Thursday, February 26, 2015

yes, it's tonight!

Dear Friends,

A special evening of music tonight, a program never heard before by anyone anywhere. It's been a journey for me getting here, months of research, tons of reading and help from some wonderful people. It's called "Thunder and Lies: The Ballads of Francis James Child," and it's an evening of narrative ballads, old stories full of Big Themes, passion, love and death. Each song is a unique amalgam of texts and melodies from every source I could find, and the settings feature an amazing group of onstage collaborators. 

It's at the Shedd, and tickets are available through the Shedd box office or on line at 

If you'd like a little taste of the music, there's a radio interview with a couple of songs at 

What's a "Child Ballad" anyway?

Francis james Child was the first professor of English at Harvard College. Having done groundbreaking research into Chaucer and the Elizabethan playwrights, he turned his attention to folk song. He was looking for the epic poetry of the English language and what he found was ballads, the stories and poetry that have stayed with us from the distant past, surviving waves of social and cultural change. He published five volumes of "English and Scottish Popular Song" between 1882 and 1898 (over three hundred songs). He sorted them by theme, wrote rich annotations and compared them with versions in other languages. His numbering system was used by almost everyone that followed, (Cecil Sharp, B.H. Bronson, Vance Randolph, etc.) and we see them on CD's today. 

And they are with us today. We have heard and sung "Scarborough Fair" and "Barbara Allen," "House Carpenter" and "The Golden Vanity." We know the recordings by Paul Simon, Joan Baez, Fairport Convention and a whole new generation of singers: Sam Amidon (2014), Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer (2013).  The stories are timeless, as Shakespeare and Homer are, tales of passion and darkness, of sorcery and clever escapes and true love.

What we have here is everything I have been able to learn about them, from multiple texts in Child, from the collections of Randolph, Bronson and Sharp, from commentaries by A.L. Lloyd and Albert Friedman and others, from interviews with academic folklorists Linda Danielson and Diane Dugaw and tune settings from recordings by Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, June Tabor and others.  As singers have for hundreds of years, I worked up the stories, swapped out verses, fitted melodies to texts and invited some able collaborators to join me. And now we're ready to share them.

This is not the music of antiquity, not "Early Music" or Merrie Olde England, and we will, as others have, share our own unique and contemporary take on each song. I will be joined by Alli Bach, (voice, whistle and percussion), Ryan Chaney (trombone), Ben Young (banjo and whistle) and Rachael Young (accordion, piano, bass and voice). 

Albert Friedman wrote "A mounted butterfly is a poor thing  beside a hovering one, and a ballad in a book is a poor substitute for one sung…" I think we owe it to the material to let them fly now and again.

Chico Schwall

P.S. About the title: in one of those "Riddles Wisely Expounded" stories, the king asks the clever young woman, "What can be heard the farthest?"  She answers, "Thunder and Lies."