Who Weeps for the House Carpenter?

"Christ in the House of His Parents" (1849-1850), Sir John Edward Millais (on display at Tate Britain)

“Christ in the House of His Parents” (1849-1850), Sir John Edward Millais (on display at Tate Britain)

This is the second post on Child 243.  Read the first post here.

The short answer is “nobody.”  Nobody weeps for the house carpenter.  In our last post, we saw how artists through the years molded and shaped the original song that is now “The Demon Lover” and “House Carpenter.” We noticed that some things varied among the versions that adjusted the song to inflect its central message in different ways.  Some changes gave us more sympathy with our protagonist, Jane Reynolds, others reinforced the condemnation of her actions, which is already implicit in the song, with condemnations of her character.  With the shift away from an external spirit or demon deluding poor Jane, the fault must lie solely within–an interesting by-product of the loss of a magical or supernatural context, and a turn of events that would surely have been of interest Michel Foucault.

Some elements of the song, though, remain relatively constant.  For example, in most instances, the James Harris character attempts to persuade Jane Reynolds to come away with him by accounting for what he gave up to come back to her.

“Oh I could have married the king’s daughter dear
And she would have married me,
But I have refused the crown of gold
And it’s all for the love of thee.”

In essence, “I kept my vow when sorely tempted to abandon it.  What did you do?”. Much could be written, I think, on the tactics of persuasion used in this song.  How does each party invoke the strengths of which vows and promises, which sacrifices they have made for the life they currently lead?  Why is it that Harris refuses to come in?  Is that a sign he’s a demon, or is there a crucial role that urgency plays?  Is he putting the hard-sell on his former lover?  Or is it that his character does not belong in domestic space, and that’s part of the very point of the song?

I’ve found two performances of “House Carpenter” that open with a declaration from the carpenter’s wife that she was the one who had forsaken the opportunity to marry into royalty.  It’s an interesting switch, but one that serves to reinforce the theme of “Jane’s” pride and concept of her proper station, which is then echoed in other parts of the song.

The first is the version performed by Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson, on their historic Live at Folk City album.

 Listen on YouTube here. (Lyrics)

A similar approach to the lyrics can be found in Pentangle‘s fantastic folk jazz performance of the tune, here shown on an appearance on the BBC.  Pentangle’s a British group, but you’ll remember that, as with “Omie Wise,” they often performed material from American folk music.  In this case, as with Peter Bellamy’s in the previous post, the song has traveled both ways across the Atlantic.

“House Carpenter” by Pentangle (Spotify)

Whatever else changes within the versions of the song, at least one thing remains the same.  Jane is never depicted as broken-hearted about the loss of the house carpenter.  Although at the end of the Watson and Ritchie version above, she regrets no longer being with him, it’s because she’s about to die–right then–and reckons that she really would have been better off had she not left home.  But, in all of the formulations of the song’s narrative, when Jane is weeping at sea, the cause is either unspecified (rarely), or for the loss of her child or children.  She often explicitly denies that she is crying for the loss of her husband.

This lack of sorrow for the loss of her husband raises an interesting question of what each version of the song “thinks” Jane’s offense really is.  For some, it is her breaking of her vow to James Harris in the first place–whether or not there had been definitive proof of her death.  For most, I think, it’s the abandonment of her husband and children, although they only portray the loss of the children as emotionally important to her.  Then, as we read in the previous post, other versions pile on with other reasons to find Jane lacking not only in judgment, but in character.

I spent some time in the previous post talking about the song’s traditional function of serving as a warning.  In this case, a warning about the consequences of breaking vows–in some respects Jane is caught in a perfect trap between vows she couldn’t fulfill in the first place and vows she subsequently made.  She has an incredibly bad hand to play.  What gives the song its staying power, however, I think is the theme of people from your past showing up in your lives–the power of first loves, the grip of promises, and the inevitability of life going forward in often unpredictable ways.  Our next two posts are going to dive into this area in some depth, so I’ll leave it there for now.

Seven Fine Ships

With the rest of this post, I’d like to give you taste of some of the more compelling or distinctive recordings out there, which ring some of the changes on the themes we’ve identified so far, but also make some distinctive contributions.  They succeed in striking the balance between authenticity and innovation in keeping the song fresh.

I mentioned in the previous post that Harry Smith included Clarence Ashley’s performance of “House Carpenter” on his original Anthology of American Folk Music.  When the Harry Smith Project released its live tribute album, Todd Rundgren and Robin Holcomb performed “House Carpenter.”  What’s interesting about this arrangement, I think, is that keeps the entirely realistic narrative of the American “House Carpenter” lyrics, but does a great deal with the arrangement to suggest something at least a little paranormal is going on the entire time.  This is most apparent on this recording on SpotifyIt’s downright spooky.  The solo Rundgren performance captures some of this effect.

If you would like to go past spooky in the direction of creepy, try The Wattingers’ performance of “House Carpenter,” from their album Slaughterhouse Blues:

Listen on Bandcamp here.

Or, the Moolah Temple $tringband:

Listen on YouTube here.

But you might want to save these for Halloween.

One semi-exception to the rule that American performers eschew the supernatural is the arrangement by Tim O’Brien, on his album Two Journeys.  This version is a duet with the Irish singer, Karan Casey, and as you might surmise from the album title, is intentionally developed to draw lines of connection between American and Irish music.  O’Brien and Casey develop this version as intentionally “Old World.”  It’s one of my favorites.

Listen on YouTube here. (Lyrics)

In the liner notes for the song, O’Brien gives us some of the transatlantic backstory of this ballad, but notes that “the devil likes to trap us, or at least we think he does.”  He raises an interesting question about how and why we externalize temptation.  O’Brien and Casey’s duet performance is quite effective, with a dialogue between the two old true lovers at the start, and a lovely harmony arrangement in the concluding verses.

Kelly Joe Phelps presents another remarkable performance of “House Carpenter,” again realistic, but with little trace, musically speaking, of the song’s origins in the British Isles.  Phelps’s version is bluesy and western, with a driving steel guitar arrangement.  It’s a standout in terms of the overall sound of the song.

Listen on YouTube here.

English guitarist and singer Martin Simpson takes up the banjo for his performance of “House Carpenter,” which gives “Old World” lyrics to the song under the more commonly American title.

Listen on YouTube here.

Of all the “Old World” versions, my favorite comes from the Breton band Kornog.  If the Doug Wallin version we closed with in the last post is rather condemning in its tone, Kornog brings a sympathetic tone to our (anti-)heroine’s plight.  The lyrics still end rather starkly, but I think you’ll agree that the setting captures, to a certain extent, the way Jane Reynolds is sweetly lured and then abruptly betrayed.

Listen on YouTube here.

Why a carpenter?

Although it runs rather counter to the general direction of my posts this week on Child 243, it seems like it might be worthwhile to pause and consider what value to ascribe to the fact that our cuckolded husband is a carpenter.  If the picture at the top of this post didn’t inspire you to think of it earlier, perhaps it does now.

The origin of this ballad is too recent and too definite, I think, to make any conjecture about the strong influence of pre-Christian culture in developing the symbols in the song.  Its story also seems to be based on at least some real-world starting point (at least before the demon shows up, that is),  So, the choice of a carpenter as the husband’s trade is interesting, at least from the perspective of that work being the trade of both Jesus and Joseph.  Just take some time and play with that one for a bit, see where it goes.

Finally, just for grins, and because the listener comments in the YouTube video speculate that Chris Thile must be Jesus’ brother, I’ll add one more performance of “House Carpenter,” this time from Thile’s former band, Nickel Creek.

Here’s a live concert performance by Nickel Creek, where the audience noise is not too bad.

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