Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer, “Child Ballads” (Wilderland Records)
Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer are 30-something songwriters who have released an album of seven Child ballads. They reworked many of the songs, using the multiple versions of lyrics from the books as raw material. They felt free to create their own melodies because Francis James Child specified only words, not music.
“That’s a much different process than when you’re given a single version of a song, maybe it’s a source recording [or] some old version,” Hamer says. “But you have this one text which you have to treat like the holy grail, but with the Child ballads you have choices.”
They substituted phrases, cut verses and even made new ones up.
For us, we were able to kind of pick and choose between these different versions,” Mitchell says.
The young songwriters’ choices were guided by their desire to make the stories clear to modern American audiences. So they updated archaic phrases like “tirled at the pin,” which means knocking at the door, to something more familiar.
“Especially for our American listeners, we didn’t want to throw up a roadblock for them so that then they’re like, ‘What’s that mean?’ And they miss the whole stanza,” she says.
The most dramatic revision they made was to “Tam Lin,” an epic ballad that clocks in at nearly seven minutes and has 27 verses. It’s the story of a young maiden who gets pregnant by a woodland shape-shifter named Tam Lin. As he morphs from one fearsome creature to the next, his lover has to hold on to him until he finally becomes human.
Hamer and Mitchell decided to axe the back story about a fairy queen who kidnaps and curses Tam Lin.
“If you take that away, you perhaps increase the sort of surreal psychological subtext,” Hamer says. “Maybe you even strengthen the metaphor for endurance of love through adversity.”
“I’m sure both of us have felt the kind of trepidation that anyone rolling up their sleeves with this material feels,” Mitchell says. “Like, are we going to mess it up in some way?”