Welcome to Letters from Quotidia Postscripts Episode 13– a podcast by Quentin Bega for listeners who enjoyed that Irish phenomenon- the crack! In the Letters, Postcards and Postscripts from Quotidia published since the beginning of 2021. Quotidia remains that space, that place, where ordinary people lead ordinary lives. But where, from time to time, they encounter the extraordinary.
The topic of Murder Ballads is a good fit for the 13th Postscript. I foreshadowed that I would be dealing with triskaidekaphobia and related matters. What’s with the fear of the number 13, anyway? You can get up to three Friday the 13ths in a year- as well as a couple of blue moons– so, just to be sure, always carry your lucky rabbit’s foot. (Though I do wonder how the rabbit would characterise its luck?)
In any case, avoid any gathering where there is a dozen plus one at the table (the sequel to the Last Supper should give the clue here). And through an abundance of caution- have you noticed how politicians are using that phrase more and more- you should also avoid the even dozen because the trickster god of Norse mythology, Loki, miffed by not being included might just crash your party with results like when he was dissed by a knees-up in Valhalla to which he wasn’t invited. He arranged for Höðr (Hoder) to shoot a mistletoe arrow at the otherwise invulnerable Balder whose death plunged the earth into darkness.
Some hotels don’t have a thirteenth storey or even a room 13. But such superstitious tosh is counterbalanced by the lucky associations with the number 13, of which there are many which I won’t enumerate here because of space and time constraints and a pressing need to talk about a murder ballad that changed my life. (See what I did there? Sucked you in with a common click-bait phrase- changed my life!)
When you come to think of it- any event in your timeline may do this. When you last stooped to retrieve a dropped coin, how do you know that you didn’t just miss a burst of cosmic rays that would have knocked a cell in your body out of equilibrium and started a cascade of cancerous growth that would have consumed you utterly a bit further on down that timeline?
In early December 1966 I saw Jimi Hendrix on the popular music show, Ready Steady Go performing Hey Joe. He also performed the song on the premier pop music show, in the UK, Top of the Pops on BBC TV on 29th December. I had earlier in the same year heard Eric Clapton’s work with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers on their seminal LP. It’s known as the Beano LP because Eric Clapton is pictured on the cover reading this popular British comic mag with his bandmates just sitting against a graffitied concrete wall.
When I was in residence in Trench House, Belfast, in the Christmas term of 1968, I played every lead I could through continuous listenings and playing along with that Beano LP. So, I had heard distorted, blues-tinged rock music before Hendrix. But he was in a different league: an exotic black god dressed in plumage that would make a troupe of tropical parrots dowdy in comparison. His piratical swagger and pyrotechnical display of blazing guitar magic ensured that all the British rock establishment came to pay homage. Here’s my version now, the something borrowed, which makes no attempt to duplicate Hendrix’s guitar lines but rather adopts a more country blues vibe: [insert song]
Murder ballads abound in the folk and country music genres. I heard my first murder ballad at the tender age of 9 in Aruba on a friend’s family’s record system in 1959. The Kingston Trio’s number 1 hit, Tom Dooley hid within its smooth presentation and harmonies a dark tale of jealousy, betrayal, and murder. Not long after this I listened to El Paso by Marty Robbins in which the jealous protagonist, enraged by a stranger’s presumption in talking to his Mexican girlfriend, Ferlina, shoots him dead then flees. He can’t stay away though and in the end is shot by a pursuing posse, finally dying in the arms of Ferlina. Other murder ballads I have listened to with horrified pleasure include a version of The Long Black Veil, with The Chieftains and Mick Jagger, where a man refuses to supply an alibi to save himself from the gallows because he was in the arms of his best friend’s wife on the night in question. I cut to the chase now and finish with a reference to Frankie and Johnny, where the woman, Frankie, shoots her lover Johnny whom she has discovered in flagrante with a gal named Nellie Bligh.
She pays the ultimate price for her crime and the best version of this murder ballad, IMHO, recorded in 1929 by Jimmie Rodgers, ends with the verse, This story has no moral, this story has no end/ This story just goes to show there ain’t no good in men/He was her man and he done her wrong// But there is, of course, a moral. And it’s an imperative: thou shalt not kill. The two commandments which follow it in sequence, thou shalt not commit adultery and thou shalt not steal, provide the major motives for the murders related in most ballads of the genre.
In the mid-1980s I started to write a TV show for Ulster TV called The Last Country Band in Ireland, and as a preparation for this I had listened to countless hours of country music from Ireland and the US. Then, the opportunity to return to Australia fell in my lap and, with months to avail myself of this prospect, I did not have time to complete the scripting process as well as making the arrangements for the move back to Australia. But I did have the time to write, in addition to the draft script, a few songs in the genre.
I had intended for this song to open the TV show, which, like so many other ideas, lies stillborn in a file somewhere in the loft or garage. But here’s the product of that ill-fated project, it’s a murder ballad inspired by the very first homicide related in Genesis, with the title The Mark of Cain. The version heard here was published back in January 2021 as part of my Letters From Quotidia series and it comprises the something old of this Postscript: [insert song]
The song which represents the something new for this Postscript, has a patina of age on it, I have to confess. I’ve merely supplied the music to a poem in ballad form by one of my favourite poets- Thomas Hardy. Dr Oliver Tearle, who established the site, Interesting Literature in 2012, is a lecturer in English at Loughborough University which is ranked as best in the UK for student experience. I’ve been a regular visitor to the site over the past few years and heartily recommend Dr Tearle’s short analysis of the lyric, During Wind and Rain, which was composed by Hardy in his late seventies as he remembered his first wife Emma Gifford who had died five years before. This is not a murder ballad for no murderer of history, however mass, could ever compete with the phenomenon that obliterates the characters in the poem and elsewhere.
Dr Tearle writes although she and Hardy had been estranged for the last few decades of her life, her death triggered an outpouring of grief from Hardy as he began to remember their early life together. This trip down memory lane resulted in Hardy writing some of his finest poetry. During Wind and Rain is one such poem, recollecting Emma’s childhood life in Devon with her family. Emma, like her parents, is now in that ‘high new house’ of heaven, and all that remains of her is the name on her gravestone and Hardy’s memories of her. Hardy’s use of the refrain ‘the years O!’ (or ‘the years, the years’ as the even-numbered stanzas have it) calls to mind not only the passing of time but also the years marked on those gravestones, alongside the names. [insert song]
I do hope that the fourteenth postscript will chart a cheerier course that the one just experienced- see what I’m doing? I’m removing myself from any responsibility at all for the content of the posts. Note well what listening to the bloviators of this world does to you! I’ll end with a stanza from his fine poem, Afterwards: If I pass during some nocturnal blackness, mothy and warm,/When the hedgehog travels furtively over the lawn,/One may say, ‘He strove that such innocent creatures should come to no harm,/But he could do little for them; and now he is gone.’//
Credits: All written text, song lyrics andmusic (including background music) written and composed by Quentin Bega unless otherwise specified in the credits section after individual posts. Illustrative excerpts from other texts identified clearly within each podcast. I donate to and use Wikipedia frequently as one of the saner sources of information on the web.
Technical Stuff: Microphone- Shure SM58; (for the podcast spoken content) Audio Technica AT 2020 front-facing with pop filter); Apogee 76K also used for songs and spoken text.
For recording and mixing down: 64-bit N-Track Studio 9 Extended used; Rubix 22 also used for mixing of microphone(s) and instruments. I use the Band in a Box/RealBand 2022 combo for music composition.