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Joanna Newsom credits this song to the Appalachian singer Texas Gladden, whose 1960 a cappella version is below. It’s striking how much Newsom takes after Gladden’s specific vocalizations. The older version helped me understand the song too (the Lord took the babes away, not the lark as the lyrics sites (loci of modern folklore transmission) have it).
The song’s much older than that: it’s Child ballad #79, going back to at least 1802 Scotland. In Gladden’s and Newsom’s telling, the return of the children is an unexplained, too-brief miracle. The Appalachian version Child records (79D) has the mother pray for the babes’ restoration; they go back to the grave in the morning, without eating or drinking, on God’s orders.
Joan Baez’s version includes these details, and a little more. In her version, the children beg off eating and sleeping with the perplexing defense, “For what’s to become of this wide wicked world / Since sin has first begun”. The Child version has them refuse food but accept the bed with “clean white sheet”, the sunrise then hurrying them back to the afterlife.
We might wonder, as Betsy Rutherford does before walking into her own eerie world, about the religious meaning behind the song. It isn’t the Christian resurrection of Judgment Day, though a Christian god makes it happen. It’s a weird, pagan resurrection, structured by separated time and divine prohibition. This article links the “Christmastime” date of the resurrection – one of the Scottish versions has “Martinmas”, in early November – with the Celtic Samhain, Halloween, when the boundary between the natural and supernatural worlds frays. Christmas here reminds me of a French story about St. Nicholas that scared the shit out of me when I was a kid (illustrated).
I’m also reminded of the Greek goddess Persephone, who also crosses between the living and dead worlds, and who’s also given a prohibition against eating or drinking in the wrong world. Unlike the babes of the song, Persephone goes from the living world into the dead, and unlike them, she breaks the prohibition, joining many other gods who die and rise with the seasons. What do these stories, so far apart in space, time, and culture, actually have in common? If nothing else, both paint the boundary between life and death as permeable but dangerously so. Careful, ritual events, like burial or Martinmas, bring us from one world to the other; it is taboo to engage with the other world via the intimate, bodily act of eating.
What about Child’s other versions of the song? The oldest version recorded, A from 1802, is very similar to the one we’ve been looking at, though with nearly no religious references (except for the detail that the sons’ hats are made of birch from Paradise). B is much like A, but shows up inside another Child Ballad, “The Clerk’s Two Sons of Oxenford” (#72); before showing up to their mother’s hearth at Yule, the now-two sons earn death by sleeping with the daughters of a vindictive mayor, In contrast, the more Christianized C makes Jesus the point-of-view character, and the song focuses less on the children’s tarry with the mother in life than on her desire to join them in heaven. I’ve had less luck finding UK versions I like on YouTube, but below is a 79A by one of those bands with too many people and they’re all scruffy and wearing flannel.