While looking for a song to add to a set list many years ago, I came across the tune “Single Girl, Married Girl” on Harry Smith's Folkways Anthology. It seemed appropriate for an all-girl old-timey country band full of single ladies slinging instruments and singing in harmony to be proudly declaring “a single girl, a single girl, she goes just where she please, a married girl, a married girl, she's got a baby on her knee.”
The song had been popularized by the Carter Family, but I've yet to see definitive authorship information. In the Anthology notes, 1927 is listed as the recording date, but it was likely around long before that. But it's a bit repetitive for my taste, and so without really thinking about it, I took the liberty of adding a bridge. It fit the band nicely and became a go-to at shows. (It was also a self-fulfilling prophecy: when the ladies in the band started getting married and having babies themselves, it was the death knell for The Estelles.)
Once, when someone asked after a concert if the song was an original, I simply said that it was a traditional song popularized by the Carter Family, and that I had added a bridge.
“You can do that?!” the woman asked. “If it's traditional, you're not supposed to change it, right?”
She made it sound as if the folk police might be after me for a songwriting crime. But what we think of as those venerable TRADS have sometimes been sliced, diced, amended and redacted hundreds of times to fit a particular zeitgeist or set of vocal chords. Sometimes it's just plain-old mishearing: just listen to that Folkways Anthology, and I'll give you a hundred dollars if you can make out every word, or even every other word sometimes. And many of the songs that we think of as belonging to a specific artist are only attributed to them because they were the first to record it. That includes many Carter Family songs, according to the author of Will You Miss Me When I'm Gone, a fantastic history of both the family and the beginnings of the recording industry.
I began to wonder whether the advent of the recording industry hadn't put a crimp in a practice that had been going on since we learned how to speak: that passing down of songs and stories, as well as the poetic license to change them as the years went on. I started thinking of folk songs as an inter-generational game of telephone. It's also transnational and cross-cultural; a worldwide, multi-player game. On one end is you, existing in your own political and social context, swimming in your own cultural pond, wearing the skin of a particular personal experience and scribbling a new verse that suits you better. On the other end is the person who started the game in another decade or even century, a person who lived on the other side of the mountain or across an ocean, who maybe didn't even speak your language. In between might be a just few or a few hundred, even a few thousand other players, who along the way misheard a word, added a verse, changed a line, told the story from a different perspective, or completely changed the tune. I wonder if the recording industry wasn't like a car traveling down the road, prompting someone to call out “game off!” in that sing-song voice of childhood.
Now, we worry about permissions and lawsuits. But go back far enough, and there's a rich trove of material to work with. I've taken several songs or pieces of songs and incorporated them into something I was writing. “T'Other Little Tune” on Sweetbriar Rose's debut Cultivar, for instance, takes a Mother Goose rhyme and uses it for a first verse. I enjoy it, actually, because I feel like I'm interacting with another writer, and it adds a bit of history to whatever I'm writing. They give me an idea, and I have to finish it.
In the summer of 2013, I proposed a workshop and showcase to the Philadelphia Folk Festival called “Lizzie Borden Played Her Axe: Women Take the Lead in Murder Ballads.” As I got busy with the task of writing two new songs to add to a third I had already written years ago for my first record, Bones, I found myself stuck. When you're writing a murder ballad there's only one sure thing: someone doesn't make it until the end of the song. After that, the permutations are legion. Not wanting to sit around creatively contemplating murder per se, and also trying to be mindful of a very hard deadline that was fast approaching, I started narrowing down my objectives.
One of them, I decided, was to take a real female murderer who has committed an egregious crime, one in which the court of public opinion was definitively against her, and to make her case sympathetic. Lizzie Borden, the namesake of the workshop and a villain that everyone knows, was actually acquitted of any crime, but not many people know that; I learned it in the course of preparing for the workshop from a friend. It's possible that because she wasn't yet married, which meant at the time that for a woman of her age she was turning into a spinster, that she was an easy scapegoat for the press who could portray her as a frustrated, strange, childless woman.
For the first song, I went through a mental Rolodex of real stories I knew and stopped at the story of Susan Smith, who rolled her children into a lake in 1994. Who could be worse than a woman who murders her own child? And who blames an imaginary black man for the crime? I tried to put my own opinion of her aside, one that was formed largely from network television and did a little digging. I hit on a profile by true-crime enthusiast Rachel Pergament who provided some history.
Smith, who is certainly guilty of her crime, was apparently from a broken home, was sexually abused by her stepfather, likely suffers from mental illness, was perpetually in poverty though she worked her whole life, and had series of failed relationships, including a marriage that had given her two children to care for. When she finally reached a breaking point, she was a struggling single mother, recently jilted by a new love interest who essentially told her that their poor girl/rich boy happy ending wasn't going to happen, and she sat by a lakeside with her sleeping boys in the car.
Her plan was also to kill herself. It's possible for me to believe that she may actually have thought that killing her sons was an act of mercy, to save them from the kind of life that she felt she was suffering through. I doubt anyone will ever know the entire truth. The resulting song, “Black Eyed Susan,” doesn't excuse her crime or make her out to be a good person, but it does give a context that complicates her story and makes it harder to pass easy judgment.
The other self-imposed assignment to get ready for the showcase was to make sure that one of the stories was directly told by a woman's voice, especially if the story is usually told about her, not by her, to see how it changed the narrative. As I sat on my couch, thinking about the many stories I already knew, “Frankie and Johnny,” and “Nebraska,” and “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” and many others that are much, much older, I spied an edition of Keats on the wall, and an idea began to form.
While in college I was able to spend a semester in Oxford, and on a trip down to London, I spent a good bit of time in the Tate Museum. I remember vividly the Pre-Raphaelite room. John Singer Sargent's larger than life “Lady McBeth” stared out wild-eyed in floor-length emerald green and was in the act of dramatically placing a crown on her own head. His “Ophelia,” lay pale in the water, surrounded by floating flowers. There was another painting that I was drawn to as well: a mournful, curvy woman with beautiful black hair steadying herself on a potted plant. I went closer to read the placard, and learned that it was William Holden Hunt's “Isabella and the Pot of Basil.” A skull is carved into the pot, and an embroidered cloth draped over the plant simply says, “Lorenzo.”
While I knew Lady McBeth's story and Ophelia's as well, this wasn't a well-known Shakespearean heroine, and I wondered in passing what her story was. Hung alongside a murderess and a suicide, a weeping woman next to that ominous skull, death was certainly lurking nearby. But, this being 1995, nearly pre-internet and even pre-cell phone (much less smartphone), I wandered off and didn't think of Isabella again, until a year later as I thumbed through a Keats anthology assigned for a senior year seminar. There in black and white was the poem “Isabella, or the Pot of Basil.” It was published around 1820.
I quickly began skimming the several dozen verses to find out what had happened to the pair, happily ignoring any poetic value the piece might have to find out who done it. I learned (and there really is no delicate way to put this) that Lorenzo's severed head was in that pot of basil. At the time, it felt like the pot had shattered and when I finally knew its gruesome secret, it was so gruesome it was almost funny to me. Who buries a head in a pot of basil! That's love, I suppose. I wondered how many visitors had known what was hiding inside that pot, and how many simply passed into another gallery in blissful ignorance. Once you know, it's not something you forget.
Twenty years later, looking at the Keats book on my shelf, I knew that I had my first victim. The story, in short, is that Isabella falls in love with Lorenzo, a man that her wealthy family feels is beneath her: she's a single girl, but one who lived long before it was possible for a single woman to do what she pleases. Her merchant brothers, when they learn of the illicit affair, kill him while taking him hunting. She dreams of him and Lorenzo tells her where he has been left in the woods, so she goes to the spot, digs up his body, cuts off his head, and brings it home with her. According to the Keats poem, she wipes the blood from his brow, combs his blonde hair, and buries her love's head in a pot of basil, over which she weeps. The basil does very well. Isabella dies of grief.
In any case, Keats didn't come up with the story.
Keats adapted the narrative from Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron, written in the 1300's in Italy. Even then, it's likely that's when Boccaccio wrote it down, not when, or by whom, it was written. It wouldn't surprise me at all if it were originally a folk song or if the basil's roots were in a real-life story. Honor killings were not uncommon at the time. What I do know is that at some point, the story was translated, it traveled by boat, and it was replanted in England. It bloomed again and again, and cultivars include “The Bramble Briar,” “The Merchant's Daughter,” and “In Bruton Town,” some versions of which were recorded there in the 60's and 70's. In 2014, it's absolutely chilling to consider that in some countries, it's still possible for your family to kill you and your lover if they don't approve of your choices. Isabella's simple story has traveled over centuries, and yet it's also as though time has stopped. Women continue to be property around the globe.
In none of the versions that I have seen do we hear from Isabella herself. In my version, I've given her a voice, a sympathetic sister to serve as ballast to her cruel brothers, and a slightly less gruesome ending, in which she buries her (whole) love in the garden. I'm inclined to think that the story has lasted so long because the theme is universal: Who, at some point, has not had a boyfriend or girlfriend that hasn't met the approval of your family? I know that when I sing it, I can identify.
“In the Bramble Briar,” is my title for an entirely new song, by which I mean original lyrics and music, so, yes, it's an original. And, yes, it's a traditional. It's definitely a call of “game on!” when it comes to whispering down the long, long lane.
“In the Bramble Briar”
Oh my sister, these dreams will keep me from ever knowing the light.
I see my love but he's cold and dreary and white.
Oh my sister, I spied our brothers take him out into the wood
To go after the foxes, they're hunting the misunderstood.
Oh my love! Oh my love! Oh my love!
Oh my sister our brothers whisper and shadows fill my eyes,
I see my love and he tells me where he lies.
Oh my brothers, your crowns are like briars that choke my poor boys throat.
His golden hair is a treasure you'll never know.
Oh my love! Oh my love! Oh my love!
In the brambles, I found him blind with the crows about his eyes. Oh my love!
Oh my poor boy, my tears will keep you from thirsting for my love.
Under the garden you'll sleep and I'll weep up above.
Oh my love! Oh my love! Oh my love!
The song will likely be on whatever next recording Sweetbriar Rose makes, and the workshop, just for the record, was great. Local singer-songwriter Dani Mari joined us on stage, as did Burning Bridget Cleary, a Celtic music band led by two female fiddle players (and named for a murdered woman in Ireland). All of us sang the final choruses of “Black-Eyed Susan” together, and it was a powerful moment. When I reflect on this cadre of real and fictional women---Lady McBeth, Susan Smith, Lizzie Borden, Ophelia, and Isabella, all of whom were trapped in different circumstances and are single for very (very) different reasons, it occurs to me that even in death, their stories will continue to go where they please.
Join us for a murder ballad heavy concert with the Philadelphia Folk Song Society on Februrary 10, 2018, at St. Alban's church in Roxborough, Pa