One Melody, Two Folk Chestnuts

Parte the Firste: Willie O'Winsbury
-or- Medieval England Was Fulla Stoopids

So a couple months back, after over a year of searching high and low, I finally managed to pick up the Anne Briggs collection and give it a few spins. Anne is a character whose life and work entirely merit several posts of their own, but her defining characteristic for the purposes of this discussion was a fanatical devotion to English folk music. She was kidnapped by communists and made to sing in public just before the folk movement began in earnest in England, and managed to influence pretty much every musician who followed. For a highly romantic take on her life, listen to "Beeswing" by Richard Thompson. But I digress.

Anyway, one of the nifty things about Anne Briggs (according to what people say - I wouldn't know as I wasn't there for any of it) is that her readings of old songs stick highly faithfully to the originals. She had a researcher's mind and a respect for the medium that prevented the kind of experimentation engaged in by young Turks like Dylan, Fairport, etc., and thus we can listen to her work and hear something like what the songs sounded like as they were passed on from parent to child through generations of olde. But she also doesn't edit the stuff, and a lot gets left in that doesn't really speak to our modern minds.

Okay, so I'm standing on the F train coming home one night, listening to this intense folk stuff, nearly all of which is a capella, and all of a sudden I hear a mandolin picking out a melody I know well from Fairport Convention's "Farewell, Farewell." My first thought is, "oh, I never realized this was a trad song (a Child Ballad no less) - crazy, who knew they wrote such introspective lyrics in days of yore?" But then Anne starts singing, and the lyrics are pretty damn different.

"Willie O'Winsbury" starts, as so many good things do, with a chunk of exposition - "the king has been... a prisoner long in Spain." And (though the exact words fail me) his daughter's been getting it on with Willie O'Winsbury. So he comes back from Spain, goes up to his daughter and (give him credit for being on the ball) notices something's up right there in the second verse. "What ails ye, my daughter Janet? Your face is pale and wan. Oh have ye had any sore sickness, or yet been sleeping wi' a man?"

Now, were I his daughter Janet (which name the song repeatedly insists on forcing into a space fit for only one syllable, which is annoying), I'd realize the game was probably up here, and start figuring out what to do. There's a bunch of these pregnancy dramas in the English folk tradition, and unless the girl stands up for herself in a pretty assertive way, it usually ends badly. But Janet doesn't. In fact, she tries the cheesiest response ever - "[my sickness is] for you, my father dear, for biding so long in Spain."

Well, the king doesn't buy it (he's an idiot as we'll see later, but not of this sort) and tells her to get naked so he can see whether she's "a maiden or no'." And of course, she doesn't give any back chat here, either. She strips, she's all bulgy, the king sees she's enceinte, and he's naturally a touch pissed, so he asks her who it was - was it a lord or a duke or a knight, or a man of wealth and fame, or was it one of his serving men that's lately come out of Spain?

And again, bucking the rich, tragic folksong tradition of standing up for clandestine lovers, she immediately names Willie O'Winsbury (who, it now occurs to me, has also been hanging out comfortably at home boffing the princess whilst king and manly men are off fighting and being kept prisoner, which can't do much for his popularity with said king) as her mate. She doesn't even make any argument - she just gives him up.

And the king then does what kings tend to do when their unmarried daughters are in a family way - he calls for his merry men (yes, the song refers to them as "merry men") and tells them to get Willie, for "hanged he shall be." And here all us folkies rejoice, since this is the drama and emotion part, where transcendent love is rewarded and/or temporal lust punished.

So Willie's rounded up and brought before the king, and the song takes the most amazing turn - all of a sudden it starts talking about how attractive Willie is. "...He was wrapped in the red silk. His hair was like the strings of gold. His skin was as white as the milk." In fact, the king is so impressed that he tells Willie he now totally understands how Willie won Janet’s love, and offers perhaps the best unsolicited comment in the history of ballads: "if I were a woman, as I am a man, my bedfellow ye'd have been."

And then the whole thing is utterly blown to hell - the king offers Willie his daughter in marriage, plus all his lands, Willie accepts Janet but not the lands (since he's already plenty rich), and they all ride vapidly off into the sunset.

The story of Willie and Janet and the king is a totally stupid non-event, populated by fucking idiots – the unbearably indiscreet girl, the ridiculous king, and the vain fancy-man who, we get the feeling, knew he’d be pardoned when he rode in all stunning. The turning point, which should be the climax of the song, is the king seeing the feller who’s been making sport with his virgin daughter (!) and saying, in essence, “damn, you fine!”

So aside from the points it clearly wins for freshness and uniqueness, as well as what I’m sure professors would call proto-queer metadiscourse, there’s not a whole lot to recommend this one. The melody is inane, repeating one riff over and over again, and on mandolin no less, there’s that awful squishing of the word “Janet,” the use of “apron” and “haunches” to mean “stomach” and “ass,” I’m not all that fond of the name “Willie”… the list goes on and on.

But folks more talented than me heard something, and rewrote, and the result came out as Fairport Convention’s “Farewell, Farewell,” one of the best tracks on what may be their best album. This will be addressed in the Second Part of this article, entitled “yis can stuff tradition up yer Khyber,” arriving soon on a monitor near you.


Blogger d said...

because I am the star magazine of our roster, I'd just like to mention annie's spectacular good looks ('specially odd since she did all that hobo-ing about & drinking like a fish & jumping into rivers & whatnot), her partnership with bert jansch, he of the fine, fine folk guitar playing (blackwater side, etc...), & subsequent bewitching of all sorts of sundry rock folk, from robert plant to stephen malkmus. the latter once wrote an effusive, irony-free bit about her for mojo magazine.

incidentally, I was playing the briggs collection at work & my co-worker told me that annie's voice was making her feel sick. ha ha ha. wuss.

10:14 AM, May 11, 2005  
Blogger Pete Galub said...

You guys have such great taste!
I love that Anne Briggs collection. I remember first being seduced by it 5 or 6 years ago while living briefly in Berkley, CA. There's a great small shop called Mod Lang and they were playing that- I love her voice as much as anyone and really love her interpretations.
On the subject of Brit folk, I recently got the first Steeleye Span record, "Hark, the Village Wait" which is a fantastic record, and I think I love Maddy Prior as much as anne, Sandy Denny, Pentangle, etc..
As far as folk interpretters I also think Nic Jones is absolutely a top-notch guitar player and singer (up there with Richard Thompson guitar-wise)
more later gotta go

2:33 PM, May 11, 2005  
Blogger Jenny said...

FYI, Jared, Richard Thompson is playing a free show in June. Details:

Legendary guitar maestro Richard Thompson performs solo acoustic works
June 28, 7:00PM
Hailed by Rolling Stone as one of the World's 100 Greatest Guitarists, he was an early pioneer of the U.K. folk-rock movement in the 1960s. With well over twenty-five recordings under his belt, many for film and television, he has garnered several Grammy nominations and a loyal following worldwide.
Price: free
This event takes place at:
World Financial Center Plaza
West St. betw. Vesey & Liberty St. - 1-212-945-0505

1:09 AM, May 12, 2005  
Blogger d said...

dang it, I'm out of town. jared you'll have to tape it for me!

9:59 AM, May 12, 2005  
Blogger Big Red said...

ool do, as the welshman say.

10:06 AM, May 12, 2005  
Blogger d said...

thank ye.

pete, you should really educate us on the steeleye span/maddy prior/pentangle front, I've never ventured in that direction save for the odd track or two.

11:43 AM, May 12, 2005  

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