Basic Poetics (Ballads – Lord Randall)

[Lord Randall – illustration by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) from Some British Ballads, 1918]

AG: “Lord Randall”..what is.. has anybody read Lord Randall here? How many have read “Lord Randall” already? And how many have not? [show of hands] – okay, then we might as well read it through. Is anybody pleased to read it? Would anybody like to read it? Is there anybody that’s… yes, you, [to Student], you know that one before? you’ve read it aloud ever before? ever?
Student: This?
AG: Yeah
Student; No, I haven’t read this one before.
AG :But you’ve read it ?
Student: No, I haven’t.
AG: Haven’t even read it yet?
Student: No.
AG: Sure, try it, start it off.
Student: Can you tell me what page?
AG: Oh, page 82.

Well, what we are hitting are…well, of course, in this anthology, you’ve got the classic ballads, (or many of the classic ballads), but we’re hitting the high-spots of the classic ballads, the ones that echo in every poetic head that’s got any familiarity with ballads – and “Lord Randall” is one of the major ones.I actually echoes in everybody’s head, now, because (Bob) Dylan adapted it in “..Hard Rain” (“A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall“) – What’s the first line of “..Hard Rain”?

[Bob Dylan typescript – early working draft for “It’s A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”]

Student(s): “Where have you been, my blue-eyed son”
AG: “Where have you..”, or “Where have you been..”, or.. “Where have you been” or “Where did you go..?
Student(s): “Where have you been my blue-eyed son/Where have you been my handsome young man?” – or, “Where have you been, Lord Randall, my son/ And where have you been my handsome young man?”. So this is where Dylan got that ballad, and the.. one of his major images in other songs, such as “It’s Alright, Ma, (I’m Only Bleeding)”. You know that basic image, Dylan image, you know – his relation with his mother – as wounded? – also comes from this genre, of this being in the ballads (“It’s Alright, Ma, (I’m Only Bleeding)”), in this case, “Lord Randall”, in other ballad cases, either treacherous mother or comforting mother but the son comes home to die and is bleeding to death. So, go on.

Student: Ok, “Lord Randall’ – (Student gives a classroom reading of “Lord Randall“, begins reading, “”O where ha’ you been, Lord Randal my son?/And where ha’ you been, my handsome young man?””…..””And wha’ did she give you, Lord Randal, my son?/And what did she give you, my handsome young man?”/”Eels fried in a pan; mother, mak my bed soon….””)

AG: Yeah, as soon as you get to those eels, you know something’s…. “Eels fried in a pan!”- Does anybody know the tune of “Lord Randall here? Can anybody sing just one verse before we continue

Student: I can sing you…
AG: Well, it’s not the same as the tune (Bob Dylan gives it)
Student: I don’t know it.
AG: No-one else?
[There follows several unsuccessful efforts, including by Allen, to sing the melody of the poem – (AG: “I ha’ been to the greenwood, mother, mak my bed soon”..”For I’m wearied wi’ hunting and fain would lie down” – “I’m wearied wi’ hunting and fain would lie..”, fain would lie..”..”fain-would-lie-down” – how does it go? does anybody remember? – the last line – the famous ballad line – “fain-would-lie-down” – you remember, Pat (sic)? , you’ve heard it, haven’t you? – I think Joan Baez sings it – probably – “Where have you been, Lord Randall my son?/Where ha’ you been, my handsome young man?/I have been at the greenwood”.. no, “I ha’ been at the greenwood, mother, make my bed soon/For I’m weary with hunger and fain would lie down” – That’s not right! – Way off, way off! – Oh well, I probably should have got that.. but [to Student], go on, okay..

Student (continuing): “”And what gat your leavins, Lord Randall, my son?/And wha’ gat your leavins, my handsome young man?””….””What d’ye leave to your true-love, Lord Randall, my son?/What d’ye leave to your true-love, my handsome young man?”/”I leave her hell and fire; mother mak my bed soon,/ For I’m sick at the heart, and I fain wad lie down””

AG: Well, it’s real terrific and ultimate at the end. There’s a real curse left behind, but he’s killed too, with a pan of fried eels! So why is that so haunting? (because it is haunting -anybody whoever’s heard it before – the repetition for one thing, there’s a cumulative repetition). There’s very little variation (from stanza to stanza), a little bit of variation from stanza to stanza but the formula for each stanza is exactly the same – and then you fill in with one astonishing image, like, “what gat your leavens..?” – “My hawks and my hounds” – “what becam of them..?” – “They stretched their legs out and died” – and those are the only changes from stanza to stanza, you could run through it also, fast – “what became of them..?”, then, “They stretched their legs out and died”, “..I fear you are poisoned..” – “..yes, I’m poisoned”, “What d’ye leave to your mother..?” – “Four and twenty milk (cows)”, “What d’ye leave to your sister..?” – “my gold and..silver”, “What d’ye leave to your brother..?” – “My house(s)”, “What d’ye leave to your true-love..?” – “I leave her hell and fire..” – And that’s like.. So that’s the only changes from stanza to stanza. Everything else is the same – which is real good if you’re singing, because you get into it, you know after the fifth stanza, everybody’s.. everybody knows the whole cycle, as you remember to sing along together, everybody knows the whole cycle, and everybody has a great time, like, hitting it, and getting right into the lines, because they all know it by now after four or five stanzas, and whoever can remember the change from stanza to stanza is the big hero of the song-fest – Well, you’ve gone through that, I guess, with know, any number of old Christmas songs.

So the characteristic that’s interesting here is the mortal finality of it (that is, returning to his mama) and some really violent cut that’s been done (a cut, (in) a relationship with his girlfriend – amazing). So the ballads are frank, frankly violent (not only) violent, but frank about it too, overt, not namby-pamby, but really outright to the point where it comes almost (an) archetypal summary of a whole life-time in just a couple of lines, like – “”And wha’ did she give you..?….”Eels fried in a pan…I’m sick at the heart and fain wad lie down””.

Peter Orlovsky: Did she just make a mistake in cooking them, or wants to kill him, or what?

AG: I assume that she.. Well, I don’t know, that’s an idea. She might have been just sort of like a completely awkward wife or something, an awkward girlfriend that didn’t know how to feed her man, didn’t know how.. was out of synch with folk cooking? But I assume it was because she..she did it on purpose.
How does Dylan change that. Let’s see – “Where have you been my handsome young one?/
Where have you been..”

Student: Blue-eyed son
AG: “Blue-eyed son”
Student: Where have you been…
AG: “Where have you been my darling young one?” – What’s his first-line answer? Does anybody remember?
Peter Orlovsky: “I’ve been to the highest.. mountain..”?
AG: Is that the first line in it?
Peter Orlovsky: No, that’s not the first..
AG: What’s the first?
Student:”I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways”
AG: What?
Student:”I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways”
AG: That’s pretty good!
Student: “Twelve misty mountains”, also.
AG: What?
Student: Twelve misty mountains.”
AG: And the first one is “I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways”?
Student: I think there’s something else.
AG: Well. he has the same, he has a similar, formula, but, actually, “I’ve walked and I’ve crawled on six crooked highways” is just…
Student: “I’ve been out in front of a dozen dead oceans”
AG: Yeah, one after another, like that.But I wondered, what the first… how he started it all off, when he was going to do his variation, how he started it off? I don’t know, but “six crooked highways” is pretty good, it’s almost as good as “eels fried in a pan”, “I’ve been at the greenwood”….

Bob Dylan-A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall (1964)

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately sixteen-and-three-quarter minutes in and continuing until approximately twenty-six-and-three-quarter minutes in]

to be continued….

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