Thursday, September 29, 2011

Diver Boy / Crazy Man Michael

Diver Boy (from the album The House Carpenter's Daughter; Anonymous)

Young Emily was fair lady bright
she loved her diver boy
who sailed over the ocean
to gather up some gold
seven long years returning,
his money for to show
he’d been sailing over the main
down in the low land, low

“My father runs a big hotel
down by the river side
you go there go for to stay
and I shall be your bride
meet me early morning
don’t let my parents know
you have been the diver boy
down in the low land, low”

Young Henry taking a drink
that night before he went to bed
not thinking of the danger
that crowned all over his head
young Edward said to his father,
“let’s take his money sure
and send his body sinking fast
down in the low land, low”

Young Emily went to be that night
she dreamed an awful dream
she dreamed she saw
her true love’s blood
go flowing down the stream
waking early morning
to parents she did say,
“where could be that stranger boy
who came here for to stay?”

“Oh, father you’re a robber
you robbed me of my wren!
oh brother you have murdered
the one that I loved best!
the trees on yonder mountain
are bending to and fro
they remind me of my diver boy
down in the low land, low"


Crazy Man Michael (from the album The House Carpenter's Daughter; written by Richard Thompson & Dave Swarbrick)

Within the fire
and out upon the sea
crazy man Michael was walking
he met with a raven
with eyes black as coal
and shortly they were talking

“Your future, your future
I will tell to you
your future
you often have asked me
your true love will die
by your own right hand
and crazy man Michael
will cursed be”

Michael he ranted
and Michael he raved
and he beat at the four winds
with his fists-o
he laughed and he cried
he shouted and he swore
for his mad mind
entrapped him with a fist-hold

“You speak with an evil
you speak with a hate
you speak for the devil
that haunts me
for is she not the fairest
in all the broad land?
your sorcerer’s words
are to taunt me”

He took out his dagger
of fine and broad steel
and he struck down the raven
through the heart-o
the bird fluttered long
and the sky it did spin
and this cold earth did
wander ‘round startled

Oh where is the raven
that I struck down dead
and here did lye
on the ground-o?
I see my true love
with a wound so red
where her lover’s heart
it did pound-o

Crazy man Michael
he wanders I’m told
and he talks through
the night and the day-o
but his eyes they are sane
and his speech is plain
but he longs to be far away-o

Michael he whistles
the simplest of tunes
as he asks of the wild wolves
their pardon
but his true love has flown
into every flower grown
and he must be keeper
of the garden

Anytime you tell someone that you just read a great book or saw a great movie, there are a couple of questions they are likely to ask you. One of those questions will invariably be "What was it about?"

It's a logical question. Regardless of genre, or of whether the work in question is fiction or non-fiction, the basis of all these things is a story. Even in the age where popular films are often heavy on special effects and light on plot, there is always some sort of story to tell someone about.

This rule, though, doesn't really seem to apply when it comes to music. If a friend tells you they just heard a great new song, your reply is probably not going to be, "So what is the song about?" You might ask about the tempo or the general musical style of the band, but the first thing that leaps to your mind is probably not the story the lyrics are telling. Music just isn't held to the same rules as other forms of entertainment. Music can affect you without words and it can move you with words that don't really make much sense. Music does not have to have a story and it doesn't necessarily require analyzation.

For example, let's take that little 90s *ahem* classic I'm Too Sexy...what's the song about? Well, it would seem that the gentleman singing the song is extremely sexy. He's so sexy, in fact, that it makes the normal day-to-day affairs of life hard to manage. He can't work, he can't drive, he even has a poor relationship with his pets, all because of the overabundance of sexiness. Tragic, really. When that song finishes playing no one in the room asks themselves what the deeper meaning is supposed to be. It's pretty clear, right? No deeper meaning. It's just music. Awful, awful music.

Okay, okay, I'm poking fun at something that is obviously bad, but this idea applies to songs that are beloved classics, too. There's no real story to I Wanna Hold Your Hand or Love Me Do by the Beatles, but those songs are still classic pop songs. We love those songs, perhaps primarily because of their sweet simplicity.

But all this aside, there is something to say for a song that makes you think, or that tells a story. That's why, for as much as we might like the words to I Wanna Hold Your Hand or Love Me Do, we could spend a lot more time talking about Norwegian Wood or Eleanor Rigby. It's also the reason why many people will find a symphony far more enjoyable if they have some idea of what thought or story the composer is trying to convey. Even if we don't know, we might try to make something up. Telling and being told stories is so fundamental to our existence, we will look for it even where it doesn't exist.

In 1993, 10 years before she would record the album The House Carpenter's Daughter, Natalie Merchant was asked by an interviewer what she had learned from the time she had spent studying folk music. Here was her reply:

"Storytelling. Those folk songs had a beginning and an end, and they instructed you about yourself, your condition as a female or an American."*

Folk music, much of it deriving from folklore, has storytelling at its very heart. Today's post focuses on two songs from The House Carpenter's Daughter that have particularly strong stories.

The dark and monotonous opening bass lines of Diver Boy, followed by the slow fade in of the drums and fiddle, create an immediate sense of foreboding. The song is effective at telling you where it's going before a single word is even uttered. The opening verses seem to point in the direction of a fairly simple love song, until perhaps the words, "Don't let my parents know..." By the time young Henry is taking a drink before bed, we know exactly where's things are headed.

In the liner notes to The House Carpenter's Daughter, Natalie makes this observation about Diver Boy:

"Diver Boy has all the crucial elements that make up the perfect murder ballad: long parted lovers, familial conspiracy, coveted treasure, a violent ending, haunted dreams, thwarted love and a spectral presence."

These are also elements that can be found in a lot of classic literature. For me, Diver Boy is somehow reminiscent of short stories that I read growing up, stories filled with subjects of a somewhat macabre nature but told in a way that wouldn't be overly disturbing to a young reader.

Speaking of macabre short stories, doesn't it seem like Edgar Allan Poe could've penned the words to Crazy Man Michael (and no, not just because of the raven connection)? This song gives me a serious case of the creepies. The music is beautiful and sad but not especially ominous in itself. The words, though, are enough to make the tone of the whole song seem incredibly eerie.

While the story of Diver Boy sort of takes you from the beginning to the end, Crazy Man Michael doesn't give a whole lot of details about the unfortunate chap in question. It cuts right to the chase of what exactly made Michael so crazy. Or does it?

My personal interpretation is that Michael was already crazy long before he met the raven. I think it was just a figure in his own disturbed mind that helped him understand or justify in some way his heinous act. To me, this is the creepiest line in Crazy Man Michael:

"but his eyes they are sane
and his speech is plain"

There is nothing more scary than an insane person who seems normal. (While conversely, there is nothing more delightful than a normal person who seems insane!) The last lines, though, are my favorite:

"but his true love has flown
into every flower grown
and he must be keeper
of the garden"

I can't think of a more beautiful and disturbing end to the story than that.

That's all from me this week, but after the usual links, I have included some excerpts from an e-mail I received from a reader named Dee regarding my post about Frozen Charlotte. She sure did her research! Some pretty interesting stuff. Thanks, Dee! If you would like to share thoughts or theories about this week's post, please feel free to leave a comment below or e-mail me at See you next time!

As I finish writing this post, I fear I might get my butt kicked into eternity if I fail to mention that Crazy Man Michael was originally performed by the beloved Sandy Denny with Fairport Convention. This week's Youtube link is to a recording of the original.

Download Diver Boy from Itunes - Diver Boy - The House Carpenter's Daughter

Download Crazy Man Michael from Itunes - Crazy Man Michael - The House Carpenter's Daughter

*Los Angeles Times - November 1993

Frozen Charlotte theory courtesy of Dee:

"Frozen Charlotte was the name of a china doll from approx. 1850-1920, which is named after a folk balled called Fair Charlotte (also Frozen Charlotte or Young Charlotte - there appear to be several versions around). The story is summarized as follows:

'It was New Years Eve and it was very cold outside. Charlotte was waiting in her new dress for her boyfriend, Charles, to take her to the village inn for a New Year’s Eve party. Finally, Charles’ sleigh came. Her mother asked her to put a blanket around her so she wouldn’t be too cold. But Charlotte did not want to crinkle her dress, so she did not take the blanket. The village inn was 15 miles away. They had gone five miles when Charlotte said she was cold. Charles made the horses run faster. Five more miles they rode when Charlotte said she was getting warmer. Finally, the village inn was in sight. Charles jumped out and called her many times. Charlotte did not move or say a word because she was frozen. Then he came over to her and felt her hands. They were very cold. He now knew that Charlotte had frozen to death. He rode Charlotte back to her cottage. Her parents were very sad. Charles was very upset, too. He died of a broken heart.'

The story is based upon a poem by Seba Smith originally published in 1843 under the title 'A corpse going to a ball'...From what I have read, the story is believed to be based upon a true event, although documentation is scarce. One reference I saw stated that the New York Observer reported 'on February 8, 1840, that a girl froze to death on her way to a ball on January 1, 1840.'

I believe this story/ballad/poem is the basis of Natalie's Frozen Charlotte...or perhaps she had one of the dolls as a child. Given this history, Natalie's song makes sense to me as a story, or a message from Young Charlotte back to Charles as he grieves her death."

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Don't Talk

Don't Talk (from the 10,000 Maniacs album In My Tribe)

Don't talk, I will listen
don't talk, you keep your distance
I'd rather hear some truth tonight
than entertain your lies
take your poison silently
let me be, let me close my eyes

Don't talk, I'll believe it
don't talk, listen to me instead
I know that if you think of it
both long enough and hard
it's the drink you drown your troubles
in is the trouble you're in now

Talk, talk, talk about it
you talk as if you care
but when your talk is over
tilt that bottle in the air
tossing back more than your share

Don't talk, I can guess it
don't talk, well now you're restless and
you need somewhere to put the blame
for how you feel inside
you'll look for a close and easy mark and
you'll see me as fair game

Talk, talk, talk about it
talk as if you care
but when your talk is over
tilt that bottle in the air
tossing back more than your share
you talk talk talk about it
you talk as if you care.
I'm marking every word and
I can tell this time for sure
your talk is the finest I have heard

Don't talk, let me go on dreaming
how your eyes they glow so fiercely
I can tell you're inspired
by the name you just chose for me
now what was it? o, never mind

We will talk, talk, talk about this
when your head is clear
I'll discuss this in the morning
but until then
you may talk but I won't hear

There are certain things you just accept when you are young. For a lot of us that means we spend our first several years of life assuming our family is pretty much normal. We don't know any different. But as we start getting older and spending more and more time with other people's families, we may start reassessing our previous viewpoint.

I knew there was something that made my family different from my friends' families, but I never tried particularly hard to identify it. I just figured it was because my parents were older than theirs, or had less money, or something mundane and simple like that. But then one day I overheard a conversation in my house that featured one particular word, a word that shot through me like a bolt of lightning.


I don't remember too much of the context surrounding that word and I'm not sure it mattered then or now. That was the only word I needed to hear. All of a sudden everything that had ever been a mystery in my life was made shockingly clear. I felt a little foolish that I had never figured it out before. Perhaps I also should've felt devastated, ashamed, or angry. But at that moment, I didn't feel any of those emotions. In fact, there was only one emotion I remember feeling - relief. Finally, things made sense. So when, many years later, a friend and fellow 10,000 Maniacs fan asked me how I could stand to listen to the song Don't Talk, I found myself surprised at the question. "Doesn't it hit too close to home? Isn't it too painful?" they asked.


Don't Talk, along with so many other Maniacs songs, particularly on In My Tribe, focuses its grip onto something hidden and drags it out into the light. So no, it is has never been too difficult for me to listen to the song. Don't Talk brings out the same emotion in me that I experienced at that pivotal moment in my youth - relief.

I love every word in this song, but there are a few lines that I find especially meaningful.

well now you're restless and
you need somewhere to put the blame
for how you feel inside
you'll look for a close and easy mark and
you'll see me as fair game

I suppose there are various emotions that people associate with a person under the influence, but there is one that stands out above all others - anger. And as everyone knows, anger demands a victim. For the alcoholic the "close and easy mark" becomes the people unfortunate enough to be with them when they're drunk, and that usually includes the people closest to them.

how your eyes they glow so fiercely
I can tell you're inspired
by the name you just chose for me
now what was it? o, never mind

Natalie's lyrics capture so perfectly what it feels like to be on the receiving end of that inspired rage. And yet when Natalie was once asked in an interview about the topic of writing love songs, here was her reply:

"I look on Don't Talk as a love song, because if there wasn't caring between those people there'd be no need for the song."*

I have to admit, Don't Talk is not the first song that would come to my mind when asked to name a love song. But this quote from Natalie has made me listen to, and appreciate, the song in a different way.

Here is one more quote from Natalie:

"Several people who heard Don't Talk wrote me letters saying that they came from alcoholic households and that it made them feel less alone to hear a song about it."**

I can relate. Music cannot fix all of the world's problems. It cannot change the fundamental flaws of human nature. But it can and does make people feel less alone. If this is the highest purpose music ever achieves, I think it's a noble one.

Thank you for reading this week. I've gotten some e-mail in recent weeks containing some theories and insights into Natalie's music that I would like to share in future posts. I always love to hear your ideas and thoughts so if you'd like to comment on this week's post, you can do so below or you can e-mail me at

Most of you die-hard Natalie fans probably already know this, but in case you haven't heard, Natalie contributed a song called "Learning the Game" to a Buddy Holly tribute album that came out last week. I've included an Itunes link to the song below. Cheers!

Click here to see the music video for Don't Talk

Download the MTV Unplugged version of Don't Talk at Itunes - Don't Talk (Live) - MTV Unplugged: 10,000 Maniacs

Download Natalie's new song Learning the Game at Itunes - Learning the Game - Listen to Me: Buddy Holly

*Melody Maker - May 1989
**BAM - August 1989

Thursday, September 1, 2011


Wonder (from the album Tigerlily)

Doctors have come from distant cities
just to see me
stand over my bed
disbelieving what they're seeing

They say I must be one of the wonders
of god's own creation
and as far as they can see they can offer
no explanation

Newspapers ask intimate questions
want confessions
they reach into my head
to steal the glory of my story

They say I must be one of the wonders
of god's own creation
and as far as they can see they can offer
no explanation

O, I believe
fate smiled and destiny
laughed as she came to my cradle
know this child will be able
laughed as my body she lifted
know this child will be gifted
with love, with patience and with faith
she'll make her way

People see me
I'm a challenge to your balance
I'm over your heads
how I confound you and astound you
to know I must be one of the wonders
of god's own creation
and as far as you can see you can offer me
no explanation

O, I believe
fate smiled and destiny
laughed as she came to my cradle
know this child will be able
laughed as she came to my mother
know this child will not suffer
laughed as my body she lifted
know this child will be gifted
with love, with patience and with faith
she'll make her way

Last year, as I was hatching the idea to start this blog, I realized that I would be writing a fair bit about the subject of childhood. After all, Natalie had just released an album, Leave Your Sleep, based on poetry that she described as being by, for, or about children. But I still didn't anticipate just how often these little posts I write would end up centering on the subject of children and childhood. As I started writing my way through Natalie's catalogue, I would come upon the subject time and time again, not just with songs from Leave Your Sleep, but with songs from every epoch of Natalie's career, songs like How You've Grown, What's the Matter Here, Cotton Alley, and Stockton Gala Days, among others.

All of those songs I've just mentioned deal directly with children or childhood, but beyond those songs were songs that ostensibly had nothing to do with childhood but reminded me in some way or another of experiences from my own young life. Before I started this blog, if someone would have asked me what I thought the common theme that unites Natalie Merchant's writing was, I think I might have been inclined to say there wasn't one. But now I can answer unequivocally - I think childhood is the central theme of Natalie's writing.

Of course, I don't mean to imply that I believe it is the only thing that she has written about, but it's impossible to deny how strongly the current of childhood flows through her music. There's several possible reasons for this. Perhaps Natalie is just very in touch with her own inner child, something I find highly likely. Maybe she really likes children; in fact, that seems undeniable. Or maybe she writes the way most every other great artist writes and it's just that she's the only artist whose music I have examined this closely. After all, most of us are somewhat obsessed with our own childhood - the beautiful parts, the terrible parts, all the parts we're still trying to figure out. Maybe all this talk of romantic love being at the root of popular music is just a myth. Maybe all roads lead back to our childhood, in some way or another.

Well, today I am back with another post and once again, the song I am covering, Wonder (heard of it?), has childhood at its core. I've hesitated to write about this song for a long time, not because I don't love it, because I do love it so much, but because in all of Natalie's catalogue Wonder is the song that has inarguably touched the most people on the most intimately personal level. What can I possibly say that can add to that? The answer is nothing, so for once I'm going to (mostly) keep my ideas to myself and instead focus on things that Natalie has said about Wonder. First, the inspiration:

"It was a song that I wrote after seeing a documentary about a severely physically handicapped girl who had been institutionalized at birth and was adopted by this farmer couple in rural Texas. And she had this remarkable life and she credited her adopted parent's love and support for her overcoming."*

Certain critical nincompoops liked to point out that Wonder served as proof that Natalie was a raging narcissist. (Rant: Why is it that every female celebrity that is self-possessed and doesn't feel the need to constantly distort herself to appeal to the masses gets labeled as an egomaniac? Is it impossible for a female to fall somewhere in between self-loathing and self-obsessed? Bah!) Natalie addressed this criticism in no uncertain terms:

"That's their problem. They'd have to be pretty dense to think I sang it about me. I'm not that crafty to be the first person to sing [about someone else] in the first person."**

Ha! Take that, nincompoops! Now, about the musical inspiration for Wonder:

"Well, the music - I just liked the descending chord progression and I thought it sounded very hopeful, like a gospel song. And I just kept playing it over and over and I came up the melody. But it was gibberish. There were no words yet. I think after two months I came up with the words. I had decided to write the song about - because it seemed like a triumphant melody in a way - that I wanted to make it a testimonial about strength, inner strength."***

What about the effect this song has had on listeners?

"Over the years I've met so many people who have said that the song was really inspirational to them because they had children born with congenital illness or children who became sick with cancer or children who were blind."*

In the same interview the above quote comes from, Natalie spoke about some specific comments she received from fans about Wonder.

"(A fan told her) 'I remember sitting in the dark at three o'clock in the morning nursing my baby who I was I told was blind and would never excel, never be able to achieve the things a sighted child could. And I listened to (Wonder) over and over and over and I told myself that they're wrong.'

"It's been a song that has changed my life because of the contact that I have with people who have been touched by it. I've come to know that this is an anthem for children with special needs."

Now, if I had ever entertained the hope that I might one day have the pleasure of meeting Natalie in person, this interview surely quelled that desire. I can just imagine it now - I'm standing in a long row of people; the person directly in front of me tearfully tells Natalie that just a few years ago they were standing on an overpass, about to jump to their own death, when a car passed by blaring Wonder. It gave them the strength to go on living...and now they are, astronaut or something. They hold each other and weep. Then it's my turn. She looks at me expectantly and I say, "You... It's... I...!" I will blurt out finally. She will raise a disapproving eyebrow, shake my hand weakly and with great effort muster forth a polite "Thank you" before moving on to the next sobbing paralytic who has the lyrics to Wonder tattooed to their face so they will be the first words they read when they look at themselves in the mirror in the morning.

Sigh. It just wasn't meant to be.

Listen, the truth is, I love this stuff. The fact is that although I have been so deeply moved by Natalie Merchant's music that I have committed myself to writing about pretty much every song she has ever's fully conceivable that I could be the fan least affected by her work. I just love that.

I'm sure that many of you reading this post will have your own story about Wonder and I invite you to share your thoughts via the comment section or via email (the preferred method for most of my very thoughtful readers.)

Tune in next time when I will undoubtedly be talking more about Natalie's music and its connection to childhood - yours, mine, and everyone else's. Thanks for reading!

Click here to watch the music video for Wonder

Bonus video! Click here to see Natalie's performance and explanation of Wonder on VH1's Storytellers

Download Wonder on Itunes - Wonder - Tigerlily

*BBC World Service - August 2010
**Cleveland Plain Dealer - September, 1995
***The Performing Songwriter - May/June 1996