This week, 4 Men With Beards reissued one of my favorite records of all time: Folk Roots, New Routes by Shirley Collins and Davy Graham. Originally released in 1964 by Decca, it's my favorite thing either of them have ever done. I think it's easy to be disappointed by such collaborations, but the collision of Collins' reverence for tradition and Graham's polyglot explorations into jazz and pop alongside British folk rubs out their individual flaws and completely surpasses even their most brilliant solo recordings.
While Shirley Collins sings with absolute reverence, her bell-clear voice slicing through each arrangement, Davy Graham's guitar is borderline delinquent, stumbling and wandering where it pleases. It's magic that he trusted her to hold each song in place as he skipped in circles round her, and incredible that the label didn't insist on a full band or string arrangements behind them.
There used to be one thing that annoyed me about the record–the opening track. "Nottamun Town" is a great song, and they play it well, but the fact that they play it at all made me uneasy. The song is a dark one, twisting each verse to some bad luck or violence. There's a good discussion at Remembering the Old Songs which concludes that "the last verse wipes any smirk off your face":
Sat down on a hard, hot, cold frozen stone,
Ten thousand stood around me, yet I was alone.
Took my hat in my hand for to keep my head warm,
Ten thousand got drownded that never was born.
In the liner notes of Folk Roots, New Routes, Collins mentions that she learned "Nottamun Town" from Jean Ritchie's Folk Songs of the Southern Appalachians, which accentuated my discomfort. In Ritchie's songbook, she introduces the song with a discussion of the gravity of the song:
"This song was not, as I remember, ever sung lightly about the house, not even by us girls over the dishpan, but was saved for summer evenings on our long front porch after supper. We knew from the words that it was supposed to be a funny song, but somehow the tune of it was so sadly beautiful, so somehow eerie, that we never felt like laughing whenever we sang it."
I cannot stop thinking about this idea. That songs can have a specific place and time isn't something I had to learn from a book, but acknowledging that a child singing a song can be aware of when it's appropriate or not, even if she's surrounded by her siblings and even if the song is 300 years old, really blows my mind. And so the idea of Shirley Collins and Davy Graham exploring "new routes" through it (or Bob Dylan lifting the melody like no big deal) seemed to me to lack the necessary respect, the weight that even an eight year old felt when singing it. Especially with Graham wandering around the melody and stuttering through its notes like he's doing warm up exercises. But in the seven years since I first had that thought I've listened to Folk Roots, New Routes a couple hundred times, tattooed lyrics from one of the songs over my heart, and been reminded by a dozen unrelated events that reverence can take many forms and that it's completely appropriate for each generation to define what this means.
Which brings me to Suzanne Collins' 1,000,000+ selling book Mockingjay. Which I read in 9 hours, broken up just long enough to cry a half-dozen times. But this already went longer than I intended, so expect a part 2 in a few days.