up until January 6th, Mom and Aunt Barbara will keep track of the weather.

And then, we'll see.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Lullaby

Many years ago, when I attended a small Baptist church, the altar call at the end of sermons was frequently a mournfully beautiful tune in a minor key of which I never knew the name or for that matter any of the words. It wasn't until about a decade ago, in a Methodist church I attended at the time, that I learned it was called "Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy", from its opening line, in the Methodist hymnal, in which it was first included in the 1990s. In the old Broadman hymnals, used for many years in Baptist services, it is called "I Will Arise and Go to Jesus" from the opening line of the refrain.

The words to "Come Ye Sinners" were published in 1759 by their author, British minister Joseph Hart. In 1835, a Spartanburg, South Carolina singing school teacher named William Walker--better known among fans of oldtime music as "Singin’ Billy"--set the words to a tune called "Restoration" in his shape-note hymnal THE SOUTHERN HARMONY.

I left the Methodist church in April of 1998, if I recall. In May, I found Doc Watson’s 1990 CD ON PRAYING GROUND, on which he sang a set of Christmas lyrics to the same tune. The words Doc sings are taken in part from a poem by the great British hymn writer Isaac Watts. Doc's lyrics, identified as traditional with arrangement by Doc Watson in the songwriter's credits, are:

Hush my babe, lie still and slumber
Holy angels guard thy bed
Heavenly blessings without number
Gently stealing on thy head.

How much better art thou attended
Than the son of God could be
When from Heaven he descended
And became a child like thee

Soft and easy is thy cradle
Coarse and hard the Savior lay
When his birthplace was a stable
And his softest bed was hay

Hush my babe lie still and slumber
Holy angels guard thy bed
Heavenly blessings without number
Gently stealing on thy head.

Doc sings with only his own guitar accompaniment, and pronounces the word "gently" as "gentlie"--a very old mountain way, not uncommon at all in traditional mountain music.

I can imagine a mountain mother, awake in the night with a fussy baby, rocking and singing, rocking and singing. . .

Monday, December 21, 2009

An Evening with M. R. James

Imagine a room like this:


Decorated for Christmas, it’s warm and cozy. Now then, imagine that over to the righthand side of the fireplace, there sits a man in a large armchair. He’s not a handsome man by any means, but his face is strongly marked by intelligence and humor—and he is about to work magic.

All stories are magic, but there are some that gain in the telling by being read aloud. So imagine, also, a group of students—all male, for this man is provost of a famous British preparatory school—seated in chairs or on the floor, coltish legs and sharp elbows pulled in, anticipating wonders.

We owe the tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas mainly to Charles Dickens. Dickens’s most famous work in the genre, A Christmas Carol, is subtitled Being a Ghost Story of Christmas. Dickens, as editor of various magazines in the course of his career, always put out a Christmas annual which consisted in the main of ghost stories, by some of the most famous writers of his day: Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell, Amelia B. Edwards, and of course Dickens himself.

The man who is about to read to his students, however, was born too late to submit his stories to Dickens. Montague Rhodes James is, however, arguably the finest of all writers of fictional ghost stories.

Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936)

Born the youngest son of a Sussex clergyman in 1862, he was also one of the unlikeliest. By profession a historian (mainly of medieval England), he lived out his life a bachelor, first as a Cambridge University chancellor and, for the last eighteen years of his life as provost of Eton. There would seem to be nothing in his background to account for his taste for the macabre.
In his spare time, however, he wrote ghost stories. At first he read them to his fellow Cambridge dons during the Christmas season; later, for his pupils at Eton.

In our own day, we are used to writers in the horror genre who use bloody menaces—serial killers, killer clowns, demons, rabid dogs, kinetically gifted teens (yes, Stephen King, I’m primarily, but not solely, talking about you)—to scare us witless. Not once does M. R. James resort to this type of over-the-top plotline, or, in King’s evocative phrase, go for the gross-out, yet James’s stories can scare one into turning on extra lights, and checking dark corners, strictly by the power of suggestion. In the preface to a collection of his stories called A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS AND OTHER STORIES, the author Ruth Rendall—herself no mean hand at creating uncanny atmospheres—gives a near perfect description of how James achieves these scares:

"His stories begin quietly, often with a description of a place, a town or a country house or library, and his traveller to whom in a little while dreadful things will happen. There are—at first—no ghosts and demons, only a gradually increasing, indefinable, slow menace. And James’s characters bring trouble on themselves by such simple innocent actions, by being a little too curious, by merely examining an old manuscript or borrowing a certain book, by picking up an apparently harmless object on the beach." (pages vii-viii.)

The stories to which Rendall refers, in that final sentence, are, respectively, "A Warning to the Curious", " Canon Alberic's Scrapbook" and "The Tractate Middoth," and "O Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad", but the general idea holds true for all of James’s stories. Not to mention that these stories have influenced a good many writers—even Stephen King—who came after James; there is a scene in King’s 1977 novel The Shining that must have been inspired by one in James’s early story "Lost Hearts", in which a young boy is frightened by a ghastly figure he sees in a bathtub.

It is astonishing, as well, that James’s influence should have spread so far when his output in the genre consists of no more than thirty-one short stories.

I suspect, though, that one thing that makes them so memorable is, simply, that James himself first read them aloud—and he must have been a wonderful reader, for none of the fellow professors or students who heard him read them at Christmastime ever forgot them. At least one of his pupils, the English actor Christopher Lee, has read James’s work on BBC radio, and shared his memories of hearing "Monty" in his youth. (James died in 1936.)

I frankly cannot do any sort of justice to James’s work; my powers of description aren’t equal to the task. However, his best stories are available online. These two are my favorites.

Lost Hearts

A Warning to the Curious

These will give you a savor of M. R. James’s variety of dark magic.