November-December 2013


by Susie Glaze

In thinking what to write about this month I looked around my room and into my own heart to think of what to tell you as the “most” important thing about Jean Ritchie than anything else, something that I would recommend to you. And I hit on this:

COLUMN-SUSIE-NOV-DEC--jean-ritchie-ballads-275One of the most unique and important aspects of Jean’s musical life was not just her original songwriting (which is superb and ground breaking in itself), but her family’s songcatching – their collecting from the many resources in the mountains around them, the generations of descendants of the original settlers of Appalachia from England, Ireland and Scotland, including her own family of course. This aspect of Jean’s work and life permeated everything she did as an artist certainly as it was part of her upbringing. This element of her musical “scholarship” was especially and brilliantly captured on the Smithsonian Folkways album from 1961 “Jean Ritchie - Ballads From Her Appalachian Family Tradition” – now in re-release. It contains 16 tracks of Jean’s a capella voice on songs the way she was taught them as a child, typically from her Uncle Jason or her father Bailis Ritchie, both who prized the songs as art forms. Why this piece of Jean’s life is so important is that these songs as she knew them were recognized by folklorists in the early 1960s as the Appalachian remnants of what have been referred to as the “Child ballads.” Francis James Child’s The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (in five volumes) was first published in the late 1800s documenting his field scholarship in the Southern mountains as he sought out the traditional balladry that had been brought to America from the British Isles. The songs he discovered, documented and published became known after this publication as the Child Ballads.

As I leaf through the five volumes of this seminal folk history and find the same songs recorded by our friend Jean, it feels like a dramatic phenomenon. To me this volume is a true treasure trove of rich and complex music almost forgotten to us today. To hear her today feels distinctly like the ancients are touching us here and now. She is literally living history. Kenneth Goldstein in his original 1961 liner notes is most eloquent and calls Jean a “great tradition bearer.” Indeed, I felt that by watching Jean speak and hearing her sing I was touching history in our modern world. She makes the songs so brilliantly alive on this recording.

It is from this album that I learned many songs, my favorites being (and ones I’ve also recorded) Lord Bateman, Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender, Barbary Allen, and Lord Randall. But all of them are so ripe and rare.

For the 2003 reissue, folklore scholar Stephanie Smith writes:

The ballads on this recording are outstanding examples of this historical song tradition. The songs tell of true and lost love, jealousy, treachery, grief and death and the supernatural.

And I quote Jean herself in her usual eloquent way:

These are old story songs, now. We sang and listened to them, for themselves. For the excitement of the tale, or the beauty and strength of the language or of the graceful tunes, for the romantic tingle we got from a glimpse of life in the long ago past, for the uncanny way the old, old situations still fit the present. Heads nodding over Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender, “Aint that right, now? That’s j’st what he ort to a-done to her!”

As I remember, it took a special time for us to appreciate these “big” ballads. Of course, we hummed them about the housework, and when walking along the roads, and in the fields, but that wasn’t really singing them out. It had to be a quiet time for that, as when the family gathered on the front porch evenings, and after awhile the house clatter ended and the talk dwindled and died. Then was the time for “Lord Bateman,” or “The Gypsie Laddie” to move into our thoughts. Or it could be a time at play-parties, when the players dropped down to rest between spells of dancing – that was a time to listen to a good long tale.

And that, gentle reader, is when they would sing the moon up, that is, the family would gather on the back porch and sing together after supper until the moon crested the high mountains that surrounded them in that old farm house in Kentucky. But it might as well have been Nottingham or Yorkshire, or any county in Ireland or Scotland, for the same songs were being sung, in mostly the same old way. There is that aspect about early 20th century Appalachia: the mountains isolated those communities. Before radio, before the telephone, before the phonograph all became invented and used widely, the songs were their only entertainment, and oral tradition the most common way of passing them down and around (most often – rarely there were printed song books, and Jean’s father Bailis Ritchie did in fact publish a small songbook of some they had collected). The songs became part of their days, a fabric of everything they did.

I asked Jean about the violent treachery in the songs and did that frighten her and her siblings when they heard the songs as children. She said they weren’t frightened, just so amazed that such actions could be taken in the name of romance! I like to think of these songs as morality tales, but they were so much more. Jean always said that the songs were made to tell the news of the day, the happenings from one community to the next.

I think we can find so much of today in them – even though we don’t quite end up in the same situations. Such adventure and such passion! I know that many of our listeners who hear us do the old tales are always so impressed at the level of drama. And it can get quite harrowing! Witness Lord Thomas and Fair Ellender at its most dramatic:

The brown girl had a little pen knife

it being both keen and sharp,

betwixt the long ribs and the short

pierced fair Ellender to the heart.

O what’s the matter Lord Thomas, he cried,

you look so pale and wan,

you used to have as rosy a color

as ever the sun shone on.

O are you blind, Lord Thomas, she cried,

or is it you cannot see?

and can’t you see my own heart’s blood

come trinkling down to my knee?

Lord Thomas he drew his sword from his side

he ran all through the hall,

he cut off the head of his bonny brown bride

and kicked it against the wall.

Then placing the handle a-towards the wall,

and the blade a-towards his heart,

saying did you ever see three true lovers meet

that had so soon to part?

O mother o mother go dig my grave

go dig it both wide and deep,

and bury fair Ellender in my arms

and the brown girl at my feet.

There were some that had a happy ending. Witness Lord Bateman, as he actually spurns his brand new bride (I mean hours or possibly minutes before) for the Turkish lady who shows up at his castle doorstep after many long years and many dangerous miles to remind him of their promise to wed no other (after she had saved him from certain death):

They made a vow, they made a promise,

for seven long years they made it to stand;

he vowed he’d marry no other woman,

she vowed she’d marry no other man.

Well seven long years has rolled around,

seven years and they feel like twenty-nine;

it’s she’s packed up all her gay clothing

and declared Lord Bateman she’d go find.

O she sailed east and she sailed to the westward,

she sailed all over to the England shore;

she rode till she come to Lord Bateman’s castle*

and she summonsed his porter right down to the door.

O, is this not Lord Bateman’s castle?

and is his lordship not within?

o yes, o yes, cried the proud young porter,

he’s a-just now bringing his new bride in.

Go bid him to send me a slice of bread,

go bid him to send me a drink of wine,

and not to forget the Turkish lady

who freed him from his close confines.

What’s the news, what’s the news, you proud young porter?

what’s the news, what’s the news, that you brung to me?

there stands a lady outside of your castle

she’s the fairest one I ever did see.

She has got a gold ring on every finger,

and on one finger she has got three,

and enough gay gold all around her middle

as to buy Northumberland of thee.

She bids you to send her a slice of bread,

she bids you to send her a drink of wine,

and not to forget the Turkish lady

who freed you from your close confines.

O up and spoke that new bride’s mother,

she never was known for to speak so free,

o what’s to become of my only daughter,

who has just been made a bride to thee?

I have done no harm to your only daughter,

and she is the none of the worse for me;

she came to me with a horse and saddle

and she shall go home in coacharie.

Lord Bateman he pounded his fist on the table

and broke it in pieces one, two, three,

says, I’ll forsake all for the Turkish lady,

she has crossed that old salt sea for me!

* a note about pronunciation: “castle” was pronounced “cast-el” in the Appalachia way.

I commend this disc to you and suggest you give yourself a good time to sit down and let yourself enter into the world of these ancient adventures, to make time for “a good long tale.” I can listen to them around the fireplace in the winter and imagine those places and those scenes of faraway England or Scotland or Ireland so clearly in them. Let yourself be carried away!

Click this link to the Smithsonian Folkways website where you can hear song samples and order the album. It might be the most delightful Christmas present you can ever surprise someone with!

Folkways also includes a PDF file of the original 1961 liner notes which includes lyrics.

Award-winning recording artist and critically-acclaimed powerhouse vocalist, Susie Glaze has been called "one of the most beautiful voices in bluegrass and folk music today." (Roz Larman of FolkScene). With her Hilonesome Band, their album “Blue Eyed Darlin’” was the winner of the Just Plain Folks 2006 Music Award for Best Roots Album and FolkWorks Magazine's Pick for Best Bluegrass Album of 2005. Their newest CD “White Swan” was released March 19, 2013.


All Columns by Susie Glaze