Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Sound Of Your Voice.

With very few exceptions, people who have told me over the years, "Oh, I can't sing," were lying. Only thing is, they didn't really know they were lying. For whatever reason, they either didn't like the sound of their own voices, or had no confidence in their abilities.

I sang in public for the first time when I was 6 years old. (I'm 43 now, so you can do the math.) To this day, I can't stand to listen to myself, and I've talked to other singers who feel the same way. It's not that I don't like the way my recorded voice sounds - I think it has more to do with the fact that I'd rather be singing than listening to myself, if that makes any sense. Plus, the voice you hear inside your head is a little different from what the people outside your head actually hear. But I digress.

One thing I've discovered about singing, or even public speaking, is that in order to do it reasonably well, I have to be aware of the sound of my own voice. How high or low can I go? What are my voice's limitations? What are its strengths? In order to answer these questions, I have to do more than simply hear myself - I have to actively listen. We hear our own voices all the time and as a result, we don't really take the time to listen. Now, hearing vs. listening is a whole subject on its own, and we won't go there today, but just for a minute, think about listening to your own voice without cringing or freaking out. It's probably not as bad as you think.

This isn't to say that everyone can sing. I think we all know that not everyone can sing. BUT, I also know there are a good many of you who think you can't, but you really can. You're just afraid of the sound of your own voice. Well, don't be. A voice is an instrument like any other and it takes time and skill to master, so don't expect to sound like Pavarotti on your first try. Pavarotti didn't spring full-grown from the head of Zeus his ownself. And besides that, there was only one Pavarotti, which means there's only one voice like yours.

Like a lot of other musicians, I've listened to someone and thought, man, I wish I could sing like that. I wish I could fiddle like that. But I can only sing like ME. I can only fiddle like ME. It's no use feeling intimidated by those who are better, because trust me, no matter how good you get at anything, there's always going to be someone you think is better. (Dang artists. Never satisfied with their work.) So don't worry about that. Just focus on YOU.

Listen to the sound of your voice. Own it. It's yours and no one else's. You never know what you can do with that voice till you give it a try.

Till next time ---

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Women's History Month.

Since March is Women's History Month, and I'm a woman who loves history, I thought I'd share a few books I've enjoyed lately. Most of them should be available through Amazon.com or your local bookseller.

I'm almost finished with Bold in her Breeches by Jo Stanley, which is a collection of essays by different authors about female pirates. Yes. Female pirates. Many of you have probably heard the legends about Mary Read and Ann Bonny, and they are included in this collection, along with several other rogue women of history. Not only that, the essays explain how women were indirectly involved in the business of piracy without being actual pirates themselves, but serving as washerwomen, tavern operators, prostitutes, etc. The writers also examine the socioeconomic conditions that led some women to serve on pirate vessels.

Women of the House by Jean Zimmerman made a huge impression when I read it a year or so ago. Mister gave it to me one Christmas because it's about a Dutch woman and her descendants, and many of my own ancestors were Dutch. This book follows the family of Margaret Hardenbroeck Philipse from the 17th century until after the American Revolution. What I found most fascinating was that the Dutch way of life for women in the 17th century was unlike everything I'd ever been taught about the women's experience throughout history. Granted, they still couldn't vote, but Dutch women at that time were highly independent. They owned businesses and property and didn't necessarily change their names when they married. Margaret came to America in 1659 as a debt collector for her cousin. She built her own fleet of trade ships and at the end of her life, was the richest woman in New York.

All of that changed in the 18th century when the British took over New Amsterdam and renamed it New York. Under English law, when a woman married, she and everything she owned became her husband's property. Dutch society tried to keep some of their own customs on the sly, but eventually had to give them up. Margaret's great-grandchildren, who remained loyal to the Crown during the Revolution, were forced to flee for England after the war - even though they were born in America had never lived in Great Britain.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention one of my favorite historical women: Abigail Adams. Abigail was tutored at home, as girls often were in the 18th century, but she also educated herself through avid reading. John Adams, being no fool, recognized a smart woman when he saw one, and their partnership is one of the most endearing in American history. Due to his political duties, John spent most of his married life away from home, and Abigail ran their farm and took care of four children in her husband's long absences. Their enduring relationship is revealed best in their letters to one another, which exist in many editions. I prefer the Penguin Classics edition for its historical notes.

I'm sure you are all familiar with Abigail's entreaty that John and his comrades "remember the ladies." I present her comment in context, along with his reply.

Braintree, Massachusetts, 31 March 1776: ". . . I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.

"That your sex are naturally tyrannical is a truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute; but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of master for the more tender and endearing one of friend. Why, then, not put it out of the power of the vicious and the lawless to use us with cruelty and indignity with impunity? Men of sense in all ages abhor those customs which treat us only as the vassals of your sex; regard us then as beings placed by Providence under your protection, and in imitation of the Supreme Being make use of that power only for our happiness."

John Adams's reply, dated April 14: ". . . We have been told that our struggle has loosened the bands of government everywhere; that children and apprentices were disobedient; that schools and colleges were grown turbulent; that Indians slighted their guardians, and negroes grew insolent to their masters. But your letter was the first intimation that another tribe, more numerous and powerful than all the rest, were grown discontented. This is rather too coarse a compliment, but you are so saucy, I won't blot it out. (Yes. John Adams just called his wife SAUCY.) Depend upon it, we know better than to repeal our masculine systems. Although they are in full force, you know they are little more than theory. We dare not exert our power in its full latitude. We are obliged to go fair and softly, and, in practice, you know we are the subjects. We have only the name of masters, and rather than give up this, which would completely subject us to the despotism of the petticoat, I hope General Washington and all our brave heroes would fight."

So, this month, challenge yourself to learn something new about women's history. Better yet, go out and make some history of your own. And remember the words of scholar Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: "Well-behaved women rarely make history."

Still giggling over John Adams calling his wife "saucy." Till next time ---

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Dead Girl Song.

I know, I know, y'all are wondering why it took me so long to get around to writing about murder ballads. The answer is: I don't know. But I figured I'd start with my favorite: The Two Sisters, or as our friends like to call it, The Dead Girl Song.

I could say I have no idea how I got interested in murder ballads, but that wouldn't be entirely true. Back when Mister and I were first married and listened to Celtic music almost exclusively, we had a cassette (remember those gadgets?) of various artists which included a version of the song Bonnie Susie Cleland. I don't think I have the cassette any more so I can't even tell you who sang it. Anyway, to make a long and tragic story a little shorter, Bonnie Susie, a Scottish lass, is burned at the stake by her own father for falling in love with an Englishman and refusing to give him up. Incredibly sad and tragic, no? This tune grabbed hold of me pretty tightly, but I didn't really want to be grabbed by That Kind of Song - because actually liking a song about a woman getting burned at the stake would make me a freak, right? - so I let it go at the time.

Some time passed. Mister and I got into historic music and did a lot of research and listened to a lot of recordings. We got the first Songcatcher CD, which included a song called Wind and Rain, sung by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Our ears perked up, since we sing two-part a capella quite a bit, but when it got to the part about making a fiddle from the drowned girl's body parts, I was back to feeling like a freak because I liked a song about a person getting killed. Nice people don't like things like that.

Finally I decided that yes, nice people do like things like that, and it doesn't make me a freak. (I do, however, continue to get funny looks from some people when I say I research murder ballads.) We started including this song in our repertoire and it's probably one of our most requested tunes, along with Willy Taylor, which is a song about someone getting shot. It's kind of a joke now that "it's not a real Caudells show till somebody gets killed."

But back to Wind and Rain, aka The Dead Girl Song. This is one version of many (and I do mean many) of a song commonly known as The Two Sisters. The gist of the story is that one sister drowns the other in a fit of jealousy over a man. In some versions, her bones and hair are fashioned into a musical instrument, usually a harp or a fiddle. Even back in the old days, this song was apparently quite popular, as song collector Francis Child collected over 30 English versions, as well as 9 Danish, 12 Norwegian, 2 Icelandic, 4 Faroe, and 8 Swedish versions. Twentieth-century researcher MacEdward Leach maintained that the ballad was widespread in Germanic & Slavic regions; Tristram Coffin claims that The Two Sisters has more American story variations than any other song. He lists more than 60 known North American versions of the song, including one from Newfoundland.

As you can see, The Two Sisters got around. Once we started singing Wind and Rain, other versions of the song kept popping up: Custer LaRue's Binnorie, Martin Carthy's Bonny Bows of London, Loreena McKennitt's The Bonny Swans, just to name a few. Mister went on a Scandinavian folk music bender awhile back and found us a Swedish version. I've also found a German version on the Internet, but just words, no music. (Gosh, I guess I could write some. Folk process at work and all.)

I wrote my Master's thesis on murder ballads, not only to explore the history of these songs, but also to try and figure out why people are so drawn to them. I'm still not entirely sure about that last point, but I think it has something to do with the human's fascination with drama and tragedy. There's something cathartic about a tragic song, and when that song is centuries old, it connects the listener to all the singers and listeners who went before.

And to me, that connection is probably the most important reason to keep singing these songs.

Taking my nerd hat off now - till next time ---