Friday, February 6, 2009

Fairy Music

Reya over at The Gold Puppy recently wrote about fairy tales and how they carry our cultural voices throughout the ages and change and grow with the perspective of the times. Mythology is something I know far too little about and is something that fascinates me. I do know a little bit about songs, though,and many of those myths and tales that roll down the centuries do so in the form of song. Take this one for example- the strange tale of The Great Silkie Of Sule Skerry I have loved this melody since I first discovered it on Joan Baez's second album. It has had many different versions but the lyrics I heard first are these:

An earthly nurse sits and sings
And aye she sings of lily-wean
Saying "Little ken I my bairn's father
Far less the land that he comes from"
So he came one night to her bed feet
And a grumbly guest I'm sure was he
Saying "Here am I thy bairn's father
Although I be not comely"
And he had taken a purse of gold
And he had placed it on her knee
Saying "Give to me my little young son
And take thee up thy nurse's fee
For I am a man upon the land
And I am a Silkie on the sea
And when I'm far and far from land
My home it is in Sule Skerry
For it shall come to pass on a summer's day
When the sun shines bright on every stone
I'll come and fetch my little young son
And teach him how to swim the foam
And ye shall marry a gunner good
And a right fine gunner I'm sure he'll be
And the very first shot that ever he shoots
Will kill both my young son and me
For I am a man upon the land
And I am a Silkie on the sea
And when I'm far and far from land
My home it is in Sule Skerry"

Eerie and compelling, this story of a sea creature who assumes human shape and fathers a child. I have found many different versions of the song of the Silkie,or Selkie as he is sometimes known. The melody, so haunting, has been married with many other lyrics and recorded by many different folks, over the decades.

The version I used to sing with my friend Gail, while we strummed our guitars on a lawn on many soft Jersey summer evenings, had nothing to do with Silkies, Selkies, or mythological critters of any ilk. It was about something that had happened just a couple of decades earlier. Our fifteen year old voices tried to harmonize and do the melody justice, but sometimes the beauty of the song and the message of the lyrics would reduce us to tears. The words are loosely translated from a poem by Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet; the subject is Hiroshima. I learned this version from Pete Seeger. The Bryds also recorded it:

John Sayles, long one of my favorite film directors, made a film loosely based on the legend of The Great Silkie, called The Secret Of Roan Inish.It is extremely beautiful.

It's wonderful that this ancient song continues to live in so many forms. The power of myth and song combined is an awesome power indeed.


tut-tut said...

I certainly remember that Joan Baez song, but not the words. And The Secret of Roan Inish is just lovely. Hmm. Some more things to think about (or try to). Have a nice weekend.

Ronda Laveen said...

Dear Crone:
My, my, you have been busy. I took some time to catch up with your posts. And speaking of synchronicity, you and I have many. I love Roan Inish and Science Fiction. I don't know too many females who really enjoy that genre. I started reading it in junior high, mainly Ray Bradbury (Illustrated Man, Farenheit 451). Then I got hooked on it when I was a sophmore. The smartest, geeky, nerd guy in our class sat in front of me. He was always hiding a good sci-fi book behind his text book. I kept looking over his shoulder until he loaned me his prize copy of Robert Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land" and then "Glory Road." For many years, I read any SF I could get my greedy hands on.

I don't know too much about the new Battle Star but it sounds like something my husband and I would like. I will try to find it on renters.

One of my nurse friends loves Lost but I haven't gotten started on that yet. I have been watching such guilty pleasures as Dexter, Weeds, Californication, and most recently, The United States of Tara, the new Diablo Cody-Steven Spielberg project. I usually only have time for TV on Sunday eves.

Your post on Star Trek made me think about how SF and fantasy transcends all levels of society, from low to high. A couple of years ago, when I was seeing an endocrinologist, we finished our visit. He exited the room and retired to his office, he said, to finish his dictation. I had to stop by and ask him a question. I quietly entered his office. It took a minute for him to notice me. He was sitting at his desk in his office filled with Star Trek collectibles, raptly reading Harry Potter. I new there and then he was the doc for me!

Also, I think I remember you mentioning Neil Gaiman on Reya's blog. I have read him for many years. Here in the US, at least, he is vastly and sadly unknow. I love his work.

My hat is off to you! Lovely posts. Viva la Synchronicity

Ronda Laveen said...

As I was writing the above comment, my hubby was watching Alien vs. Predator: Requiem and then Star Wars: Clone Wars. That is what was going on in my background noise.

What I really came back here for was, the Silke song reminded me of a song that took me a while to put my finger on. Then it came to me, Traffic's "Legend of John Barleycorn." Do you know the roots of that one?

crone51 said...

Ronda... it is great to run into another female SF fan. I grew up reading SF- Heinlein's books for young people, Madeline L' Engle, anything I could get my hands on ... I will read almost anything put in front of me of any genre but I have a very special love for SF - for years it was a quiet obsession but in my old age I have decided release my inner geek from the closet and parade about with pride. Letting the geek flag fly, so to speak.

I think my all time favorite SF novel is Ursula K. Leguin's The Dispossessed. Other all time top genre books include Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End etc. etc. etc.

Battlestar ( the new cool one not the old silly one) is among the best SF I have ever encountered- it works on a zillion levels- and manages to be a particularly sharp commentary on life now. It's very intense , somewhat dark ,and incredibly entertaining. I will miss it when it concludes forever in March.
I also love Dexter, have really enjoyed the first few eps of The United States of Tara , and am continuing to enjoy Big Love.

Neil Gaiman is a delight . I was just trying to convince an old friend to read Sandman .. She's not sure she wants to handle a ten book collection of graphic novels. Perhaps I should just convince her to read American Gods. Gaiman does the young reader such a great service- he is really a gateway to world mythology. Plus, he's cute ( I am essentially very shallow).

Cristin said...

I love that movie... no time to listen to the songs now... but I'm sure they're good if you like them..