Thursday, December 24, 2020

Ballad of the Harp Weaver

The night before Christmas
I cried with the cold,
I cried myself to sleep
Like a two-year-old.

One night you're clicking away on your laptop, listening to old Christmas albums, and all of a sudden the world goes misty, there's salt water on your cheeks and it seems the song you're listening to is making some kind of impression.
That was the case with Johnny Cash's version of 'The Ballad of the Harp-Weaver'. which is on his 1963 'Christmas with Johnny' album. It's a poem by Edna St Vincent Millay an acclaimed writer, with a very interesting life story. For the book in which the poem was published, she received the Pullitzer Prize in 1923.

The sonnet is about a mother and son, both live in extreme poverty, the boy has almost no clothes and cannot get out. There's also an extreme bond between the two, culminating in the death of the mother on Christmas Day and the start of a new life (with new clothes) for the boy. It feels medieval, yet could easily have taken place near Dolly Parton's home in the mountains. When you read closer, you'll find the feminist layers. Read an analysis HERE. Hear Edna recite lines from the poem HERE. Full text HERE.

Lyrics, poems, movies, anything really in which parents leave (or die) their children always strike a nerve in me, and when Johnny Cash tells this tale, YOU try and keep a a dry eye.
Cash is probably the first popular artist to set this poem to music on his 1963 Christmas album. As I understand it the ballad was a staple in American education, I've read many comments about having to learn this poem by heart.

There are many recitals of the poem to be found, but only a few versions where the words are sung. This one is very good:
Also beautiful, sung like a ballad from the 17th Century:
Of course, because it's about a harp, harpists made the poem their own too:
A version by harpist Bonnie Whitehurst, with very touching drawings:
Harpist Maeve Gilchrist, who used selected lines from the poem for her almost 9-minute version. She writes: 'My first impression of this poem, from the 1923 Pulitzer-award-winning collection by the American poet Edna St Vincent Millay, was not of a tale of bleak circumstance but of the power of maternal love and the symbiotic relationship between instrument and player.' There's a video for this too: