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Sometime in the late 1800s, Francis James Child (Franz Schubert's Doppelgänger) anthologized 305 Ancient Scottish Ballads - oral verse, often epic in nature if not length - passed down over the centuries, and often sung rather than simply spoken (we're circling back to our diasporic discussion about modes). The most famous of all these is Sir Patrick Spens (<--- don't click on this yet), and here is a hauntingly beautiful example of it, sung by the great Ewan MacColl. It is my hope that you're unfamiliar, both with Sir Patrick Spens itself, and also the traditional song of Ewan MacColl, in which case I would ask you to do this, in the following order, to get the most from the experience: 1) Play the video (5:05 long), and leave the music in the background as you go about your business - perhaps bringing up another screen and continuing whatever you were doing. This will acclimate your ear to the haunting sounds of the Ancient Scottish Ballad - play it twice or three times if you'd like. You won't understand a word of it, but at this point, I don't want you to. 2) When you're ready, and after you've gotten a feel for how this ballad might sound when sung, then bring the MacColl's screen back to the fore, and listen to the song as you read the lyrics (the lyrics won't be an exact match, so you'll have to keep your wits about you - Ancient Scottish Poetry is not for the faint of heart). (It should be noted at this point that there are numerous variations of Sir Patrick Spens, and I spent a good deal of time trying to "match up" MacColl's version with a written version, to no avail. I'm sure the text is out there, but I couldn't find it easily - the workaround I'm giving you will provide you with the full experience, and save you a lot of time; if anyone wants to dig deeper and search for a matching written version, I'd love to see it, but it's not necessary for our purposes here, at least not yet.) Here's what you do to match the two up: 1) After the 3rd stanza, MacColl inserts a 4th stanza not found in this text (but found in others). Translated, it means "It's not a war; you are to go fetch the King's daughter from Norway, and bring her back." After this, the listener can continue with the 4th stanza in the text, and be matched up. 2) After the 5th stanza (at 2:02 in the video), MacColl inserts 25 seconds of sung stanzas, and the reader must once again wait until 2:37, resuming at Stanza 6. 3) The rest of the sung version mixes up the stanzas, and you'll need to be creative with your eyes, looking for key words that match, but like reading Shakespeare, even though you don't understand every word, you still understand the gist of it all. It is a short, but great, tragedy, somehow managing to mix Homer (no Simpsons jokes, Al Dente or Dan Cole!) with The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. This is the video: and this is the written text I used: There are many other versions, some on that very same page, and ten minutes of your time searching for them may prove fruitful. If you're unfamiliar with this ballad, I hope you enjoy it. As with operas placed in the Theater forum, I could have just as easily placed this in the Music forum, but I chose instead to emphasize its literary aspect (arguably doing a disservice to Ewan MacColl in the process).
Speaking of morbid sentimental songs, one of my very favorite morbid sentimental songs is "Danny Boy", and the late Irish tenor Frank Patterson sang it (below) as well as anyone ever could. I think a lot of people know the first chorus, with its pipes calling, but not so much the second, with the dying flowers and the singer anticipating his or her own death. ("And all my grave will warmer, sweeter be" plumbs the morbid depths, doesn't it?) This song always provokes a question as to the relationship between the singer and Danny. Many interpretations are possible, but I've always imagined the singer to be Danny's mother, saying good-bye as Danny emigrates to America during the Famine. Morbid, sentimental, and heart-breaking. Having just lost my own mother, this is even likelier to make me cry than otherwise. The up-beat big-band version of the tune used as the opening theme for the Danny Thomas sitcom "Make Room for Daddy" has always struck me as rather grotesque.
And people think we're not on top of things. This is a rare *live* version by the master himself. "See the tree, how big it's grown, but friend it hasn't been too long, it wasn't big." Here's a cover by George44. "She was always young at heart, kinda dumb and kinda smart, and I loved her so." And a particularly tender version by Larry L. "She wrecked the car, and she was sad, so afraid that I'd be mad, but what the heck?"