Diane Taraz
A Silver Dagger:
    Exploring Women's History Through Folk Songs

© 2008 Diane Taraz, Raisin Pie Music (BMI)

1. Silver Dagger   trad. English
A determined mother sleeps, armed with a knife, to guard her daughter against betrayal, fearing a repeat of her own experience with the girl's father. Like many folk songs, this one starts right in the middle of the action, spending no time explaining the setting or the characters. This makes for high drama, but is challenging for us centuries after their creation, as we are no longer familiar with the world they inhabit.

2. Whistle, Daughter   trad. English
Teenagers and mothers have been arguing since time began. When I first came across this delightful melody in Cecil J. Sharp's 100 English Folksongs, I was surprised at the repetition until I realized that the daughter is whining!

3. The Trees They Do Grow High   trad. English
One of the world's most beautiful melodies, polished to perfection by centuries of singers. Traditional songs were not written down until quite recently in their lives, and were preserved merely by being sung from one to another across time and space. The best ones survived and achieved a timeless sheen.

4. A Brisk Young Sailor   trad. English
An unwed mother's prospects were so dire that in folk songs she usually wishes she were dead. When this song reached America, it evolved into "There Is a Tavern in the Town," a merrier ditty.

5. The Rantin' Dog / Hishie' Ba'   words by Roberts Burns, trad. Scottish melodies
"The ranting' dog, the daddy o't" is the father of the singer's unwanted unborn child ("o't" means "of it"). Bobbie Burns supposedly sent this song to a young woman he'd gotten into trouble, to cheer her up. She wonders who will supply clothes and a name for the baby, and who will supply the "groanin' malt," ale brewers to pay the midwife and fortify everyone for the ordeal. She also wonders who will sit beside her on the "creepie chair," the stool of repentance in church, and declares that if "Rab" is there beside her she will "seek no mair" and be satisfied. She also ponders who will make her "fidgin fain" or feeling frisky.

The second song, learned from the singing of Jean Redpath, can be considered a sequel to the first, when the bold front meets hard reality. The chorus says hush, baby, I'm your ma, but heaven knows who your father is.

6. My Johnny   trad. English
Classic wishful thinking, set to a driving beat perfect for churning butter, scrubbing clothes, or scouring pots.

7. Johnny Be Fair   trad. Irish
Typical earthy Irish humor.

8. Fair Maid Sailor   trad. English
In 1584, a ballad celebrated Mary Ambree, who fought in disguise at the battle of Ghent. For the next 400 years, similar songs extolled women warriors. They were written right through the U.S. Civil War, when several hundred women served while passing as men (there were no physical exams required, and people almost never took off all their clothes).

9. Doffin' Mistress   trad. English
A doffer was a worker in a cloth mill, "weaving by steam." Many versions of this song traveled from mill to mill where workers filled in their boss' name.

10. The Factory Girl's Come-All-Ye   trad. American
In the 1800s millworkers in New England, mostly young women, rose before dawn to work a 14-hour day, six days a week, sending most of their earnings home to the family farm. Unions brought us the weekend.

11. Sorry, the Day I Was Married   trad. English
A wife was her husband's property, and her fate was completely linked to his success -- or lack thereof.

12. Never Wed an Old Man   trad. English
Arranged marriages usually resulted in couples chosen for their compatibility in age and temperament. Songs like this warned of the consequences of ignoring the age factor, which usually happened when money was key.

13. Waly, Waly   trad. Scottish
In 1670, Lady Barbara Erskine married James, the second marquis of Douglas. After 11 years, they separated. Rumors swirled and a ballad was written, ballads being the tabloids of the time. This song blames Blackwood, Douglas' chamberlain (household manager), who colludes with a visitor, Jamie Lockheart, to frame poor Lady Barbara. At the end, she sings a snippet of "The Water is Wide."

As was nearly always the case in the 1600s and 1700s, the husband kept custody of the children in a separation. Like his house, lands, cattle, and wife, they were without question his property.

14. The Low Lands of Holland   trad. English
Press gangs roamed the country "drafting" young men; anyone without rank or money was vulnerable. Parents who disapproved of a daughter's suitor could arrange to have him "pressed" into military service, a tactic the mother in this song seems to have used, given her lack of sympathy. I doubt that many young men were wrenched from their beds on their wedding night, but in typical folksong fashion the song begins with the most dramatic possible scene.

I learned this song in Sharp's One Hundred English Folksongs, and was baffled by the mother's attitude until I learned more about the history of press gangs and their occasional use by parents to control their daughters' love lives.

15. Susannah Martin   trad. American
Martin, a victim of the Salem witch trials, was 71 when accused. The song calls her "trig and neat" -- trim and petite -- and her defiance is well documented. The song declares that she was, absolutely, a witch, and presents the usual spectral proof, but also includes her declaration that her accusers are telling "filthy gossip's lies." From this distance, we believe her.

16. Katy Cruel   trad. American
A song from the Revolutionary era, possibly about a camp follower, with a most grammatically complicated chorus. The last verse was imported whole from an English song.

Graphic Design: Barbara Hollingdale

Quilt art: Diane Taraz