Thursday, December 2, 2010

House Carpenter

House Carpenter (from the album The House Carpenter's Daughter; traditional)

“Well met, well met
and I know true love
well met, well met”, said he
“I’m just returning from the salt, salt sea
and it’s all for the love of thee”

“Come in, come in
my own true love
and have a seat with me
it’s been three-fourths
of a long, long year
since together we have been”

“No I can’t come in
and I can’t sit down
for I have but a moment’s time
they say that you’re married
to a house carpenter
and your heart shall never be mine”

“Well I could have married
the king’s daughter fair
she would have married me
but I forsaked upon
her crowns of gold
and it’s all for the love of thee”

“Now will you forsake on
your house carpenter
and go along with me?
I’ll take you where
the grass grows green
on the banks of the bitter reeds”

She pick’d up her wee little babe
and kisses, gave it three saying,
“stay right here my darling little one
keep your papa company”

Now they had not been
on the ship two weeks
I swear it was not three
when his true love began
to weep and moan
and she wept most bitterly

“Are you weeping
for my silver and gold
are you weeping for my store or are
you weeping for that house carpenter
that you ne’er shall see no more?”

“A curse on the sailor she swore
a curse, a curse she swore
you robbed me of my sweet little babe
that I never shall see no more!”

Well, they had not been
on the ship three weeks
I swear it was not four
until there came a leak in the ship
and she sank
to rise no more…



I love a good cautionary tale. When I was a child, there was a stretch of time in which these types of stories were the only ones that interested me. I demanded to be told the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf over and over again. Goldilocks was also a favorite. My book of Aesop's Fables was a constant companion. No matter how many times I heard or read these stories they never lost their appeal. In contrast, stories that had a more ambiguous moral, such as Little Red Riding Hood, held absolutely no mystique.

It makes perfect sense to me now, of course. At whatever point it is that we figure out that the world is a dangerous place (most of the time at a pretty young age), we spend the ensuing years trying to find a suitable navigation system. At any age, it's a difficult concept to accept that terrible things happen to people without warning or reason. If we can figure out a way to ward off disaster, then we gain a measure of control, if only in our heads. It's reassuring when someone who behaves badly gets punished in the end, instead of the innocent victim, which is much more often the case in real life.

I have mixed feelings about these tales now. In learning about the general philosophy that spurred the creation and perpetuation of these fables, I was a little bit disgusted. It can best be summed up this way: In order to help children avoid dangerous or unscrupulous behavior, let's tell them stories that will keep them under our moral control...by scaring the ever loving snot out of them.

Well, congratulations on a job well done! I mean, how many stories that conclude with children being eaten by wild animals are really necessary? And what kind of weirdos sit at their children's bedside and conclude their nightly ritual by telling these horrifying tales just before kissing them on the forehead, turning out the light and saying, "Sweet dreams, darling"? It's madness!

But then again...If guidance is what I was looking for in learning the moral of these stories, then I would have to say a measure of success was achieved. Yes, I can think of more gentle ways to impart such guidance, but they may not have made such a strong impression.

If you want people to listen to you, you shouldn't lie. Alright.

If you want people to listen to you, you shouldn't lie because everyone will hate you and a vicious wolf will eat you. YES, SIR!!!

Which brings us to this week's song. I guess over time someone figured out that children aren't the only ones who need cautionary tales. Adults are capable of their own brand of misbehavior, ours being of the variety that usually wreaks havoc not just on our own lives, but on the lives of others around us. Although tons of artists have done renditions of House Carpenter, Natalie's version was the first I'd ever heard and I absolutely loved it from the very first listen. It is a moralistic tale in the grandest tradition. But I discovered that some of the original words to the song were a great deal darker than the version that Natalie recorded. Check out this portion from the very end of the song that didn't make Natalie's cut:

"O what a bright, bright hill is yon,
That shines so clear to see?"
"O it is the hill of heaven, " he said,
"Where you shall never be."
"O what a black, dark hill is yon,
"That looks so dark to me?"
"O it is the hill of hell," he said,
"Where you and I shall be."

Whoa. Tradition holds, at least in the eyes of some, that the mariner represents none other than Satan himself. Way to up the ante!

Here's what Natalie had to say about the song in the liner notes to The House Carpenter's Daughter:

"So many of these old songs contain warnings to impetuous young women who would dare leave the comfort of husband and home under the spell of a false lover. The consequence could be ruin, disgrace, and in this case, even death."

No little irony, of course, that tales like those told in House Carpenter are seemingly always directed at women. Because, you know, what could possibly be the harm in a guy leaving his wife and children? No need for warning there!

But, nonetheless, I've been duly warned. I vow to never be wooed by Satan or any other wily sailor. Also, I want to make it clear that I have never, ever entered the forest home of any bear family and sat in their chairs, eaten their porridge, or slept in their beds and I never will. Lesson learned.

Download House Carpenter on Itunes - House Carpenter - The House Carpenter's Daughter

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