Our last post took a look at one of the descendants of Child 243, “The Demon Lover” or “House Carpenter,” and how that song, “Tangled Up in Blue” represents Bob Dylan’s definitive artistic statement on the themes of the original song and, to a certain extent, the “haunted love” themes that he had explored in much of his early career as a songwriter.
In this final post for the week, my hope is to give a quick listen to a few other “heirs” to the sad tale of “James Harris” and “Jane Reynolds,” and to a perhaps distant, happier “cousin” to the song. Each of the first three takes a bit of Child 243’s theme and runs with it, either lyrically or musically or both. They each take the building blocks of the core story or song and recreate it. None go so far as Dylan in my estimation, but each adds something new. As is my wont with these concluding posts, I’ll do my best to let the music speak for itself.
Jolie Holland “Demon Lover Improv”
Jolie Holland’s “Demon Lover Improv” bears the closest resemblance to its ancestor, really just presenting a fragment of the original song that emerges during a soft, solo jam on her album Catalpa. The video below is a fan video. I can’t explain why the person putting it together paired the song with archival footage of scenes from Vietnam.
The more interesting thing, perhaps, is that when she gets to singing some snippets of the verses, the tune she puts to them is closer to the folk ballad, “Willie Moore.” (Listen to Jean Ritchie and Doc Watson perform “Willie Moore” on Spotify here.) I’ve had to go back through some of the versions of Child 243 we’ve listened to this week to double check the similarities. I’m pretty sure Holland’s improv is indeed that, and a relatively novel fusion of the two songs. The distant echo of a story of two other star-crossed lovers is not unwelcome.
Michael Smith “Demon Lover”
Chicago-based singer-songwriter Michael (Peter) Smith, whom you may remember from one of our earlier posts, created a new “Demon Lover” that represents something of a rationalization of the song. It may be the first version of this family of song that I heard, appearing on Smith’s eponymous 1986 album. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be a streamable performance by Smith of the song, but the clip below represents a relatively faithful cover.
The lyrics for Smith’s “Demon Lover” can be found here.
Smith gives us in this song a 20th century American version of “Demon Lover” specifically, and not “House Carpenter.” With an interesting mix, Smith’s song gives both a supernatural element to the narrative and a concluding bit of psychological plot exposition or moral warning; the last line enjoining the listener:
Maybe you have a demon lover
Who might have been your husband or your wife
Watch out for people who belong in your past
Don’t let ’em back in your life.
Hurt “House Carpenter”
My vote for most powerful adaptation or novel reinvention of “House Carpenter” (“Tangled Up in Blue” excepted, of course) goes to Hurt. J. Loren Wince’s original composition, with a trace of the original ballad in the refrain, gives us a contemporary take on Child 243. You can read the lyrics here.
Here’s a live performance with a relatively low amount of crowd noise:
Another live performance from Hurt’s Myspace page, with perhaps a bit of a fib in the introduction:
House Carpenter (live) “House Carpenter” by Hurt (Myspace)
Coda: “Painted Pony”
After Hurt’s sober exploration of the darkness inside of “House Carpenter,” our last song, tacked on to the end here, is a bit of a switch; but it’s a song that I hope will provide some illuminating contrasts. Garnet Rogers included his original ghost (as distinct from demon) lover ballad on his 2001 album Firefly. Unfortunately, it’s one of the few songs here at Murder Ballad Monday that we have to present without an example for you to hear. The song is apparently not available electronically on Spotify, iTunes, Myspace, or Amazon, nor can I find a clip of the song on YouTube or Vimeo. A complete bust, unfortunately, but the song is worth mentioning here because it’s a bit of a mix of Child 243, and “Pretty Fair Maid” (which is, incidentally the song that follows “House Carpenter” in Sandburg’s American Songbag). (Listen to Tim O’Brien’s performance of “Pretty Fair Maid“ on Spotify).
There are other ghost lover ballads out there that might represent a readier source of comparison, or perhaps a progenitor, of “Painted Pony,” but I include it here as an invitation for you to consider the relevant differences between this song and the song that has guided our discussions this week. I think it may show, perhaps in a little relief, why Child 243 continues to occupy our attention. Here are the lyrics.
Clocking in at just under 10 minutes, Rogers’s ballad may or may not capture the imagination of later songs and singers. It may or may not go through a similar process to Laurence Price’s original “James Harris (or the Demon Lover).” In the end, both Rogers’s female protagonist and Child 243’s are equally dead, but the characters and their afterlives are markedly different. The song and its arrangement are far sweeter and more sanguine than “House Carpenter.” For this reason, “Painted Pony” may not have the same staying power as our source song this week. Although there’s tragedy, it’s not precisely interpersonal tragedy, other than the conflict between the soldier’s love and his duty. The romantic lead characters are unfailingly good, and the ends of the story are easily tied. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether or not the song represents a helpful warning.
Thanks for reading this week, which has taken us in some directions I expected, and some I didn’t. Pat will return on Monday with another work for us to consider. I expect I’ll be back in a couple weeks.