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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Some stories stand the test of time: Shakespeare's plays, the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm - and the Child ballads, centuries old, Scottish and English folk songs named after Francis James Child, the Harvard professor and folklorist who collected them.

Over the years, they've been passed down and tweaked to fit the times, adapted by folk revivalists of the 1950s, then folk rockers of the '60s and '70s. And now they've picked up by a duo of young songwriters. Stephanie Coleman has the story.

STEPHANIE COLEMAN, BYLINE: Here's a song you probably know...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCARBOROUGH FAIR")

SIMON AND GARFUNKEL: (Singing) Are you going to Scarborough Fair...

COLEMAN: "Scarborough Fair" is a traditional song from the 1670s, a variant of a Child ballad called "The Elfin Knight." Simon and Garfunkel learned it from English folk singer Martin Carthy.

MARTIN CARTHY: The thing that excited me was the way so many of these songs spoke loud and clear over the centuries. They make perfect sense nowadays.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEVEN YELLOW GYPSIES")

CARTHY: (Singing) Thre were seven yellow gypsies...

COLEMAN: "Seven Yellow Gypsies" is one of dozens of Child ballads Martin Carthy has recorded. He first learned about them more than 50 years ago.

CARTHY: I became really interested and then fascinated; and then completely embroiled, completely enslaved by them. And I absolutely love them, to this day.

COLEMAN: A hundred years earlier, Francis James Child fell in love with them, too. He was among the first to consider them an important part of early English literature, right alongside Chaucer or Spenser.

MARY ELLEN BROWN: I think he was attracted to the poetry, to the language that he was reading. He saw it as something quite beautiful, from an aesthetic point of view.

COLEMAN: Mary Ellen Brown is a professor at Indiana University, and an expert on Child. He published the songs he collected in a 10-volume opus, called "The English and Scottish Popular Ballads." It contains the lyrics to 305 songs, along with a list of alternate versions for each and lengthy head notes.

BROWN: What he wanted to do was to create a critical edition of these texts that could be studied by scholars. And it was for scholars, initially.

COLEMAN: But in time, the books reached a wider audience.

BROWN: What has happened, of course, is that it has become this giant, wonderful source book for singers, for musicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LADY MARGARET")

BROWN: And I don't think he could have imagined it. That was not what he set out to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, 'LADY MARGARET')

PETE SEEGER: (Singing) Lady Margaret, sitting in a high hall door, combing her long, yellow hair. She saw sweet William and his new maid bride riding from the church so near...

COLEMAN: Folkies like Pete Seeger and Joan Baez dusted the ballads off in the 1950s; rockers like Fairport Convention electrified them in the '60s; and contemporary bands like the Fleet Foxes and The Decemberists have carried them into the 21st century. Now, they've fallen into the hands of two songwriters from New York City.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAGES TURNING)

COLEMAN: In an apartment in Brooklyn, Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer open a paperback edition to "Child Ballad Number One."

ANAIS MITCHELL: This should be easy to find, really. Here's "Riddles Wisely Expounded." There's A, B, C, D - there's four variants of this one.

JEFFERSON HAMER: This one, I think this is where we got it from. The first version says: There was a lady of the north country lay the bent to the bonny broom, and she had lovely daughters three, fa-la-la-la-la, fa-la-la-la-la-rah-ray.

MITCHELL: (LAUGHTER)

HAMER: We did away with that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RIDDLES WISELY EXPOUNDED")

HAMER, MITCHELL: (Singing) There were three sisters in the north, lay the bent to the bonny broom, and they lived in their mother's house, and you'll beguile, my lady, soon. There came a man one evening late, lay the bent to the bonny broom. He came knocking at the gate, and you'll beguile, my lady, soon....

COLEMAN: Mitchell and Hamer are both 30-something songwriters who just 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 only specified words, not music.

HAMER: That's a much different process than when you're just given a single version of the song - maybe it's a source recording; it's some old version; this one text, which you sort of have to treat like the holy grail. But with the Child ballads, you have choices.

MITCHELL: So for us, we were able to kind of pick and choose between these different versions.

COLEMAN: They substituted phrases and cut verses because they wanted to make the stories clear to modern American audiences.

MITCHELL: For example, if someone's knocking at the door, in the olden days they would say, they tirled at the pin. And that kind of thing, we felt like ooh, it's beautiful and weird, but 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 next stanza.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAM LIN")

COLEMAN: The most dramatic revision they made was to "Tam Lin," an epic ballad that clocks in at nearly seven minutes, with 27 verses.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAM LIN")

MITCHELL: (Singing) Johnni sits in her lonely room...

COLEMAN: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAM LIN")

HAMER, MITCHELL: (Singing) At first, he changed all in her arms into a white wolf. She held him tight and feared him not, he was her own true lover. Then he changed all in her eyes into a wild bear. She held him tight and feared him not. He was her husband dear...

COLEMAN: Mitchell and Hamer decided to ax the back story about a fairy queen who kidnaps and curses Tam Lin.

HAMER: If you take out this explanation - right? - well of course, it was that he was kidnapped by fairies, and that's why this is happening. If you take that away, you perhaps increase the sort of surreal, psychological subtext. Maybe you even strengthen the metaphor for endurance of love through adversity.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAM LIN")

MITCHELL: (Singing) And then he changed all in her arms into a naked man. She's wrapped him in her coat so warm, and she has brought him home...

I'm sure both of us have felt the kind of trepidation that anyone rolling up their sleeves with this material feels. Like, are we going to mess it up, in some way?

CARTHY: Whatever works. Whatever works.

COLEMAN: English folk singer Martin Carthy.

CARTHY: These things are immensely changeable. I could not have imagined in 1961, '62, what people would be doing with these songs now we're in 2013. But the big thrill is that it still excites people.

COLEMAN: It certainly excited Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer enough to record an album's worth of ballads, and now take them on tour. They're playing them for new audiences with the hope that the next generation will play around with them, too. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Coleman.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MITCHELL: (Singing) Well, he stands in his stable door, and he's combing his coal black steed...

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