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Issue: September 2013

By Alexander Clark Campbell

The Black and the Red: Return to Eden/Pt. 1

Getting back to one's roots' – I've always loved that phrase, so often used in digging deep in to music.

So where are these 'Roots'? Can only be, LV's neighboring region to the East – Appalachia: where the atmosphere is a thick blanket of trees and isolation, and all exists in constant meditative solitude.

There the border across time is so permeable, so thin, that you feel that the old world of looms and snakeskin could bleed over into the present at any moment. Time is still standing still there, where beneath that canopy of green, things archaic are preserved forever in amber.

Black willow, black maple, black walnut, black cherry (almost sounds like a chant) – the ageless and mysterious community amid which you make your way, enveloped in mist, hunted by shadow, that is the trail through Appalachia. You can find online booklets by the locals with titles like Common Myths about Appalachian Forests – because this place is mythic. As to its stories. As to its trees. (As to its song.)

Trees are mythic. They've always been mythic. Weeping Willows, made immortal in countless songs; the noble Oak, grandfatherly, of doors and Druids and calendar stones. Sycamores, as written of in the Egyptian Book of Dead; watchful Birches of winter; the Cedars of nostalgic chests, discovered in dusty houses; Crab Apples and Chokecherries that even a starving squirrel might decline; wild Hemlocks dealing death to ancient philosophers– and the fabled Cherry. Cherry orchards are supposed to be a transition place from this world to the next; but the cherry is also a fruit associated with virtue and purity, good deeds, and virginity. The ultimate myths are the ones whose meaning escapes attempts to define.

If legends preserve the lore of the trees, the trees preserve the lore. Appalachia is where our most ancient and most mysterious songs still sing. Its forests, as with the red-orange, fossilized tree resin embedded in coal seams, embalm music; mummify folksongs; preserve culture that is centuries old, because of the near-impenetrability of the isolation that they themselves create.

But some trees, like the songs that weave airborne around them, tower, ancient-rooted, above the rest – here's one:

Cherry Tree Carol Lyrics #1: http://mudcat.org/@displaysong.cfm?SongID=1149
Cherry Tree Carol Lyrics #2: http://mudcat.org/@displaysong.cfm?SongID=6042
Cherry Tree Carol Lyrics #3: http://mudcat.org/@displaysong.cfm?SongID=6041
Cherry Tree Carol Lyrics #4: http://mudcat.org/thread.cfm?threadid=11760

On Arborea "s (they're named for 'Trees') latest album, Pale Horse Phantasm, there is an eerie, vulnerably beautiful version of The Cherry Tree Carol, an old Celtic or English ballad that has Kentucky roots.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hDw3gzYpQ_U Cherry Tree Carol - Arborea

The Carol first popped nationally from Kentucky legend Jean Ritchie (a still-living example folklorist and authentic singer in one), followed by more famed folkies like Peter, Paul & Mary; Joan Baez; Judy Collins.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7FeXU7PlWc Cherry Tree Carol - Jean Ritchie
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YNeQNQdo8TM Cherry Tree Carol - Judy Collins
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s_EU1Tq9qEg Cherry Tree Carol - Shirley Collins
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CVTganOzERI Cherry Tree Carol - Sting

Jean Ritchie is a longtime, frequent poster, under the handle "kytrad," to the music folklorist site Mucat.org (which is the best site online to find an origin of a particular traditional ballad).

The Carol has come down among Ritchie's own family traditions (she has posted some very interesting quotes from family elders on the subject), albeit in humble form – she talks about a Granny sitting in a creaking rocking chair, 'rasping' out the tune. Ritchie is someone who didn't need to catch this song – just let it out of its brown-jug bottle (transform it, and watch it grow). And from those small beginnings it has grown, acorn into oak-tree-like, into a giant among Americana.

Speaking of: tucked away, for nearly 600 years until its death was officially pronounced in the late 1930s, when it was hewn down, just on the border between the (especially) wild WV counties of Logan and Mingo – the legendary Mingo Oak; the largest white oak in the world. Truly a wild tree, that: eight feet in diameter at breast-height; its first limb 66 feet above the ground; 146' tall; and with a circumference at ground line of 30 feet, 9 inches, it finally succumbed to 'black lung' (you know, the fatal and lingering illness coalminers get, only this time a tree actually died of it from an eternally-burning gobpile, of low-grade coal refuse, located nearby).

When it was cut down, they took sections of it, 'discs,' out and preserved them in museums around the State, where you can still go and see them (the sections look sort of like huge, wooden LP's – pictures are online). Always the region has been the favorite, rich, and secret hunting-ground of treasure-hunters after Tales not just Tall, but Taller; after the Largest-Than-Life: freaks of nature, relics of culture, impossible and miraculous things that challenge and inflame imagination.

Jean Ritchie was not the only person whose attention the Cherry Tree of the Carol drew: English musicologist Cecil Sharp was a treasure-seeker to Appalachia, who from 1916-17 recorded and documented old songs of British Isles origin, including TCTC. A William Wooton, from Hindman in Knott County, in Eastern KY, records the first-known documented version – which he collected from Sharp (great name for a musicologist, btw – wonder if he knew Flatt's family?).

Kentucky writer John Fox went, in 19-aught-8, to Appalachian roots for inspiration for his book about a young Kentucky geologist who traveled East to seek his fortune, intrigued by stories of a legendary tree, On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine.

Here, quoting from Barnes&Noble online, a bit of the blurb about the book's premise:

"The tree the 'lonesome pine,' from which the story takes its name, was a tall tree that stood in solitary splendor on a mountain top. The fame of the tree lured a young engineer through Kentucky to catch the trail, and when he finally climbed to its shelter he found not only the pine but the foot-prints of a girl . . . "

(–and so on, yadda, yadda – because, in fact – according to Wikipedia on this actual type of tree, the 'lonesome pine' – Pinus pungens ['smelly pine'? – maybe that's what's used in PineSol] – is really 'a tree of modest size (6-12 m).'

So much for 'a tall tree' standing 'in splendor.' (It's amazing how these legends can exaggerate things, isn't it?)

But what is true that the blub says, that does make the smelly-pine remarkable, is its isolation. The table pine (a.k.a. 'table mountain pine,' aka 'lonesome pine,' a.k.a. 'smelly pine' [so, I guess, no wonder it's so lonesome – my, how these legends shrink back down to size once you really come to look at them]), is found only in the (isolated) Appalachians – in a northeasterly to southwesterly swathe from S Central PA to the Westernmost tip of NC (and covering the entirety of WV's Eastern panhandle).

But you don't have to be a forester or look at a map to see it is an isolated tree: every lonesome pine is found either growing off by itself, or else in little, clumpy groves of smelly-pine – rather than in the larger forests where other pines typically grow. (And as for the picture we are given of its standing silhouetted high on a mountaintop for all to see – it more looks as if it grows in flattish, 'tabletop' areas nestled in the hills.)

But the best thing, probably, about the Lonesome Pine's Appalachian isolation, from its publicist's, Mr. Fox', point of view, is that hardly anyone's ever seen one – so no one's is in much of a position to contradict you if you want to lie about its impressiveness and size.

I myself kind of think Fox' idea of this young man who goes off in search of a legendary tree might have been based on Fox' own experience. Fox himself spent time in the Eastern VA coal mining region where his book takes place (his hero is a young geologist, after all) – and to get there Fox might well have had to travel through Southwestern West Virginia – and have gone to see the famous Mingo Oak. So the great and poignant Lonesome Pine, as we have all come to imagine it, might really have been not a pine at all, but a great white oak; a tree that, had we no means to preserve it, might have survived only in the lore of Appalachians and otherwise written off as myth.

Appalachia is a place that specializes in the creation of legends – of course, some true, some not. From its start in Fox' tale the 'Lonesome Pine' grew to fame via numerous, spin-off works, including three films, among them Laurel and Hardy's Way Out West, with the (perhaps annoying?) little song we all know: 'In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia/On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine.'

But if Fox played a little fast and loose creating legend, and gave credit for his literary inspiration to the wrong tree, he seems to have come by this finger-crossing honestly. He hailed from the little Kentucky town of Paris, in Bourbon County, which boasted some 300 souls at its inception and has around 8,000 now (and, to keep you from confusing the great with the small, Wikipedia does give you a warning that this is not Paris, France). And, speaking of (deliberately conflating the large with the small), one site in Paris, the Shinner Building (vintage 1891), actually made it into Ripley's Believe It Or Not, as 'the world's tallest three-story structure.' (C'mon.) But they're not done yet, these Parisians: just six miles east the astonished traveler will come upon the Cane Ridge Meeting House, of exactly a century earlier, which is 'said' (note that 'said'– because how could you prove it?) to be 'the largest one-room log structure in the country.' (Take that, Eiffel Tower.)

Now, I can't say I have much in common with those modern treasure-hunters who go antiquing – but I will admit that I'll spend half the day chasing a local historical site, no matter how small (or couldn't you tell?). Human beings have always felt a thrill in doing that sort of thing. So, now that we no longer have to hunt down our food, we invent reasons to go out and road-trip or to head to the mall. At one point in our cultural evolution, and not too far back in the forested fortresses of Appalachia, what people went out 'hunting' was trees (sort of as if they were prey that couldn't run very fast). It was a huge, community-party deal – felling, cutting up, dragging away a mammoth tree, very like when great, white hunters return with big animal kills.

But unlike animals you kill and eat, or previous stones you find, trees uniquely metamorph when they're cut down. You can take the wood from a tree and make it into other things. You can carve things out of it; if you carve something like a mask, the tree can seem to be coming to life again, in a different form. A single, woodworked tree might live on, scattered around, in many different forms. (It might even become a relic – survive the ages – live to become Big Game, for antiquers, yet again.) (It's just like the deathless and haunting Red Violin, in the film of the same name, I wrote about last time.)

The Mingo Oak's transformation, and afterlife, actually began long before it ever even fell ill. From the area's earliest settlement days it was 'the church in the wild woods,' where were set up pulpits and benches for Sunday services. And, in excellent Red Violin tradition, part of the great Oak after its death, in the form of a pulpit, resumed life in a local church.

Great trees and ancient forests go together with outdoor sanctuaries as if they were salt and pepper. The Cherry Tree Carol is a part of sacral music and presents a charming vignette of a miraculous, transformational tree: the story is of Mary and Joseph stopping enroute, on their travels, to rest beneath a cherry-tree – which the unborn Baby Jesus inside Mary then commands to bend down and give some cherries to his mother (and the tree of course complies).

It sounds kind of nursery-tale to us, but in the Middle Ages, Ripley's B/I/O/N stories like this, of 'Real Marvel and Miracles That Are TRUE, Honest Injun,' were taken seriously and held a lot of oo-oo-oo feeling for the people, who were quite gullible in lieu of science . (But even we can experience something of what they did in settings like the heavily forested parts of WV where, once you're out there alone, it's easy to start believing anything. The atmosphere will do that to you – and the darkness and deepness of anything that we can go and stand in is not aboriginal forest – that was cut down from Appalachia by timber-hunters starting in the late-18th c. Original, aboriginal forest was apparently something that we now can imagine only with difficulty. It has become for us only a myth.)

What pagan religious influences live on in the Carol are obvious, from when the people of Britain, long before they were Christian, had been Druidic and had invested the trees of their forests with magical numen. That more ancient pagan strain was of course absorbed, very purposefully, by the Christian Church, with the result that a lot of pagan lore, like that surrounding the cherry-tree, found its way into songs that were sung at the newly-Christianized, old pagan festivals, including Christmas.

The Cherry Tree Carol, which is found in numerous variants on both sides of the Atlantic, contains some pretty obscure references going back also to purely Christian sources, of the Middle Ages. It harks back to the Biblical myth of Eden, in its theme of a couple sitting beneath a tree, eating fruit (only in this case of course the Eden experience goes just right).

The fact that it was sung at Christmastime embroiled it in the Church's calendrical conundrums: its lyrics have the unborn Christ Child say, 'On the fifth day of January my Birthday shall be/When the stars and the elements shall tremble with fear.' So we see Medieval astrology playing a role in the song foregrounds predictions and cosmic resonance as among 'stars,' 'elements,' and divine and worldly events. It seems surprising that Baby Jesus would prophesy that the world would 'tremble in fear' on the Happy Day – but that kind of apolcalyptic language is exactly in keeping with astrology-talk of the time.

As among the Age's many controversies, there was a pretty raging argument over the exact date when Christmas fell, that arose from the discrepancy between the Julian and the Gregorian calendars; Christmas Day (something like in a story by Charles Dickens) actually migrated around for a few centuries, growing later and later, as it advanced through the days of the first week of January a day at a time, 'gaining a day' every 50 or 100 years. As a result different versions of The Cherry Tree Carol, as they have come down, will actually have Baby J. giving his coming natal day as the 5th, 6th, or 7th, depending. (Small wonder the Church finally nailed the wandering holiday down to Dec. 25, regardless.)

Not that that made everyone happy. Jean Ritchie did a post, dated 12/15/02, on what she termed 'a small observation, not provable,' to the effect that she could remember her old Granny Catty Ritchie (the one who rocked while singing The Cherry Tree Carol) was 'still quite touchy on the subject of the Christmas date and she ALWAYS observed Old Christmas, telling us in no uncertain terms that December 25th was just "a newfangled notion." '

So, contrary to what you might expect – not just did the song come down, in all its Medieval sophistication and complexity, to 'unsophisticated' Appalachians, such transplanted lore also brought with it and preserved things like long-forgotten topical debates from those old, old times (so that people here, deep in the Appalachian wilderness, centuries later could still get about them!).

More as one might have expected, the 'common people's original source for The CTC was from early English broadside; but, back behind that, there was lurking a source that derived from Biblical Apocrypha – the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, to be exact. Now, that is a bit interesting, and strange, if you think about it: because the Apocrypha of course were those parts of the Bible that go back as far as all the rest of Biblical text, but that the Church Fathers decided to exclude on the basis of their not being 'genuine' – that they weren't really written by the Apostles.

A lot of times the Church decided that because the Apocrypha, which were written by the 'Pseudo-' writers, were often the liveliest, the most controversial, and of course the texts least in keeping with Church C.W. – so from our modern point of view, they are among the most interesting account to read. For anyone who wants to have a look at the sections of the Apocrypha that The Cherry Trail Carol's lyricist drew on, it can make for some pretty remarkable reading:


The Apocryphal story The CTC drew on shows us a humbly conceived, charmingly dressed-down domestic moment within the divine family; a moment of very humanly sour grapes from Joseph, for various reasons (depending on which source you look at): either because Mary has made one of those impossible requests wives standardly seem to make of their husbands (just to keep us on our toes, I guess, or maybe to test our sincerity), 'Honey, can you go up there, 40 feet off the ground, now that you're tired, and get me some cherries? (in response to which Joseph is kind of leery because they are growing so nowhere close to the ground); or because Mary picks just this moment to reveal to him that she is expecting (and his reaction is perhaps understandably less than thrilled: 'Why don't you go get the man whose child it is to get you some cherries?'); or because he questions her priorities at time like this ('Fruit?? How can you expect me to be thinking about fruit when we've run out of water?!').

This unexpected, comic side to medieval sacred song and story fits right in with the Cherry's ancient mythic associations: there is life in the fruit of a cherry-tree. Its famous 'stone' (rhymes with 'bone') is an unusual, a strange-looking, an odd and unexpected form for a seed to take. It looks dead – we call it a 'stone' – but life is inside it nevertheless, kind of 'miraculously,' as it has been inside Mary miraculously conceived; and as life exists, and is seemingly able 'miraculously' to transform and resurrect itself, within a tree.

At its center the Carol's story is also about disagreement between Joseph and Mary as to whether they more need to go about getting some water (from the cherry-tree's roots, which is what Joseph thinks should happen); or whether they should get some cherries (from the tree itself, which is what Mary wants to do). (Myself, I'd tend more to go along with Joseph, but you know pregnant women, forever eating.) But – in the spirit of 'Ladies First' – the Christ Child (who in this song of course has beautiful manners even while still in utero) tells the tree to bend down and give his mother what she wants first – and then, Joseph, the tree-roots can give them all some water.

The comic quality hiding behind the song, that we see so clearly in its ancient Biblical source, actually inspired this wonderful Cherry Tree Carol spoof:

http://mudcat.org/@displaysong.cfm?SongID=4677 (really you should not miss this)

–here a 'pickle-tree' (you know, pickles and ladies-in-waiting; pickles and teething babies; the stork mascot on the jar of Vlasic pickles . . .) miraculously appears and rains down pickles on the 2 ½ of them. This little cherry-tree song, for all its age, is a very pregnant mythic source, indeed.

But the person who is responsible for this send-up did it based just on the Cherry-Tree song; they were able to see the humor just by looking at the 'Tree' – at the derivative Christmas carol; they didn't need to go back to the song's Roots among the Apocrypha.

But wait ! We're referring now to very old and traditional Cherry Tree Carol not as something that returns us to our Roots – but as a Tree, sprung from Roots that are even older.

Behind and beneath every root-source that one can find one can find another, deeper root. We can start with the fruit of the Tree that's in front of us – but there is always more – more revivifying liquid, more water, more to drink – at its Root.

You can still go and see the stump of the great Mingo Oak, if you've a mind. Even with so little of it left, your imagination will fill in the gaps, and you will find yourself awestruck. With a little ferreting out, and adventurer-like exploring, plus a little faith, you can nearly always manage a return to the Roots and find something; to the Water; to the Source – and be carried along by some new spirit of inspiration.

Ah, Mountain Mama – Appalachia: hunting ground for scholars, the romantic-minded, and those of us with antiquarian turn. There "s more in your music than just the music.

More in you than just trees . . .

More to come.

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