May they all be well

Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen, Judy Collins, and Chad Mitchell
(this photo looks a little off to me, I can’t vouch for its authenticity)

As I mentioned in the first post this week, my friend, Cayce, put me up to discussing “Silver Dagger.” Or perhaps more accurately, she helped push it forward in the rather vague and improvised timeline we have for getting around to certain songs. I still hadn’t finished wrapping my mind around it as a murder ballad, and hadn’t dug into the variety of performances that would eventually help me unlock it as one. Cayce’s suggestion helped, and this final post for the week will get to the one performance that did the trick, for me at least.

Partly because she suggested the song, but mostly because I was curious to understand more about how and why she resonated with the song, I asked her to share her thoughts about it. Cayce wrote the comments below before reading our first post this week, and I read them after writing and publishing the first post. Happily, they fit perfectly with where I eventually found myself going–although I got there in a roundabout way. More on that in a minute. Cayce found it right away.

Here’s Cayce:

Dolly Parton

“I first heard Silver Dagger from the bluegrass album that Dolly Parton released around 2000. I immediately loved the song, and as is typical for me, I didn’t listen to the lyrics too closely. Not knowing it word for word, I’d always associated it with being a murder ballad. I vaguely categorized it in my head as “that song about women protecting each other by killing men…” It seemed clear that someone is getting murdered at some point (maybe before the song started, or after it ends). 

But now, upon closer inspection of the lyrics, I see there is no explicit act of murder in the song. And yet, it still seems like the song is suggesting a foreshadowing of a future murder or the aftermath of a past murder— with the focus on the object of the dagger (the title of the song!) and with  I think it’s clear that most people who sing the song are illustrating a murder that happens “offstage.” That’s the power in the song–the murder as subtext. 

I was a Joan Baez fan even before I was a Dolly Parton fan, so I went back and found Joan’s version, which is much more spare and intense. Dolly’s version reads more like the lighter narrative of an innocent, naive, ingenue who doesn’t yet understand why her mother hates men; whereas Joan’s version reads more angry and knowing–more heartbroken and maybe even murderous like the mother. Dolly is just the chorus in this Greek tragedy, whereas Joan is the protagonist. 

In looking a little closer at both versions, I noticed that Dolly changes the lyric. Dolly says “All men are fools” where Joan says they are “false.” Calling men fools seems far less incriminating than calling them false. Thus Dolly decreases some of the venom in the song. (The happy sound of the bluegrass strings helps on that note as well.) But Joan’s version has more strength and power in its anger and intention. To up the ante of this argument, Joan sang the song live on stage with Bob Dylan at his concert at Philharmonic Hall in 1964. It’s a fairly poignant performance, knowing how Bob Dylan very famously broke her heart by being “false” in more ways than one.” 

In addition to extending my thanks to Cayce, I’ll just comment here that I’ll be interested to find more songs in the genre of “women protecting each other by killing men” ballads. “Cruel Willie” is one, no doubt.

“Sibling” revelry

Old Crow Medicine Show

You’ll remember that in the last post, I described “Silver Dagger” and “Katy Dear” as fraternal twins, metaphorically speaking–outwardly somewhat dissimilar in their stories, but really drawing from the same starting point. Today, we’re going to we’re going to mix the metaphor and highlight a few performances of songs called “Silver Dagger” by their artists that are really of the “Katy Dear” variety. The third one will be the charm, so stay tuned.

Of today’s three performances, Old Crow Medicine Show provides the most recent example of this hybrid or conflated form; it’s from their 2001 release Eutaw. Their slow, melancholy take on “Katy Dear,” is pretty effective, if a little rough around the edges, or perhaps because it’s a little rough around the edges. It’s certainly more sober than the alternatives to come.

Let’s all take out our silver daggers…

Dave Van Ronk, the “Mayor of MacDougal Street” recorded the song in 1962, and it’s included in his album Inside Dave Van Ronk. He gives a fairly upbeat, but straightforward performance of the folk dialogue, suicide pact version, at least up until his last verse. I can’t find an easily accessible version of his performance outside of Spotify, but you might be able to track it down through other streaming sites, or this link on Myspace. You can find the lyrics here. As a minor change, he brings us “Molly,” instead of “Katy,” but it’s his last verse takes audience participation to new heights.

Let’s all take out our silver daggers,
Plunge them into our lily-white breasts,
Saying, “Goodbye, father, and goodbye, mother.
Goodbye to the ones that we love best.”

Well, it’s a rather flippant take at the end of all this romantic heartbreak and death–perhaps akin to some other interpretations of murder ballads from the “Great Folk Scare,” performed with tongue firmly in cheek, like some of Judy Henske’s performances.

Four years later, another Judy, Judy Collins, takes up the song and this particular angle on it, giving us essentially the same version as Dave Van Ronk. Her performance is perhaps even more reminiscent of the more exuberant and irreverent performances of artists like Judy Henske. Before we start it, though, I’ll ask you to play close attention to her spoken introduction. You’ll soon understand that Collins’s performance is not actually ironic or irreverent, at least in that way.

It’s Collins’s words at the beginning of this performance, and her exultant take on the song that finally helped me see a number of ways in which the other version of “Silver Dagger,” the one sung by Dolly Parton and Joan Baez, among others, could be heard as a murder ballad. It also helped me understand why I found “Silver Dagger” generally more effective than “Katy Dear.”

I don’t know if Cayce had listened to Collins’s version, but her intuitive first listen, which heard the spirit of the song more than the words–that heard the murder outside the song, not within it–agrees with Collins’s description of where this song fits in the murder ballad tradition. We’ve spilled a lot of metaphorical ink on some of the avenues that women have found different kinds of agency within a musical genre in which female characters generally fare pretty poorly. We can perhaps put “Silver Dagger” in that category, as a “murder ballad in relief,” or a “murder ballad narrowly averted.” This may song resonate because the young woman is not lured away, or as Cayce said, perhaps because it speaks to “the constant threat of harm men pose to

Judy Collins

women.” I wasn’t tuned in to hear it in that way–or feel it that way.

“Silver Dagger” may have greater salience than “Katy Dear” among a broader range of audiences. It can be heard as a tale of frustrated, youthful, and romantic longing; or it may be heard in a different voice as a song giving us reasons to doubt Willie’s good intentions. Again, it’s less clear in the version of the song that Collins sings in the above clip, but if you take her introductory words and apply them back to the “Silver Dagger” of Parton and Baez that we heard on Monday, perhaps we can see the “young folk hero” Collins describes.

We’ve talked before about instability of meaning, and Pat had an informative and helpful exchange with Jo Freya around “Young Edmund,” about songs that invite us to fill in the gaps in the “missing story.” They leave enough room for one or more alternate tales to give the song different resonance, different meaning. In the case of the “Silver Dagger” I introduced in the first post this week, Cayce could be correct that murder happens before or after the song. There are a lot of stories that take place around “Silver Dagger,” and a good many of them may involve murder. That neither Parton nor Baez nor any of the other singers who take up that version actually give us the story directly doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. But, it could also be that this is the ballad of the murder that didn’t happen–which despite ostensibly breaking our “rules” about what constitutes a murder ballad, really doesn’t.

May they all be well, indeed

Wrapping up, as promised, here is a Spotify playlist, for those of you with access to it, with a collection of some of the songs this week, including some strong ones that I wasn’t able to include for lack of space. They are nonetheless strong. You’ll also find one example of a vein I left unexplored this week, a strain of the song that developed in Canada that is probably a little closer to “Drowsy Sleeper.” Canada’s Hey Rosetta! has a version which I’ve not yet been able to find on-line, but you can find a more folkloric version of “Who is at My Window Weeping?” by Kenneth Peacock. (Ironically, Spotify appears not to be available to our Canadian readers, so our renewed regrets there.)

Before closing, thanks again to Cayce for sharing her thoughts about “Silver Dagger” this week.

Comments are closed.