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Collection Connections: Songs from Homegrown, June 16 2021

A man and woman sit on a sofa. The man plays a banjo. Text to their left reads: Library of Congress/American Folklife Center/Homegrown 2020/Online Concert Series/"Homegrown at Home"

Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin.

We’re very excited for this week’s Homegrown double-header of concerts from the duo of Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin, followed by Martin Carthy. You can read about the musicians over at the concert pages (Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin’s is at this link, and Martin Carthy’s at this link). For now, I’ll just say that Stecher and Brislin are masters of American old-time and bluegrass music, and among the most influential performers in that field. Martin Carthy, meanwhile, is a leading figure in English folk, as a solo artist as well as a member of bands like Steeleye Span, the Watersons, Brass Monkey, and Waterson: Carthy. Since both dig deep into the roots of traditional songs, and since American old-time music has some of its own roots in the English tradition, it’s not surprising that they’re dear friends, or that we find interesting connections among their songs. It’s also not surprising that the music they chose for their respective concert videos should have connections to our collections here at AFC. The concerts premiere the afternoon of June 16 on our facebook page, which you can find at this link. After that, they’ll be available at the concert page links above. In the rest of the post, I’ll try to whet your appetites by talking about a few of the songs they play in their concerts and presenting related field recordings from our collections.

One of my favorites from the Stecher and Brislin concert is “Roving on Last Winter’s Night,” which, as they say in the concert is made up of many lovely verses, some of which are quite old. It’s a song best known in old-time circles from Doc Watson’s version, which you can hear at this link, and which he in turn adapted from his cousin, Dolly Greer. But verses of it go back at least to the eighteenth century. Consider Robert Burns’s immortal lines:

O my Luve is like a red, red rose
That’s newly sprung in June;
O my Luve is like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune

These are clearly related to Greer’s verse:

For she is like a bud of rose
That blooms in the month of June;
She’s like a music instrument
That’s just been lately tuned

It was this connection to Robert Burns that led me, when preparing for AFC’s Robert Burns Symposium, to discover Hettie Swindel’s remarkable version of this song, which she sang for Herbert Halpert in 1939. In addition to asking her to sing, Halpert also interviewed Swindel on the discs he made of her, and you get a good sense of her personality from the recordings. If you listen to the end of this song, you’ll hear her opine: “I like…the old, lonesome tunes the best.” We agree!  Find the recording in the player below.

Another great song that Stecher and Brislin perform in their concert is a version of “The Bonny Bunch of Roses,” a ballad recounting the career of French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. They learned it from the singing of Dee Hicks, who called it “Young Rapoleon.” Hicks’s singing is in our collections too–he sang at the 1978 concert celebrating the 50th anniversary of the AFC archive. Sadly, though, he didn’t sing this song. However, we do have a very different version of “The Bonny Bunch of Roses” online, performed by John W. Green in Michigan in 1938. Hear it in the player below!

I mentioned interesting connections among Stecher and Brislin’s songs and those of Martin Carthy. By sheer coincidence, Carthy also chose a song about Napoleon. He didn’t sing “The Bonny Bunch of Roses,” perhaps because in Britain it’s closely associated with his late close friend and musical partner Dave Swarbrick, whose version with the band Fairport Convention is famous, and can be heard at this link. Instead, he chose “Napoleon’s Dream.” AFC doesn’t have a version online to share with you, but at this link you can hear Sam Larner, from whom Martin learned the song, sing his own version. That recording is provided by the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, our good friends and colleagues in England.

A man plays the guitar with a microphone in front of him. Text to his right reads: Library of Congress/American Folklife Center/Homegrown 2020/Online Concert Series/"Homegrown at Home"/Photo by Takahiro Kyono

Martin Carthy – Cafe OTO, London 2 July 2016. Photo by Takahiro Kyono. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0).

Here at AFC, we do have some other songs related to Martin’s choices, though. For example, Martin’s song “The Whale Catchers,” when first published in 1901, was considered a version of “Greenland Whale Fishery,” a widespread song about the Arctic whaling fleet in the mid nineteenth century. AFC has a version of that online as sung by Asel Trueblood in Michigan in 1938. Hear it in the player below.

Another of Martin’s very unusual songs is called “A Sailor by My Right.” It’s about a sailor haunted by the ghost of his abandoned lover, and is sometimes known as “The Dreadful Ghost.” One version from AFC collections was written down from the singing of Alexander Robb by James Madison Carpenter. Although Carpenter did record a lot of audio from Robb, it seems he never got this song, or else the cylinder didn’t survive. The typescript can be found at this link.  This song is also a close cousin to the version of “Pretty Polly” sung for Alan Lomax by Fred Carriere in 1938. On the following recording, you’ll hear Carriere claim to have written the song, but don’t believe him; it’s thoroughly traditional and was written before he was born!

Finally, we’ll mention “Sir Patrick Spens,” Martin Carthy’s closing song. A classic ballad with a thrilling storyline involving a royal marriage, betrayal, and shipwreck, the song goes back at least to the seventeenth century, and was widely published in poetry collections without music. Martin mentions in the concert that he knew the words even as a child but for many years was unable to find a melody. The song did survive in oral tradition in Scotland, where James Madison Carpenter collected it a few years before Martin was born. But Carpenter never published his collection, so Martin was never able to see it, and eventually adopted a tune he learned from his friend Nic Jones. Meanwhile, the Carpenter collection came to AFC in 1978, and has recently been placed online by our good friends at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library. So now we can all see Carpenter’s transcriptions and hear his cylinder recordings at the this link.

These, of course, are just a few examples of the “collection connections” we could make between these concerts and our archive. I hope they’ve intrigued you, and especially hope you’ll tune into the concerts, which premiere at noon (Stecher and Brislin) and 12:45 p.m. (Carthy), U.S. Eastern Time, on June 16, 2021. They’ll premiere on our facebook page, which you can find at this link. Once the premiere is ended, they’ll be permanently available at their own concert pages:

Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin’s is at this link.

Martin Carthy’s at this link.

Please do come back soon and enjoy both concerts!

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