8 min read

Old Songs for New

Anaïs Mitchell & folk phrases

(I started writing this on August 21 while in Glasgow, but was interrupted, and ended up writing this pastiche of my favourite song from Hamilton instead. Rather than change anything about the opening, I’m just picking up where I left off, as if I were still across the Atlantic, as if it were still summer and yesterday, as if I’d been writing you a letter by hand.)

Last night I heard Anaïs Mitchell sing. Purple lights poured over her, painted the smoke behind her, and pure and perfect came her shine of a voice, the instrument of her body a needle embroidering me in silver and silk.

It was a small miracle to hear her—to find her on this side of the ocean, having caught the Broadway edition of Hadestown in the spring. I’d arrived in Glasgow from Dublin the night before, exhausted after WorldCon, and found DMs from dear friends saying they had a spare ticket to see Mitchell at Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh, and did I want to go?

I was wrung out, jellied with tiredness, wanted to sleep for days, and I wanted to go.

So I went. I took the train alone, walked through an Edinburgh thick with Fringe, which I as a visitor have the privilege of enjoying uncomplicatedly, loving the clamour and thronging and hawking of show flyers, loving the fey strangeness of my phone ceasing to work because of the overwhelming strain on cell towers, loving even the impossibility of being served food in a timely fashion as the city simmers over. I do not come from big cities; a festival suffusing a place so thoroughly as the Fringe does Edinburgh is a kind of magic to me, a magic with no more inherent valence than the rain, but touching everything.

I found my friends. We ate, sought our seats, delighted in the opening act. Then Mitchell came on.

I wept through the whole thing. And I say wept, not cried or sobbed, because there’s an implication of sound and breath in those and I don’t remember my breathing changing, just a tightening of my skin under tears, a tidal river in my chest and throat, a slow, inexorable flooding. I realized I know only three of Mitchell’s albums well (which is to say, by heart, because that’s how I listen to things I love, over and over obsessively until they’re inscribed in the meat of me): Young Man in America, Child Ballads (with Jefferson Hamer), and Hadestown—although Hadestown’s gone fractal with original cast recordings at this point, and I find myself deciding whether someone should start with the 2010 concept album or the 2015 NYTW cast album or the Broadway album based on some combination of moon signs and whim.

There were plenty of songs I didn’t know, is my point. But their lyrics were all sharply familiar, slicing me open into unbearable clarity. Songs like “Now You Know,” which I experienced like a compacted installment of griefbacon, told me things I’d felt in a musical syntax that suggested I’d yet to really feel them, like my feelings were barely an outline that the song filled in or spilled from:

When I think about dying
I think about children
And when I think about children
I think about you
And when I think about you
I feel like crying
Crying for my youth

And when I think of my youth
I think of my freedom
And when I think of my freedom
I feel so alone
And when I feel lonely
I want you to hold me
Hold me in your arms

Or this, from “Fonder Heart” —

Come out, come inspired
You will not come to harm
If I cannot take you for a liar or a lover
I'll take you for my brother in arms

As I listened, as I felt myself cleaned out and filled with light, I found myself thinking about old stone again—thinking about what makes something new sound antique, what scrapes a patina on its surface, and why that makes it beautiful.

I remember, writing this now, a Charles de Lint story called “Held Close in Moonlight and Vines,” in which a boy dreams himself a hideaway “with old castle rock for walls”—not a castle, crucially, but a ruined space, one that makes room for him, that he transforms with his presence. The rocks are more precious, somehow, for having been broken from castles, from having suggested the shape of a castle that once was—more precious by far than they would have been in a whole castle, where they could be nothing but synonymous with it, just the castle and not its composition. Paradoxically, castles keep people out; ruins invite people in.

Mitchell’s songs have old castle rock for walls. She writes so powerfully and poignantly about the intimacy of her life, her history, her desires, but when she sings I hear an immensity that I feel from gazing at the sea from broken ancient places, from windy cliffs. And these things are inseparable: her presence, her now-ness, with its sly, slippery play, and the solemnity of ages that comes from a folk phrase like you will not come to harm.

So often, actually, I hear an unfamiliar song but know it to be popular, know it to have the heft of something often inhabited on a dance floor, and what grips me is the glimpse of antiquity in a key change or lyric. I often come to originals through several layers of covers, a consequence of an adolescence spent listening less to albums than to CD mixes, to songs received like talismans and treasured sacraments after a 3-day file transfer from the best friend I wouldn’t meet in person for another 3 years, until we had acres of musical wilderland gone to seed between us. Yesterday I had a lyric skipping in my head: I am tired / I am weary / I could sleep for a thousand years. I couldn’t place the title, but I remembered it had been sent to me on a mix, and when I googled the lyrics I was shocked to find it’s “Venus in Furs” by Lou Reed, one of those artists I know is profoundly important to the rest of the Western world but with whose work I’m broadly unfamiliar in a way people make me apologize for. The title was ubiquitous, though, and I queued it up to listen to—but it wasn’t the version I knew. That was the cover by Dave Navarro. But the original made me actually pay attention to the lyrics: I always remembered “shiny, shiny” in the opening but had never clocked the rest:

Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather
Whiplash girl child in the dark
Comes in bells, your servant, don't forsake him
Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart

It’s folk! It’s pure, melodramatic, embarrassing folk! Look at it! It belongs in a Renaissance fair! It belongs in the flavour text of a World of Darkness playbook, Vampire: the Masquerade or Changeling: the Dreaming. In fact I have zero doubt it already exists in those places and belongs to those people. But it also belongs to people who made me feel like shit for not knowing their music, important music, music about which there are documentaries, music that defined decades in countries that were destroying my parents’ country while that music was happening. How can you not know this, they say, in a way that sounds like you’ll never know this, this will never be yours because it isn’t already.

I love a lot of music, but my heart rests easiest in folk and folk-adjacent stuff—the music that feels like home, to me, is naked voices and naked instruments dressed only in their echoes, repetition and variation, theatrical narratives and characters, minor keys, melodrama. I’m no historian of folk music, though I devour it—and my need to step back from making any kind of claim to authority about the music I love is a whole other essay—but I wonder if part of my love for it is that it never makes me feel I’ve come to it late, never makes me feel I’ve missed something. It’s always speaking the past into presence, it’s always timeless, and it’s all covers; you’ll not get much farther than Trad Arr for an original, and that’s the point. I have at least twelve versions of “Tam Lin” (Fairport Convention, Alison McMorland & Geordie McIntyre, Anne Briggs, Coyote Run, Mediaeval Baebes, Pyewackett, Current 93, Steeleye Span, Tempest, Frankie Armstrong, Tricky Pixie, and, naturally, Anaïs Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer), and of course some were recorded earlier than others, some influenced others, but with each one I can just glory in retellings of a story as shape-shifting as its titular character. I have no love or nostalgia for the British Empire, but I love and study its literature in a way that feels relevant to this: wandering the fields of its imaginary, pocketing the stones broken from its battlements to build something else. People who listen to folk can be jerks as much as anyone else, I’m sure, but I haven’t encountered them yet, so there’s a comfort to me in it, a safe harbour in sea shanties about killing storms. To sing folk songs is to compare versions, to lay a table for a feast, to eat together.

I suppose when I say “folk” here really what I mean is “antique” in the sense of “traveller from an antique land”—age without history, age as a country to visit. “Era” as space instead of time, a vista, a vastness. There’s always a sense, with both folk tales and tunes, that we’re referring to an unspecified but eternal and unchanging past, that the changes are what we do to it; it’s always ours to transform, to engage with, but in a storytime without world-building. It is, in a sense, fairyland—when you vanish into it, you vanish out of time, and when you return from it, a hundred years have passed and everyone you know is gone and you yourself are a legend, are hearsay.

Mitchell’s version of “Tam Lin” has no fairies in it, and I find that telling. Her aesthetic performs the alchemy of tea, transforming one thing by steeping it in another. Her voice strips fairies from a ballad but keeps their magic; her voice pours magic over collective action and urges us to make it real. She’ll take Greek myth and make it about labour, then interrogate what we recognize as labour, and everything is tragic and hopeful at once. When she sings You will not come to harm—that’s something out of a fairy tale, a promise made by someone powerful you’re not certain you ought to trust, but want to, because even if you’re being tricked it’s for your benefit.

There’s a folk tale type called “Stone Soup,” in which a group of travellers come to a village with an empty pot, and ask for food. They’re turned away by inhospitable villager after inhospitable villager, so they go to the river, fill their pot, and put a stone in it. Then they set the pot over a fire, and soon enough a curious villager stops by and asks what they’re doing. “We’re making stone soup,” they say, “and you’re welcome to join us, but it would taste so much better if you brought” and the story lists, then, potatoes, carrots, barley, flour, salt, herbs, until the pot is brimming and fragrant, nourishing and full. The travellers share the soup out, and the villagers exclaim to each other, “all that from a stone!” and count themselves lucky.

All that from a stone; all this from a phrase. Folk phrases are old stone, and through them we brew up beautiful things between us. I hear Mitchell’s music say that the castles, if they ever were, weren’t for us, and aren’t what we want—but the broken stones will shelter us, and we’ll make walls and soup and songs of them, share them and pass them along to be transformed and remembered—which is, after all, very nearly the same thing.