Music for a Friday

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings (Credit: Mountain Stage)

I tend to like my music the way I like my coffee: strong, hot, and pretty dark. Maybe that explains my love of the murder ballad.

Murder ballads as we know them are a part of an ancient European ballad tradition that predates both the printing press and standard musical notation. Colonial settlers brought the English versions of many these with them when they came to these shores. Preserved in the isolated hills and hollows of the southern Appalachians, they quickly became embedded in the American folk music tradition.

This is such a deeply rooted form in traditional music that the publication Sing Out! had a regular blog feature called Murder Ballad Monday at their website, which they described as “Reflections on the tougher side of old, weird America … (and the British Isles.)”

Murder Ballad Monday reflects on music and mortality. We explore the murder ballad tradition of folk and popular music, with a deliberately broad definition of the genre. We pursue conversation on the power of music to create meaning and beauty in response to the toughest of times.

Murder ballads share some common characteristics. They tend to claim to tell the tale of a true crime and its consequences, identify both victim and killer, describe the motive and how the deed was done, and often end with the killer in prison or on the way to the gallows. And yes, these are almost always tales of women being victimized by scorned, jealous, or simply rapacious men. Sometimes they conclude with a morality lesson in which the listener is entreated not to go down the killer’s path.

Most, like Pretty Polly, relate the story through the eyes of the victim, though some from the perspective of her killer. Occasionally these examples are sympathetic to him, like Tom Dooley or Sam Hall. Others, like Banks of the Ohio, not so much:

I asked my love to take a walk
Just a walk a little way
And as we walk, oh, may we talk
All about our wedding day 

   Only say that you’ll be mine
   In our home we’ll happy be
   Down beside where the waters flow
   On the banks of the Ohio 

I held a knife against her breast
As into my arms she pressed
She said Willie, don’t you murder me
I’m unprepared for eternity 

I took her by her lily white hand
And dragged her down that bank of sand
There I throwed her in to drown
I watched her as she floated down 

Was walking home tween twelve and one
Thinkin’ of what I had done
I killed a girl, my love you see
Because she would not marry me

Seldom does the woman get the last word in these stories. A notable exception is the modern murder ballad Caleb Meyer, written by Gillian Welch and appearing on her 1998 album Hell Among the Yearlings. In a long Murder Ballad Monday post about the song at Sing Out!, Ken Bigger writes:

Some people call “Caleb Meyer” a murder ballad. We will too. I’ve also seen people call it a “manslaughter ballad,” perhaps because they are overly persnickety about legal definitions. I’ve been there. As a species of murder ballad, though, I’m inclined to call “Caleb Meyer” a “survivor’s ballad.” 

In short, it’s a murder ballad with a twist in which the victim not only survives, but gets the best of her would be assailant, and does so in a very satisfying and true-to-the-genre way. It’s one of my favorite songs.

You can watch Welch and her musical partner David Rawlings perform it live in the video below.

OK, now it’s personal

First Trump’s trade war came for the soybeans, and I did not speak out because I was not a farmer.

Then Trump’s trade war came for the steel and aluminum, and I did not speak out because I was not from Pittsburgh or Gary, IN.

Then Trump’s trade war came for Harley-Davidson, and I did not speak out because let’s face it, Harleys are loud and obnoxious.

Then Trump’s trade war came for Irish whiskey and single-malt Scotch, and … wait, WHAT?

OK, now it’s personal!

These new 10 percent tariffs are the product of an ongoing dispute between the United States and the European Union over EU subsidies on large aircraft. These subsidies give, the United States argues, the European aircraft manufacturer Airbus an unfair competitive advantage over its American rival Boeing.

Yesterday, the World Trade Organization ruled in favor of the United States in this dispute, opening the door to a set of retaliatory tariffs targeting, basically, everything that makes life worth living. In addition to the whiskey, Irish butter, British cashmere, Italian cheeses, French wine.

And speaking of whiskey tariffs, this newest round just makes matters worse:

Industry trade groups on both sides of the Atlantic had been pleading with the Trump Administration to leave whisky out of this dispute, which is separate from the issue over steel and aluminum tariffs imposed by the U.S. last year that led to retaliatory tariffs on exports of Bourbon and other American whiskies to Europe. That 25% tariff has cost American whiskey makers more than $100 million in lost export sales since it was imposed in July of 2018, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States.

As Canadian academic Jacob Levy quipped on Twitter, this is a demoralizing way to wage a trade war:

Music for a Friday

The Fall River disaster of 1874, as depicted in Harper’s. (Credit: ATHM)

For the past week I’ve been driving by the gates of our local General Motors assembly plant on my way to work in the morning, honking my horn to signal solidarity with the striking UAW workers walking the picket line.

Organized labor has taken a beating in this country over the last few decades. I suppose folks have forgotten the abuse and exploitation of workers that made unionizing necessary.

The lyrics of The Granite Mills, a haunting song which I first heard some 25 years ago on a recording by the punk-influenced Amherst, MA folk band Cordelia’s Dad, are a reminder of why we have a labor movement in this country:

In this vain world of trouble,
many accidents occur.
I’m going to sing about one,
as sad as you ever heard.
It was in Fall River city.
They were all burned up and killed,
imprisoned in the factory
known as the Granite Mills.

The origin of the song is a bit of an historical mystery. The Granite Mills tells the story of a disastrous 1874 mill fire in Fall River, MA. Yesterday, Sept. 19, was the 145th anniversary of the catastrophe. A contemporary news account (the original source has been lost) described the incident this way:

FIRE AND GREAT LOSS OF LIFE! DESTRUCTION OF GRANITE MILL NO. ONE! 

A TERRIBLE CALAMITY!

This morning, a little before 7 o’clock, an alarm of fire was sounded from boxes 72 and 74, and it was soon found that Granite Mill No.1 was on fire in the central part – the spooling room in the fifth story. The fire is supposed to have been occasioned by the friction of one of the mules. It spread so rapidly that the help were immediately bewildered and panic stricken, and could not avail themselves of the fire escape, which was ample to save all. The room was instantly filled with smoke, and the help huddled into the south end where the flames had not come.

Men, women, and children rushed to the windows gasping for air, pushed their arms through the glass and screamed for help. Some in their desperation broke through the glass and frames, and pitched themselves headfirst to the ground, where they were killed instantly or shattered in a terrible way. The sight to the spectators was sickening in the extreme. The screams of the injured and the groans of the dying with the roar and crackle of the flames made a scene of horror which was terrible to every beholder. 

The origin of the song is a bit of a mystery. A version appears in a collection of traditional songs and ballads from Nova Scotia published in 1932, but it puts the scene of the fire in New York rather than Massachusetts. It’s unclear where the lyrics of the Cordelia’s Dad’s version came from (you can check them out here), perhaps the band’s own an adaptation of some of the other examples. For those of you with an interest in traditional music and ballads, The Mudcat Cafe, where I found this background information, is a fantastic resource.

I’ve been singing this song for a long time, almost since I first heard it. My hunch is that the tune was written for the lyrics by Tim Eriksen, the lead singer of Cordelia’s Dad, but that’s just a guess. Sometimes I try to accompany myself on the mountain dulcimer. This morning I picked up my old 1890s-era banjo and tried that for the first time while I ran through the lyrics. I was pretty pleased with how it went.

Click on the video below to see and hear the band perform The Granite Mills at their 20th anniversary show at the Iron Horse Music Hall in Northampton, MA, way back in 2007.

This is a very dangerous moment

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javid Zarif (Credit: Washington Post)

Which one of these statements sends a clear message?

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javid Zarif:

“I’m making a very serious statement that we don’t want war; we don’t want to engage in a military confrontation,” Mr. Zarif told CNN in an interview. “But we won’t blink to defend our territory.

President Donald J. Trump:

“There are many options. There’s the ultimate option, and there are options a lot less than that,” the president told reporters in Los Angeles, while announcing a move to increase sanctions on Iran.

I feel pretty confident that the Iranians are not bluffing. But how confident can anyone be about American intentions?

You tell me how all this is going to play out.