Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Power of Myth

The Emily Portman Trio
Louisiana Bristol
8 Nov 2011

A search for the Facebook page of the Louisiana bar in Bristol directed me to the town of Bristol in Louisiana. Well, there’s a thing.

Not been to the Louisiana before. Tiny little room above a nice pub, just far enough away from the waterfront to be quiet, but not far enough away for it to be a faff to get to. George Orwell would have liked it there. The music space is very small and felt “exclusive” tonight: me and Folkbuddy and about 15 of the (presumably) keenest folkies in Bristol. (I spent an interesting ten minutes before the band came on chatting with Jim Moray about Bob Dylan.)

Emily and her trio (Rachel Newton from the Shee, and Lucy “did a tour with Bellowhead” Farrell) finish their set by coming down off the stage and doing an acoustic encore from the floor. Brand new song. Acoustic. An adult lullaby. It was going to have a werewolf in it, but Emily’s mum persuaded her to leave it out. It’s in harmony, not that close harmony where everyone is singing the same thing a tone or two apart, but complicated harmony where everyone is singing different things and the phrases keep echoing backwards and forwards between voices. I think we’re sailing off to sleep in a boat; I think there is a monster of some kind that we are going to put to sleep; I think it’s a riff on Where The Wild Things Are, but it could just as well have been In the Night Garden. Fairy tales are what Emily Portman does. We’ve already had a song about a drunk lady who has physical wings and learns to fly, based on a novel by Angela Carter which I haven’t read. Angela Carter apparently used to come to folk nights at the Louisiana.

In between the songs, they bubble like schoolgirls; Lucy mentions that a character in one of the songs can "apparate" and admits that they've been listening to Harry Potter audio books in the car. Emily spends a bit too long tuning her banjo; Rachel wonders how she would cope if it had thirty four strings like her harp But the music is astonishingly developed and mature. This doesn't sound like the second album of a very young singer-song writer, but someone has been doing it for years. It doesn’t sound like a gig in a pub, either. The detailed harmonies, the other worldly melodies, hardly seem to be coming from the actual stage.

Emily’s songs take the merest idea or suggestion of a plot from a traditional tale, approaches them at right angles, twists them like a Rubik Cube. It’s intense, immersive writing: these are fairy tales which drop you into the heroine’s head in the middle of the story, and leave you to work out where you are. Who would identify:

Tongue Tied, I am bound
To weave my words with thistledown
Sickle moon, on the moor
Turns thistledown silver and fingers raw

as being the opening of Hans Andersen's “The Wild Swans”, about a princess whose brothers have been turned into a ducks by their mother. (Emily says she’s made them ravens to avoid any unfortunate rhymes. I am sure she knows perfectly well that it’s ravens in the Grimm's version of the story.)

It takes nothing away from Emily’s song writing to say that the climax of the evening was her version of the folk staple The Two Sisters. (We have had cause to discuss it in these columns before: rich suitor favours little sister; so big sister pushes little sister into river and drowns her; passing musician cuts up her body and turns it into a magic harp, as you do.) Emily has found an American version in which the refrain is “oleander yolling” as opposed to “oh the dreadful wind and the rain” (or "bow and balance to me" or " or “by the bony bony banks of London".) Although it's American it's still all about knights and kings and minstrels. Martin Simpson says there version where it’s a banjo, but I’ve never heard anyone sing it. This version ends:

And he took the harp to the kings high hall
There was a court assembled all
And he laid the harp there on a stone
And the harp began to play alone

It sang "yonder sits my lover the king
How he’ll weep at my burying
And yonder sits my sister the queen
She drowned me in the cold cold stream".

I don’t think I’ve heard a version which makes it explicit that the king in the final verse is the rich lover of the opening, which makes the harp's vengeance far nastier. (Carthy’s version has the King and the Queen as the mother and father of the murdered girl, even though she’s not a princess in verse one.) I don’t know to what extent Emily’s version is a composite, but it seems to turn the ballad into one of the most perfectly formed fairy tale plots I’ve ever heard, up there with Gawain and the Green Knight and Rapunzel. Chris Wood was right. Anon really is the greatest writer who ever lived

And Emily has clearly studied Anon’s work: her songs are too complex to be traditional, but the sound traditional. Perhaps she holds the tradition at arms length in the way she arguably does with fairy tales; not immersed in them or in love with them, but scrutinizing them from a distance, twisting them, taking them apart, even, dare I say it, deconstructing them.

With a lovely tunes and lovely lovely harmonies.


Gavin Burrows said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lirazel said...

I do, in fact, know a version in which the harp identifies the murderous sister -- "The Bonnie Milldams of Binnorie":

Oh yonder sits my father the king,
Binnorie, oh Binnorie,
And yonder sits my mother the queen,
By the bonnie milldams of Binnorie!

And yonder sits my ain brother Hugh,
Binnorie, oh Binnorie,
And there my William, brave and true,
By the bonnie milldams of Binnorie!

Now this is the last word I shall say,
Binnorie, oh Binnorie,
My sister it was that did me slay,
By the bonnie milldams of Binnorie!

I believe Richard Dyer-Bennett did a version of it.