A Production of The Folk Life ( Inc. 1976)
John McLaughlin and Jamie Downs, Editors


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The Folk Life

An Email Interview with Andrew Calhoun

[After I’d written the review for posting to the web page I sent a copy to Andrew, and in the email conversations that ensued, we discussed supplementing the review with his further thoughts on this project, its background and where he is going since its completion. Face-to-face discussion was impossible since he now lives in Oregon and I’m in Maryland, and I’m terrible at phoners (just ask Jez Lowe and James Keelaghan). So I suggested he might send me some notes as outlined above, I’d edit them – minimally!- and here’s the results:]

Sent: Sunday, March 28, 2004 3:00 PM
Subject: Re: Q&A email Interview on *Telfer's Cows*

Hi John,

That's a heartening review, and much appreciated. I'll start at the beginning. My mother sang me "The Bonnie Earl of Moray," and "The Cruel Mother," along with "Hush Little Baby" and "I Gave My Love a Cherry," in the cradle. "The Cruel Mother," of course, is about the mother who stabs her two boys. Rilke's mother used to dress him as a girl, and call him Maria. Robert Bly said, "at that point, you only have two choices. You go insane, or you become a poet." My mother was a manic, raging, fast-walking activist/teacher with incredible literary tastes. She's Jewish, actually, my father is the Scot. But the only thing I remember him singing was "Yippee Tie Yi Yay." She read us the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Peloponnesian Wars, etc. We had LPs by Ewan MacColl, John Jacob Niles, Susan Reed, all singing ballads. So I grew up with them. Being the youngest of 4, I got used to listening to things that were over my head, and enjoying their atmosphere and rhythm - not having to "get it" all, and always enjoyed listening to Scots dialect that way. I remember as a janitor, at 19, singing Scottish songs while dust-mopping the halls of the Dupage Area Vocation Authority in Addison, IL, at 6:30 AM. I'd turn a corner, bellowing out "Johnny Lad" and run into the bemused Vice-Principal, and quiet down. I earned enough money at that gig to go to Europe in the summer of 1977. The Welsh actor Victor Spinetti was an old friend of my parents', and that was my base in London. I knocked at around 8 AM, he lived a mile from Victoria station, a large blonde man answered in a towel, said I should come back in a few hours. I left my guitar and bag and went for runny eggs, and happened upon the Tate Gallery, wandering in thrall to around 100 JMW Turner paintings. Victor was delighted to see me. "You got in right after the orgy, darling! Why have you come?" "I want to hear Ewan MacColl." Victor had sent us his "British Army Songs" and "Whaling Ballads" along with "Beatles for Sale" in 1964. So he phoned him up, got Peggy on the phone, she said they were singing that very night at the Bull and Mouth pub. "Sucking off a bull?" said Victor. "How marvelous!". So there I was, and Ewan sang a harmony on my song "Vancouver." MacColl sang "Eppie Morrie," hand to ear. But what really lit me up was hearing Martin Carthy late that summer at the Cambridge Folk Festival. I was sitting a third of the way back in a tent full of a thousand people, and before the workshop, Martin looked out and gave me this big smile. His first song was "The Bonny Lass of Anglesey." My mother heard him a few years later in Chicago, told him, "my son spent three months in Europe and all he could talk about when he came home was Martin Carthy." I came home with all his LPs, eventually wore out two copies of "Crown of Horn." Martin's music has been a light to me. Too many songwriters I loved when I was young, did their best work when they were young. Martin embodies the possibility of endless artistic growth, and anything else isn't good enough. My gift is words, first, my songs. Especially the channelled, intuitive ones. I was 35 before I sang a folksong and felt I'd made it my own. Always performed some folksongs, but wouldn't have recorded a disc of them, putting myself in the company of people who make that work their life. So how did this happen. When I moved to Portland in November '99, I started writing, for me, a new kind of song, the story song from life. It's a different and much more time-consuming process, with many sketches. In July, 2002, I was booked as a solo for four weekends at the Bristol Renaissance Fair in Wisconsin. I thought I'd learn 5 new ballads for it. One was the Devil's Questions. And as I learned them, I started thinking about doing more translating from dialect, taking some liberties as long as the story was clear. One day at the fair, I was singing "The Devil's Questions," and the audience went into a trance. And in that moment I realized that I wasn't a modern person interpreting old songs. I was, simply, one of the singers of this song, absolutely no different than the old nurses and spinners in they were collected from. It was like walking by the sea, where you are simultaneously diminished and ennobled by its power. "Telfer's Cows" was born in that moment.

1: King Orfeo (Child #19):

I found this in Emily Lyle's "Scottish Ballads" book, which is excellent and affordable, by the way, I highly recommend it. I loved the "notes of noy/notes of joy" part, noy is the opposite of joy, as in to annoy someone. I'd never heard it sung, although I've heard Archie Fisher does it. My sister Jane had a tape of Holly Tannen? -an American singer who was on the workshop stage with Martin in Cambridge. I wrote verse two to fill in the plot, and the line "and when they entered, all was still," is mine. It was in working on one of these verses that I realized that rhymes in the ballads always end a thought or an action, they don't rhyme in the middle. I tried and it went like a dull thud. So there's one of the hidden rules. The hero's journey here, a folk version of the Orpheus legend collected by astonished scholars from an old man in the Shetland Islands 100 years ago. There's a field recording of it, sung marvellouly by John Stickle, on the Lomax Child Ballad collection.

2: Two Sisters (Child #10):

Well it's custom that the eldest marry first. And the young man is courting the younger, pretending to court the elder. The elder looks like the villain here, but really this is a warning about jealousy and going against the order of things. You have to look at the REASON why a song is sung. It's not to make us feel bad about the horrible death. It's homeopathy, these trad songs that live hundreds of years are charged with the same energy as herbal lore and other forms of shamanism. Heard this melody from MacColl, on "Chorus From the Gallows," and Heather Heywood, who is the most glorious singer. The verses about the blackbirds are chillingly beautiful - the eldest is plotting the younger's death, and I think hypnotizing her. I looked a every version in Child and elsewhere. I'm not fond of the body parts versions, to me the story itself is the body parts, if that makes any sense. There is one incredible verse where the harper sees the body, says,

sore will they be, whate'er they be
the hearts that live to beat for thee.

Tracy Grammer did some genius production work, her conceptual ability with arranging is startling. found this verse:

mony was there at her out-takin'
and mony mair at her grave-makin'

morphs to: as many saw her drawn from the pool as many more came to her burial this intense story opens out to include the whole community with that.

3. The Battle of Harlaw (Child #163):

Again, first heard from MacColl, and Jeannie Robertson does a more sweeping, sadder version. Fought near Aberdeen in 1411, most of the gentry of Buchan died in the fighting. I sang this with a vengeance when they started the drumbeat for the Iraq war; it is always this, and nothing but this; a lot of drama and, at the end of the day, dead grunts with bereaved families. There's a verse I didn't sing that I've been adding in at the end:

if anyone should ask ye o' them that marched awa' ye
may tell their wives and babies they're sleepin' at harlaw.

there was a problem with this, it was the highlanders against the redcoats. to americans, redcoats are english, and this was scots fighting scots. so i used the highlanders vs. "our merry men," also trad, but this still confused. hugh blumenfeld asked, "why are there six thousand and then nine thousand?" two different sides. so i just say, "highlanders" and "Lowlanders." my rule was, anything confusing got changed/clarified, i wanted these version to have the immediacy for american listeners as they did in their original context. there was a problem with one verse:

If this be true," says james the rose
We'll no come muckle speed
We'd best cry in our merry men
And turn our horses' heads

"We'll no come muckle speed - we won't go very fast, a sarcastic idiomatic, untranslatable phrase. thought about speed and steed, finally got "if this be true says james the rose there will be hundreds dead... " natural enough. the trad versions have 60,000 and 90,000. i thought the smaller, historically accurate number were much more interesting. pure poetry: lord forbes he being young and stout made the highlandmen to yield as a scythe doth the green grass that grows upon the field and there was such a burial the like ye never saw as there was upon the sabbath day in the leas (fields) beneath harlaw. then found "moors", dark, resonates with mortality. a footnote in Child, "howe." look it up, means "hollow.' the hollow beneath harlaw. hollow victory. yes.

4. Eppie Morrie (Child #223):

Well, this was a project. It's great in dialect, very percussive, a"Haud awa' fae me, Willie." In Child it's young Breadalbane coming in for her near the end. And then there's John Forsyth. In Child I learn that Breadalbane is the title of Forsyth. I'd always thought he was another potential rapist. It helps to do research. I strengthened his entrance with the threat to Willie. In the original, she keeps saying "there's not one man in all Strathdon shall wedded be with me." So maybe she's a cute dyke and just pissing these guys off. Looked at that for a while. And if she's really so interested in John Forsyth, is he just not from Strathdon? Seemed really trivial. So we set it up. But I'm not sure "not a man" isn't better, she doesn't have to be telling anyone what's in her heart from the top. So live now I'm doing it that way. This was thick dialect -

Haud awa' fae me" becomes "hands off of me,"
He took the sark fae aff his back and kicked awa' his shoon
he's thrown awa' the chaumer key and naked he lay doon

he took the shirt from off his back his hat from off his head he threw away the chamber key stood naked by the bed william pint and felicia dale produced this track, they had one idea after another i didn't think would work, and did. sheer brilliance, and the best people besides. i listed this wrongly as #233 in the notes, Arthur Wood points out, it's #223.

5: Jeannie o' Bethelnie (Glenlogie, Child #238):

I learned this one in my teens, in some ways it's such a manipulative ploy on her part, and yet we feel the freshness and power of true love. It's intimidating to try to sing anything you've heard Dick Gaughan sing, you can't get there from here. Sometimes people think Glenlogie is Glen Logie. Well he's not!

6: Hughie Grime (Hughie Grame, Child #191):

Sang this as "Hughie the Graeme," a woman in Estacada, OR, asked if a Graeme was a tradesman of some sort. So he's just Hughie Graeme, no, make that Grime. These border outlaws were like Marvel Super Heroes, in the minds of the kids standing on the wall, and the ballad makers. This is dark, the dark side of human nature depicted, and the ballad's brazen overtones of racism. And one of the great verses in ballad literature. There's a more lilting tune to this I've heard sung, but with that one I was never able to follow the story. My sister Jane lent me tapes of Child Ballads she’d taped off of WUMB, and here again was MacColl doing that stark tune, one I'd heard in younger years and just not liked. But this time through I was following the story, and Hughie's leap in the air in the courtroom struck me as a moment of berserk rage, rage about his wife’s adultery. And in that understanding I knew I'd sing the song. Digging into Child on this one was well-rewarded. Burns is said to have written the speech to his mother; if so, nice work. I've never heard the good Lady Ward's sexy speech sung. Chances are Graeme was a common horse thief, and hanged for that. The ballad makes the Bishop of Carlisle into a figure of real evil. Graeme's bequest of his sword to his brother is a call for revenge.

peace, peace my old father
and see that ye don't mourn for me
though they may ravish me of my life
they cannot banish me from heaven high

7: Kinmont Willie (Bold Archer, Child #186):

Concerning a jailbreak in 1592. This was collected and reworked by Sir Walter Scott. His literary style is easily recognizable, and ballads that are not pure oral tradition are much more difficult to memorize. I worked with Child's historical record of the actual event to clarify the story, as in verse 1:

o haven't ye heard of the false sakelde
haven't ye heard of the keen lord scroope
how they have taken bold kinmont willie
on haribee to hang him up?
o haven't ye heard of the keen lord scroope
haven't ye heard of the false sakelde
how they have taken bold kinmont willie
just as a day of truce was held?

and so on. as a child I was deeply moved by the Kingston Trio's version of "Old John Webb,"

"and Billy broke locks
and Billy broke bolts,
and Billy broke all that he came nigh..."

people coming to save you, classic. This is just like a Hollywood Western, complete with telegraphing the violence of the villain's comeuppance. No tune, so I took one from "Bold Archer," a descended ballad. That's something I learned from Martin Carthy- if you don't like a tune, grab another one.

8: Telfer's Cows (Jamie Telfer of the Fair Dod Head, Child #190):

This was next to "Hughie Graeme" in Child, and I happened upon when I was finishing up the project. The verses about the captain getting it in the balls were about the funniest thing I ever read. Told myself, don't get involved with another one. 49 verses. But I read it through the next night, and the next, and then "A harried man I trow I be" became "I'm victim of a robbery" and I was off and running. No tune, I wrote one, took me 3 weeks, sang the whole thing for Tracy Grammer, she said, "it needs a B part, minor, moves along faster," so I wrote the B part, and made the A part a rare moment. Another collected by Sir Walter, with dreadful verses like Then to it they went with heard and hand The blows they fell like bickering hail And many a horse ran masterless And many a comely cheek was pale The most important omission was a verse after the confrontation between Willie Scott and the Captain of Bewcastle. Willie announced the battle. The thing took on a gruesome gangster reality when Willie was simply killed, out of the blue. I enjoy performing this one, think it's beautiful, the crying for help until you get it. And it's a tough world; there's the raiders, there's the guide who directs them, there's the landlord who doesn't care.

9: Clark Colven (Clerk Colven, Child #42):

Well you've got Kobe Bryant of the LA Lakers, a weathy, entitled young man who thinks he can cheat on his wife and gets in way more trouble than he bargained for. Because he probably never listened to "Clark Colven." This is one of the loveliest sets of lyrics in balladry, with one of the most constipated, boring tunes every sung. I swiped a tune from "Sweet WIlliam's Ghost," and I put in some essential information from the original Danish version that was only barely implied in the Scots one; Colven's prior involvement with the mermaid.

Thusly: Alas alas cried Clark Colven
And why so sorely aches my head
And merrily cried the mermaiden
O carry on till ye be dead

becomes Alas alas cried Clark Colven And why so sorely aches my head Perhaps ye've lain with a fair lady Since last ye saw your mermaiden

10: A Shake in the Basket (Keach in the Creel, Child #281):

A Chaucerian romp, audiences laugh just like they must have 300 years ago. "pious daughter" was my own indulgence, and the punch line i think comes out even funnier in contemporary English. Sing Out! is printing this, and I hope someday to be walking through a Ren Faire and hear a trio with out of tune whistle, the epiphone guitar with the pickup controls showing on the outside, and the moves from musical theatre, singing this. Joe Root plays accordion, Donny Wright on bass.

11: The Beggarman (The Gaberlunzie Man, Child #279):

In some versions the Beggarman is the King, or a nobleman, and that's a myth, I guess, but I like to think of this Beggarman as well, a beggarman. To me this is really about the mother, a wonderful character, driven by the winds of her emotions. One verse gave me weeks of trouble:

since naething's awa, as we can learn
the kye is tae milk and the milk is tae kirn
gae but the hoose lass and waukin the bairn
and bid her come speedily ben

ok, bairn is baby, but really here her teenage daughter. learned from my own songwriting that at some point you have to stop thinking about words and revisualize the scene: since nothing's gone, as we can learn the cow is to milk and the mild is to churn get young Peggy up and out to the barn and bid her come speedily in this is a happy one, and a lovely tune. Bob Soper's mandola fills in the picture.

12: The Unquiet Grave (Child #78):

I've heard this sung many times, sort of as a spooky ghost story, which never engaged me. But the notion that you're given a year to grieve, and after that, it's an imposition to the dead, is a profound one. It's a commonplace in folklore that the tears of the living are said to wet the shrouds of the dead, disturbing their sleep. I hear more than that here. I hear anguish on both sides of the dialog - the young man's grief is real, if selfish, and there is just as much bitterness and frustration in the voice of the ghost - -"go and bring me milk from a maiden's breast that babies never had none." she didn't get to have babies, is what i hear. it's not just "the impossible task" the usual endings are, "go make yourself content my love till god calls you away," or, "till death calls you away." they strike me as editorial, as Victorian prose, distanced. so i found a phrase at the top of a verse in one of the versions, "lament no more for me." and thought, well, that's it.

the stalk is withered and dry, sweetheart
the flower no more we'll see
go and make yourself content my love
lament no more for me

people shouldn't forget that this is a love song, about particular people.

[And now that you've completed this project...?]

My next disc is nearly done, 18 songs about my experiences with love. Well, I thought that's what it was about, but when I listen, it's mostly About birds, lots of birds, doves, townsend's warblers, bluejays, birds and the people beneath them. And the Edna St. Vincent Millay poem, "Modern Declaration." My parts are recorded, so I'm working on the one after, which is a mix of song and spoken word, many different poets and writers. Biggest challenge for me is finding my way into Annie Gallup's "100 Miles From Music City," which I consider one of a handful a real song masterpieces from the last ten years. Working with poetry of Dylan Thomas, Millay, Stephen Vincent Benet, James Stephens and others, songs of Dylan, Prine, Dave Carter, Colum Sands, Leonard Cohen, a couple of mine. Also I'm reviving my artists' cooperative record label, Waterbug, it's a crazy time. Probably be two or three years before I get to another Scots ballad project. I want to look at the Jewish prophetic tradition and create a work around that, of which I can't say much because I don't know what it will be, except that if I can contemporize the ballads, perhaps I can recontextualize some of these teachings which continue to be horribly twisted by. [Mel Gibson's] "The Passion" a depressing example. Martin Luther King was a prophet of his people, but they don't make long films with graphic drawn out details of his shooting, as if that were somehow enlightening. When Christ said, "Your sins are forgiven," he may have been simply sharing an insight. He may not have thought he was, or been the one doing the forgiving. It's an essential distinction. Should keep me up nights.

John and Jamie, thanks for the forum! -Andrew

[It's a privilege - John and Jamie]