Friday, August 8, 2014

Oh death oh death

Tonight I watched a movie called Songcatcher for the third time. Saw it originally in the theatre - can't believe it was 14 years ago. Those years are as dust now. I loved it, wept through it that first time.  It's about a woman professor, circa maybe 1910, who turns her back on the ungrateful world of academe in search of authentic folk music. This compels her to go crashing through the backwoods of the Appalachians with notation paper and a gramophone.

Any story that has ancient recording devices in it automatically fascinates me. But Lily's personal evolution from prim academic to fire-breathing zealot is also crucial. The second time I watched it, I was a bit bogged down in  Hollywoodisms, the Deliverance-style backwoods "types", the two guys with the still and the shotgun, Granny on the porch, etc. And those do occur. But what also does occur is music that makes the spine freeze and the hair stand up on your arms, if not your whole body. It has that plaintive, almost howling quality, with the little uptick at the end of a phrase. Harmonies that are close and tight and somehow must go back a long way, because they're very much like the harmonies in the hymns sung by the Mennonites, Hutterites and Amish. 

The film glosses over the existence of the Child Ballads of the 1850s, a massive collection of folk songs from the British Isles which were also known to exist in remote areas of the United States. Lily's discovery is presented as not only completely original, but brazenly ignored by academics. The Child Ballads, so-named after the collector of the lyrics, cover some heavy ground:

Child Ballads are generally heavier and darker than is usual for ballads. Some of the topics and other features characteristic enough of Child Ballads to be considered Child Ballad motifs are these: romance, enchantment, devotion, determination, obsession, jealousy, forbidden love, insanity, hallucination, uncertainty of one's sanity, the ease with which the truth can be suppressed temporarily, supernatural experiences, supernatural deeds, half-human creatures, teenagers, family strife, the boldness of outlaws, abuse of authority, betting, lust, death, karma, punishment, sin, morality, vanity, folly, dignity, nobility, honor, loyalty, dishonor, riddles, historical events, omens, fate, trust, shock, deception, disguise, treachery, disappointment, revenge, violence, murder, cruelty, combat, courage, escape, exile, rescue, forgiveness, being tested, human weaknesses, and folk heroes.

That just about does it. Thank you, Wikipedia.

I looked at a number of clips before choosing this one. It takes place after a primal, almost primitive gathering of the community, and after all the jug-hoisting and boisterous stomping dies down, things go very quiet. Then a darker and more horrible story is told in song, passed from person to person, while Lily stares transfixed.

From what I gather, the makers of this film strove for as much accuracy as possible in the presentation of the songs. If they initially stuck to more familiar numbers like Barbry Allen, it was probably so the audience had something to grab hold of: "Oh, I know that song!" But as the story wears on, ballads stubbornly passed forward for centuries grab us with their macabre tales. The voices sound rough-edged and authentic, and by the sound of them, It's possible these songs are still being handed down.

I like this clip because it's technically not very good, captured right off a TV screen, and thus is surreal in quality, glowing and soft-edged. It traces the air like a flame. The scene where Lily becomes panicked by the screeching of a mountain lion in the woods, following a mountain survival strategy by tearing her clothes off to placate the beast, carries on the rawness and sense of exposure created by the songs. There is no corset that will keep you safe from the devil. If the scene smacks of "let's throw a little sex into the mix", it still works, because to this point Lily has been a simmering volcano, not so prim as she may outwardly appear.

I have a question. When DID these songs start? A song can't come out of nothing. It's not there, and then it's there. I know a bit about the "there" of the creative process, and what happens is that a tiny light comes on. A flash. A little white explosion. Then there is an idea born. From there it must be developed, of course, given its life. But as much as we may think a song like Oh Death has "always" been there, it has not. Someone had to start it, just like someone had to start the Bible. Start language. And in the same freight-train of thought, what was the first word? I know it's a nonsensical question because language developed in so many different parts of the world, in different ways and at different times. We now know there were a vast number of different proto-human creatures living on earth at the same time, borning and dying, evolving, overlapping each other before being absorbed or going extinct.

But let me go back to my  original question. What were the first things humanity felt compelled to name? Did they name themselves and each other first? Did language have to do with the hunt, as testiculo-centric anthropologists have always claimed? So how is it women evolved to sit around yakking about their kids in Starbuck's? Was it just a bunch of grunts and gestures at first, or - no, it had to be more.

I think it was Noam Chomsky, or Chumleigh the Walrus from Tennessee Tuxedo (could have been either one) who said there is really only one language. There are core rules, structure that prevents it all from becoming just strings of words, or gibberish. Underneath it all, ideas, needs are being expressed, things we all experience as humans. No one sat down and "made" language, any language, and yet we have all somehow contributed, if only with our own boring and unremarkable way of using it.

So there wasn't language, then there was. There were no songs - maybe chants around the fire with no words, but at some point there was an immense thunderclap and the two were married forever.

I love the starkness of this song about death, its terror of everlasting judgement and eternal hell. Cheers me up, in a way. I love how Lily's face shimmers and burns, how her enormous eyes stare in a kind of awful rapture. I have a horrible urge to make gifs - stop me, someone! But I can't make a silent movie out of this.

(Should I try to find a clip of what happens AFTER the wildcat-fleeing scene?)

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