Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The Garden of Song: 'Silver Dagger'

            "It's never old and it was never young... and it's a folk song."
            That was the definition of "folk music" offered by a coffeehouse performer at the start of the Coen Brothers' movie "Inside Llewyn Davis."
             The use of a particularly moving folk song on a TV detective program set in the middle sixties recently brought the question up for me again. It wasn't really the question of what do we mean by folk music that got to me, frankly. It was more like, 'why can't I get this song out of my head for the last three days?'
            The song went through me with a startling intensity -- like a "silver dagger" -- which, not coincidentally, is the song's name, or at least the name it went by when people recorded it in the sixties. Coming across it without warning in the course of a murder mystery (a BBC crime series titled "George Gently") set in the north of England during that time of change felt like a voice calling out of the past, a fever dream in the memory.
            It was easy enough to find "Silver Dagger" on line. The actress who sang it on the show in what looked like classic "coffeehouse concert" -- the locals sitting in a big circle in a pub; nodding, smiling -- looked and sounded a little like Joan Baez. Her character in the show stood for change, hope, freedom, a new beginning.  
            Sure enough the song is "associated," as one source put it, with Joan Baez. As far as I can make out, "Silver Dagger" is the first cut on her first album. Baez sings it in her pure soprano with her famously "sad" interpretation of the haunting ballads that record some of humanity's collective traumas. Maybe these ballads, this powerful current in the stream of the folk repertoire -- songs of unhappy love, lost love, undeserved death, human disaster -- particularly called out to her.
            My theory is they call out to all of us. They are our repressed memories of what people went through to get us this far.
            And that's why certain songs stay with us forever. I could not have told you that this one was rattling around in my brain. I couldn't have "accessed" it. When I played it online, my memory said 'oh yes, of course.' I recognized a whole lot of other songs, and recalled Baez's treatment of them, on this debut album.
            It's an interesting paradox that stories of loss, disappointment, tragic fate, and crimes of passion call out to youthful, hopeful minds -- as they did in the early to mid-sixties. Maybe (more speculation on my part) acknowledging the bitter truths that are part of life is a necessary step in personal growth. In the sixties, a sudden flare-up in the desire to grow -- as opposed, say, to simply surviving, getting by, starting a career, putting a nest egg by -- manifested itself both in the US and worldwide.
            It was the fruit perhaps of a period of unusual prosperity. Hope, change, optimism, personal and social freedom were the new cultural currency.
            But ah, says "folk music," not so fast. Remember who we are and where we come from.
            In the "George Gently" story, the young folk singer stands for new possibilities. She encourages others to take the steps she's taken, but -- the world being what it is -- she doesn't make it out of the episode alive. In the abbreviated version of "Silver Dagger" she sings on screen, the first verse goes:
Don't sing love songs, you'll wake my mother
She's sleeping here right by my side
And in her right hand is a silver dagger,
She says that I can't be your bride.

            The speaker is a young woman; that silver dagger is a warning: keep away. Her mother has told her that men are false, that her own father betrayed countless women to their sorrow, and that she's determined to protect her innocent daughter from a similar fate. In the last verse the singer accepts her mother's advice: "I've been warned, and I've decided/ To sleep alone all through my life."
            It's a song in which the tragedy of a loveless fate is the direct result of the faithlessness of men.
            But the show changes the emphasis. The singer who stands for change and possibility sings it to the poor little rich boy in the show who is being suffocated by his aristocratic mother's unrealistic demands. She wants him to become some sort of traditional "great man." Among the problems he has with this idea is that he's gay. The singer tells him to leave his mother, go to London and be himself. His mother's "dagger" in this version doesn't protect her young, but threatens his identity.
            That is just so sixties.
            When the son chickens out on the London plan, she stand beneath the window of his mansion and sings, "Your mother has a silver dagger." Things go downhill from there.
            However it happened, the pessimistic TV story -- crime shows tend to be pessimistic; we watch them anyway -- sent me back to revisit a peculiarly haunting strain of folk wisdom. As the Coen Brothers movie's fictional Llewyn Davis says, these songs are forever. It may be that Baez's beautiful intensity in performing them is also forever. When you're cut by the silver dagger, the mark remains.