I’ve loved the folk music tradition ever since I was a teenager and bought my first LP, Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme in 1968. I especially love songs of every kind which make knowing references to prior songs. Another thing I find fascinating is how folk songs and stories evolve and change through repetitive performance. Words, scenes and motifs are added according to the imagination and needs of various performers. If these changes resonate with the audience, then the changes are accepted as part of the normative experience. If not, they are discarded. I sometimes ask in wonder: “how did there come to be so many versions, variants and melodies for songs like The River is Wide or Auld Lang Syne?
I’ve also enjoyed the knowing self-referential quality to some folk songs which refer back to preceding folk songs. Bob Dylan represents this tendency in his use (some might say, ‘exploitation,’ but that would be the subject of another discussion) of melodies and songs from earlier traditions and his contemporary reinterpretations.
I first heard Dylan’s Percy’s Song (hear Dylan’s original version here) thanks to a college roommate who owned Fairport Convention’s Unhalfbricking (one of the more bizarre record titles). Later, I heard Dylan’s version on the bootleg ‘white’ album. Percy’s Song was finally released publicly by Dylan on Biograph. The song illustrates this type of ‘borrowing’ in folk tradition. Since I first heard it, I was struck by the final verse:
But the only tune that my guitar would play
Was the ‘Cold, Cruel, Wind and the Rain.’
I wondered what song Dylan was referring to; and eventually I heard the old English folk song, The Wind and the Rain (Listen Here). Gillian Welch and David Rawling have done a lovely version on the Songcatcher CD. As our intrepid TP Help staff person, Brenna notes in her trackback below, Jerry Garcia did an earlier and interesting version of it.
Wind and the Rain itself makes a reference within its lyrics to a previous folk song:
The only song the fiddle would play was O the Dreadful Wind & Rain.
This sent me down the sleuthing path again to find the reference, which I did in the Child Book of Ballads, where you find The ‘Twa Sisters and these lyrics:
An by there came a harper fine,
That harped to the king at dine…
The first tune he did play and sing,
Was, “Farewell to my father the king.”
The nextin tune that he playd syne,
Was, “Farewell to my mother the queen.”
The lasten tune that he playd then,
Was, “wae to my sister, Fair Ellen.”
Yes, being the crazy person I am I couldn’t stop my research there and tried to find Farewell to My Father the King. I’m sure that it too is an even earlier folk song. But I got only as far as a Japanese website, which contains these lyrics and a tremendous number of variants. Unfortunately, the site doesn’t provide documentation of the name of the song whose lyrics it quotes or any other data. So I can’t identify it further. I stopped my research at this point, though it seems someone should be able to locate this folk song if they did enough research (or knew Japanese!). You can see the endless series of references to previous folks songs in each of these song lyrics. I say it’s just plain wonderful and makes me keep coming back for more.
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