Thursday, June 30, 2011

Equestrienne / The King of China's Daughter / Sally Ann

Equestrienne (from the album Leave Your Sleep; words by Rachel Field)

See, they are clearing the sawdust course
For the girl in pink on the milk-white horse.
Her spangles twinkle; his pale flanks shine,
Every hair of his tail is fine
And bright as a comet’s; his mane blows free,
And she points a toe and bends a knee,
And while his hoofbeats fall like rain
Over and over and over again.
And nothing that moves on land or sea
Will seem so beautiful to me
As the girl in pink on the milk-white horse
Cantering over the sawdust course.


The King of China's Daughter (from the album Leave Your Sleep; anonymous)

The king of China’s daughter
So beautiful to see
With her face like yellow water,
Left her nutmeg tree.

Her little rope for skipping
She kissed and gave it me
Made of painted notes of singing-birds
Among the fields of tea.

I skipped across the nutmeg grove
I skipped across the sea;
But neither sun nor moon, my dear,
Has yet caught me.


Sally Ann (from the album The House Carpenter's Daughter; written by Jeff Claus)

A woman of beauty
a woman of pain
in France or Jakarta
her shadow’s the same
you go home with Sally Ann
you go home with Sally Ann
you go home

A woman of kindness
with bracelets of jade
in China, in Japan
choices are made
you go home with Sally Ann
you go home with Sally Ann
you go home

A woman of chances
with no family or friends
in Argentina
she knows only men
you go home with Sally Ann
you go home with Sally Ann
you go home

A woman of color
with debts to be paid
in Trenton or Detroit
she lives by the blade
you go home with Sally Ann
you go home with Sally Ann
you go home

I love to take walks. I do it as often as possible, which is just about every day. I walk when it's blazing hot (which it currently is in my neck of the woods) and when rain is falling. I may take these walks under the guise that I am merely getting some exercise, just taking care of myself. But alas, this is not my greatest motivation. I love to take walks for two reasons. One is that I always listen to music when I walk. It's not the only time I listen to music, of course. I listen to music when I work, when I drive, when I get things done around the house. But it's only when I'm walking around my neighborhood that I am able to fully immerse myself in what I'm listening to.

The other reason I love to walk has to do with one of my favorite places to walk to - a huge park several blocks away from my home. It spans over 30 acres and has all the usual features of a park that big - swimming pools, community center, tennis courts, playgrounds, a rose garden, and a lake that hosts several large geese that scare the life out of me (they are very menacing and I'm a bit of an ornithophobe.) I never really take advantage of these amenities, though. I stick to the dirt path that surrounds the park. This path affords me the best vantage point for watching the daily goings-on of that park. And that is the feature of the park I'm most interested in.

This park is almost constantly packed with people, especially on the weekends, and oh what a mixed crowd it draws! On a particularly good day, walking the circumference of that park is more entertaining than anything else I can imagine doing. For instance, some days there is a troupe of jugglers that meet in the park. Not content to keep the excitement of their avocation to themselves, they actively recruit would-be jugglers at a sign-up table nearby. One day, just a few feet from the jugglers was a novice unicyclist practicing his new hobby. He seemed so happy, although I couldn't help but think he would have been more successful if he had been able to get over his ever-apparent fear that he was going to suffer major crotch injury if he didn't play his cards just right.

Then there's the weekend drum circle. Contained in that huge circle are people of seemingly every race, ranging in age from small children to the elderly. They sit there for hours, beating their drums. The song always sounds the same, but that never seems to lessen their joy. The ones who don't have drums just dance in that circle, lost in a trance, inspiring the players to keep pounding on.

There are exercise groups who engage in some truly ridiculous-looking routines. There are usually about 20 people in the group - 19 women and 1 man. Sometimes the man makes eye contact with me as I pass, looking at me with an expression that seems to say, "Shut up." And so I do. There's the martial arts group, who are accompanied by all sorts of fancy weapons that they never do anything with. They are all decked out in white and take great pride in posing over and over. I've never seen them engage in one real duel, not one single time. Posing is all they do, but they do it with such pride and reverence, I can't help but be charmed by their zeal.

I love to come up with backstories explaining why all these people I see in the park do what they do. Why must they juggle, drum, pose and do girly exercises? My observations of those strangers gives me an opportunity to paint my own backdrop on their lives, lives that may or may not be as meaningful or interesting as I imagine them.

This week's songs are all about observations. True, they contain no wild assumptions about their protagonists, such as the kind I might be inclined to create. Nonetheless, in each case the author's view of their subject is almost as intriguing as the subject themselves.

Equestrienne and The King of China's Daughter are two of my favorite songs on Leave Your Sleep. This is, first and foremost, because of the quality of the music itself. I love how the rhythm of Equestrienne seems to fall in line with the beating of the horse's hooves. If Natalie's intention in writing this music was to make us feel like we were at the circus, then she certainly achieved her goal. While something described as "circus music" would usually call to mind something fun but not particularly beautiful, this song manages to be both (but mostly beautiful.) I especially love the little coda at the end of the song.

The King of China's Daughter, however, is the song that is the most musically beautiful to me on Leave Your Sleep. It often takes me several times to hear a certain song before I feel able to measure my regard for it, but that was not the case with this song. The King of China's Daughter was love at first listen for me, and the first, but not only, time I felt tears welling up in my eyes while listening to this album. The music is so pretty that I often refuse to listen to this song at times when I cannot give it my full attention. I know very little about Chinese music, but if this is a taste of it, please someone tell me where the well is because I want to hear more.

A quote from Natalie:

"There are so many different instruments that once you introduce them they bring all sorts of connotations (and) transport you to other places and times. The Chinese instruments or the Celtic harp can take you to worlds totally different than electric guitar."*

What I like about the words to both of these songs is how restrained (and thus un-Annie-like) the observations of the authors are. Their thoughts about their subjects are very gentle and unobtrusive. The authors do not leap to dramatic conclusions about the thoughts and motivations of the little girls they are singing about. They are just telling us what they see. Particularly in the case of Equestrienne, the author's simple description of the little girl in pink on the milk-white horse is vivid enough to make her pronouncement of this act as the most beautiful thing she's ever seen seem quite justified. The King of China's Daughter allows for some flights of fancy, like the beautiful description of a jumping rope made of painted notes of singing birds. Still, it's the simplicity of this song that makes it so winning.

On to our last song for this week, Sally Ann. I guess this is the part where I am supposed to make a smooth transition from songs about innocent little girls to a song about prostitutes. Clearly, I'm not at all capable of that. It's a transition that happens, though, in real life and I suppose that's part of the thought that Sally Ann is meant to evoke.

The first time I heard Sally Ann, it was on a 10,000 Maniacs CD single I found in an old record store. I loved the song immediately, so much so that when Natalie's solo version came out, I didn't take to it at first. But eventually I got used to the differences and now I like it so much it's a little hard to listen to the Maniacs version. The song is obviously not telling the story of a specific woman but of women in similar circumstances all over the world. In the liner notes to Natalie's Retrospective album, she wrote about her thoughts on this song in a way (not surprisingly) that is far more eloquent than anything I could say. So I'll let her finish off today's post.

"Everywhere it takes you, the song parts a veil to show you the life of a woman that is being lived in desperation. There are no detailed descriptions of these women, they are 'kind' or 'beautiful,' they are alone and plagued by debts; one wears jade bracelets and another carries a blade. They live in the shadows and in the constant company of men. They are prostitutes or 'comfort women,' call girls, and streetwalkers, part of the 'joy division.' They are all whores. But the song reminds us that they are sisters, daughters, and mothers, that they have beauty and dignity. Their bodies have ended up on the auction block, not their souls."

Thanks for reading. See you next week.

Click here to watch the music video for The King of China's Daughter

Download Equestrienne from Itunes - Equestrienne - Leave Your Sleep

Download The King of China's Daughter from Itunes - The King of China's Daughter - Leave Your Sleep

Download Sally Ann from Itunes - Sally Ann - The House Carpenter's Daughter

*, August 2010


  1. Sally Ann is my favorite song in 'The house...' and Natalie's description is beautiful, specially the last line which is very powerful.

  2. Vertigo -

    I agree. She's got a way with words, doesn't she?