Sunday, December 16, 2007

Single Song Sunday: Rain and Snow
(On Traditional Folksongs as Tabula Rosa)
Plus 3 bonus Grateful Dead rainsongs



Whether stripped-down so as not to overwhelm the authenticity of the song and singer, or jazzed up to resonate with modern musical sensibilities, it is the passage of familiar song, motif, and situation between audience and performer which makes the "folk" in folk music. Songs about trains are ultimately songs about longing; songs about the road resonate with those who wander and those who long for a change, though in different ways. Such songs play broadly to universal themes, the better to leave room for such connection. In collapsing the participant/observer gap, the songs have connected folk artists and folk audiences for a century or more.

We might say, then, that traditional songs like Rain and Snow (also called Cold Rain and Snow in some collections) are both heart and origin of folk music. Problematically, however, these same qualities which make tradfolk accessible can make writing about traditional songs an exercise in futility.

Many tradfolk songs have loose lyrics, thin and incomplete, which drift from interpretation to interpretation, and thus invite the sort of minute lyrical analysis only a music historian could love. Today's featured song is perhaps an extreme example of the problem of interpretation. It contains only twelve lines, four of which are merely repetitions of the previous line, and its lyrics are vague, naming lifelong trouble between narrator and spouse without ascribing cause.

Similarly, since the origins of traditional american folk songs like Rain and Snow are murky at best, historical analysis is no better an approach to understanding. Even the best write-ups can end up an exercise in cover geneology, offering little more than a litany of who-sang-and-when, ad infinitum. And this is the anathema of blogging, I suppose, which seems to me most specifically a medium of anecdotal small-scale sharing and interpretation, not mere enumeration.

But this is not to say that there is nothing we can say. The best approach to traditional song interpretation, I think, begins with a simple acknowledgement of what a song is. It is the parameters of possibility which make traditional folk song unique and interesting.

Rain and Snow, for example, is a beautiful, simple, melancholy song of spousal dissatisfaction which can be interpreted as many ways as humans can express such emotion. The way the doubled-lyrics degrade from storylyric to simple image to repeated, strung-out phrase at each verse's end requires singers to howl their emotional choices open-voweled. The song's last line leaves open the possibility that the song's narrator has been the cause of his own resolution, without necessarily calling it either way.

When combined, these traits make for powerful potential in the hands of the coverartist. The unresolved narrative, coupled with the simple lyrical and chord patterns, leaves ample room for true interpretation. Indeed, it is the tonality and approach of a given coverartist which will ultimately determine whether we take these lyrics as melancholy or resigned, the narrative as sinister or merely regretful.

Rain and Snow is generally considered a traditional fiddle-and-folk appalachian folksong, though old folkies likely know it best from the works of Pentagle and the Grateful Dead; it is so much a part of the Deadhead canon, in fact, that it was included on jazz/folk/world music label Shanachie's "The Music Never Stopped: Roots of the Grateful Dead". Rather than rehash those old familiars, here's a set of six stellar post-millenial versions, from folk to roots to celtic to true blue bluegrass, just to prove that there's always more life to be had in tradsongs, the lifeblood of folk.


As always, wherever possible, artist and album links on Cover Lay Down go directly to each artist's preferred sources for purchase -- the best way to support musicians without giving money to unecessary middlemen. Order now, and put some tradition under the tree.

Today's bonus rainsongs have all been performed by members of the Grateful Dead at one time or another, according to the Grateful Dead Lyric and Songfinder:

  • New Riders of the Purple Sage founder Dave Nelson covers the Grateful Dead's Box of Rain (live)
  • Folk supergroup Redbird do a jangly version of Dylan's Buckets of Rain
  • Neo-folkgrassers Crooked Still cover softly tradsong Wind and Rain


Previously on Cover Lay Down: Folk covers of songs of snow and winter

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