Program: #16-32, Air Date: 08/01/16
Ayreheart’s latest is a celebration of the intersection of folk and so-called “art” music of the English Elizabethan and Jacobean eras; founding lutenist Ronn McFarlane joins us.
NOTE: All of the music on this program is from the new Ayreheart recording Barley Moon. It is on the Sono Luminus label and the CD number is DSL-92203.
What is folk music, what is art music; is there some difference?
This is an idea that has been debated (fruitlessly, it could be argued) over the centuries.
Some see the so-called rise of interest in folk music to be a product of the nationalism of the Romantic era. In this narrative, as European nation-building evolved in the age of revolutions, organized collecting of oral traditions becomes another way of forging a national identity. In a vast arc that includes Robert Burns and his hugely popular celebration of Scottish song, through Zoltán Kodály 120 years later taking a cylinder phonograph to rural villages, “songs of the people” became somehow separated from music composed by people who were (to put it crassly) paid for their efforts.
The collectors of the Finnish Kalevala knew this was the core not only of a national identity but also of a free and distinct country (with the happy and fervent participation by the “art” composers, like Sibelius). Where would our own American musical life be had not Charles Seeger taken wife and his baby Pete (and that car and proto-trailer hitch) on a journey to the Southlands to ” bring music to the people?” As is so often the case, and as Pete himself often said, he learned more than he taught.
It is interesting to know that the best-selling music book of the 1700s was Corelli’s Opus 5 Trio Sonatas. The beloved Italian was a legitimate “art” composer. It is also very pungent to think that the best-selling music book of the entire 1800s was Thomas Moore’s Irish Melodies; he was partly inspired by ”art” composers who had set folk songs before him, Haydn and Beethoven most famously.
And now, in our time: what is folk, what is art? In the case of the recording before you, we may have come back to the comfort level of the late Renaissance. There may have been some distinction, but there was no discomfort in arranging a popular ditty of the day in any way that struck a composers’ fancy.
We could ask, to what extent did the brooding and brilliant John Dowland absorb popular dances and old songs and simply rearrange them? We could also see these forms as a platform on which he built wonders. We could also see him as an inventor, breaking out of the structures of the past. The greatest geniuses in art happily embody all sources, all contradictions.
William Byrd was one of those, and thinking about how T.S. Eliot separated genius by those who concentrated on one thing (Wagner, say, or for us, Dowland) versus the universalists who mastered many things, Byrd was surely in the latter camp. The Catholic recusant who inherited the exclusive music publishing rights in Queen Elizabeth’s England after the death of his master Thomas Tallis could literally compose in any form; that among many folk songs, he chose a favorite of Henry VIII (and a song quoted by Dowland in “Can She Excuse My Wrongs”, setting Robert Devereux’s plea for favor from Elizabeth when he had fallen from grace) is telling on many levels. He set fourteen variations in his keyboard version, and knew well the first chapter of Matthew: “So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations…”
We may be more familiar with the re-popularization of so-called folk music in our own country. In pre-World War I England, we have the incomparable work of Francis James Child and his 305 ballads of blood and woe, tragedy and loss, haunting and (in every once a while) happy endings. The great Cecil Sharp brought back Morris Dancing and put the young George Butterworth and Ralph Vaughan Williams to work in the Fen Country gathering songs. During the war, Sharp came over to the Appalachians, and when Butterworth was killed in action at the Somme, Cecil Sharp was recording songs of our own mountain people.
The early music movement gave a great boost to the relevance and quality of the folk song, and Alfred Deller and his Consort often performed the Vaughan Williams settings in their concerts.
In the late ‘60s, many things were born. The British Folk Rock movement, as it was called, was one. Trying to decide “how it started” is actually a little silly; victory has a thousand fathers, after all. But there is no doubt that Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Pentangle, the Incredible String Band, and their many fellows introduced generations to music of the tradition. And, they did it well. Not incidentally, they and their individual members often performed and recorded “early music” as well.
It was a happy unity of many things. Ayreheart inherits that tradition wonderfully. Ronn McFarlane has given us two discs on Dorian of his own original work on lute, Indigo Road, and with Ayreheart One Morning. These are the ideal example of how a so-called old instrument (some have even said obsolete, and at one time abandoned) can take on a living and vital relevance.
The ensemble blends the “art” and “folk” traditions so organically, we are reminded how artificial such a separation actually is. “John Barleycorn,” the witty view of brewing as an act of torture and abuse, is so perfect that Vaughan Williams himself wondered if it may have been created by “an antiquarian revivalist,” who then saw it pass “into popular currency and become 'folklorised'.” Many in the folk-rock movement recorded the song, most prominently the group Traffic in their album named for the song itself.
“Nottmun Town” was recorded by Fairport, and even more famously with new lyrics in Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”—following in the ancient broadside tradition of adding new lyrics to an old tune. Is it really medieval? We can’t even pin down a tune like ”Greensleeves,” so we may never really know. There is much speculation as to the exact meaning of the odd and obscure story; there is a lot of this mystery in the folk tradition, and there is a lot of this in poetry itself. When the song was new and fresh, these images surely had profound impact, and those first singers knew it and sang it with that passion knowers know. It may be that passion, if not the unknown and secret meaning, that has kept the song alive so long.
“Twa Corbies,” the Scottish version of “The Three Ravens,” was a Steeleye Span specialty (as well as being an Alfred Deller favorite). Death was more immediate and more present to the singers of traditional song; it still may be so. In any event, mementi mori, reminders of our eventual end, are everywhere in the tradition.
The dying knight in the Corpus Christi Carol (“Lully lulle, the falcon”) tended by the maid knew well of these songs. Is it simply a medieval allegory for the death of Christ? Is the falcon attached to Catherine of Aragon during her exile, or later to Anne Boleyn, whose emblem was that bird? Was it really “first found by an apprentice grocer named Richard Hill in a manuscript written around 1504”? The version Vaughan Williams collected featured the Virgin Mary sitting by the bedside; Peter Warlock set it as a memorial to those who died in World War I. Jeff Buckley gave it meaning and relevance to a new generation. Maybe rather than thinking we can “know” about this mysterious and wonderful work, let’s just rejoice that it exists.
The New World Renaissance Band use to perform “Ddoi di Dai,” and to them it was “a lament for David (Daffydd ap Gruffydd), the last independent Prince of Wales who was executed by Edward "Longshanks" in 1283.” For our version, special thanks is owed to Diane Owen of the St. David Society for this superb translation.
“Henry Martyn” puts us on solid ground (if out to sea, as it were): this happens to be Child Ballad 167, recorded by everyone from Burl Ives to Donovan, and tells the story of the Scottish privateer Sir Andrew Barton who raided Portuguese ships for James IV. His ship was captured, and he was killed in 1511 by the Howard brothers (Sir Edward and Thomas), acting on behalf of the young Henry VIII.
“In a Garden So Green” may date back to 1682 in a Scottish collection of Songs & Fancies, but it also takes us back 25 years to the early days of the wonderful Baltimore Consort, and one of their popular Scottish projects (also on Dorian) “The Banks of the Helicon.”
Ronn McFarlane was true to his ancestry then, and has kept that flame alive in creative and newly-evolving ways with Ayreheart. Is it art music? Is it folk? Could it possibly matter less?
Barley Moon is music that is born of what has come, but leads us into where we can go: old forms born anew, and ever fresh.
1 John Barleycorn [Roud 64, 16th Century]
2 In a garden so green [17th Century]
3 Mr. Dowland's Midnight, P. 99 (arr. R. Nurse and R. McFarlane)
4 Fortune my foe, P. 62 (arr. R. Nurse and R. McFarlane)
5 Lady Hunsdon's Puffe, P. 54 (arr. R. Nurse and R. McFarlane)
6 Book of Songs, Book 1: Come again, sweet love doth now invite (arr. B. Kay and R. McFarlane)
7 Henry Martin [17th Century]
8 Corpus Christi Carol [ca. 1504]
9 Solus cum sola, P. 10 (arr. R. Nurse and R. McFarlane)
10 Mr. George Whitehead his Almand, H. 21 (arr. R. Nurse and R. McFarlane)
11 Twa Corbies
12 The Woods so Wild (arr. R. McFarlane)
13 Ddoi Di Dai
14 Nottamun Town [Roud 1044]