I was introduced to Natalie Merchant's music when she was still leader of 10,000 Maniacs in the mid 80s. I was in my late twenties and in college at the time, studying literature, I was struck by the story elements in many of the songs I heard her singing.
It was some years after that when I learned about the folk song traditions and understood that the roots of the now solo Natalie Merchant were firmly planted there.
My interest in folk music in the early 90s had been sparked by learning from my mother that the songs she had sung to me as a young child had been sung to her as a child by her mother who had said she'd learned them from her mother. I was trying to trace the origins of one in particular as I'd made it a centerpiece of my story, Ragdoll Babies and Million Dollar Maybes.
That was the song that began:
Oh don't you remember a long time ago
There were two little babes their names I don't know
who wandered away on a bright summer's day
and were lost in the woods I heard people say.
Later in the song the two babes lay down and die and the robins so red covered them with strawberry leaves.
My research (pre Internet) led me to sources that were able to tell me that the song existed in Britain and Europe from as far back as the age of the troubadours and that evidence of it was most plentiful in England and France.
I used to sing it to my sister when she was a baby until she was almost three. I would have been aged 8 to 11. The summer she was about to turn three I was rocking her to sleep for her nap and and started to sing that song which was one of my favorites and she piped up saying, Don't sing that song. It's too sad. So that was the last time I sang it to a child of any age and I sang to a lot of babies and toddlers over the next three decades.
My not quite three year old sister had alerted me to the dark thread that ran through so many of the stories and songs for children. And once alerted I kept noticing it every time I encountered it. But I held no judgement for or against it other than noticing how often one of my favorite stories contained that thread. These stories were always emotionally charged with fear, anger, and sadness and they didn't always have a happy ending.
I remember reading the Disney movie picture books to kids from age 10 or so and up and being annoyed at how sugary they were for I'd encountered earlier versions of the same stories which had not had sweet flavors at all. I much preferred the pre Disney versions.
This line of thought was opened up again for me by the first song Natalie sings in this video, "The Sleepy Giant" in which a 300 year old giant is reminiscing about his younger years when he ate little boys raw, boiled, or baked and how he now regretted that having reached the conclusion that little boys don't like to be chewed.
My imagination and long interest in that dark thread in children's stories have been ignited. Now I want to go look for other works from the authors of these five poems and check out all the other authors represented on the album.
And I want the album!!
Natallie's years long project that culminated with the album Leave Your Sleep in 2010 had been to collect poems written for children in the 19th century and put them to music in an effort to revive them before they were lost.
- “The Sleepy Giant,” Charles E. Carryl (1841-1920)
- “Spring and Fall: to a young child,” Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)
- “The Janitor’s Boy,” Nathalia Crane (1913-1998) She was still a child herself when her poetry book was published.
- “If No One Ever Marries Me,” Laurence Alma-Tadema (1865-1940)
- “maggie and milly and molly and may,” e.e. cummings (1894-1962)