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Thoughts on “Morphology of the Folktale”, by Vladimir Propp

I.

Морфология сказки is the Russian name of a book written by Vladimir Propp and published in 1928. It was first translated into English in 1958 with the title Morphology of the Folktale, despite the fact that the Russian word сказки means “fairy tale”, and the book is indeed about fairy tales, specifically, not folk tales in general. The second-edition translation I read, which is from 1968, points this out in the introduction but opts to keep the familiar title of the 1958 translation. Really, then, this book’s English name should be Morphology of the Fairy Tale. But I don’t think anybody uses that title, so for lack of a satisfactory English title, I’m going to refer to the book by its Russian name, Морфология сказки.

Anyway… this is a very interesting book, and it’s introduced me to a whole field of study which I never even knew existed, that of the formal analysis of folklore. I was a little surprised to learn that this kind of analysis was even possible, since folk tales are phenomena of human creativity. I thought it would be like trying to analyse something like literary fiction; such analysis is of course possible (if I understand correctly, it’s what literary criticism is all about), but it doesn’t seem to lend itself well to a formal approach. On the other hand, Propp’s analysis of fairy tales in Морфология сказки is unmistakably formalist. It displays one of the hallmarks of a formalist approach: the development of a special system of symbols which are essential for presenting the analysis. As an illustration, I’ve written out the structure of one of the fairy tales analysed by Propp below, using Propp’s formal language. The fairy tale here is from Afanasiev’s Russian Fairy Tales (1855-1863); its Russian title is Гуси-лебеди, and its English title in the edition I have is “The Magic Swan Geese”.

γ1 β1 δ1 A1 C ↑ [D ¬E1 ¬F]3 d7 E7 F9 = G4 K1 ↓ [Pr1 D1 E1 F9 = Rs4]3

Note that I have made some minor adjustments to the symbols used here, for added clarity. (It’s not the prettiest formal language I’ve ever seen, even with these adjustments.) Let me try and give you an idea of what these symbols mean.

Each of the units separated by spaces (γ1, β1, etc.) represents a particular function in the fairy tale. The word function here has a technical meaning: it refers to an action taken by a character which serves to advance the narrative, or, as Propp puts it:

Function is understood as an act of a character, defined from the point of view of its significance for the course of the action.

These functions are the fundamental building blocks of fairy tales under Propp’s analysis. Here is a partial list of them, including only the ones that are present in Гуси-лебеди.

  • γ is interdiction: the hero is told to do or not to do something. In this particular case (that of Гуси-лебеди), the hero, who is a girl, is told by her mother to take care of her little brother and not to leave the courtyard. The superscript 1 indicates that the command is negative, rather than positive (superscript numbers indicate particular ways in which an action can take place in Propp’s formal language).
  • β is absentation: one of the members of the family leaves home. In this case it is the parents who leave (to go to work), and this is indicated by the superscript 1.
  • δ is violation: the hero violates an interdiction. In this case the interdiction is the one explicitly made earlier (γ): the girl goes out to play in the street, leaving her little brother by himself. But the interdiction may also be implicit (in which case the name for this action should probably just be mistake).
  • A is villainy: the villain carries out a villainous act, which can take many different forms. The form taken in Гуси-лебеди is that of abduction of a person (hence the superscript 1): the little brother, without his sister to watch over him, is seized from the air by гуси-лебеди (“geese-swans”). (I don’t know what exactly these “geese-swans” are supposed to be; there is an animal whose English name is swan goose but it only seems to live in a small area of southeastern Siberia, so I’m not sure if it would have featured in Russian fairy tales, and its name in modern Russian appears to be сухонос, anyway, not гусь-лебедь.)
  • C is beginning counteraction: the hero agrees to or decides to take action against the villain. In this case, the girl realises her little brother is missing and sets off in search of him.
  • ↑ is depature: the hero leaves home.
  • The next sub-sequence of three units is enclosed within square brackets, with a subscript 3 after the closing square bracket. This indicates that the whole sub-sequence is repeated three times. That the number is three and not, say, two or four is due to the well-known rule of three.
  • D is the first function of the donor: the hero is tested (explicitly or implicitly) by a character called the donor, with a source of help (often magical) available if they pass the test. As this is part of the triple-repeated segment, there are three instances of such a test in Гуси-лебеди. First, the girl comes across a stove and asks it where the geese went. But the stove asks her to eat one of its rye-cakes first, and she refuses. Second, the girl comes across an apple tree and asks the same, but the apple tree asks her to eat one of its apples first, and she refuses. Third, the daughter comes across a river of milk with banks made of pudding and asks the same, but the river asks her to eat some of its pudding, and she refuses again.
  • E is the hero’s reaction to the donor’s test; in this case, the girl refuses to eat any of the offers made by the three donors. Because the reaction is negative a NOT sign (¬) is written before the E (Propp writes “E neg.” instead, but I changed the notation slightly).
  • F is provision or receipt of a magical agent, or, in this case, a missed opportunity to do so (hence the ¬) because the girl failed the tests.
  • After the three failed tests, another DEF sequence occurs involving a hedgehog donor; this time the girl passes the test, and is pointed in the direction of the geese. Now this is an interesting part of the tale, because it could perhaps be said that Propp is taking some liberties to fit this part of the story into his theory. All that happens is that the girl comes across a hedgehog and feels like nudging him (D), but decides against it because of the hedgehog’s spines (E), then asks the hedgehog where the geese went and receives an answer (F). But maybe this is an example of where Propp’s theory actually has some explanatory power. For there is the question of why the fairy tale has to include this line about the girl wanting to nudge the hedgehog. It doesn’t have any effect on the story; the girl could just ask the hedgehog straight away. Propp’s answer to this question would be that it is a way of making the encounter with the hedgehog conform to the DEF structure.
  • G is guidance: the hero is transferred, delivered or led to the object of their search. In this case, the hedgehog provides the guidance; the guidance and the help provided by the donor are identical, hence the equals sign connecting the F and G functions.
  • K is resolution (Propp does not give it a name, for some reason, but resolution seems appropriate): the initial problem caused by the villainy in A is solved. In this case, the girl comes across a hut standing on chicken legs, in which the hag Baba Yaga is sleeping, while the girl’s little brother is sitting on a bench and playing with golden apples. She takes him away.
  • ↓ is return: the hero starts to make their journey back home.
  • Pr is pursuit: the hero is pursued. In this case, the swan-geese reappear and start chasing after the girl and her brother.
  • During the pursuit, three more tests (DEF sub-sequences) occur, with the same donors (the river, the tree and the stove, in that order) giving the test; this time, the girl passes each test by consuming the substances that the donors tell her to consume, and in return they hide her and her little brother from the swan-geese.
  • Rs is rescue: the hero is rescued from pursuit. In this case rescues occur as the help provided by the donors in the final sequence of three tests, and so we write this unit with an equals sign connecting it to F.

If you want to read the actual fairy tale, the original text can be found here (I checked using a copy of Afanasiev’s book that the texts matched). There is also a lovely Soviet short animated film based on the fairy tale that was made in 1949, although the detail of the story differs in some aspects from Afanasiev’s original recorded version.

II.

Now, this focus on the functions of the actions taken by the characters in fairy tales is one of the key characteristics of Propp’s method of analysis. It contrasts with older methods of analysis such as that used in the Aarne-Thompson classification system. In the Aarne-Thompson system tales are classified in a hierarchical manner based on distinctive features called motifs, which are often to do with what kind of characters, objects or qualities appear in the story, rather than what kind of things happen. That is, motifs are often noun-like rather than verb-like. For example, a distinction is made in the Aarne-Thompson index between tales involving animals only and tales involving humans. But fairy tales tend to involve a great amount of anthropomorphism (consider, for example, the fact that the stove, tree and river in Гуси-лебеди are apparently beings with the power of speech, and nobody in the story at any point remarks upon the oddness of this), so that it is often possible to substitute an anthromorphised animal character in place of a human character in a fairy tale, or vice versa, without making the tale any less effective. And it does seem possible that such substitutions can take place as a tale is transmitted across space or time: Propp points out that there is a tale about the sharing of the harvest in which somebody is deceived, and in Russia the deceived one is a bear (an animal), while in the more westerly European countries the deceived one is the devil (a human—well, a being who is supposed to have the rational capabilities of a human). The things that Propp focuses on—actions that advance the narrative—seem like they would be much less susceptible to this kind of substitution, as changing them would often require the course of the narrative to change in a fundamental way.

Another key characteristic of Propp’s method of analysis is the attention he pays to the sequences of functions that appear. In relation to this, he makes the following rather startling assertion. In his words:

The sequence of functions is always identical.

That is, he proposes that the functions which may occur in a tale exist in a specific order. They can therefore be arranged in a kind of universal sequence, and every fairy tale, even though not every function may occur in it, will have the functions which do occur in it in the usual order, so that the sequence of functions within a given tale is a sub-sequence of the universal sequence. There will never be two functions which occur in one order in one tale and the other order in another tale.

As you read further into the book, you realise that this statement isn’t exactly true to the letter. First of all, Propp admits that in a few of the tales he studied there are functions not included among the 31 well-attested functions which he lists in the book, or functions out of the usual order. But, he says, these often appear to be elements transferred from tales of other classes (such as humorous anecdotes, or legends), and in any case they are rare.

Some of the extra functions can be considered to be “auxiliary” functions. Such functions may occur between any two main functions involving different characters, and serve to notify one character of another’s actions. For example, in one tale, after the hero accomplishes his task, the princess who set the task for him holds a feast, and when the hero turns up at the feast he is granted recognition. The holding of the feast is the auxiliary function here, serving to link the functions N (solution) and Q (recognition). Because these auxiliary functions occur in particular environments, they don’t make Propp’s thesis unfalsifiable, and hence Propp doesn’t consider them problematic. They do, however, allow for a certain degree of freedom in Propp’s method of analysis.

Likewise, there are some well-defined circumstances under which certain functions may appear out of order. For example, the DEF functions (testing of the hero by a donor, followed by potential receipt of help) may appear before A (villainy), and the ↑ function (departure) may precede A. But these, again, are not too problematic for Propp’s thesis because of the well-defined circumstances in which they occur. It is still more useful to talk about the universal sequence, and to explain aberrations from this sequence as a result of certain transpositions, than to talk about a number of completely different sequences.

There are also various complicating factors. Sub-sequences may be repeated, one after another; cf. the fourfold repetition of the DEF sequence in Гуси-лебеди. Quite large sub-sequences can be repeated in this way; when the bulk of the narrative is part of a repeated sub-sequence Propp refers to the repeated units as moves. For example, he mentions a fairy tale in which a girl is abducted by a dragon, and then each of her three brothers sets out, one after another, to rescue her, with only the third, youngest brother’s attempt proving successful. Here, the whole segment from A (villainy) to G (rescue) (not including these endpoints) is repeated in three moves. Propp talks about the repetitions of the first kind (applying to relatively small sub-sequences) as if they are a different kind of phenomenon from the repetition of moves, but as far as I can tell, they are not formally distinct and differ only in scale. There is also a set of functions which appear more than once in the universal sequence, once before ↓ (return) and one after it. D, E and F are members of this set, which is why we see two discontiguous occurences of the DEF sequence in the structure of Гуси-лебеди.

Since I haven’t looked at the data Propp bases his conclusions on, and I haven’t read any of the criticisms of his work that have been made, I can’t really make a fair assessment of the validity of Propp’s conclusions for myself. However, even if the supposed universal sequence might not be quite as universal or invariant as Propp makes it out to be, it might still be a useful framework for analysing the structure of fairy tales. The question is not quite whether Propp is right or not, but rather whether the theoretical framework he has developed is useful or not (which is to some extent a question of degree). The way to assess this question would be to look at analyses of fairy tales that make use of this framework and compare their explanatory power with that of alternative theoretical frameworks.

III.

This idea that every fairy tale has a structure which can be described as a subsequence of a universal sequence of functions is the central idea of Морфология сказки. But Propp does talk about some other, more secondary aspects of the fairy tale in his book, too.

For example, he talks about the different characters in the fairy tale. As a corollary of the existence of a universal sequence of functions, there is also a universal set of characters, or more precisely spheres of action, which are made use of in fairy tales. Spheres of action don’t correspond exactly to characters, because, for example, there can be multiple characters which act in the same sphere of action at different points in the story, and a character may occupy more than one sphere of action. There are precisely seven spheres of action, according to Propp. I would talk more about them, but I don’t want to go into too much detail here. Propp also talks about how the different functions are distributed among these characters, and about how new characters are introduced. One interesting remark he makes here is that the initial situation in a fairy tale always involves the introduction of the members of a family, so no two of the characters that are present in the tale from the start are permitted to be unrelated. A striking consequence of this is in fairy tales where one of the starting characters acts as the villain, the villain is always a member of the family; for example, one tale concerns Prince Ivan and his sister, who is a witch and intends to eat her brother. And there are lots of other little pieces of information in the book about what kinds of things tend to happen and what kind of things tend not to happen in fairy tales which might be interesting in their own right.

One thing that is worth noting is that if you wanted to write your own fairy tales, for whatever reason (conworlding, etc.), in as authentic a style as possible, then the insights about fairy tales found in Морфология сказки could be very useful. The book’s list of the functions that occur in a fairy tale could effectively function as a writing guide; all you’d need to do would be to decide on a sequence of functions to use and fill in the details.

IV.

Propp’s thesis raises some interesting questions. For example:

  1. How far does the thesis apply to non-Russian fairy tales?
  2. How far does the thesis apply to other kinds of folk tales?
  3. Why does the thesis hold? That is, why is there a universal sequence of functions out of which fairy tales are structured? Why don’t fairy tales display a wider range of structures?

No complete attempt is made at answering these questions in the book, but Propp does make some remarks relating to them.

Relating to question 1, he mentions that his analysis can be applied to the fairy tales in the famous collection of the Brothers Grimm, which do present “the same scheme in general”, but it is more difficult; they display “a less pure and stable form of it”, probably because they have not been preserved in a wholly authentic form. Propp says that “uncorrupted tale construction is peculiar only … to a peasantry … little touched by civilization”. So it seems Propp expects his analysis to be applicable to the fairy tales of other European nations, at least, if they are considered in their authentic forms.

As for question 2, Propp says that many “legends, individual tales about animals, and isolated novellas” can be fruitfully analysed in the same way as fairy tales, and so perhaps a new name should be sought for the folk tales which are amenable to Propp’s analysis, because “fairy tales” is too specific. However, he doesn’t propose any new name. Note that it is also conceivable that other classes of tales may be structured according to different universal sequences, a possibility about which Propp doesn’t say anything.

Propp addresses question 3 quite explicitly, although he is careful to state that he is essentially engaging in wild speculation when he tries to answer it. He basically says that the existence of the universal sequence of functions seems to indicate that all fairy tales come from a “single source”, although he is vague as to what that single source might be. To be honest, I don’t really understand his answer. But, as he says, it is only a tentative supposition; further study is needed to answer this question.

So, Морфология сказки has left me feeling like I know a lot more about the structure of fairy tales, and at the same time realising that there is a whole lot more that remains to be known. This is, I guess, what it generally feels like to be introduced to a new field of study. One thing I would be particularly interested in knowing is whether Propp’s framework or something similar is helpful for explaining how folk tales change over time—that is, whether it is helpful in a diachronic perspective as well as a synchronic perspective.

But, moving away the particular topic of folk tales, there is a more general reason I’ve found reading this book very interesting: by successfully applying formal techniques to analyse a phenomenon that I would have thought was not very amenable to formal analysis, Propp has increased my expectations that formal techniques could also be helpful in analysing other kinds of phenomena. That might not sound like the most exciting thing, so let me try and put it in more illustrative terms. Imagine a pitch-dark room in which the entire set of information contained in the universe can be found. A small candle glows in the corner, and the small region of the room that it illuminates contains precisely the information that is knowable to humans. The pleasure of reading a book like Морфология сказки is that after reading it, you take another look at the candle and realise that it is glowing a little brighter than you thought.

(Edited 07/10/15 with some typo fixes and changes of wording.)

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A review of “Court and Spark” by Joni Mitchell

Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark” has the distinction of being her most commercially successful album. I think this is one instance where the popular taste has proved to be correct: “Court and Spark” really is her best album. “Blue” seems to be the most critically-acclaimed one, and it’s certainly a very strong contender, but I know that I like “Court and Spark” better because I simply want to listen to it more often. I think of the two albums as counterparts as well. “Blue” is instrumentally (though not lyrically) a folk album, while “Court and Spark” has too much production to be called folk; it’s clearly pop music. Both albums, like all Joni Mitchell albums, convey a good variety of emotions, but in “Blue” the general impression is of someone who’s sad, lost and doesn’t know what to do, while “Court and Spark” gives the impression of someone more self-confident.

The song which begins the album and bears the same name has a definite introductory quality; the melody feels like it’s building up to something. The lyrics describe how the narrator met a new man, and there are some great lines here describing the connection they have, but in the last two lines it turns out to be just something that never developed, since she “couldn’t let go of L. A.” (whatever that means). Because this song works as a kind of introduction, “Help Me” had to go in second place, but it was definitely recognised as hit single material and placed as high as possible for that reason. It worked too, and reached the top 10 in the Billboard charts, probably due to its really catchy and remarkably complex melody. In terms of the lyrics, it’s a slightly cheesy love song—she wants you to help her because she’s falling in love—but the lyrics are really clever nonetheless. “Free Man in Paris” was placed next; it too was a hit single, although it didn’t do quite as well as “Help Me”. Like that song it has a great, catchy, complex melody and that’s what makes the song.

Next we have “People’s Parties”, which is probably the song on this album that would be the biggest failure as a hit single, simply because its melody is a bit unremarkable. This is one of the more melancholy songs too. However, the lyrics are as good as ever. Really, this song should be regarded as a prelude “The Same Situation”. In fact, the song ends while Joni’s in the middle of singing, and the singing continues at the start of “The Same Situation”, so the two songs are clearly meant to be listened to one after the other. If we view the two songs as a single song in two parts, the song is one of the better ones on the album, because “The Same Situation” is really good. It’s a piano-driven song with a lovely melody and some great introspective lyrics.

“Car on a Hill” is another one which sounds like it could be a single, although this one wasn’t actually released. It has probably the catchiest melody of all the songs on the album, and it sounds quite upbeat, although it’s actually about Joni being stood up by her lover, waiting in vain for his car to show up. It was probably inserted in this position to prevent “Down to You” being listened to right after “The Same Situation”, since both are introspective piano-driven songs. “Down to You” doesn’t really have a memorable melody, but somehow it’s quite captivating regardless. I find it very hard to say which is the best song on this album since they’re all of evenly high quality, but “Down to You” is a definite contender.

“Just Like This Train”, which comes next, is most notable for the way that due to the way it is produced, and the way Joni sings, it has a remarkable kind of hazy, dreamy, relaxed quality. The album as a whole has this kind of quality, especially on songs like “Help Me” earlier and “Trouble Child” later on, but “Just Like This Train” is where it is most noticeable and effective. I really love the way she sings the refrain of “if you can’t find your goodness / ’cause you lost your heart”, especially. The following song, “Raised on Robbery”, is completely different. This one isn’t relaxed at all! It’s probably one of the most energetic songs Joni has made. When this track comes on, I always feel like I need to turn the volume down a little, because it seems a lot louder than the preceding songs. It is a lot of fun, though, and one of the most overtly humorous songs on this album (although most of the songs have some witty lyrics). You even get to hear Joni call someone a son of a bitch.

“Trouble Child” is another song of a similar kind to “Down to You”; it doesn’t have a catchy melody or anything, but it is kind of captivating regardless. This song was the one it took the longest for me to really enjoy hearing, but I do enjoy hearing it now. You may need to make sure you listen to the lyrics to enjoy this one, since musically it’s not quite as interesting as most of the other songs. It’s this one which I think of as the real final track of this album; “Twisted” (a cover of a song by the jazz singer Annie Ross) is just like a little joke at the end. The lyrics to this song are extremely silly but great fun to hear, and occasionally you can hear Joni trying to stifle giggles while singing them. Rather than the piano and guitar which have been around for most of this album, the main instrument here is a saxophone. The melody on here is slightly mad, just like the narrator of the song.

A review of “Joan Baez/5”

Joan Baez’s fifth album, released in October 1964 and simply called “Joan Baez/5”, was among her most commercially successful, charting at #12 in the USA and #3 in the UK. Its title track, “There But For Fortune”, was released as a single and became a hit in the UK singles chart at #8, although it only charted in the USA at #50 (where it probably suffered due to its political message). It was written by the contemporary folk singer Phil Ochs, and was one of a number of contemporary songs on the album including Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone” and Richard Fariña’s “Birmingham Sunday”. The other 8 songs on the album were the traditional folk tunes that people were used to hearing from Baez, but as her career progressed, she gradually moved away from such songs and towards more contemporary songs—so this album was the first step on the path. This album is a great introduction to Baez, since it shows both of those sides. If I was going to recommend someone an album, I’d go for “Farewell, Angelina”, the album released after this one, but the two are very close in quality.

“There But For Fortune” is clearly the most successful of the contemporary covers here, and it deserved its success. The idea of the song is to get you to empathise with the unfortunate and downtrodden people of the world—prisoners, drunkards and so on, and to realise that “but for fortune”, you could be one of those people. Even if you don’t approve of this message, you have to admit that musically, this is a pretty good song. I really like way the guitar sounds here, in particular.

The next song is a light-hearted 19th-century ballad about a horse called “Stewball”. This one has a nice melody, so nice that John Lennon used it for “So This is Christmas”. So if it sounds familiar to you… that’s where you heard it. The last line might make you laugh. After this is “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, a Bob Dylan song which seems to have been quite popular to cover at that time. Johnny Cash and The Turtles both released well-known versions. Joan Baez’s version isn’t really anything special; I don’t think it really works as well as most of her Dylan covers. But if you’re not comparing it to other versions, you’ll probably like it—it’s one of the catchier Bob Dylan songs and like many of his songs and regrettably few of Joan Baez’s, it has a touch of humour to it.

“The Death of Queen Jane” is a stone-cold serious traditional folk song about Jane Seymour, Henry VIII’s third wife. It’s one of the Child ballads, collected by folklorist Francis James Child during the 19th century. These are generally high quality: “Silkie” and “Barbara Allen” on “Joan Baez, Vol. 2” were Child ballads as well. I don’t think “The Death of Queen Jane” is quite as good as those two—after all, they’re pretty amazing—but it continues the run of good songs which begins this album.

The next one is something different: it’s called “Bachianas Brasileiras”, it was written by the Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos. For the first three minutes it’s basically an instrumental, with Joan Baez using her voice to accompany the instruments. Then there’s a kind of break in the music and she starts singing very strikingly in Portugese. She sounds a lot like an opera singer to my uninformed ear (though take note that I have never intentionally listened to opera, so I’m not sure if I know what opera singing actually sounds like). It’s definitely a skilled performance, and not unpleasant to listen to between “The Death of Queen Jane” and “Go ‘Way From My Window”, but it’s not like I’m ever going to listen to this song in isolation. But if you’re more interested in classical music than me, you might like it.

“Go ‘Way From My Window” is a nice traditional song with some great high-pitched singing. The following song, a cover of Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone”, is mostly sung at a much lower pitch, but Baez can sing both kinds of songs really well. Baez’s version is very similar to and just as good as the original; it’s just in a different voice. Next is “When You Hear Them Cuckoos Hollerin'”, a more guitar-driven traditional song; this one is a bit forgettable. The final contemporary cover on the album is Richard Fariña’s “Birmingham Sunday”. I’ve never heard the original version of this song—it doesn’t seem to be on Spotify—but I’d certainly like to, because it has a wonderful sort of mysterious-sounding melody. Joan Baez’s voice is very good at singing that kind of melody, so this is one of the best songs on the album.

Another good song follows called “So We’ll Go No More a-Roving”; this was actually originally a poem by Lord Byron, so the lyrics are excellent. The words are set to a pretty good melody too. However, it’s very brief at just 1 minute 45 seconds. The next song is in Spanish, so I can’t judge the lyrics; unfortunately, unlike “El Preso Numero Nueve” on the debut album, the singing here isn’t interesting enough to compensate.

The album finishes with another Child ballad called “The Unquiet Grave”. It was wise to choose this as the closing track, because it’s probably the best song on this album, although it may not stand out to you at first. It simply has a great melody and wonderful lyrics. Many people have interpreted this song—it’s deservedly popular—but I don’t think anyone sings it more beautifully than Joan Baez.

Of course, if you get the reissued version there are two more bonus tracks for you: “Tramp on the Street” and “Long Black Veil”. But these are probably the worst bonus tracks so far; it’s not really essential that you get them. I don’t mean to say they’re bad songs, but they’re simply mediocre. “The Tramp on the Street” is probably most well-known from the version by Hank Williams; it compares a tramp on the street to Jesus. Hank William’s whining voice makes the song, and without it, Joan Baez’s version just isn’t interesting enough. “Long Black Veil” is also most famous for a version sung by a country legend, Johnny Cash in this case. It’s better than “The Tramp on the Street”, but again, Baez’s version isn’t particularly appealing to me.

A review of “Farewell, Angelina” by Joan Baez

“Farewell, Angelina”—the first Joan Baez album not to be named something along the lines of “Joan Baez, Vol. 2”, and the first Joan Baez album I really got into—is, in my opinion, her best album of all. It was released in 1965, the same year that her friend Bob Dylan went electric. You might not have realised that Joan Baez actually went electric at the same time, with the release of this album. Well, she included an electric guitarist (Bruce Langhorne) as a backup musician, and she included a bass guitarist too for the first time. Even so, the extra instrumentation is subtle and the album still sounds very similar, musically, to the preceding ones.

With this album she also continued to progress towards interpreting contemporary folk songs rather than traditional ones, particularly the songs of Bob Dylan: no less than four of the songs on this album were written by him (five if you include the bonus tracks). Although Bob Dylan’s songs are very popular choices for covers, I find that surprisingly few of these covers are successful. If they try to imitate Dylan’s style, they inevitably fail, since nobody can really do that as well as the man himself. If they try to do something different with the song, it often just doesn’t work, though there are exceptions like Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower”. However, Joan Baez does justice to nearly all of the Dylan songs she covers, and I often even prefer her version to the original. For example, her version of “Mama, You Been On My Mind”, which is the second track on this album as “Daddy, You Been On My Mind”, will always be my favourite one.

The first track, though written and first recorded by Bob Dylan, was never released officially until 1991 as part of his “Bootleg Series”. So it’s Joan Baez’s version of “Farewell, Angelina” which has become the definitive one. It’s a very typical Dylan song, full of interesting turns of phrase, with the melody stolen from a traditional folk song (“Farewell to Tarwathie” in this case). Though it’s not a bad song at all, I prefer the two Dylan covers which follow this one: “Daddy, You Been On My Mind” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. The first is also a song more associated with Baez than Dylan: it wasn’t released until 1991, and although Dylan did perform it live a few times, it was only as a duet with Joan Baez, and presumably it was she who requested it. You can hear an example duet on Bob Dylan’s “Live at Philharmonic Hall” album. I don’t know if they were always like this, but this duet was kind of a disaster; the vocal styles of the two don’t mix well, and it doesn’t help that Baez has to remind Dylan of the words at the start of the last two verses. It was certainly an entertaining disaster, though.

Anyway, Baez sings the song alone on this album, without Dylan there to mess it up, allowing you to hear it for what the song actually is: a rather melancholy, introspective song, with some thought-provoking lines, and a lovely descending melody. It’s a highlight of the album, and always seems too short to me. After this, we have “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”. This is one of Bob Dylan’s most famous songs and there are some other great covers of it out there, such as one by the Animals. I don’t think any of them can be considered superior, though, to the original recording on “Bringing It All Back Home”. Bob Dylan’s voice is just perfect for this song. I’m supposed to be talking about Joan Baez’s version here though—well, it’s still pretty great, and the way she alternates between high and low pitches is very impressive. While Dylan’s version sounds kind of like a taunt, and has an element of meanness, Baez’s version is simply sad.

After three Bob Dylan songs in succession, the next song is one of a more familiar kind: a traditional folk song. Baez’s vocal performance on “Wild Mountain Thyme” is possibly the most beautiful vocal performance she’s ever done. After this, Woody Guthrie’s “Ranger’s Command” may seem dull in comparison. But the vocal performance on this song is still great: notice how long she holds the notes for! And the melody is one you might find yourself humming. After this we have another contemporary song from Donovan, who’s often seen as an inferior British version of Bob Dylan. I haven’t heard enough of his songs to judge whether this is fair, but “Colours” isn’t very promising. It’s one of the two songs on this album that I find a little boring.

“Satisfied Mind” is up next; this was written in the 1950s by Joe Hayes and Jack Rhodes, who were both fairly obscure artists mainly known only for writing this song. It’s a song with an interesting message, which probably appealed to Joan Baez’s left-wing political sympathies, although it does come across as a little smug. The melody is nice, but it’s not one of the best songs here. “The River in the Pines” is much better; this is another traditional folk song with a haunting melody. Baez’s excellent singing on this song will give you chills. After this is another traditional folk song called “Pauvre Rutebeuf”. This one is entirely in French, and it has an interesting history. It was originally written by a 13th-century poet known only by the pen-name “Rutebeuf” (or “rude cow”); Léo Ferré, who was apparently a famous French singer-songwriter contemporary with Baez, set it to music and it became one of his most famous songs. I find its melody a little boring though, and I can’t find any translation of the lyrics on the Internet, so I can’t judge them.

The next song is an interpretation of Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”, which is a very famous folk classic. In order to further show off her language skills, perhaps, Joan Baez decided to sing the song in German and therefore it appears on this album as “Sagt Mir Wo Die Blumen Sind”. Or perhaps she just thought it sounded really good in German, in which case I’d agree with her. I really like this version, perhaps because I can actually understand the German to a limited extent. However, the lyrics are slightly different in meaning due to the rhymes needing to be preserved.

To finish the album, Baez included a recording of Bob Dylan’s amazing 7-and-a-half-minute-long epic, “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall”, and did an extremely good job. I think this version is just as good as Dylan’s, if not better. She adds some lovely little vocal flourishes, like when her voice suddenly goes from a higher pitch to a lower pitch in the middle of the word “rain”, that weren’t present in the original. One thing that is missing is the simple but very effective guitar riff that Dylan plays throughout his version. In case you haven’t heard Dylan’s version before, I should tell you that the poetic imagery in this song is wonderful.

Of course, if you pick up the album today you’re going to have three extra bonus tracks, which is kind of a pity because “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” is a perfect song to end an album on. But these bonus tracks are excellent. First there’s “One Too Many Mornings”, a melancholy Dylan ballad similar to “Mama, You Been On My Mind” that was first released on “The Times They Are a-Changin'”. I don’t think Dylan’s original version works very well; it seems like he’s trying very hard to sound apologetic and vulnerable, and in the process forgets to sing the tune properly. Joan Baez sings the song more properly, and it turns out to have quite a nice melody, although I would say it’s probably the least good Dylan cover on this album. Secondly there’s “Rock, Salt and Nails”. This is a rather bitter love song—in a good way—written by Utah Philips. Apparently he was speaking directly to a former lover of his, and after singing it once to his friend and fellow folk singer Rosalie Sorrels, he never sung it again because he thought it was no nasty. It’s not any nastier than a lot of Bob Dylan’s love songs, anyway, and Baez’s performance on this song is excellent. Both of these bonus tracks were done again by Baez on later albums, but with more instrumentation.

As far as I know, Joan Baez never released the final bonus track, “The Water Is Wide”, on any of her main albums, although I think she did perform it live fairly often. This is surprising, since it’s an incredible song. I said earlier that “The Wild Mountain Thyme” is possibly Baez’s most beautiful vocal performance, but it’s facing severe competition from “The Water Is Wide”. You can find a few other versions on Joan Baez compilations, but none of them are quite as impressive as the bonus track here; her voice doesn’t reach the same heights. The lyrics of this song are also some of the best of any of the traditional songs she’s covered. You really can’t afford to miss out on this song, so make sure you get the bonus tracks if you buy the album.

[Unfortunately this video is low quality, but it’s the only one I could find which plays the version of the song from this album.]

A review of “Joan Baez, Vol. 2”

As the name suggests, Joan Baez’s album is a simple continuation of what she was doing on the first album: singing traditional folk songs accompanied by an acoustic guitar (well, actually I think there are a few more instruments here, like a banjo on “Pal of Mine”). Musically, it’s exactly the same. Her voice is just as wonderful. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the quality of the songs: it seems like Baez had already included all the most interesting songs she knew on the first album. In comparison, the songs on this album are somewhat forgettable and boring, and I’ve found it a lot harder to really listen to them. When I do listen to the songs with careful attention, I can find lots of positive things to say about them, but as a whole they simply don’t seem to be able to hold my interest as much as the songs on the first album. That said, there are some which stand out, like “Barbara Allen” and “Plaisir D’Amour”, and would have held their own among the songs on the debut.

The opening track, “Wagoner’s Lad”, exemplifies these problems. It’s sung a cappella, but it isn’t interesting enough for this to work. She sings it extremely well, as ever, but the song doesn’t give her an opportunity to really show her voice. The only thing it has going for it are the sort-of-feminist lyrics, which is probably the reason she put it at the start of the album, to get your attention. The next one, “The Trees They Do Grow High”, I find slightly amusing, although it’s probably not intentional. It’s about a girl who’s married to a boy who’s too young; she reassures herself that he’s “young, but daily growin'”. If you’re familiar with how these traditional songs usually go, you might be able to predict how it ends. Musically though, it’s not that interesting either.

“Lily of the West”, on the other hand, will grab your attention with its really fast, energetic guitar playing. Joan Baez reaches a really high pitch at some points in this though, to the extent that it can sound unpleasant. It’s an excellent song, but not done perfectly by Baez. In fact, I’ve never heard any version of this song I’m fully satisfied with. My personal favourite is actually Bob Dylan’s version, from his notoriously terrible 1973 album “Dylan”. But I don’t expect everyone to agree with that.

Somehow, on my first few listens to this album, I didn’t really notice “Silkie”. I don’t know how this could have happened, because it’s an absolutely beautiful, mysterious Orcadian ballad, and possibly the best thing on this album. The next three songs are more unremarkable. “Engine 143” is a train wreck song by the Carter Family. Since this is a country song, Joan Baez adopts the sort of nasal, quavering style typical of country singers, and she pulls it off pretty well, but this just isn’t that much of an interesting song. “Once I Knew a Pretty Girl” and “Lonesome Road” are standard folk songs. “Lonesome Road”, in particular, has a very nice, catchy melody.

Now, I think “Banks of the Ohio” is one of the best songs on this album, up there with “Silkie”. But Don Ignacio, the only other guy I can find who has reviewed this album on the Internet, thought it was so terrible he had a kind of textual fit of rage while listening to it. I can sort of understand where he’s coming from—it’s probably true that Baez and the backup singers who accompany her on this track are all singing off key, though I don’t know enough about singing to judge for myself. Even so, I don’t think it sounds bad. The thing is, if you listen to the lyrics, this is a very bleak, depressing song and the slight dissonance just accentuates that feeling, without making the song unlistenable.

“Pal of Mine” is another song sung in the country style. The backup singers from “Banks of the Ohio” are still here for this one, and now there are added banjos! It’s a nice country song, but nothing special. “Barbara Allen” comes next. This is one of the most famous traditional folk songs, and Joan Baez’s interpretation is one of the best. Her voice sounds really beautiful here. After this, there’s a Christmas carol! “The Cherry Tree Carol” is pleasant enough. “Old Blue” is a nice fun song about a dog, which sounds like it was fun for her to sing. “Railroad Boy”, in contrast, is a sad, serious folk song. I find all three of these songs a little boring, though.

Thankfully, the album finishes on a good note with “Plaisir D’Amour”. This isn’t actually a folk song, it’s a beautiful 18th-century French chanson written by Jean-Paul-Égide Martini. Some verses are in French, some in English, but the melody and the singing are extremely pretty. By the way, if the melody sounds familiar to you—that’s right, Elvis used the melody for “Can’t Help Falling In Love With You”!

Like the rest of Joan Baez’s early albums, you can get a reissued version with three bonus tracks. These are worth getting, since they’re pretty good. If she’d replaced some of the more forgettable songs on the album with these tracks, I might like it better! “I Once Loved A Boy” is lovely; her voice is especially spellbinding on this one. “Poor Boy” is another good one. Note the last verse, with its slightly sinister lyrics. “Longest Train I Ever Saw” has a nice melody, but I don’t think it’s as good as the other two; her voice grates a little when it hits the high notes.

A review of “Joan Baez”

Joan Baez’s debut is a classic folk album of the purest kind: interpretations of traditional ballads, with no instrumentation other than an acoustic guitar. It’s probably one of the best such albums there are. It’s true that if you’re not really into this kind of folk, you may think all the songs sound the same. However, considering the limitations of the genre, this is actually a quite diverse collection of songs. There are much more memorable songs here than on “Joan Baez, Vol. II”, for example. I would say that if you are accustomed with traditional folk music, you should be able to immediately appreciate this album. But if, like me, this is one of the first albums of traditional folk music you’ve come across, it may take a few listens for you to appreciate it properly.

One thing anyone can appreciate immediately about this album is Joan Baez’s voice, which is a thing of beauty. There are few singers of popular music of comparable technical quality. I always find it very hard to describe the quality of singers’ voices, so I won’t try to: just listen to the song below and you’ll see how amazing it is. The only flaw in her voice is that she can sound unpleasant when she hits really high notes. Most of the time she pulls them off really well—it’s actually one of her strengths—but sometimes she does seem to overexert herself. I think this album, however, is pretty much free of that problem; it’s “Joan Baez, Vol. II” where it first appears.

As for the songs—the opening “Silver Dagger” is an excellent ballad which became one of Baez’s signature songs. “East Virginia” and “Fare Thee Well (10,000 Miles)” (which isn’t really a traditional song, but it sounds like one) are equally captivating. Both of these songs feature particularly stunning vocals, even for a singer who regularly has stunning vocals. Her interpretation of “House of the Rising Sun” is not the most famous one, nor the best one, but it’s still great. “All My Trials”, which follows, is possibly the best song on the album. It has a slight political slant, too, with the line about a “book with pages three” whose “every page spells ‘Liberty'”.

Next is a version of the Carter Family’s most famous song, “Wildwood Flower”, with its characteristic guitar riff, played perfectly here. This is probably the most fun song; the rest of the album has a rather sombre tone (and in fact, the lyrics of “Wildwood Flower”, as opposed to its tune, aren’t very cheerful). “Donna Donna”, a more modern song, is a highlight with its memorable, haunting melody. After this song, I find the album a bit less accessible: “Rake and Rambling Boy”, “Little Moses” and “Henry Martin” are less memorable than the rest, and “John Riley” and “Mary Hamilton” are great songs, but they may take repeated listens to appreciate. “Mary Hamilton” is a long ballad with a historical theme; you need to pay attention to this one and listen to the lyrics. As for “John Riley”, I first thought it was a bit boring, but it’s grown on me. The guitar on this track plays a little flourish over and over again which is striking and a little alarming, while Joan Baez sings slowly and mysteriously. And there’s a twist ending. Expect goosebumps. The album ends with “El Preso Numero Nueve”, sung in fluent Spanish. I don’t understand Spanish at all, but the song is sufficiently exciting musically that I can enjoy it.

If you can, get the new edition of this album, which contains three additional bonus tracks. In particular you will want “I Know You Rider”, a blues with an excellent melody that’s played on the guitar as well as sung. The other bonus tracks are “Girl of Constant Sorrow”, a nice but somewhat unremarkable, and an extended version of “John Riley”, which is identical to the original except that it has an extra verse. I think the extra verse was cut because it’s kind of ridiculous and might ruin the atmosphere for you. It remarks that John Riley has “fingers both great and small”. Well… doesn’t everyone?