Classic Music Review: Silly Sisters by Maddy Prior and June Tabor

silly_sisters-1a

A masterpiece of harmony and another form of roots music. Click to buy.

Muddy Waters one week, Maddy Prior and June Tabor the next. Flitting from genre to genre, from men to women, my reputation as a musical slut is secure.

I’ve tried to imagine what would happen if I got a job at a hard-core blues club as the chick responsible for the filler music between the acts—and instead of slipping the expected John Lee Hooker disc on the turntable, I decided to play Silly Sisters. “What the fuck is that crazy bitch doin’ back there?” I hear the audience shout. I’d probably get the same result if I played Muddy at a British folk festival, though the crowd would probably not use such foul and offensive language. How might I respond to such casting of aspersions?

I would defend myself, heart and soul! While the differences between these two musical genres are quite obvious to anyone with ears (the use of the scales, rhythmic patterns, instrumentation and vernacular to name a few) there are also deep similarities. Both blues and traditional folk (from whatever country you choose) are “music of the people.” They are forms of music where the commoners get to express both directly and indirectly their feelings about the uppers, weave stories about the conflicts that arise among themselves and celebrate the various and sundry vices that make life worth living, especially those of the erotic variety. The sentiments expressed in Silly Sisters’ “Four Loom Weaver” aren’t that far removed from the anguish of job loss that Ramblin’ Thomas sang about in “No Job Blues.” A similar parallel can be found in “My Husband’s Got No Courage” and “You’ve Been a Good Old Wagon,” both of which deal with lovers who have lost their mojo. Add to that the myriad songs in both genres honoring hooch and John Barleycorn and the commonalities begin to balance the differences.

My musical promiscuity has purpose, people!

Silly Sisters begins in the weaving mills of the Industrial Revolution, where we learn that the workers liked to stick it to the boss as much as we do today. “Doffin’ Mistress” is sung by a group of workers called “doffers,” who had the unimaginably dull job of changing the bobbins on the weaving machines in the spinning sheds. When you have a shit job, you have three choices: bitch about it, have fun with it or both. These young ladies, as expressed through the tight harmonies of Maddy Prior and June Tabor, choose both, supporting the female supervisor in a united front against the screaming bully of a boss. The arrangement is terribly inviting, particularly in the opening measures where Martin Carthy is joined by Andy Irvine on mandolin, Nic Jones on fiddle, Tony Hall on melodeon and Danny Thompson on bass before June and Maddy enter in tandem. The melodic magic of British folk is on full display here with a joyful, exuberant melody that makes you want to join in with throats opened to full throttle. The verse where the girls align in teasing defiance of male power is sung with a hands-on-hips, energetic display of psychological independence:

And when the boss he looks round the door,
“Tie your ends up, doffers,” he will roar.
Tie our ends up we surely do
For Elsie Thompson but not for you!

We leave this relatively happy scene for a dark tale of revenge involving Scottish clans. “Burning of Auchindoon” is based on a feud between the Clan Mackintosh and the Earl of Huntly, a thoroughly disreputable character who left a thick trail of blood in his wake and traitorously plotted with the Spanish to launch an invasion against his homeland. The Clan is out to avenge the death of one of their allies at the hand of Huntly by burning Auchindoun Castle (the “ou” is the proper spelling). This chilling tale receives an equally chilling treatment from Maddy and June, who heighten the tension with dissonant harmonies sung a capella. The ending interval, where June stays on the root of the C-minor and Maddy flattens the already flattened third of the key creates a powerful sense of foreboding: though the castle is in flames, the act is certain to trigger a response, and the bloody cycle will continue. Singers in search of new harmonic possibilities are encouraged to study these patterns in detail, for “Burning of Auchindoon” is a stellar example of how to move beyond the obvious to build tension and capture mood.

Each woman has a solo on Silly Sisters, and Maddy’s is “Lass of Loch Royal.” This is a song that has morphed over the years as it traveled through different countries from Ireland to Scotland to the United States, with various artists emphasizing different features of the plot to modify the message. It is believed that the original is a tale of betrayal of a young pregnant woman by the lover’s mother, and that aspect is certainly present in Maddy’s version. Through careful verse selection and an extraordinarily vivid performance, she transforms the main theme into one of abandonment, possibly after rape, possibly after a night of passion, or something in between. The lass travels day and night with her newborn baby to arrive at the castle of her lover, only to be turned away by the lover’s mother, who dismisses her with cold cruelty:

The rain beats at my yellow locks, the dew wets me still,
The babe is cold in my arms, love, Lord Gregory let me in.
Lord Gregory is not here and he henceforth can’t be seen,
For he’s gone to bonny Scotland to bring home his new queen.
Leave now these windows and likewise this hall,
For it’s deep in the sea you will find your downfall.

The lass has no choice but to leave and accept her fate. When Maddy arrives at the last verse, you can picture her, drenched and cold on the heath, releasing all the bitterness of betrayal in a heart-rendering climax.

“The Seven Joys of Mary” features the pair in harmony again singing a folksy version of the Christ story. For some reason, the plain folk seem to capture the positive aspects of the faith more effectively than priests or preachers. The repetition of the affectionate phrase “good man” is a reminder that Christ retains more power when he is not embellished with godlike trappings but as a representative of the best aspects of humankind. The harmonies here are especially sweet during the crucifixion verse, as June and Maddy lower their voices in respect and mourning.

The anonymous multitudes who composed British folk songs always found their way into the sack sooner or later, but in this tale, sad disappointment lurks under the counterpane. “My Husband’s Got No Courage” is a dramatic monologue sung by a young wife who finds she’s married a man who can’t get it up. Since women were not allowed to divorce in the 19th century, and the possibility of release through lesbianism, masturbation or a quick trip to the vibrator shop were not realistic options, her agony is understandable. Maddy and June sing the moaning, hand-wringing chorus together without harmony and then take turns singing the verses solo. This poor horny broad has tried everything: vittles, meats, oyster, rhubarb, clapping a hand between his thighs, throwing her leg over his and nothing she does gets a rise out of this hopeless prick. Bitter that he continues to present himself to the world as handsome and desirable, she finally explodes in the last verse, giving as clear an expression of sexual frustration you will ever hear. The frustration is made more emphatic because June and Maddy break the pattern and join together for this verse, singing it with more passion than precision:

I wish my husband he was dead
And in the/his grave I’d quickly lay him
And then I’d try another one
That’s got a little courage in him

Amen, sister!

Tony Hall’s melodeon and Johnny Moynihan’s bouzouki set a jolly background for the processional “Singing the Travels,” where the dynamics build to create the effect of the band approaching your position as they wind through the crooked streets of the old town. Both harmonic lines are strong enough so that it really doesn’t matter which one is the melody—you can sing along to either pattern. It’s followed by the superb duet in “Silver Whistle,” where the voices of the ladies float high and lovely over Danny Thompson’s double bass. The song fades with Johnny Moynihan appropriately leading the band with an air played on whistle.

“Grey Funnel Line” is a song of more recent vintage, written by Cyril Tawney upon his departure from the Royal Navy in the late 1950’s. The song captures the ennui of life on a ship, the sadness of departures and the temporary joy of homecomings, a joy always dampened because another departure looms in the near future. Maddy and June harmonize beautifully with few variations from the expected, a wise and respectful choice that allows the listener to focus on the experience of the sailor, forever bound to the rolling sea.

June Tabor’s solo is “Geordie,” a song that may or not be another song that evil fellow Huntly, as the names used in this tale have changed over time to reflect whichever murderous creep happens to be in the headlines of the day. The basic story is of a man is jailed for murder and of the woman who comes to his rescue, but there are implications that the murder is a trumped-up charge based on politics. As the executioners sharpen the axe, the bonny lady pleads with the king to “give me back my dearie.” One of the wiser of the king’s counselors whispers in the king’s ear that the royal treasury is having a cash flow problem and it might be a good idea to trade the accused for a badly needed infusion of currency. June Tabor gives her usual fabulous performance, but what really drives “Geordie” is Martin Carthy’s mastery of guitar rhythm, keeping the beat constant and steady on the bottom strings while still managing to add color with counterpoint on the higher notes.

“The Seven Wonders” is a traditional song detailing unlikely occurrences such as the moon teaching reading and pigs loading bracken onto a cart. It’s a nice song for children, but not as meaty as the other tunes. Much more substantial is the following song, “Four Loom Weaver,” a first-person narrative of the bleak conditions faced by the thousands of hand-loom weavers who lost their livelihoods with the advent of steam-powered machines during a general economic downturn in 1819-20. Written in dialect, the extent of the privations would be clear in any language:

We held on for six weeks, thought each day were the last;
We’ve tarried and shifted till now we’re quite fast.
We lived upon nettles while nettles were good
And Waterloo porridge was the best of ours food.
I’m a four-loom weaver as many a one knows;
I’ve nowt to eat and I’ve worn out me clothes.
Me clogs are both broken, no looms to weave on,
And I’ve woven meself to far end.

June and Maddy perform this song with relative restraint and the spare music reflects the barren conditions these workers faced.

Time to cheer up with a rustic sexual experience! “The Game of Cards” is a flirtatious, metaphorical trip down lover’s lane by a young man and woman who take a break from their travels at a moment when “this young damsel began to show free.” The young man responds by suggesting the game of “All-Fours,” hint, hint, nudge, nudge, wink, wink. The pair “play cards,” having at least two sexual experiences of unknown variety, but certainly implied when she keeps taking his “jack” in card play and saying, “Jack is the card I like best in your pack.” As is usually the case, the girl dominates the proceedings and the man whimperingly surrenders to her power, saying, “You’re the best I know at this game.” The gracious victor offers him a rematch: “Young man, if you’ll come back to-morrow We’ll play the game over and over again.” That’s my girl! June takes the lead here, with Maddy providing lovely complementary harmony at a slightly lower volume. Martin Carthy is superb once again, aided by Andy Irvine’s delicate touch with the mandolin and gentler play on the whistle by Johnny Moynihan.

Silly Sisters ends with the light-hearted “Dame Durdan,” a jolly tune kicked off by Martin Carthy calling out, “All right, chaps—food!” This little vignette reveals that the dame’s farmhands are more concerned with stealing kisses from the opposite sex than getting much done in the dairy. Tony Hall’s melodeon stands out here on this lilting tune, one played in a more relaxed, end-of-the-work-day feel.

What a week! I started out in the Delta and South Side Chicago and crossed the ponds to England’s green and pleasant land, all while suffering from frequently stiffened nipples while navigating the streets in the cool air of Ljubljana! I don’t know if I’ll have much time to explore the folk music of Slovenia while I’m here, but I’ll bet they spent their history drinking, arguing, slaughtering and fucking through all the seasons, while remembering to throw in the proper number of spirituals to hedge their bets on the afterlife. With the help of an accomplished translator, I’m sure that the Slovenes would recognize many of the motifs in Silly Sisters, a wonderful experience that celebrates both human diversity and the many, many things we all have in common.

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  1. […] Maddy Prior & June Tabor, Silly Sisters […]

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