Posts Tagged ‘folk music’

I’ve been practicing how to play and sing an old 19th century parlor song on my autoharp: The Wildwood Flower. It’s a pretty little song, I think, and I have a memory of my grandmother singing snippets of it on occasion.   I like to know what I’m singing, so as I practice I tend to ponder the lyrics and what they mean. I also tend to go on tangents to find a song’s original lyrics and even its history.

This song was recorded by the Carter Family, although they had changed some of the lyrics. It’s original name was I’ll Twine ‘Mid the Ringlets. The song itself is attributed to Maud Irving, who wrote it as a poem and published it the popular lady’s magazine Home Monthly, which was a spiritual home-schooling periodical, about 1860.  There is a lot of debate if Maud Irving really wrote it or if J. William Van Namee did, as Maud Irving is a name he often used as a pseudonym.

Van Nemee was a spiritualist, a self-proclaimed clairvoyant, and a lecturer. I realized that if he wrote the poem or was close enough to Mrs. Irving to help her get published that the poem may be deeper than it appeared. I’m not an expert on the Victorian way of life, but I know a little here and there. The most important thing for this song is that I know how Victorians placed meaning and depth to just about everything they did. They had dozens of ways to communicate without saying anything starting with how a lady holds her fan to what a flower bouquet meant when sent by a suitor. Even their handkerchiefs could mean something especially when embroidered with the symbol of loyalty, the dog.

Van Nemee lived in Brooklyn, which makes him American at least for part of his life in some fashion, but the 19th century is a time when America was still under the influence of England. Even America’s laws were largely written to model the European law books. America does have some differences, but when it comes to this song they’re not stark enough for it to change the song’s meaning entirely if at all.

Take the entire song as a whole and we know there is a woman – assumed to be very young usually – who has been jilted by love. She is making the decision to show the world that she is happy and will be the life of the party. And for many that’s all there is to the song. I have been delightfully surprised today to find that this story is deeper still.

The lyrics:

I’ll twine ‘mid the ringlets
Of my raven black hair,
The lilies so pale
And the roses so fair,
The myrtle so bright
With an emerald hue,
And the pale aronatus
With eyes of bright blue.

I’ll sing, and I’ll dance,
My laugh shall be gay,
I’ll cease this wild weeping
Drive sorrow away,
Tho’ my heart is now breaking,
He never shall know,
That his name made me tremble
And my pale cheek to glow.

I’ll think of him never
I’ll be wildly gay,
I’ll charm ev’ry heart
And the crowd I will sway,
I’ll live yet to see him
Regret the dark hour
When he won, then neglected,
The frail wildwood flower.

He told me he loved me,
And promis’d to love,
Through ill and misfortune,
All others above,
Another has won him,
Ah! misery to tell;
He left me in silence
No word of farewell!

He taught me to love him,
He call’d me his flower
That blossom’d for him
All the brighter each hour;
But I woke from my dreaming,
My idol was clay;
My visions of love
Have all faded away.

Looks like your simple story of jilted love, right? The mistake we make in these modern times is to assume that’s what was meant by our terms. To truly understand this song, we need to try to see it from a 19th century point of view.

I’ll twine ‘mid the ringlets
Of my raven black hair,

This part is obvious. The narrator has the blackest of hair and is decorating it with floral items, all of which are listed like some sort of Victorian shopping list below. At this point, we already know that our young woman is a beauty… for true black hair is rare no matter your ethnic background (a lot of black hair is usually just a very dark shade of brown). Blonde hair was considered a sign of beauty to the Victorians, but apparently mousy brown hair was even more common over today. We also know her hair has been curled into ringlets, which was stylish back then and even considered an important part of women’s hygiene.

We are also told a general age for our lovelorn woman. She’s not old. She’s not even starting to get gray hairs yet. If her hair is in ringlets, she’s wearing it down which was how most young  to more mature  women wore their hair. It can be taken for granted her hair was very long, because Victorian long hair was a mark of femininity and was never cut unless extremely necessary. She is a clean, fashionable woman with a glorious mane. The fact that she can curl her hair even gives us a hint at status, because a poor woman was  a working woman who usually rolled and braided her hair to get it out of her way while she worked.  She wouldn’t have had time to take a full hair day only for it to get ruined the next day while doing someone else’s laundry.

She is doing her hair up, which hints along with the theme of the song that she intends to go out.

The lilies so pale
And the roses so fair,
The myrtle so bright
With an emerald hue,
And the pale aronatus
With eyes of bright blue.

This is a very specific list, and because of this it must be important especially considering how the Victorians placed language and meaning into everything you did. In the 19th century flowers held meaning (as they still do today).  They were used to pass messages from one to another because outright flirting (and other manners) were frowned upon. Messages were secretive. So there is a heap of information in this part, even if the author didn’t mean for it to be that way. (And they might not have.)

No one seems to know what an aranotus is. It clearly is a Latin word, which hearkens back to Victorian educational standards. One website I found speculates that it’s referring to a flower in plowed fields, which you would see in the country, that is small and white. You see a lot of these flowers in America, or at least I did growing up when my environment was less industrialized. Many people speculate that the author meant some other flower, but I am sure the author meant what he or she wrote.

We no longer know what an aronatus is, apparently. A certain type of angelfish has aronatus as part of their scientific name, or I would court the idea it could be a fish which would make this song a filk referring to Hamlet’s Ophelia. Regardless we are given a description of the flower. It’s just that we no longer know what the Victorian author was referring to. This happens. It’s rather like how we no longer call butterflies “flutterbies” even though that’s their name. The same can be said for lady birds. We only know that the flower was white, had a blue eye, and was accessible to the woman. This description, by the way, does narrow the list of possible flowers down but we cannot know for sure what it was.

We may have lost the meaning behind the aronatus, but we still have the rest. Pale lilies most likely mean white lilies, especially since she has been so very specific with what sort of other flowers there are and only describes these lilies as pale. We don’t know where the woman is as she is making this decision, so we can’t even say if they’re water lilies. We only know they’re pale.  But this is enough. Lilies symbolize death, which is why we associate them with funerals. Where our modern knowledge ends there, the Victorian mind most likely knew they also meant the departed soul has been renewed in Heaven. So she has died a death and her soul has found peace. If she were using the Lily of the Valley, she would be signifying a return to joy.

Roses so fair isn’t much information to go on, and it’s a near impossible message to translate without help from the author. The use of the word fair here can mean more than a shade tone, which would be light, but also the ideal of beauty. And that’s all we have to go on; we are not given a shade of color.  Being as in the language of flowers, roses have different meaning depending on their color as well as their breed she could be saying she’s still in love or innocent. She could also be saying she’s in pain, if she picked the right kind of rose. We only know she’s using them, and they’re pretty. For all we know, the author meant all of the above.

Myrtle also means love in the language of flowers. This flower is sacred to Demeter, the Greek goddess of harvest, fertility, and most importantly sacred law or morality. Our composer most likely would have known that being as a Victorian education emphasized Greek classics and the use of Latin. By choosing this plant as well as the roses she may be reaching her heart to Demeter after some fashion. If you think we have double standards about adultery in this day and age, it was far worse back then.  Men having multiple partners was something men laughed about with each other, even if it was frowned upon by society on the whole. There are a lot of songs and stories about adulterous and philandering men meeting their maker for what they have done, but on the more colloquial level punishments for this behavior weren’t that common.

As the flower is also very fragrant, she may also have been using it as a perfume (a practice that has never left society since it’s use during the Black Plague). How many women still do up their hair and put on perfume when going out so they can look good? Answer: just about all of them.

I’ll sing, and I’ll dance,
My laugh shall be gay,
I’ll cease this wild weeping
Drive sorrow away,

As I mentioned before, the woman has decided to show the world she is happy and okay. So she is going to sing and dance. As a Victorian lady, she would have known how to do both. Young girls spent their entire lives being groomed to be wives, and back then part of being a wife meant knowing how to be a good hostess and  skilled with entertaining company. She most certainly would have been taught to sing. She may have known how to handle a musical instrument. So when she says she’s going to sing and dance, she’s not only saying she is going to sing and dance and be a joyful person. She’s saying she’s going to sing on key and dance properly, and really show the world what for.

That may sound like an over examination. To sing and dance still means today what it meant back then, because the meaning actually possibly comes from the Bible in reference to showing a happy spirit. But when we think of singing and dancing we don’t think of it in the same way they did back then. Most of us can’t even read music. Not for this lovely lady.

She is also ceasing her “wild weeping”. This means she has been through a period of mourning, it was the loud wailing kind, and her heart has now healed to a point where she can seriously consider doing this. We should mark, though, that she was extremely heartbroken when her beau left her. She explains just why and lends understanding to how deeply throughout the rest of the song.

Another important point that I’ve noticed people overlook when examining the song is how big of a deal it is for her to decide to carry on through joviality. For us, it has become a typical and boring reaction that so-and-so was jilted and are going to pretend like it never happened and party hard. (How droll.) But for the Victorian woman, who lived in a society where she had next to no rights, this meant going against the very fabric of what was expected of her.

Tho’ my heart is now breaking,
He never shall know,
That his name made me tremble
And my pale cheek to glow.

We now know how more of how deeply he hurt her. At one time the very mention of his name would send her heart to beating wildly, and she would blush.  She was certainly head over button-up heels, which only highlights the depth of her heartbreak.

We are also given another hint at her appearance and status. Glowing pale cheeks? This girl sported no tan, and this meant she had status of some sort and was of European descent if not flat out European. The Victorians saw pale skin as a sign of nobility, and the women often wore makeup to make their faces appear whiter. If cosmetics were not a girl’s thing, she avoided going outside or carried a parasol with her to shade her face… because a fashion statement that also has a useful function makes something twice as interesting.

I’ll think of him never
I’ll be wildly gay,
I’ll charm ev’ry heart
And the crowd I will sway,

She’s still in pain, and it appears to be that her heart is breaking from finally accepting her situation now that she is past the wild weeping stage. So now her plan to move forward gains more detail past putting a message of flowers artfully in her hair and showing the world she’s okay despite what her man has done.

It’s sensible to assume our young woman sang, danced, and was gay by having company over and parlor parties. Social functions are how she will charm every heart and sway the crowd to her side. (What other way would you sway the crowd in this situation?). In Victorian society, she couldn’t just barge into people’s homes, call on the phone her girlfriends to complain, or visit people at random. There were strict rules to how she had to conduct herself, and even stricter ones on how she would be approached  by visiting callers. Today if we want to go to a party, we go. For her, it would have had to be by invitation at least some of the time. And she may have had to have someone with her, depending on her circumstances. Or she could hold parties in her home.

Basically she most likely kept up a good social life while observing the strict Victorian guidelines that dictated her role. There would still be talk about her of course, some of it pitying some of it assuming she was taking her company to bed now that she no longer had her man. Her point in the song seems to be she will want company to see her happy. She will want them to talk. Being wild with her happiness would most certainly get them to talk. Part of the talk depends on people mentioning how she doesn’t seem to care for her former love and that all should forget that she was so besotted once upon a time.

I’ll live yet to see him
Regret the dark hour
When he won, then neglected,
The frail wildwood flower.

Another typical sentiment, I’m sure. “I’ll show him!” And if her plan is as it appears to be, she really was going to show him. She could be planning to turn all of their mutual friends against him, and a social death in Victorian times could be more damaging than it is today. (It’s a Victorian story. All the women are that conniving in Victorian stories!) Business prosperity depended on social connections in a lot of cases. Sometimes even staying alive depended on it being as a lot of people were hanged and jailed for years at a time for the most petty of crimes, including stealing a rind of bacon.

I doubt it would have been a death sentence for the man, because (for example) to get a divorce a woman had to prove he not only had committed adultery, but had beat her and done several other heinous deeds. A man only had to claim his wife had cheated on him and it was over. So for our lovely lady here, the law is no help. This brings us back to Demeter and a plea to sacred law, which would mean a cry for social justice.

When her man won then neglected her, she really means that. It’s quite the accusation. Courtship in Victorian times was rarely for love; usually it was a business arrangement.  There were levels they would have had to go through just to speak more than a few words to each other in the day with chaperones.  He would have made a real effort to get that close to her.

Having won her, he then neglected her. The song gives a bit more meat to the idea, so at this point we could take the term neglect at its front face meaning. He possibly ignored her. He was not attentive in some way.  All the more is the pity and more heinous his crime.

As far as society was concerned, she was indeed a frail wildwood flower. Women were considered weak and fragile. During menstruation, women who did not have to work were expected to rest the entire week as if their uterus would fall out without provocation.

More, being wildwood pretty much gives us another hint about her. A wildwood  is a forest that people don’t go to; it’s untouched. When he came along, she was what many people still consider a blossoming flower. She was untouched, dare I say uncultivated, before him.

This part could also have double meaning.  She may have come from the country. If aronatus truly does refer to a flower that appears in plowed fields, as some have speculated, then it would make sense. But on that we can only again speculate.

He told me he loved me,
And promis’d to love,
Through ill and misfortune,
All others above,

This bit of stanza is partly why I felt moved to write this article. I was practicing the song on my autoharp when suddenly it hit me what these words actually meant. With that understanding the song suddenly took on a different meaning. She isn’t just some girl who was taken advantage of and left behind the way many think of her as. She was his wife. These are rephrased marriage vows.

Suddenly we know something else about our jilted lover. She’s no 16 year old miss, nor even 14, to be naively fooled by some farmhand’s wet, white shirt. For the most part, Victorian women weren’t even considered marriageable until they had finished their grooming to become the best possible bride. Usually this meant that her “coming out”, that is to say when she was publicly made available for marriage, wasn’t until she was about 16 to 18. Also, for Victorian women, they didn’t always  marry as young as people think they did. A number of marriages happened when the bride was as old as 26. In England the average age does drop, but no lower than 22.

For the Victorian woman, losing one’s virtue before marriage was a social end for her. The stigma of being an unmarried mother still haunts our society today. The term shotgun wedding literally meant that many careless boys were forced to take social responsibility by shotgun and marry the girl they slept with. But even though sleeping around was definitely very heavily frowned upon in society, we have historical examples of women who were free with their bodies and managed to stay afloat in the world. Lola Montez is a good example.

But what about the woman who has been left by her husband? This song was published in 1860. All of her property belonged to her husband. That means anything she brought into the marriage, including her clothes. There have been cases of men who would cast their unwanted wife on the street with nothing but the clothes on her back, and the law was on his side. She couldn’t even have access to her children. The law to protect a woman from this wasn’t put into place until 1870, so our young lady is in danger of being on the streets at a moment’s notice. Which would be another reason to sway the crowd to be on her side, as a sort of social protection. If her husband cares at all what other people think, he won’t think to hurt her that way.

Her being married puts us back to her plan. As a married woman she would have been expected not to actually dance at a ball, I am assuming because this means she would then be put into contact with other people she would not know personally. By the mid-1800s the dance as a full social function was falling out of popularity, though. And there is historical evidence of women dancing anyway.

Another has won him,
Ah! misery to tell;
He left me in silence
No word of farewell!

Yet another part that speaks for itself. Not only has she lost him, but he left her for someone else. Not only that, but he did it the coward’s way and simply left without an explanation. As he was already neglecting her, it may also have simply not occurred to him to let her know or he didn’t want to bother. This is an especially cruel way to break it off with someone, so the song uses this as a way to illustrate how coldly he has treated the entire affair.

In Victorian times, having a mistress was more common than not. (Ironic considering their rules about engagement, social contact between the sexes, and sex itself.) Some mistresses even were legal representatives of the men they slept with. The song isn’t clear that it’s a woman her husband has left her for except through the use of the word “another”, meaning another woman than herself, so it could mean anything after that. We don’t know if she was a mistress or not for sure. Well-to-do men of the age, as I have mentioned before, would have been almost expected to keep a mistress. But we can only speculate.
He taught me to love him,
He call’d me his flower
That blossom’d for him
All the brighter each hour;

Well, they were married so it’s only expected that he would have “taught” her to “love him”, meaning they had sex. With the act obviously came the usual pet names, hence him calling her his flower, and the unfolding of her heart and body towards him.

His love fueled her. She clearly doted on him once they got past the stage where she would only hear his name and blush at the thought of him. With his attentions, she excelled more and more at what she was doing. She might have worked to become more and more beautiful. Her eyes would have been bright, looking forward to the future. With him, she grew as a woman. But only for him.

It’s common for women in her situation to have even built what they think is a home for themselves. Within the constraints of their societal rules, this home will be perfect. A June Cleaver product of their imaginations.

But I woke from my dreaming,
My idol was clay;
My visions of love
Have all faded away.

We’re back to the reason behind her pain. He left, and the dream she had built for herself turned out to be a lie. He was not the perfect husband she thought he was. She adored him – that much is obvious from the other lines in the song – so that he was basically her idol the way men tend to become for women in love even today. The rude awakening was when she realized her idol was nothing but a false god, hence it being nothing but clay or dirt, and any vision she had of a loving future with him is gone. She has had quite the rude awakening.

This is the depth of her pain. She worshiped a man that she literally gave everything over her; her possessions, her inheritance, even her family name when she took his as part of becoming his wife. To her agony he couldn’t even part ways with her in a civilized manner. Now she is left with the implications her situation implies, and probably even some it does not.

When she says her visions of love have all faded away, it may also be implied that she (like so many jilted lovers) can never believe in love again. For the Victorian woman this is far more true than someone from modern times because she may never be able to marry again. He may refuse to divorce her, which was more common back then and held fast by the law. Even though most Victorian marriages were political arrangements, for many men she’s considered damaged goods, being as she no longer owns anything and is not a virgin.

Interestingly the original song doesn’t end on the same note as do the versions recorded by the Carter Family and others. It simply says she had what she thought was the perfect romance and it turned out to be lie. Like in real life, for a moment she was going to move on but her memory flitted back to why she was sad in the first place and lingers there.

Much of my analysis of the song is based on what little I could find and already knew about 19th century culture. The author may not have meant it to have all of the meaning one finds in the verses, but most likely it was there because they would have put it there subconsciously. Just as we take our daily lives for granted, they would have done the same for theirs. So what may seem like an over-examination is really just the necessity of examining every angle to get the best possible truth.

The Wildwood Flower, now that I understand it better, was more than just a parlor song. It was a tragic love story, the kind that the Victorians loved to hear and told each other repeatedly. It’s a deep well of sorrow.

I think when I practice it again, this knowledge is going to transform my performance.

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