Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Lomax-a-Day, Day 5

"Not a thing on the river McClusky did fear..." So begins "The Little Brown Bulls," my pick for Day 5. The curiously phrased opening line is one of many seemingly simple but truly strange lines in this 1872 logger's ballad. Digging into the Lomax-a-Day project, I am ever surprised by the complexity of old American folk music. I'm ashamed to say it, but even a folk enthusiast like myself holds some preconceptions about the simplicity of folk music--it's the old American primitive, our taken-for-granted shared language. We think we all understand the folk vernacular; contemporary artists evoke our national musical canon with drawls, predictable patterns, and unadorned lyrics. In fact, every song I study from this anthology is deeply baffling in its language and music. In "The Little Brown Bulls," each sentence is painstakingly constructed in service of rhythm, rhyme, and meaning. Standard diction is thrown out the window; the subject of a sentence is often withheld until the last word. Archaic words like "gored stick," "girtin'," "skidding," and "scaler" add to the inscrutability. Meanwhile, what seems like a simple I IV V waltz surprises the listener each verse with its eventual descent into the relative minor.  I chose to hold out that minor chord, to bask for a moment longer in the refused resolution. It makes sense that a nationalistic ballad would have the Yankee ox-driver win over the Canadian Scot. That this song first presents the Scot as the hero, then subverts that notion with chord and sentence structure speaks to the sophistication of American folk music. 

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