I was toying with the idea to pick any tune that is too “loud” or to “extreme” to play on the family stereo, but that’s to easy. As always it came down to two tunes that I enjoy best by myself. One because it sucks a lot of energy out of me and the other one just because I want to enjoy it in full by myself. I chose the latter, let me revisit the former in a later challenge and keep it a secret for now.
The tale of the forgotten tune
The tune I’ve chosen is the old Appalachian folk tune Pretty Saro performed by Tatiana Hargreaves. I have no memory of how I found this song, but I do remember that I loved it instantly.
At first, I thought it was a murder ballad and the sharp contrast of the protagonist of the tune and Tatiana intrigued me a lot. I kept it like that for a long time, a tale of longing for a lost girl, that he himself had killed. I now know that it’s indeed a longing for a loved one, but it’s not murder, more like leaving a loved one behind and taking the long journey from England to America. There is a lot of variations of this tune, both in lyrics and music and traditionally it is sung in a free style and that’s probably why there is so much variation. It is said that it’s an old English folk tune that got lost and then got rediscovered in the Appalachians going from generation to generation in an oral tradition, but from my point of view it was never lost, was it? It was maybe lost to the greater audience but it was never lost or forgotten. I find it amusing that the tune itself took the same journey that the protagonist did in the tune – Inception warning!
It has and still works like a reset tune for me, just like bread and water can be used to reset your taste buds and how coffee is used to reset your smell, I use this tune as a reset of the music in my head.
Why do I love it so much and why do I like it when I’m alone? It’s not like I think of the great story behind the tune or how wonderful it is that this tune survived in the mountains nor how that makes it part of something bigger than Tatiana, me and the current world – every time I listen to it, but a small portion of that greatness floats around in the back of my head and I want to keep that moment uninterrupted and just dream myself away. What is it that makes me love it, besides the excellent performance by Hargreaves and her sincere expression one might ask? I found a wonderful quote by Jean Ritchie, where she puts into words exactly how I feel about Pretty Saro:
“When a person hears this song for the first time, he usually thinks, if he notices it at all, ‘What a commonplace tune, and what trite words.’ ‘Pretty Saro’ is just that, there’s no denying. All the same, the scoffer will soon find himself humming that commonplace tune and he will also discover that those trite words will not leave his mind and heart. It is one of the simplest, loveliest songs ever sung. We especially like to sing this one on the porch, along the edges of dark, with all the high and low voices filling in the harmonies.”
I can not end this text without giving you the link to a true gem. Alan Lomax (he will come up again in this blog) has recorded, on video, an aged Cas Wallin singing this tune for his family on a porch in North Carolina, back in ‘82. It is lovely and you must watch it! Enjoy one of the simplest, loveliest songs ever sung, this scoffer will certainly do just that.
By the end of my first semester working as a teacher my piles of ungraded papers had their own tectonic forces, they had begun forming mountain ranges complete with staggering peaks and I know it doesn’t sound plausible but as I recall it there was at least one glacier forming in the valley between the 8th graders’ history papers and the 9th graders’ biographies. I was bringing home a box worth of work every evening and would snuggle up in my couch, working well past midnight most nights. True to form I would allow myself to spend some time picking just the perfect background music. It felt very essential to the process.
It was on such a night I decided to give ISIS a go. This is before Spotify, Youtube, Soundcloud and last but certainly not least Bandcamp, gave instant access to everyone to at a whim check out any and all music ever mentioned to them, legally. Then as now my monthly budget for buying records by far exceeded (and still exceeds) my combined food and clothing budgets so I didn’t feel too bad about using extralegal means back then to check out music I was interested in. I had gotten hold of both Oceanic and the then just released Panopticon. I dumped all of the mp3’s in the play que, hit shuffle, and went to work on that box of papers.
I remember really liking the music right from the get go but the way I have to concentrate when grading papers it’s all just very much in the periphery of my conscious …well atleast normally that is the case, see I recall some hour or so in, becoming aware that a tune had just ended and I wasn’t reading. I figure that I hadn’t been for a large portion of the song that just ended. It hadn’t bombastically ripped me from my chores with its charms and swagger, (this happened some times with some tunes). No! it had sneaked up on me and completely enthralled me through the extended crescendo that was the entire song structure. Tears were trickling down my cheek and I just couldn’t bare to listen to the next tune that had started. Neither could I stomach listening to it again even though I knew I eventually would do that over and over again. I was drained and just sat there for a bit in the quiet, recuperating.
Weight from ISIS break through album Oceanic is that rare gem that is perfectly constructed even though it really has no symmetry. It is one of my all time favourite tunes from one of my all time favourite albums but I only rarely listen to it and when I do, I certainly want to do it alone. The tune still moves me to tears every now and then and it always leaves me feeling a little bit exhausted when I lift the needle of the disc …oh yeah, I went out and bought the LP right away.
I did see ISIS live on their Absence of Truth tour. I almost didn’t, in fear that they would play Weight (they often do) but it was a summer festival gig and somehow they didn’t have it in their set that night. The show was really really good and I’m so glad that they didn’t put me through having to listen to Weight in the company of several hundred strangers. To me, it’s obvious that this tune really really should be enjoyed alone …and grades be damned, the papers will have to wait 11 minutes every now and then.
…and for our next task, we will find a tune that…
Not all music is like this though. Most infact, is quiet the opposite. After all it does take two to tango. For some reason or other there are tunes that just should be enjoyed in good company.
see you in two weeks!