It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair...
- Charles Dickens, A Tale Of Two Cities, 1859
Probably no one ever expressed more succinctly the permanent and apparently unchanging nature of the human condition as did Dickens here in this justifiably famous opening to a marvelous and romantic novel (that, parenthetically, most of us were forced to read when we were much too young to appreciate or understand it). Consider: Dickens was writing in the middle of the 19th century about events late in the 18th, but here in the early reaches of the 21st the sentiment still rings true. We are as beset by war and economic woes and uncertainty and political madness in 2012 as we have been at any and every other time in our lives - and as in fact people have always been, everywhere.
Yet that sense that the world and its troubles always remains the same - plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, as the French say - is deceptive, perhaps even illusory. Things do change, and sometimes for the better. Consider again: while the state of race relations in the U.S. today may be abysmal, with frequent reminders of such in the media (for example, the recent stories of racist notes on meal recepits at fast food restaurants), would any of those of us old enough to remember the 1950s and 60s not agree that we live in a much better, more just, more equitable country now than we did fifty or sixty years ago? Have there not been very real and very significant gains made toward establishing the justice and insuring the domestic tranquility that have been our objectives since the beginning of the nation?
Likewise, a girl born in the United States today, or in fact at nearly any time over the last forty or so years, has a universe of greater choices available to her than virtually any of her female forbears did, even here in the land of the free. Traditional avenues of motherhood and domestic life are still open to her, but her direction, her sense of herself, her range of possibilities are not as completely circumscribed by those older roles as they once were. Prior to the mid-20th century, marriage was the only game in town for women - it was marriage, even a bad one, or poverty. In the U.S. and everywhere else, a woman could neither own real property nor inherit it, and the only guarantor of a good life for her children was the support of a financially stable man.
Women of my mother's or even my sisters' generations who wanted a career for themselves in addition to or in place of family life were often swimming against a current of resistance, sometimes obvious, perhaps more often passive or disguised, as in the proverbial glass ceiling. The young women of today, though, and here I am including the ladies grown into maturity during the thirty years I taught in all-girls schools, believe and live as though full equality with men in opportunity and achievement is their birthright, as of course we now recognize it to be.
All of this is what makes this week's song, known by many names but most commonly as "The Old Maid's Song" or "Take Her Out Of Pity," both clearly archaic in its situation yet still profoundly moving in its sentiments. It is, as with several other songs profiled here recently, very old - the first printed version called "The Poor Auld Maid" appeared in 1636, and like most really old songs, there are many variant versions. In some, it is the lady herself who is speaking, so the chorus (nearly always a variation on "Come a landsman, a pinsman..."*) climaxes with "take me out of pity"; more often, though, it is a melancholy and concerned brother who seeks for his sister a better fate than the poverty and scorn of old maid-hood. The song works better this way, I think, since the third verse extolling her virtues seems less like the bragging it would be were she singing it than it does like the high and sincere estimation of a loving sibling.
Some early versions have the girl eventually marrying a chimney sweep; others, like the related Scots reel "The Old Maid In The Garrett" with a verse virtually identical to our song's chorus, make bitter fun of the lonely and not-so-young lady. The likely author of the root song, 17th century London balladeer Martin Parker, called it "The Wooing Maid," had her singing it, and included eighteen verses. By the time the song crosses the Atlantic, though, it seems to have reduced itself to the three verses presented in the versions below as it burrowed its way into the folk culture of the southern mountains.
It seems as if the American folk revival singers who did the number heard it first in a recording by Peggy Seeger from 1955, a sample of which can be heard on Amazon HERE. The first version I heard was by the Kingston Trio in 1961. There were two video uploads of the song on YouTube (including one from me), but Capitol/EMI has been cracking down recently (a post on that upcoming) and these videos are now blocked in the U.S.
However - my own folk group the Chilly Winds based our version instrumentally and vocally on the KT's, so this is a fair approximation of what I heard fifty years ago:
We moved the instrumental to the middle of the song and ended with the intro redux instead of on the V7th chord, but otherwise that's pretty much what the Trio did.
Flash! - 5/27/13: Capitol has been good enough to lift the replay ban on many Kingston Trio tracks - so here is the 1961 recording by that group.
Interesting to compare to The Chilly Winds - a few differences in the approach.
Another major pop folk group gave the song the other spin - here it is sung as "The Old Maid's Lament" by The Womenfolk:
The grainy video is annoying, but it is interesting to hear it sung in Martin Parker's originally-conceived feminine voice.
Clive Palmer is an English folkie, co-founder of The Incredible String Band, and just as his contemporary UK rock musicians like Eric Clapton made themselves masters of American rhythm and blues, Palmer became a 5-string banjo virtuoso:
Wonderful mountain frailing here, and Palmer's spare, unadorned accompaniment has an expressively authentic feel to it.
Ireland's Wolfe Tones, perhaps my favorite Celtic group after the Clancys and the Dubliners for their unabashedly radical Irish republican songs, give it an almost predictable gusto:
This is from a 1966 album; I was reminded of nothing other than the Clancys' delightful version of "Nancy Whiskey" in rhythm and harmonies.
The song has some legs, as we see now - because the next two versions are international. First, a semi-pro band from Madrid called Wenaives:
They sing better in English than I do in Spanish, for sure - it just strikes me as a curious song to cover for an Iberian band. Perhaps it is the simple C-Am-F-G7 chord pattern that is so characteristic of American '50s pop ballads.
That might equally be the case for this homage to the Kingstons' version (note the instrumental part) from Christine and Flora in China:
I always enjoy videos of people making folk music at home, and I think that the ladies do a fine job, again given the difficulty of singing in a language not their own.
It would be lovely if this song were merely a plaintive relic of a time long gone, and thank all the powers that be that it is so in the America of today. The sad fact is, though, that across the globe the desperate plaint of this song remains a stark reality for hundreds of millions of women, even in this century.
*No sources are quite sure what a "pinsman" is - some versions of the song say "tinsman" or "tinsmith," which are self-evident, and others suggest that the correct word is "pensman," or scribe or secretary.