It's been some week here at Cover Lay Down. Features on popular singer-songwriters Billy Bragg and Paul Simon brought us to the top of the charts at musicblog aggregator The Hype Machine and a linkback from New York magazine's Vulture blog. On Friday, almost 900 of you visited the site, a new record; download tracking shows that many of you came in for one song, but stuck around to try something new. Welcome, kudos, and thanks for validating our goals here at Cover Lay Down.
But a slow day at home and a new branch of our local library system got me thinking about our roots, both as a folk blog and as community members. Popular artists and indieacts may have got you here, but there's more to folk music than the indiefolk and Grammy winners of the last decades. Above all, it is our goal at Cover Lay Down to broaden your horizons, even while we serve your existing biases and favorites.
Today, we return to our roots for the fourth in our very popular Single Song Sunday series with a feature on Child Ballad #243 in the canonical collection of British folk ballads, a song more commonly known as House Carpenter.
They're building one of those Habitat for Humanity houses in our town, just along the main road, out past the edge of what counts for downtown in these rural one-bar parts. A few weeks ago our local church helped make lunch for the crew -- chili and cornbread, the kind of early winter comfort food that can be soaked up quickly, and keeps the fires going for hours. I wasn't there, but the story goes that they had plenty of leftovers, primarily due to the fact that the workforce that day was a group of local college girls, doing their community service. The girls ate all the clementines, though. I guess we made the food with heartier carpenters in mind.
The 18th Century folk ballad House Carpenter, officially titled either James Harris or Demon Lover, isn't about hope, or new beginnings. Quite the opposite. It's a morality play, in which a woman is tempted by a finer life with an old flame, gives in, leaves her new little babe in the care of her carpenter husband, regrets it too late, and drowns for her sins. It's about the perils of choosing style over substance; it's about the consequences of valuing speed and beauty over community and commitment. Like our Habitat for Humanity project, it's not about house carpenters: it's about the girls who showed up to be house carpenters, and the church making lunch; a reminder of the value of all who help make a house, a home, a community.
That authenticity is hard to come by in the world today is an oft-repeated trope in folk music; it is the universality of the sentiment, as much as the plaintive beauty of House Carpenter's simple tune, which explains why the song continues to find voice in each new generation of folksinger. In some ways, it's frustrating to find that the message is still needed, hundreds of years after it was first found necessary. But the house goes up, nonetheless. Looks like it's going to be a cosy place, too.
Work on our local Habitat house seems to have been put on pause for the winter. The girls who came that day to help have gone back to their lives with a new entry for their graduate school applications and, hopefully, a true sense of having participated in something selfless and pride-worthy. May their lots and ours be better than the lot of our alternate-verse narrator, who sinks and goes to hell for one bad decision. If their work on the house is any indication, they're already headed for a better life.
Unlike Rain and Snow, the emotion of this oft-covered song is set in the lyrics; as such, most interpretations aim for a melancholic delivery. But as today's featured artists demonstrate, there's a wide potential for instrumentation and tone, even within a limited emotional range.
The fast-paced storyteller's banjo on Pete Seeger and Clarence Ashley's ancient versions creates a tension which serves the piece equally, if differently, from the languid brushstrokes, etherial harmonies and skeletal bass of The Tami Show's haunted cover, the sweet, rich mysticism of Mick McAuley's celtic ballad, or the fuller instrumentation and nuanced tonal ebb and flow of Tim O'Brien's moody, celtic-flavored bluegrass.
The sparse, cracked doublevoiced tones of Roger McGuinn are a world away from the mournful, driving blues Natalie Merchant brings to the piece. And interpretations by folkfave youngsters The Mammals and Nickel Creek provide a study in contrast, two new-folkgrass bands taking the song through vastly distinct but equally powerful paces.
Try 'em all. Find your favorite. It is, after all, the personal connection that makes us folk.
- Clarence Ashley, House Carpenter
- Tim O'Brien, Demon Lover
- Natalie Merchant, House Carpenter
- Nickel Creek, House Carpenter
- Mick McAuley, The House Carpenter
- Pete Seeger, The House Carpenter
- Roger McGuinn, House Carpenter
- The Tami Show, House Carpenter
- The Mammals, House Carpenter/Pipeline
(1930 field recording, from the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music, available at Folktunes)
(from Two Journeys)
(from The House Carpenter's Daughter)
(from This Side)
(from Putumayo's Celtic Crossroads collection)
(from A Pete Seeger Concert; originally recorded 1953)
(via McGuinn blog Folk Den)
(from Hinah's ongoing, web-based Tribute To The Anthology of American Folk Music)
As always, all album and label links above take you direct to the source for your musical purchase. Buy local, support community: it's that simple.