Musical notes

In response to C’s question about music: initially, we went looking for a Little House album because we were inspired by Little House in the Big Woods, with Pa playing fiddle during those cold winter evenings. (Truth be told, this is what has inspired me to stick with violin as well.) In any case, we discovered this album on Amazon: Arkansas Traveler: Music From Little House on the Prairie. After this we went to library, where we found an album entitled Anthology of American Folk Music, edited by Harry Smith. We also found an album by Peter Yarrow entitled Favorite Folk Songs. These three have become the soundtrack to our days outside of the house, and sometimes in the afternoon at home as well. We played the Peter Yarrow album over, and over, and over with no respite driving from here to Northern California this summer. In doing so, questions arose and we looked into the provenance of “The Golden Vanity” and talked about the Spanish armada and the war between England and Spain. We talked about gold miners in California and silver miners in Colorado. And of course he loved talking about the race to build the Transcontinental Railroad and how the two parts came together at Promontory, Utah. But I just let the songs play and play, and when the questions arose we explored them. It seemed, pretty often, that the songs he liked best were the most depressing, like some of the spirituals, or “The Golden Vanity,” in which the valiant cabin boy dies. This almost bothered me enough to stop playing them, but I think they appeal to his sense of narrative–they do tend to tell a story, and in a far more dramatic way than some of the more uplifting songs like “Skip to my Lou.”

It’s also interesting when two different artists cover the same song, so that he can hear how their different approaches affect the tone of the song. The Golden Vanity, for instance–the Peter Yarrow version is very somber, whereas the Harry Smith anthology version is far more foot-stompin’ and knee-slappin’. It helped to hear this, and then we drifted into a brief discussion of how people would learn songs from others as they traveled, or as travelers stopped to stay and visit.

I have really enjoyed all three albums, especially as they are “real” folk music, not cute-ified for children, which does mean that sometimes you have to address issues (“why does the Boll Weevil take the man’s home away?”). And sometimes I’ve just said, “Let’s just enjoy the music,” because there isn’t a way to address it in a way that I feel comfortable with at the time. (And sometimes, I need to check Wikipedia first.)

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