Fantastic Beasts and In Which Songs To Find Them – Part I

Folk music, coming from (you guessed it) folk-lore, is replete with magical creatures. One just has to know where to look for them.

Nicholas Berchem (1620 - 1683) - A Goat and a Ram, Harvard Art Museum
Nicholas Berchem (1620 – 1683) – A Goat and a Ram, Harvard Art Museum

And it is perhaps easier to start looking for them in European folklore. Local legends and old mythology have peopled  European folk with a wide variety of creatures the tales of which made it into folk songs. Sometimes, these animals are not particularly fantastic, at least not in appearance…

The Darby (Derby) Ram is a fine example of this category. Collected in Roud’s Folk index, it dates back to at least 1867, as it appeared in Llewellynn Jewitt‘s Ballads and Songs of Derbyshire on this year. It tells of a ram so huge that his horns reach up to the moon, and the wool on his back reached so high that eagle made their nest there. Needless to say, the butcher and the tanning boy who tried to slaughter this wonder of nature were punished: one was drowned in blood, and the other one was carried by the flood. The Kossoy Sister (one hit album wonder in 1956) worked their twin-sister harmony magic on this tune while keeping it close to the text reported by Jewitt, with a banjo accompaniment from Erik Darling who would then go on to replace Pete Seeger in the Weavers (yes, I enjoy English tune sung by Americans.) A statue of the ram has actually graced the town of Derby since 1995.

Not all extraordinary animals are as benevolent as the placid ram. We have for instance known since the days of Calydon that having a bloodthirsty boar in the neighborhood isn’t usually a good omen. A similar image is to be found in the opening sequence of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, but that’s not our topic here. The quintessential folk singer Jean Ritchie had a song called Old Bangum about such a wild boar and how it was chased by Bangum (available on streaming services apparently, but I don’t have access to those myself.) The song is based off Sir Lionel, another of the Child Ballads in which the wild boar is a pet either to a not-so-jolly giant or to a hysterical old woman who attacks the knight for killing her “pretty spotted pig.” It has been adapted by several other folk artists, but the most original (meaning “less traditional”) is perhaps Breton harpist Cecil Corbel’s version, in which the boar “will eat you meat and suck your blood.” Charming little critter. (Notice that in both Ritchie’s and Corbel’s version, the boar has no owner.)

One doesn’t have to go too far back in time to hear of such legendary beasts. Cryptozoology (the search for fantastic animals) keeps many of those tales alive, from the Loch Ness Monster to El Chupacabra. The one that interests us here is the beast of Bodmin Moor, a large cat which is say to hunt on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. The region is keen on keeping the legend alive, for obvious touristic reasons. It inspired British folk trio Kadia to write a song about this “demon cat of monstrous scale” and the sad tale of a young couple who were only hoping  for a romantic night on the moor.

For a myriad of wondrous creatures, one has to leave the folk cannon and turn to newer compositions, such as Peter, Paul and Mary’s Autumn to May. Apparently written by the men of the trio, this gentle song takes the listener onto a magical journey to meet a dancing dog with legs fourteen yards long or a swan living on an oyster and hatching snails (not to mention the vest-wearing traveling frog and a flock of flying sheep kept in the music box.) The men’s guitars duet in the background as they take lead, with harmonies from the honey voice that is Mary Travers’ (R.I.P 😥  )

Now, a very similar song, Little Brown Dog, appeared on Judy Collins’ Golden Apples of the Sun, in which she mention is was compiled in Ruth Crawford’s Seeger Animal Folksongs for Children… which was released in 1950, thus 12 years before PPM. The version sung by Collins had already been released in 1957 by Peggy Seeger, Ruth’s daughter. Both PPM and Collins’ tracks were released in 1962. Collins sings what is to me one of the most oddly poetic lines of the folk revival…

I buyed me a little bull he was four inches high
Everybody feared him who ever heard him cry
When he began to bellow he made such melodious sound
That all the walls in London came tumblin’ to the ground

Well, I’m sure these critters have barely whetted you appetite… Perhaps you’d like to hear about shape-shifting animals? Very well then, but in a next article.



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