Rachel Denny at Hesperia Hall – folk songs from the heart


Rachel Denny

In many ways, our modern folk ballads echo the long tradition of the medieval pastourelle. In this genre, the narrator, often a knight, stops in the woods. After all, woods are always erotic dream space where anything can happen. There the knight meets a shepherdess, often named Marion, who is longing for Robin, her absent shepherd lover. The tension between love, infidelity, rape, voyeurism, and the plays between high and low class and language have been rehearsed many times since the genre was first preserved in the twelfth century.

Another classic feature of the pastourelle and its descendant ballads is the dorelot, or refrain. These refrains can mimic birdsong, quote other ballads, and can range between nonsense syllables to intelligible text. The word dorelot is just one variant of all the “tura luras,” “lully lullays,” “dilly dillies,” “diddle diddles,” “fa la las,” “tra la las,” and “Polly Wolly doodles” heard in so many songs today. They can serve as a powerful counterpoint and commentary on the narrative and dialogue of the ballad stories.

In English and American ballads, the knight becomes a soldier, or the song becomes a lament of the cheated and abandoned shepherdess, echoed in songs like “Wildwood Flower.”

One special sub-genre of the pastourelle, the “two sisters ballads”, pits two women against each other who love the same man. Sometimes the narrator of the song is that man who reveals himself as the lover of both. In other songs, the narrator recounts how one of the women murders her other sister to gain her lover as a husband, only to die from guilt on her wedding day. And who steps in to marry the man but the narrator, the third sister!

One thing I find fascinating about our modern folk song culture is that it is so often mediated through scholarly collections, or through folk revivals like the one spoofed in A Mighty Wind. But there is in fact a certain kind of authenticity in this tradition of learning folk songs second and third hand. After all, many original medieval pastourelles and ballads only survive today because they were preserved in intricate polyphonic settings and notated in rich manuscripts for wealthy noble patrons.

In all of these songs, Rachel Denny is carrying on a modern version of a tradition that Paul Zumthor described as mouvance. This concept searches not for the original authentic version of a song, but rather for its many variants, its mobility and community tradition. Hence, songs from across time and the ocean can be sung today in Hesperia Hall, itself hidden in the green woods of pastourelle space.

–Adam Knight Gilbert

Rachel Denny reminds us of the rich music tradition in America before the Internet, before the plethora of modern recordings, and before television and radio. Rachel sings songs from the early settlers in what became the United States, particularly from rural communities in the Appalachian mountains, and from their antecedents in Scotland, Ireland and the greater English speaking world. This is the world of kerosene lamps and candles, not diodes.

Rachael comes from a family for whom music is a daily event, shared among family members, and enjoyed in larger gatherings with friends. Rachel’s mother plays cello and mountain dulcimer, and sisters play viola da gamba, violin and the Paraguayan harp. Rachel’s youngest brother plays trombone, accordion and electric bass. Rachael has been homeschooled from the beginning, as have her brothers and sisters. Rachel and her siblings live as a family unit with their parents. Rachel’s first formal music teacher was Robert Baker, the luthier from Santa Margarita, who built Rachel’s guitar. Later, Rachel studied with the famed English folk musician Martin Simpson when he lived in Santa Cruz.

Yarlung friends and musicians (Finnish violinist Petteri Iivonen and Ciaramella Ensemble directors Adam and Rotem Gilbert) came together for a 2014 New Year’s Eve concert at Hesperia Hall, on the Central Coast of California. Petteri played Bach and Ysaye, and the Gilberts finished with a Renaissance medley on Flemish bagpipes. After the concert, as our friends stayed to visit and toast the New Year, we asked if Rachel would sing. Recordings from that evening sound like they were made in a noisy jazz club, so Rachel and I returned later to record some of her songs again without so much background racket.  Many thanks Rachel, and to Ed Buntz and Cherie Landon, who made Hesperia Hall available for our recording.  Thanks also to Darwin Denny for Rachel’s photograph.

–Bob Attiyeh
Yarlung Records

Full Album:

YouTube full album playlist.

Individual Album tracks:

  1. Essequibo River” 

“Essequibo River” is a sailor’s song (shanty) originally from Guyana. The Essequibo is the biggest river in Guyana, and the largest river between the Orinoco and Amazon. The call and response structure is typical of many works songs originating among the African slaves.  The refrain, “buddy ta-na-na, we are somebody-o” remains somewhat of a mystery, though it has been suggested that it may be a Creole corruption of “Boat a-turnin’ now, we are somebody o’er”.  I learned it from the singing of Martin Simpson and Jessica Radcliffe.                                           

  1. The Gardener’s Child 

“The Gardener’s Child”, known also as “Proud Maisrie and The Gardener”, is a Scottish ballad of considerable antiquity, with some mysterious and beautiful imagery.  I learned it from the singing of Martin Simpson and Jessica Radcliffe.

  1. The Two Sisters Scottish

This is a very old ballad, with many versions on both sides of the Atlantic, most famously known  as “The Twa Sisters”, a murder ballad that recounts the tale of a girl drowned by her sister. It is first known to have appeared on a broadside in 1656 as “The Miller and the King’s Daughter.” The ballad was collected by Francis J. Child and is also listed in the Roud Folk Song Index. I have recorded three different versions here, (one from Scotland, and two from the U.S.), but there are others.

  1. The Two Sisters (American) 

This is an American variant of “The Two Sisters”. There are at least 21 English variants exist under several names, including “Minnorie” or “Binnorie”, “The Cruel Sister”, “The Wind and Rain”, “Dreadful Wind and Rain”, “Two Sisters”, “The Bonny Swans” and the “Bonnie Bows of London”.

  1. The Two Sisters (The Wind and the Rain)

The aggregate of melodies known as “The Two Sisters” is one of the most popular songs of all time. It has been found throughout Britain, and in at least eighteen of the United States. There are literally hundreds of versions known. Francis James Child, who made the first attempt to catalog versions of the song (he knew some thirty different texts), gave the piece the generic title The Twa Sisters (yes, I said “Twa,” not “Two”; many of the oldest versions are in Scots dialect). The oldest dated version was printed in 1656. Other titles for the piece are common, e.g. The Cruel Sister, Binnorie, Rollin’ a-Rollin’. The Wind and Rain seems to be a primarily American version.

  1. The Seven Wonders

“The Seven Wonders” is a 19th century translation of the song Y Saith Rhyfeddod, which comes from the Bala region of North Wales, collected by the Welsh Folk Song Society early in the 20th century. It is a  delightful  example of the “boasting ballad” or “song of lies” and I’m surprised isn’t more widely known.  I learned it from the singing of Maddy Pryor and June Tabor.

  1. Beauty & Tears and The Ash Grove

“The Ash Grove” is a traditional Welsh folk song whose melody has been set to numerous sets of lyrics. The best-known version was written in English by John Oxenford in the 19th century. The first known version of “The Ash Grove” was published in 1862, in Volume I of “Welsh Melodies, With Welsh And English Poetry”, authored by John Thomas the harpist, with Welsh words by John Jones (Talhaiarn) and English words by Thomas Oliphant. The tune of “The Ash Grove” is used for the hymns “Let All Things Now Living” and “Sent Forth by God’s Blessing”.

  1. The Golden Vanity

Known under more than twenty different titles and in hundreds of variants, this traditional ballad has long been one of the most popular on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Folksong collector Child traces the song back to a broadside of 17th century England which says that Sir Walter Raleigh was the owner of the ship (in that version known as The Sweet Trinity). The popular American version enacts its drama as a piece of high tragedy. In various other versions, ship mates rescue the cabin boy (or seaman), or the captain gives the gold and fee but holds back the daughter, etc. One theme remains constant in all versions of the ballad, however: the perfidy of the ship’s captain in reneging on his promise. I learned it from the singing of Martin Simpson, but I’m not sure I remember it exactly as he sang it.

  1. Sir Patrick Spens

‘Sir Patrick Spens’ is the story of disaster at sea—a maritime ballad that has inspired and attracted audiences for centuries and is considered by many to be the paramount example of ballad-poetry. First recorded in the 18th century, this old Scottish ballad was based on a historic incident that occurred during the reign of Alexander III of Scotland in the 13th century. His daughter Margaret was escorted by a large party of nobles to Norway for her marriage to King Eric; on the return journey many of them were drowned. Twenty years later, after Alexander’s death, his grand-daughter Margaret, the Maid of Norway, was heiress to the Scottish throne, and on the voyage to Scotland she died.

I learned it from the singing of Martin Carthy.

  1. I Loved a Lass

Another old English/Scottish song with a long history dating back to the 18th century.  The song was also known under titles like “The Week Before Easter”, “The False Hearted Lover”, “The Forsaken Bridegroom” or “Love Is The Cause Of My Mourning” or “The False Nymph” and many other variants. Richard Farina used the melody (and the last verse) for his song “Birmingham Sunday”.

  1. The False Lover Won Back

“The False Lover…” is an old Scottish ballad that ends a bit more happily than some.  The earliest versions date from the early 19th century, but this ballad is rarely found outside of Scotland. Child knew it in only two versions, both from the North of Scotland. I learned it from the singing of Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger.

  1. Wildwood Flower

Wildwood Flower is a folk song variant of the 19th century parlor song “I’ll Twine ‘Mid the Ringlets”, by composer Joseph Philbrick Webster, first published in 1860.  It would later be popularized by Maybelle Carter and the Carter Family, when they recorded in 1928 and has been a favorite with guitarists since.

  1. The Fox went out on a Chilly Night

The earliest version of this popular song appears to have been a Middle English poem, dating from the 15th century, now in the British Museum.  Over the centuries it has acquired many aliases including “Dame Widdle Waddle”, “The Fox and the Goose”, “The False Fox”, etc. The song even inspired J.R.R. Tolkien when he wrote his poem, “The Stone Troll” (“Troll sat alone on his seat of stone”) that appears in The Lord of the Rings.  I learned this version from the singing of Burl Ives.

  1. Seven for a Secret

“Seven for a Secret” is based on an old English children’s rhyme about magpies. According to an old superstition, the number of magpies (or in North America, crows) one sees determines if one will have bad luck or good. The verses and melody are my own.

  1. Ripple                      

“Ripple” is the sixth song on the Grateful Dead album “American Beauty.” Robert Hunter wrote this song in 1970 in London in the same afternoon he wrote “Brokedown Palace” and “To Lay Me Down” with Jerry Garcia providing the music. It’s my favorite Grateful Dead song.

  1. Polly Wolly Doodle

“Polly Wolly Doodle” is a song first published in a Harvard student songbook in 1880. Over the years it has been performed by hundreds, if not thousands of singers as diverse as Shirley Temple, Leon Redbone, Sheryl Crow and Alvin and the Chipmunks. I’ve known it since I was a kid.

–Rachel Denny, Bradley California

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