You watch the wee folk play,
You see them through a game or two,
You come out old and gray.
They fill your hands with gold,
You think you stay for just a day,
You come out bent and old.
Lights shine in the Little Land
From diamonds on the wall,
But when you're back on the brown hill side
It's cold pebbles after all.
Makes the heart rejoice.
It charms your ear so you can not hear
The sound of your true love’s voice
When you’re in the Little Land
Why did this leap into my head today, and where did it come from? Until this morning, damned if I knew. I remember my brother singing it in the '60s when he came home from university. Everyone was singing and playing the guitar and going to hootenannys, whatever they were, and most of us sucked our songs off record albums, often with wrong words and crazy chords.
It took me quite a while to find any semblance of this song, except for a very Irish version of it on YouTube. His didn't much resemble mine. It spoke of leprechauns, which gave me a clue as to what the song was about. But my version was one of those cobbled-together-from-memory things. I was only 9 or 10 years old and impressionable. I had NO IDEA what this song meant or even where it came from: I remember finding it weird and disturbing, which it still is.
So today, thanks to the good graces of YouTube, I more or less hunted it down, but it wasn't easy. This was originally written by Malvina Reynolds, an eccentric folk genius who wrote Little Boxes (on the hillside) and What Have they Done to the Rain? This was one of her more obscure numbers and sounds like it's based on folk poetry. One false lead took me to a poem called The Little Land by Robert Louis Stevenson (ph?), but it was one of those "How Would you Like to Go Up in a Swing" kind-of things, echoes of childhood, etc. Not threatening enough.
Somewhere I found a reference to the Limelighters, a folk group we listened to a lot back then. It featured Glen Yarbrough (borough? Who has time to check?), a tenor with a voice that would cut through barbed wire. I remember quite a few of their songs, but not this one.
So it was still pretty obscure when I finally tracked down the available fragments and pieced them together with my bits of memory: hey, folk singers do that all the time. (I left out one line: someone's version said "Deadly in your pocket," which is completely nonsensical. 'Scuse me while I kiss this guy.) But somewhere else, someone made a comment that actually made sense: Reynolds had a sense of social satire which could be quite biting (see Little Boxes). Perhaps the song was about another kind of "enchantment", not by leprechauns, faeries or other "little folk", but by the seductiveness of riches and fame.
It actually works. First you're just looking in from the outside, watching all these charming people at play, and it looks harmless enough, so you stay around for "a game or two". But then, bizarrely, you wake up and realize that decades have passed in a flash. The gold pouring through your hands eventually runs out and disappears. As in those alien encounters where people mysteriously lose time, the lurch ahead into old age is frightening: suddenly you're a has-been who never was.
The dead leaves in your pockets that I took so literally as a child could be the deadened browned scorched currency of false fame, crumbling away into nothing. And I don't need to explain those snowflakes. Bright lights, white hair, cold stones. To enchant, literally, means to gain magical power over someone by chanting, usually in song. Soon the sound of enchantment becomes so strong that we can no longer make out the voice of the one we truly love, the only one whose love is not based on greed.
It's a kind of evil reverse fairy-tale where the victim quickly shrivels under forces he or she can't comprehend. So much for cute little leprechauns, Lucky Charms and Kiss Me, I'm Irish.
POST-POST DISCOVERY. All right. I have it! I have that lyric sheet from the Olivetti. Here is the relevant lyric:
As you can see, this is pretty close to the version at the beginning of this post, without those few lines about the leprechauns. The possible meaning of the lyric (being bedazzled by wealth and fame, while at the same time seduced and sucked dry) is made more clear by the line, "They'll dazzle you and promise you, and lead you by the hand". It couldn't be more clear, in fact. The Limelighters version leaves that verse out, so it starts in the middle, kind of. But we still get the message. 'Tis luck to catch a leprechaun. Except when it isn't.