I was looking to try and calm down after the insanity of this past week, and what better way to do that than with archaic folk ballads?! Okay, it’s a bit niche, I admit it. But damn if listening to a bunch of songs about death and curses don’t hit the spot.
Child Ballads is great. Firstly, the music itself is beautiful; sweet and quiet, with little more than some strings and vocals giving the songs life. Listening to them I feel like I’m sitting in a court, or a bower, or… some other vaguely old-timey place? Don’t look at me, I’m not a historian. The songs are also good for a laugh, because the lyrics are very old and therefore fucking bonkers. If anyone’s mother is mentioned, she’s definitely trying to curse someone. Each song virtually guarantees an inventive form of death. Everyone—everyone—is called ‘Willie’.
Here’s a few short summaries, because these are too good not to share.
“Clyde Waters” tells the story of (you guessed it) Willie, whose sweetheart across the river texts that her parents aren’t home (I’m joking, they are home. This results in multiple deaths). His mom is like, “Stay home and watch Chopped with me, oh darling son!” Willie doesn’t go for it, because he wants to get some. “IF YOU WALK OUT OF THAT DOOR I’LL CURSE YOU TO DROWN IN THE RIVER!” his mother screams, which really seems like the kind of thing that would make you reschedule your plans. But Willie’s horse cost a lot of money, so he figures he can make it (literally). On the way across the river his hat gets blown off his head, and like a true Indiana Jones, he goes after it—and drowns. So I guess not quite like Indiana Jones.
One of my favorite songs was definitely “Willie’s Lady” (is the implication that any unnamed male character is also named Willie? WHAT IS GOING ON HERE) mostly because its concept is so horrifying. Willie marries someone his mother doesn’t approve of, so naturally his mother curses her to never be able to give birth to the child she’s carrying, until it kills her. Willie’s solution is to present his mother with a series of themed gifts, the theme being “a shitload of silver bells.” Mom doesn’t go for it. Eventually his wife sorts everything out. In fact, “competent women step in to save the day” is a recurring motif in many of these ballads. I approve.
For only containing seven songs, this album has a ton of greats. “Geordie” is wonderful, despite the fact that Geordie is possible the worst name ye olde England could have come up with. It makes you long for the good ole fashioned days of Willie. “Riddles Wisely Expounded” is another good one, expanding the theme of stranger-danger when a guy stops by a house for shelter and ends up getting locked in, seduced, and proposed to. And there’s good old “Tam Lin”, one of the few songs whose lyrics I can’t lovingly poke fun at. It’s just quality.
Here’s an embarrassing fact; I’ve been listening to this album for months, but only just now realized that Child Ballads is a reference to Francis James Child, the guy who compiled the old English and Scottish ballads that this album recreated. I thought they were songs for children. But hey, don’t let that stop you! Put “Clyde Waters” on for little Timmy before bed, and I guarantee he’ll never leave the house without permission again.
Pick up the album on Amazon right here.
If you like these ballads, also check out Anais Mitchell’s album Young Man In America; the opening songs “Wilderland” and “Young Man In America” are magical. (She was also really wonderful in Hadestown. You know what, just save me time on recommendations and listen to her entire discography.)