So, I spent Columbus Day weekend writing ballads. Or, at least, browsing around in books of ballads, singing and strumming away at them badly, and trying to think my way through their strange plot inversions and narrative compressions. In the best ballads, I feel some deep root of English being tapped¯some metaphysical knot of love and death and sex and God, some ancient place in the language¯and I do not know how to recreate that feeling in modern poetry.

Actually, I’ve been fooling around with ballads and folk songs for a couple of months, now, with the vague idea that I might make my next book of poems something like "New Words to Old Music," along the line that Yeats marked out with his lyrics for traditional Irish tunes. Of course, mine will be terrible when compared with his, but that’s a problem with the fact that I’m not Yeats, not a problem with the idea itself. Anyway, I called my publisher, the amazing Bruce Fingerhut of St. Augustine’s Press, and he’s ruefully willing to print it, if I get it done¯and there, as in so many other things, is the rub.

Do any good tunes come to mind? I’ve already done the old Child’s ballad "Henry Martin" (you can hear the melody and see the original words here , dropping all the original plot and rewriting it as a woman-scorned tale. I think I’ve got a take on new words for the "Gower Wassail," and “Winyadepla”; a strange fiddle tune from the Shetland Islands, which has the advantage of never having had words to need replacing.

But I need some more melodies that need new words. If you can think of them, please email me at ft@firstthings.com . I’m really looking for traditional melodies that are (1) haunting, (2) saddled with inferior lyrics, and (3) not widely known. "Henry Martin" is a good example of what I mean: a really spooky tune, with generally wasted and ill-fit words. There a few good lines¯"for to turn robber upon the salt sea," for instance¯but basically the lyrics are stuffed with filler and don’t match the meter of the 3/4-time tune all that well to begin with.

Or, for another example, the tune for "Bangrum and the Boar," an American corruption of the old English song "Sir Lionel"¯given, with many variants, as ballad number 18 in Francis J. Child’s seminal anthology, English and Scottish Popular Ballad (1882-1898). Collected at Woodbridge, Virginia, in 1916, the original melody and words of the version I know are printed in Cecil J. Sharp’s English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians (1917). Related American versions pass under such titles as "Old Bangrum," "The Wild Boar," and "There is a Wild Hog in These Woods," in a vast array of different melodies and altered lyrics.

This weekend I found myself taking the Virginia version of the tune and trying to write an anti-abortion ballad for it. And it made me wonder, merely as an aside, why more poets aren’t anti-abortion. Forget for a moment the rights and wrongs of the issue, and consider baby slaughter just for its poetic purposes. What more could you want for a ballad? Moral urgency, death, blood, the fruits of sex, outrage, the possibility of political consequence, etc. The old infanticide broadside "The Greenwood Side" and all the other versions that Child gives of "The Cruel Mother": They’re like anthems for our time. The young Robert Lowell was often accused of becoming a Catholic because it gave him so many deep things to write about and a received set of images to play with. Why aren’t poets flocking to the pro-life banner for much the same reason?

Anyway, you can hear the tune here , and here is a rough draft of the first few verses:

I met a boy all dressed in black.
Sing it on down, sing it on down.
He touched his toe to every crack.
Each ball he rolled came rolling back.
Sing it on down, sing it on down.
I met a girl all dressed in gray.
Sing it on down, sing it on down.
Upon the see-saw she would play
with no one there to make it sway.
Sing it on down, sing it on down.
"So sad to be alone," I said.
Sing it on down, sing it on down.
But they replied, "Our friends are dead.
We play with ghosts all dressed in red."
Sing it on down, sing it on down.
"Our younger brother smiles and waves."
Sing it on down, sing it on down.
"A place for us he often saves
to sit with him among the graves."
Sing it on down, sing it on down.
"Our older sister starts to cry."
Sing it on down, sing it on down.
"She says that with her we must fly,
for you’re the one that made her die."
Sing it on down, sing it on down.

If there’s interest, I’ll post the rest when I get it done¯and when I’ve fixed up these current verses, as well. Meanwhile, do send along other suggestions for old songs that need new words.

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