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."

1 comment:

  1. Truly fascinating story about 'Frozen Charlotte'! Such a gifted songwriter!