Tuesday, November 20, 2012

the locks and bolts do hinder

Warning: this post acknowledges the existence of sex & virginity.  (I know!  But no pictures, should be safe for work.)  (I always feel a little goofy with that warning, but hey I work at summer camp and I want the kids to know that just because I wrote it, it may not be right for kids to read.  Probably it would be pretty boring anyway.)

Okay.  I have been at Michigan State talking and talking about ballads, and I want to talk about this one:

Locks and Bolts.

I sing a version quite similar to this one by Shirley Collins, that comes from the singing of Emma Shelton.  She was from western North Carolina, and had some songs taken down by Cecil Sharp when he traveled through the southern mountains, with his assistant Maud Karpeles.  Karpeles later returned to those regions with a tape recorder, and found many of her old (and by then aged) sources.

I love this song because it seems courtly and erotic.  Especially the opening verses:

come here to me, and tell me your name
I'm talking about my darling
she's the little one I love so well
she's almost the complete one

her yellow hair's like glittering gold
come a-jingling down her pillow
she's the little one I love so well
she's like a weeping willow

The poetry is so fine it makes me want to weep.  It's very delicate--even exquisite.  The first verse doesn't even make literal sense.  It's like an imperfect translation from a foreign language, which are always so beautiful.  There's something kind of neurotic in there too, reminding me of the inner monologue in the movie Annie Hall, or of that show about the serial killer, Dexter, where he says in his creepy deep voice, "I think I may have finally found the right woman for me".   Where you get the impression that this guy will never be satisfied, because this "right woman"--the "complete one"--doesn't exist.

Then, oh then, the first two lines of the second verse.  Eleven words that say everything.  The onomatopoetic "jingle"!   The pillow that tells us they've slept together!  And then the perfect rhyme of willow, which follows the non-rhyming first verse.  All the "L" sounds.  In both verses, how happy that phrase "she's the little one I love so well" sounds (which is all major-sounding in Emma Shelton's version), followed by the minor-ish last lines, which, while still generally positive in their tone of praising the beloved, still include those heart-breaking modifiers: "almost" and "weeping".  Oh my god.

So a lot of the song is about yearning.  You learn more about our hero as you find:

you caused your parents to hold me a grudge
and to treat me most unkindly
because you're of some high degree
and me so poor and needy

I went unto her uncle's house
enquiring for my darling
but all they would say, there's no such here
and then oh, what weeping

Doesn't he sound young?  First kind of like a young Springsteen, or even Billy Joel (your mother never cared for me/ but did she ever say a prayer for me?) and then to me he sounds like any of my friends' swains from high school in rural Virginia.  Her uncle's house!  I just get the best simultaneous visions of (A) a Rapunzel tower, and (B) a log cabin up some dirt path in the pines, and (C) a trailer like my friend lived in with her Mom, and her boyfriend lived in the spare room.

but when she heard my lonely voice
she answered at the window
saying, I would be with you soon my love
but the locks and bolts do hinder

I stood for a moment all in amaze
I viewed her long and tenderly
my spirit flew, my sword I drew
I swore that house I'd enter

Okay, so even if you weren't on board with the Rapunzel tower before, you get it now, right?  With maybe a small hint of "I guess women were 'protected' in some interesting ways in those olden times, huh"?  She is literally in captivity, which is historically and dramatically interesting, of course, but there's something more there, too.  Here from the Song of Solomon:  a garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed.
Hint: it's talking about virginity.

I can't say how vital it is to the story for us to hear her voice.  Everything, really, turns on the moment when she expresses her wish to be with him.  For one thing, we know now that he's not just a stalker.  For another, it prompts in our narrator this kind of ecstatic moment and what an aroused moment it is.  He gazes at her long and tenderly, draws his sword, and swears to enter?!  It's ridiculous!  Even the capital I's are phallic, or am I reading too much into this?  Do capital I's even matter when a song is passed through oral tradition?  Am I allowed to sing this in public??

the blood was shed on every side
till I got her from among them
and all you young men who get such wives
just fight till you overcome them

Then this maybe (ha!) allegory of virginity turns a little queasy as you realize, whoops--we're in another ballad where your boyfriend just killed your whole family.  Hope you like your marriage!!!  Gents, try it, it's fun!!!  Seriously though, this whole story wrecks me.

Not to get all relevant on you here, internet, but all of a sudden I started thinking about Twilight and vampires (except obviously not all of a sudden, I think about those things all the time).  About these stories of blood that allegorize sexual maturity--loss of virginity, desire, adulthood (with the implication of leaving/losing the family that nurtured you as a child), and, yes, marriage (remember that bible quote that talks about leaving your family and cleaving to your spouse, or if you'd rather, think about Arwen's sacrifice in Lord of the Rings, when she accepts mortality for the sake of marriage).  I know not everybody is on board with this, but for me choosing a partner and forming my own family is a very, very deeply embedded desire, and I know I'm not the only one.  I'd also argue that stories like this song and like Twilight are not causing that embedded desire.  They are a result, or symptom if you like, of that desire.

OR YOU COULD JUST ENJOY THE STORY, SORRY I'M NOT SORRY FOR ANALYZING THIS ONE VERSION OF A BALLAD TO FREAKING DEATH.  Actually, I've heard about this conscious allegory of virginity called "The Romance of the Rose" that I still haven't read, so I should probably check that out and get back to y'all.  BUT I ALSO THINK ABOUT THIS STORY VERY LITERALLY.

Friday, November 2, 2012

officially fascinated

Here's an article with a preview for a new movie, plus a thoughtful and dare I say perky interview:


This raises questions I haven't thought about since my American Studies class on Performance Cultures.  Actually scratch that.  This raises questions that I should have thought of during my American Performance Cultures class, but didn't.

The standout moment in this preview for me is the dude smashing the watermelon from on high.  It reminds me very much of the AMAZEBALLS Spike Lee movie "Bamboozled" (trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EMZ6zp-3oGY).

Also I was just singing at a festival in Northern Virginia called Watermelon Park Fest.  It's at historic Watermelon Park and there's a lot of watermelon-themed stuff going on: jack-o-lanterns made of watermelon, boats made of watermelon.  Saturday night during an old-time set, insanely great dancers Matty and Emily flat-footed & clogged and did their thing.  And also a guy in a felt watermelon suit came out and did some crazy-legs dancing.  I mean, I'm sure nothing racially charged was intended, probably?  It was charming and utterly harmless but I couldn't help thinking about race and the history of banjos and dancing on stages (read: minstrelsy) and I couldn't help noticing predominantly white faces on stage and in the audience.

So, if this watermelon is in need of smashing in the "Dear White People" trailer, seems to me, if this guy needs to like, kill this symbol of minstrelsy, thennnn some performances of "blackness" are Ok and some are hurtful.  Now, folks black white and otherwise perform blackness all the time--now and in the past, hurtful or helpful.  I get that.  I play banjo.  I do flat-footing.  These are things that connect me to what I see as the history of my region.  As Americans we're totally blessed that African culture is part of our culture.  BAD. ASS.  But....how honorable is it to claim that culture as your own?  Does it depend on the color of your skin?  A White American claiming African American culture as part of her own culture?  It's part of a shared history...that was really effed up.  Do we live in a sufficiently post-racial world???????  Maybe we do because I've seen Dom Flemons of The Carolina Chocolate Drops do a jig in front of a lot of all-white audiences and it was awesome.  Or was it?  Yes it was.  I also saw him play the bones while dancing a jig to a tune that some white folks stole from some black folks back in the day, so maybe this post is not actually about my thoughts about race which are kind of shallow at best but just about how wonderful the Carolina Chocolate drops were.  I remember when I first saw them play it was Mt Airy fiddler's convention and my friend M. was like, come see the black old-time band and I realized in that moment that I had never seen a black old-time band before and that I had never even given that a second thought.  Y'all, Rhiannon was barefoot, and they served watermelon.  Carolina Chocolate Drops forever, they rule.

But then OK.  Here is my question.  What is the bestest way for me, a white lady, to move this train forward, eh?  As I approach this shared history and culture?  I meeeean, I am lover of The South as a thing.  So.
Cool then.