Holly Tannen Mistress of Folklore
NAVIGATION for Holly Tannen Mistress of Folklore
Holly Tannen Apples
 

SongCraft

. . .
I love songs, always have. I first heard folk songs in Greenwich Village, where I’d go every Saturday for my classical guitar lesson. Old-timey and bluegrass bands crowded around Washington Square; Dave Van Ronk played at the Gaslight Café. Joan Baez and Bob Dylan had released their first albums. I played them loud in my room and flounced through the apartment singing Silver Dagger and House Of The Rising Sun. My father, who played clarinet in the Doctors’ Symphony Orchestra*, hated this music, which was a plus.
. . . Each song was a window onto a world beyond my high school textbooks: striking coal miners, slaves plotting escape, poachers transported to Australia, milkmaids rolling in the dew.
. . . My first boyfriend heard Jean Ritchie at the Berkeley Folk Festival in 1972, and made me a dulcimer for my seventeenth birthday. At Berkeley and later at Reed, I learned songs from albums by Richard Farina, Joan Baez, and Judy Collins, and stayed up late plucking them on the dulcimer. But I was too self-conscious to imagine ever playing in front of anyone.
. . . In Berkeley I heard string bands playing American fiddle tunes. When I put the dulcimer in “bagpipe tuning” - D, D, and D an octave below - I could play chords in five keys, and strum along. Some tunes had words, but they did not tend toward the profound, (“Cluck old hen, cluck and squawl/Ain’t laid an egg since late last fall”) which hardly mattered since the dancers couldn’t hear them.


. . . In 1973 I heard English singer Martin Carthy at the Mariposa Folk Festival outside Toronto, and was struck by the power of the traditional English and Scottish ballads. Some had survived in the Appalachians, traveled north and west, and melded with blues songs. Others were too magical or too sexy for our Puritan forebears.
. . . I met feminist ballad singer Frankie Armstrong at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, and became her accompanist. In 1974 I moved to London, and with my dulcimer, my tape recorder, and my battered I Ching, I traipsed around England recording ballads from singers at folk clubs.
. . . I moved back to Berkeley in 1980, and entered graduate school at UC Berkeley to study with folklorist Alan Dundes. Invited to assist Jack Niles on a University Research Expedition, I spent part of two summers with Scotland’s Traveling People, and wrote my thesis on Duncan Williamson’s partly sung, partly-spoken, version of Tam Lin.

. . . In grad school I was under the rule of men in suits. To blow off steam, I started writing satire. I had to buy a computer to write my thesis. Typing late into the night, my eyes grew red and weepy. I’d “bleerit a’ my e’en,” as Robert Burns said:


John Anderson, my jo, John
I wonder what you mean
To sit awake so late at night
Staring at a screen…
Come sooner tae your bed at e’en
John Anderson, my jo.

. . . . . .- Lament of the Computer Widow

 

I parodied that old paean to self-employment, My God, HowThe Money Rolls In.


My father’s a street-corner preacher
He saves fallen women from sin
He’ll save you a blonde for five dollars
My God, how the money rolls in

 

Even I realized that in 1980s San Francisco you could no longer get a blonde for five dollars. But I knew folks who had developed their own quasi-legal methods of getting rich:


My father builds phony computers
He makes them of plastic and tin
He makes floppy discs out of frisbees
My God, how the money rolls in.

My sister writes erotic novels
She imitate Anaïs Nin
She spends all her days doing research
My God, how the money rolls in.

 

I discovered I liked making people laugh.
* He was an accountant, but they were short on clarinetists.

 

 
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