October 22, 2009
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Balkan Woes

Last night I heard an interesting segment on NPR about Black Sea Hotel, an American quartet who sing tightly harmonized Balkan folk songs. The Balkan song, it is clear, is a strange concoction, and there is nothing else quite like it. One singer translated a lyric off the cuff; I remember something along these lines:

Wake up, my sleepy preteen son!
Wake up! It’s miles and miles to market.
The trail is long, our horse already tired,
And if we don’t get through [Unpronounceable place] before dawn
The [unpronounceable ethnicity] blacksmith
With his bottle
Will be standing in his doorway, and he will
Abduct your sister Galina, or
Say unkind things you should not hear.

This is very different, of course, from the folk songs of other places. Take Scandinavia.

We are riding, riding, across the snow.
They are probably gaining on us.
We will arrive too late.
We are riding, riding anyway.

This is the Swedish Moderne version, of course; in past times, we would have take the time to describe our horse, hurrying hence from home, harried by hunters’ hounds but hoping to help the honest husband flee the horrid, hungry horde.

I myself am more familiar with the English folk song, which is basically the Swedish theme transposed to a new mode, and to which a new element has been added.

Riding! We are riding!
Together at last we are riding!.
And though my husband the blacksmith
Is probably pursuing, with his hawks and hounds
My own true love is faster, and far better in bed.

This leads to the shores of the Atlantic (Liverpool and Harlem) and to Rock, which Bruce Springsteen once described as having one essential lyric:

Oh girl, won’t you take off your blue jeans?

But though rock has been influential, it does not sum up American music, for as Andrew Sullivan observed yesterday, the US is a darker, stranger, place than Americans appreciate. Blues, for example:

My baby, Delilah, she took off her new blue jeans.
I say my sweetheart Delilah, she took off her new blue jeans.
But I’m confined here in this jailhouse, and she’s down in New Orleans.

And then there are all the other influences, like Klezmer.

Ikh shlep arum zikh fun baginen,
keyner git nisht tsu fardinen
ale lakhn, makhn fun mir shpaz.
I shlep from dawn, but nobody’s buying
My cigarettes because it’s raining,
and if I asked about the blue jeans she would just laugh at me.