“Tim Eriksen – Sowing a Silken Seam”

Tim Eriksen – hardcore americana

This week at Murder Ballad Monday will be a mix of celebration and reflection, with a bit of correction thrown in for balance.

Celebration? Quite simply, we’re still here and still finding plenty to write about even after eleven months of weekly blogging on a rather rarefied topic. And we recently notched our first 100,000 hits!  Ok, ok…  we concede that a portion of those came from image searches that intersect accidentally with our content. (Here’s a shout out to all you folks longing to see “Golgotha” and “tom waits’ wife” – we couldn’ta done it without ya!)

But we’re jovial types here and still of a mind to celebrate. So, when we get to our second post this week, I’ll make sure to look back a bit even as we explore some new music.

Eriksen’s latest album – available here

On that note – this week we’ll move away from our standard approach of thoroughly exploring one ballad and instead take a broader, lighter view of how a particular artist’s work intersects with our usual themes.  And our artist of choice is Tim Eriksen!  And it’s not just because he has a new album out (he does, and I just got it in the mail – thanks, Tim! – but this isn’t a review) or that I’m his number one fan (I’m sure I’m not, but I imagine the bar is pretty high on that one.)

Now regarding *correction*; while we have included Tim from time to time, I feel we’ve under-represented him since beginning our work this January and so I intend to add his voice where we’ve left it out. Thus we’ve got another reason to look back a bit this week.  But don’t worry; we’ll be looking at some new songs for the blog as well – two today in fact!

Either way though it’s Tim’s vocal approach that I want to place in the context of the way we experience murder ballads. Of course, he certainly deserves respect for his obvious erudition as a musicologist as well as his unceasing and admirable artist’s quest for something *more* in the way of music, and for pursuing such while never dispensing with the traditional.  (He certainly doesn’t fit neatly in to Long-Wilgus’s typology!)  But we blog about murder ballads here, and his performance style when it comes to our preferred genre is ‘ground both keen and sharp’; and it’s also this I want to *celebrate* and upon this I want to *reflect*, not as a musician but as a lover of these songs.

There’s just something about *how he lays it down* when it comes to murder ballads that gets *right to it.*  He slays.  It’s not unique in the tradition and I don’t mean to set Eriksen on a pedestal above many of the great performers we’ve heard here over the past year – but neither can we ignore the fact that there’s something he shares on the level with the best of them.  

Perhaps the most important commonality, and one to emphasize immediately, is that he’s not the flashy type – it’s all about the song and not the singer with him.  And as a corollary, he’s not churning out over-the-top promotion along with his music.  It’s possible then that you may not be aware of him.  I knew some of his stuff, but I’ve only become deeply aware of his music this year.  The awesome feeling I get from discovering such great art overwhelms the slight embarrassment I feel in admitting that.  And if you don’t know his work, or haven’t kept track of his solo stuff since the days of Cordelia’s Dad, you’ve *got* to hear some of it before I write any more.

So, let’s away!

“…sowing a silken seam.”

We’ll start with a song that seemingly isn’t *quite* a murder ballad in content, but otherwise qualifies by standards stricter than ours. (And whose aren’t?)  Both characters *want* to be dead by the end, so, you know, that works. (In some British variants, there is follow-through.)  Anyway, you’ll feel it I’m sure; and that in great part due to the vocal delivery.

While ‘searching for the sound’ late one evening recently, I was streaming Tim’s 2010 album Soul of the January Hills, a collection of 14 A Capella tracks (I still have to buy a hard copy of the CD, so if I’m missing some important detail provided by his liner notes, I apologize in advance.)  The second track, “Queen Jane”, just floored me.  It’s just… well, check it out then we’ll talk.

I think you’ll agree that this is a beautiful performance about a *really bad day* in the lives of these two siblings.  Though there is no sororicide in this ballad, or suicide in this unique American variant, the similarity to “The Bonnie Banks of Fordie” is striking.  As the plot of “Queen Jane” likely does not correspond to any historical event, the ‘meaning’ of the song must be more deeply and darkly psychological, as Ken discussed in his follow-up post on “The Bonnie Banks.”  Check out that discussion if you’re so inclined, but that’s not what we’re after here today.

As well, though our typical dive into history and provenance is also not our purpose this week, we should note that this is a version of The King’s Dochter Lady Jean, cataloged by Francis Child as his ballad #52 with four variants (all British), and in the Roud Folk Song Index as #39, with 42 variants on record.  One of us may come back to this one for a week of its own but, for now, only one bit of provenance matters as an illustrative point of comparison.

Tim’s version seems lovingly derived from Sarah Cleveland’s 1966 recording of “Queen Jane” for the Folk-Legacy album Ballads and Songs of the Upper Hudson Valley.  You can check out this link for more information about the album, the ballad, and quite a bit about Cleveland herself.  Though the album is now available on CD, it’s not on Spotify and I can’t find her version of the ballad on YouTube. However, you can hear it at an old link from North Country Public Radio.

A comparison between the two performances really gets us to our focus for the week – in both performances, as in the best of any ballad, “you can’t tell the singer from the song.”  I know this is no great revelation to those of you who’ve lived with ballads for some significant portion of your life, but we flatter ourselves here at MBM to hope that we get younger readers and those new to folk music and ballads as well – and anyway it’s never a waste of time to get back to the fundamentals.

Both Cleveland and Eriksen achieve a remarkable balance in their delivery.  Each has a singular vocal quality and musical ability that is undeniably their own, and they certainly rely on it.  Neither singer holds back or disappears!  Neither shies away from from their natural talent, and it would be foolish to posit that it just doesn’t matter in the delivery of a ballad.  

The fine point of it is more subtle – neither puts that talent *in front* of the story.  And the unique quality each brings has the same purpose, and an obvious one for any true balladeer – to draw the listener *in to the story.*  They wrap the narrative in that plain but compelling melody and they tie it simply with the timbre of their voices; and the result, though unadorned, is almost irresistible.  You’ve *got to know* what’s in there!

Let me switch metaphors.  Let’s say traditional ballads are new to you.  If you’re at all inclined to gamble and give this music a chance, then this vocal approach is tantamount to rolling loaded dice.  Except, there’s no loser here and the gold never stops piling up.

“You neither dressed us coarse nor fine…”

I think it goes even further and I want to say just a bit more, but let’s check out another piece of music new to this blog first, from the same album as “Queen Jane.”

Yes, it’s brutal – truly horrible!  Surely we’ll get to this song for a full week on its own and find all sorts of connections to content we’ve already introduced.  In fact, I’m planning on it, as you can tell from my growing Spotify playlist!  It’s a much more well-known Child Ballad, most often called “The Cruel Mother”.  Child cataloged it as his #20 and provided eighteen variants and fragments.  It is cataloged in the Roud Folk Song Index as #9, with 325 citations.

“The Cruel Mother” – Vernon Hill, 2012
on sale here

We’ll leave provenance to that later week.  For now I encourage you to listen to any of the other versions on my Spotify playlist and compare them to Eriksen’s performance.  I’m not trying to make the case that (cue Jeff Spicoli voice) “Tim’s the best, man!”  I do believe though that his *style* of performance, augmented of course by his personal musical gifts, is optimal for achieving the most of what a traditional murder ballad might achieve.  Does his performance not stand side by side with the best of any you find on my playlist?

Here we have an utterly devastating story of infanticide, and one made all the more poignant for me with each all-too-regular news story I hear about a similar murder.  Parents like me hear one of them and ask ourselves “Good God, what kind of person would do this to a child?”  But that’s not the right question.  It happens, and we know it’s happened for as long as (and certainly longer than) human beings have written their stories.  Murder ballads at their finest allow us to ask the really important questions – “What am I feeling?  What is going on inside me?  How do I make sure that world never becomes my world?”

And I’m not talking about being didactic or moralistic, though certainly some use ballads that way.  I think it’s *critical* in the most effective delivery of a murder ballad that the singer never step in front of the story, because the story is there to enable essential reflection.  The song is a mirror, really both for singer and listener.  And the narrative – if we give ourselves over to it, feel it, and experience it in our mind’s eye – is the light that leads to compassion.  And compassion is the way out of any hell we create for ourselves and our world.

That’s what a great singer can do with a great story.  That’s what Tim Eriksen’s performances do for me.  

(cue voice) It’s like totally cosmic, man…


Well, two songs aren’t enough to prove all this I suppose.  So, I’ll be back and as promised I’ll revisit some of our best posts of the past year and add some performances by Tim that we’ve left out.  Maybe they’ll convince you!

I should point out though that all of this about voice and gift is *not* to say that each of us can’t find our own way to use this approach, whatever our musical talents.  Ballads are not to be sung by those with immense musical gifts only.  Everything I find about Tim Eriksen convinces me that he’s all about *us performing* these songs ourselves (though I imagine he’d feel a purchase of one of his CDs would be nice too!)

In an earlier post around Memorial Day I considered his wonderful “I Wish the Wars Were All Over.”  If you’re a regular reader here then you know I use traditional music in my 8th grade U.S. History classroom as much as possible.  Though I always have fine recordings from various artists to use, I try when I can to sing the songs myself, however amateurish my performance might be.  That matters to kids (really, to all of us I suppose.)

Having been moved and inspired by “I Wish the Wars Were All Over“, as well as by all this mess about ballad performance I’ve talked about in this post and have been considering in depth since we started this blog, on our recent field trip to the battlefield at Saratoga I planned to let loose with an A Capella rendition of the tune at the Barber Wheat Field.  

Barber Wheat Field at Saratoga – Fraser’s monument can be seen
in the background between the wheels of the caisson.

We stood near where General Fraser was mortally wounded, and where many others in red and blue were served the same.  I thought it would be a laid back thing as my students were used to me singing, but I was suddenly conscious of being ‘on stage’ and surrounded by forty faces.  It was a weird sort of pressure, but I knew if my response was to somehow make it about me, it wouldn’t work.  So I imagined them as soldiers who were there listening around a campfire after the battle, thinking about their sweethearts, and then I closed my eyes and watched the movie unfold as I sang it through.

Since my eyes were closed, I really have little evidence about how it went over ‘out there’, but I do know it worked for me – not just as a performer, but as a listener to the story I was singing to myself.  I have faith then that it played out just fine on the other side of the looking glass.

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