Saturday, May 27, 2017

Gold: The Golden Vanity

Rory Block: The Golden Vanity


Gordon Bok, Ann Mayo Muir, Ed Trickett: The Golden Vanity


Sam Kelly: The Golden Vanity


Unlike in my last post, there is no need for make to make the case for The Golden Vanity as a folk song. Instead, the song and the versions offered here give a great example of the folk process. What are now traditional songs once served a role in society that is filled now with far less artistry by tabloid newspapers. In a culture that was mostly illiterate, songs like The golden Vanity were how the masses got their news. As stories like this got told and retold, different singers would add their own agendas to the lyrics. The Golden Vanity may have begun as a tale about a specific sea captain. The singer might have left him unnamed, secure in the knowledge that his audience would know who he was. But the song is also a tale of the unfairness of the class structure of British society. There are versions that present the tragic conclusion as inevitable, citing how impudent the cabin boy was to expect to be rewarded for his efforts. The universality of the main theme of the song assured it a long life that extended well beyond the life of the people it was written about. So the enemy is often a “Turkish Revelry”, but sometimes it is a Spanish ship. Likewise, it is important to some singers that the enemy deserves their fate, so there is a verse that describes them as sinners, playing cards and shooting dice as they sink into the sea. Rory Block gives us a lyric where the crew give the cabin boy an honorable death, as if the teller is a former shipmate struck by pangs of guilt. It is unlikely, in the actual event, that the captain would have allowed this, but it puts the blame on him alone for what happened. Gordon Bok and crew give us an exchange between the captain and the cabin boy that exposes the villainy of the captain for all to see; here, the reason the cabin boy does not take revenge is an act of class solidarity.

Another aspect of the folk process is on display here as well. All three versions here are recognizably the same song. But Rory Block and Bok, Muir and Trickett take very different approaches musically, although both are ballads. Sam Kelly turns the song into an uptempo burner, and it really cooks. As these songs pass from news items to parts of the traditional culture, each new artist uses their unique talents to put the song over the best way they can. There are times, like this one, where there never becomes an “official” way to do the song, so each artist must make it their own. I could have presented many more versions, including classic takes by Pete Seeger, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and Peter Paul and Mary, but the versions I have chosen suffice to illustrate the point.

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