This is the first of the supplemental blog posts relating to the 11/11/17 Bluegrass Signal show. The show is still archived until tomorrow night; click here and select "Bluegrass Signal" to listen.
Although I didn't begin the show this way, I wanted to start by looking at the three old ballads I included: "The Soldier and the Lady" (sometimes called "To Hear the Nightingale Sing" or "One Morning in May"), "Pretty Fair Maid in the Garden," and "Fair Beauty Bright."
Even though I love these old ballads, I almost didn't include them in my Veterans Day show because I wasn't sure they quite fit. It's not so much that the stories they tell are fictional--most of the stories told in these songs are--but that they approach the figure of the soldier in a very different way from the other songs I collected.
Most of these songs were written during or shortly after the wars they describe, and in general they present the soldier as a noble figure with "a heart that beat so true" (from "Faded Coat of Blue") whose "work has been well done" (as in Curly Seckler's "Purple Heart"). They often emphasize the youth and even innocence of soldiers by referring to them as "boys" ("He was just a blue eyed Boston boy"). The work of a soldier in these songs is almost like that of a chivalric knight, selflessly protecting others as in "Pray for the Boys": "They're on some battle line / In defense of yours and mine."
The soldier of the ballads is by comparison a romantic but morally gray figure. His participation in war itself is not the focus, serving rather as an explanation for his itinerant lifestyle. In "Pretty Fair Maid," the dangers of warfare and travel are discussed ("Perhaps he's on some watercourse drowning, / Perhaps he's on some battlefield slain"), but only in the hypothetical. In "Fair Beauty Bright," "the wars" enter the story only as a way for the hero to "see if [he'd] forget [his] beauty bright or no." He seems wholly unconcerned for his safety, and in fact it is the woman he left behind who dies, according to her mother, "for [his] sake."
Moreover, the songs subtly imply that loose morals are almost inherent to the soldier's profession. This is far and away the most evident in "The Soldier and the Lady," in which the bad-boy soldier lothario romances the lady even though he "[has] a wife back in London / And children [has] three." This figure is doubly dishonorable: he deceives one woman and is unfaithful to another.
It's important to note that, as in many old ballads, the seduction here is described using coded language rather than being explicitly stated. "To hear the nightingale sing" was a common euphemism for sexual activity right through the 19th century, and it's easy to read sensual undertones to someone playing on a fiddle especially since the lady asks the soldier for marriage right afterwards. (Some variations of this lyric lend themselves more to lascivious interpretation: "he played her a tune to the length of his string," for example) This summer I heard Maggie Carty sing a version with this refrain:
And they kissed so sweet and comforting as they clung to each other.
They went arm in arm along the road like sister and brother.
They went arm in arm along the road 'til they came to a stream,
And they both sat down together, love, to hear the nightingale sing.
In Maggie's version, the lady ends the song by pushing the soldier into the stream, making her feelings about his deceit pretty clear. Anna & Elizabeth sing a version that ends with a cautionary verse:
Young lady, young lady, take warning by me:
Don't place your affection on a soldier so free,
Don't place your affection on a soldier so free,
You'll be deceived like mine has done me.
The Bucking Mules' version of this song somewhat downplays the deception by switching the fiddle-playing verse and the marriage verse, which suggests that the lady is disappointed rather than dismayed by the soldier's revelation. This makes the lady into less of a victim, but does it really make the soldier any less of a scoundrel?
The romantic heroes of "Pretty Fair Maid" and "Fair Beauty Bright" are shown in a far better light, but their true and noble natures are depicted as being in spite of their military careers, not because of them. When the stranger/soldier in "Pretty Fair Maid" presents the possibility of a soldier's infidelity, he does so by listing it along with death at sea and in battle as possible reasons for her true love's absence. In so doing he implies that each hypothetical outcome is equally likely for a soldier--that her true love is just as likely to be "on some watercourse drowning" or "on some battlefield slain" as to be "to some fair girl married." His comment is designed as a test of the fidelity of the pretty fair maid he left behind seven years ago, but it also casts aspersions on the fidelity of soldiers in general.
In "Fair Beauty Bright," the narrator claims to go to the wars not for honor or because of conscription but rather "to see if [he'd] forget [his] beauty bright or no." He "served there in vain," meaning the soldier's life wasn't enough to make him give up on his love, but the detail is still telling. For one thing, even the attempt to break faith with a true love is pretty unchivalrous in the context of a romantic ballad. Moreover, what about the wars would help take his mind off his forbidden love? I suppose one could argue that fighting would serve as a distraction, but it seems just as likely (if not more so) that the hero imagines he might wind up "to some fair girl married" as the hypothetical soldier of "Pretty Fair Maid" was.
Do such songs really fit? Maybe not, but one might ask whether they fit in the Bluegrass oeuvre at all. They are so distinctly not Americana, but rather a tie to the Scots-Irish roots of the American settler forebears. I could go on and on about the role these old ballads play in Bluegrass in general, performed in such a different context from that of their origins, but the most salient point here is that their presence in the Bluegrass canon is a testament to their timeless resonance as both stories and songs. In the end my love for these old ballads won out over my concerns about their appropriateness. I'm particularly enamored of Tim O'Brien's rendering of "Pretty Fair Maid"; the varying rhythmic and harmonic textures created by the instruments provide a dynamic backdrop for Tim's splendid vocal, giving the recording a real sense of narrative motion and feeling. I had a number of versions of "The Soldier and the Lady" and "Fair Beauty Bright" to choose from, and the popularity of these songs alone seemed to be an argument for including them.