Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Short spookies, the musical.

Hello S&P'ers!

It's been a little while since our last outing, but now I'm back, hanging out here at the little boneyard behind the Skull & Pumpkin.

Yes it's chilly, but we'll have a nice bonfire soon... and some singing.

See, after our mini-ghost-story campfire in my last post, Her Majesty The Frog Queen informed me of her love of ghostly stories and ghostly music; and she mentioned two long-celebrated, nearly ancient folk songs from the ever-ghostly British Isles.

    "... Every time that I travel to the UK these two songs come to mind -- John Barleycorn (Must Die) by (Robert) Burns and The Unquiet Grave (traditional)..."

I entirely agree with her song choices and thought instead of my merely telling you about them, we'd listen to them together. They are tracks 8 and 9 on the player to your right.

Now, she mentioned her favorite recordings of these songs (by Robin Laing) but I could not locate them to post here (and I look forward to hearing them one day). The versions I have added to the ol' Hallowe'en Jukebox are versions I have enjoyed many times over the years.

The first is the (nearly) timeless John Barleycorn. The song is at least as old as the 15th century, and has been revised, revived and recorded by so many artists over the years that it would be silly to try to recount it for you (the most famous likely being Traffic's 'John Barleycorn Must Die', the title track from the 1970 album of the same name). This version predates that one and doubtless inspired it -- Mike Waterson, of The Watersons, singing a capella on the 1965 album Frost & Fire.

The song details the sufferings and spirit of the titular Barleycorn, who is merely a symbol of the grains and goodies that go into making our favorite potables, and how Barleycorn is beaten into giving up its spirits for us.
That's an oversimplification, but it's about right. An air of mystery was provided the legend by the immortal Robert Burns in 1782, who removed some of its more mundane trappings and added, with his usual flair, a more ghostly atmosphere. Waterson's voice is the sonic twin of Burns' style.

The other folk song is another old, much-revised and recorded chestnut.

The Unquiet Grave is thought to be at least as old as the late 14th century. There are literally hundreds of variations on its theme, which is that the grief of the mourner can cause the dead unrest, and make the dead return in ghostly form to quiet the mourner, often by setting them to solving riddles or performing impossible tasks; in this way, the mourner is convinced of the uselessness of over-grieving, and reminded that they will, in their turn, join the mourned soon enough.

Here, Luke Kelly of the world-famous Dubliners heads up a very pretty mid-1970s version of the tale. There are darker arrangements in minor keys, but this one feels good to me too.

Nothing like a few spooky, spirited tunes to give life to the ol' boneyard bonfire...

Enjoy the music and the warmth.

Thank you good Frog Queen for the comment, putting the idea in my head to have this little outing!

So... anyone else have any tunes or tales to share? Winter is the best time to lay in a store of good tales and tastes for we Autumn folk.



  1. Ah, thanks for the mention. Wow, did not know my comments would garner a whole blog post...I am humbled, thank you.

    And thanks for the history lesson on both the songs - I love that stuff. And the versions you shared of these are just perfect. I really do love to hear different interpretations. Always fascinating to see how someone else views a song.

    As always, thanks for the bonfire and the company!


  2. My pleasure... thanks for the spark of inspiration.