THE GOLDEN THREAD PROJECT: UK-USA.
This is a project initiated by Blackshuck Press (Aidan Saunders and ZEEL) while we were working on our previous Rise and Fall of Mel Gibson project. This project began as part of Aidan Saunders fascination with U.S.A imagery, music and folklore, and has looped around to consider the connections between UK and USA Folk culture. Initially we considered making a simple ‘fanzine’ kind of comix anthology where we got a bunch of folks and asked them to draw a short comic strip of not more than 10 pages for their favourite olde time American song. BUT as we continued to think about it, we worried that - as people from the UK, we couldn’t really do these songs justice. I considered this-
“The American Dream is a real thing, and it is made of wants and fantasies. This dream is so powerful that it has been the basis of a culture that all other cultures measure against. As comics creators and illustrators, whenever we draw something about America we get it wrong and create a version of America that is drawn from our imagination as much as reality or history (which can only ever be an approximation or partial account of reality). No matter how much we research and try for accuracy, we will only end up with a partially accurate phantasy based upon all the stories we have experienced over the years”.
So we decided that we should try and think a little deeper. I wrote this while thinking about whether we could really interpret the songs in a fitting manner:-
“Folk song is an art form that can only be faithfully transmitted experientially, for instance to be an authentic blues or country singer you really need to be of certain ethnicities, be raised and live in certain precise places at certain times, to be standing on particular dirt and to be rooted in that dirt. However there is always a taut golden thread in a great folk song that chimes with the hearts of the audience, and runs through every repetition and alternate version of that song down through the years. In this way an ancient chant from the darkest ages of Europe can end up as a lament that is sung in a Hollywood movie. An old irish song from 1790 (ish) about a dissipated young man (or Rake) can surface 160 years later as a Country hit sung by Johnny Cash, or a commercial Victorian Music Hall or Vaudeville ditty can eventually surface as what seems like a spontaneous effulgence from the waters of the bayou. One of the ways that folk traditions, narratives and song have survived despite upheavals and tribulations is via partial transmission to another context; this results in songs being like gold that is recast into a new form, but remaining of the same matter. Gold is often alloyed or layered with other metals, but it still has value”.
This gave us the idea that MAYBE the songs being changed or misinterpreted (Recast or re-alloyed if you will) by the alchemical process of imagination and cartooning could become the virtue and point of the whole project?
Maybe by making comix of the songs entirely from our own imagination we could recreate and reflect the process of transformative transmission that a couple of hundred years has had upon old songs like “ The Unfortunate Rake “. Which became over the long years, many different songs?:-
These are all versions of the same song- 1790-
The Unfortunate Rake.
My Jewel My Joy
Then through the years-
The Bucks Elegy
Sailor Cut Down In His Prime.
The Young Girl Cut Down In Her Prime. Young Soldier Cut Down In His Prime.
St James Hospital StJamesInfirmary-( becameajazzstandard) The Wild Lumberjack
The Lineman’s Hymn StreetsofLaredo-( countryandwestern) TheCowboysLament( country) DyingCrapshootersBlues( folk-blues)
WE NEEDED HELP.
In order to work up a list of songs we got together and played a bunch of old records, focussing on my battered copy of the Folkways Anthology of American Folk Music, that semi legendary collection of songs that Harry Smith put together in 1952. We realised that ideally we should find enough great songs that started off as UK folksong and eventually became part of the canon of American music. I realised that i knew a few, but not enough for our whole project to feed off. We realised that we needed the help of experts! So we went on a pilgrimage to C ecil Sharp House in Camden, London, the headquarters of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. There lies the Vaughn William Memorial Library (RVWL), a repository of information about Folk culture. Librarian Natalie Bevan showed us how to use their excellent online archive and also let us look through (using our own fingers!) the diaries of Cecil Sharp himself.
FOLLOWING THE GOLDEN THREAD.
Cecil Sharp was one of the key figures instrumental in saving English folk music from oblivion at the dawn of the 20th Century, by collecting folk songs and dances and then popularising them to remind the english what we were losing.
Cecil Sharp and Appalachia.
Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles took trips to the mountains of Appalachia (U.S.A) from 1916-18.
“Karpeles noted that ‘the mountain people were quick to recognize his friendliness and understanding, and his obvious love of the songs formed an immediate bond between them.’ Sharp would go on to collect 400 songs in the next two months. He and Karpeles would then return to the Appalachians in 1917 and 1918, expanding their travels to the nearby states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia, and collecting 1625 tunes from over 350 singers”.
They identified a great deal of them as being English folk songs that had been brought over from the U.K. with families settling the mountains several hundred years before. They published these songs in the book- “English Folk-Songs from the Southern Appalachians”.
Back at the library, Natalie also showed us a book of 122 songs gathered by Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles in the USA. THIS WAS EXACTLY WHAT WE NEEDED! We have taken this book as the basis of what we choose to illustrate for this project. Since then we have been sorting through the songs in the book and cross referencing with the online archive of the RVWL and with recordings from the Smithsonian Folkways Archives and Spotify, and have selected a bunch of them to choose from.
Comix are often the repository of inner thoughts and craziness. And like some folk music these comix are an art form that grows out of a necessity that lies in the soul of the individual creator, of the subcultures that spawned them. Let’s celebrate the way that we can consume and alchemically alter folk songs, through the golden thread connecting versions of each song, the chiming connection to all that it has passed through remains in some liminal manner. Let's celebrate the wonder and intimate potential of OUR art form, Comix, and create comment, homages and transmutations of songs in our studios, bedrooms, on our kitchen tables and sofas, on the left hand back seat of a bus, wherever we feel right drawing and creating stories.
ZEEL, Hastings, August 2016.