Child 79, more generally known as The Wife of Usher’s Well; this is an American version, as sung by Buell Kazee. This particular text is after Peter Blegvad; I think the last verse, with its echo of Antony and Cleopatra, is his own work.
I worked out a ukulele (!) accompaniment for this, only to realise too late that I’d written it in G and I was singing the song in Eb; not sure what happened there. You can hear the ghost of the chord sequence I worked out at the start and end of the song. If you listen carefully you can also hear me stamping on the floor to keep time. Sung in one take, although with some edits where I messed up a verse & then repeated it.
Haven’t said anything about the song, have I? I love it as a song, but the story doesn’t move me as much as it probably should do. The basic situation is stark and awful, but there’s also something a bit eerie about the lady sending her children to learn ‘gramarye’ and then demanding that they come back from the dead – and why does she call on the ‘King in Heaven [who] wears a golden crown’ instead of naming God directly? You feel that the entire song takes place at the dead of night; the sun is rising as it ends, but even then the lady herself is barred from seeing what her children can see. A dark and chilly song.
Peter Blegvad – or, to give him his full title, The Woefully Underrated Peter Blegvad – has pursued two musical careers concurrently, as an intransigent seeker after avant-garde obsessions and as a witty and intelligent singer-songwriter; his work covers the spectrum from unforgettable to unlistenable. (Where his career as a cartoonist fits in with all of this is anybody’s guess.)
He also appears to know a bit of folk music, although to my knowledge he’s only ever recorded one folk song (an American variant of the Wife of Usher’s Well, after Buell Kazee). Folk-as-in-traditional songs are actually quite far removed from the usual styles and approaches of folk-as-in-singer-songwriter. The most obvious difference is that stuff happens in traditional songs, without much explicit attention to how everybody feels. (A traditional singer might retort, I’m singing about someone who’s been ambushed by thieves/caught in flagrante/sentenced to hang – how do you think he feels?) Nothing much tends to happen in your average singer-songwriter song, whereas there’s a lot of attention to the singer’s feelings. Which means that the two genres, which are apparently so close (not least because they’re both called ‘folk’), are actually quite hard to bring together.
What Peter Blegvad’s done here is interesting: he’s taken a classic folksong scenario, complete with tropes from the Lowlands of Holland, and rewritten it from the inside. Our man has been conscripted, he’s having to leave his wife – and dissuade her from dragging up and tagging along, as women are traditionally wont to do – and this is how it feels. I also think it’s a great song.
You can find the original on Peter Blegvad’s album King Strut and other stories; Eddi Reader has also covered it, although she changed the lyrics around a bit so as not to tell it in the first person. I recorded it without listening to the original again, and discovered too late that I’d changed the tune without realising – so apologies to Peter, as well as thanks. Instrumentation: drums, C whistle (I’m playing the song in F), English concertina.
As I said in the notes to the Bonny Bunch of Roses, the idea of a young man on his deathbed saying goodbye to his mother is dreadfully poignant. This is a happier counterpart: an unborn baby talking (telepathically?) to his mother and looking forward to great things:
Spread the word: tomorrow morn
A future poet shall be born
(I want to quote the whole thing now.)
If you’ve had children, you’ll know that every baby is a tyrant; every baby is a megalomaniac, who wants the world and wants it now. And every baby is bound for glory; every baby is going to sweep the whole world along and prevail in spite of all the universe. This song captures some of that glorious sense of hope and purpose and power – and makes it true.
The picture at the Bandcamp page for this song, incidentally, isn’t Byron; it’s Napoleon II, Emperor of France and King of Rome, modelled as a baby.