Category Archives: folk music

#14 Singing Bones & Scrumptious Children



Bone and Sickle Podcast, Episode 14
Bone and Sickle Podcast, Episode 14

This episode looks at some particularly gruesome fairy tales and folk ballads telling of murderers convicted of their crime through magical intervention of the bones or blood of their victims.

We begin with a look at the story of Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street as it shares a common theme of accidental cannibalism with Grimm fairy tale central to our episode, “The Juniper Tree.” Some Victorian urban legends are identified as possible sources of the story, which first appeared in an 1846 penny dreadful entitled The String of Pearls, a Romance.  We also hear a snippet of a song about the Demon Barber written by R.P. Weston and sung by English music hall revivalist Stan Holloway, the artists who also gave us the song about Anne Boleyn’s ghost  “With Her Head Tucked Underneath Her Arm,” featured in our “Lost Heads” episode.

We then have a look at  “The Juniper Tree” published in 1812 in the original edition of Grimm’s collection Children’s and Household Tales, that is, what we call Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The grisly tale would never lend itself to the Disney treatment, though it did serve, extremely loosely, as inspiration for an Icelandic film of the same name, starring a young Björk.

Grimm's Fairy Tales, 1812 edition
Grimm’s Fairy Tales, 1812 edition

“The Juniper Tree” tells of an evil stepmother who contrives to kill her stepson in a particularly brutal way, covering her crime by cooking the child’s remains into stew served to the family.  The tale also includes of blood, a vengeful bird, and a fiery, magic juniper tree. English, Austrian, and Romanian version of the tale, are also noted for noteworthy bits of horror, and we hear a a musical rendition by the Russian ensemble Caprice of the song sung by the bird in this Grimm story.

Illustration for "The Juniper Tree," artist unknown.
Illustration for “The Juniper Tree,” artist unknown.

The next story, introduced via an audio oddity from the 1962 film, The Wonder World of the Brothers Grimm, is “The Singing Bone.”  Like “The Juniper Tree,” this one revolves around the outing of a murderer though a song.  In this case, the song telling the tale of murder of one brother by another produced by a flute made of a bone of the murdered brother.   We also have a look at a number of variations on this tale and a tool used by folklorists,The Aarne–Thompson Tale Type registry, where one can find synopses of tales listed the “Singing Bone” (#780) category, such as:

“780B: The Speaking Hair: A stepmother buries a girl alive. Her hair grows as wheat or bush and sings her misfortunes. Thus she is discovered and dug up alive. The stepmother is buried in the same hole.”

Just as bones communicate the identity of their murderer, the blood of a victim in other tales can bring a killer to justice. We hear a number of tales of this sort, including the Icelandic “Murder Will Out,” featuring a bleeding skull impaled with knitting needles.

The idea that human remains could identify their killer was not just the stuff of folk tales. The idea that a corpse would bleed in the presence of its murderer (called ‘cruentation’ from a Latin word for “staining with blood”)was, in past centuries, an accepted element of criminal law in Germany, Denmark, Bohemia, Poland, and Scotland, and even the United States.  We hear a snippet from Shakespeare’s Richard III, featuring the practice as well as an example of cruentation used as late as the early 1800s in the US.

The “Singing Bone” story has parallels in the world of folk music.  The murder ballad “Two Sisters” (also  “Twa Sisters,” “The Cruel Sister,” “Binnorie,” or in America, “The Dreadful Wind and Rain”) tells of the murder of one sister by another over an issue of romantic jealousy.  Like “The Singing Bone,” the victim’s bones are found and made into a musical instrument that produces a song convicting the murderer.  Often the hair, or in an older version dating to the 1600s — veins, are turned into the strings of a harp.  We hear a version of the song by The Askew Sisters and by the German group Broom Bezzums, and American versions by Kilby Snow and Tom Waits, also a rather different take on the song from Sweden, where more than a hundred versions also exist.

We saved a final tasty morsel for the end of the show, a surprising historical account, which precisely parallels the Sweeney Todd story, not from 19th-century London, but a place and time far, far removed.

 


Episode 11: The Dead Speak



The 19th-century Spiritualist movement was rife with fraud and misplaced hopes, but what made people so eager to believe in the possibility of talking to the dead?  This episode looks at some early mediumistic pioneers, attractions beyond the metaphysical that drew sitters to take part in seances, and the growing pressure within the movement to produce ever more vivid phenomena passing for proof of supernatural contact.  This episode also kicks off our Fall-Winter season and a (3-episode!) October dedicated to the theme of “talking to the dead.”

As communication with the dead is necessarily a two-way process, we begin with a story illustrating, not why we may wish to speak to the departed, but why the departed may wish to speak to us.  A typical folkloric reason for a spirit’s return is the desire for resolution regarding the circumstances of death and proper burial.  Our first story illustrates this with the story of William Corder’s murder of Maria Marten in 1827 —  what came to be known as “The Red Barn Murder” — in which a ghost appears in dreams of Maria’s stepmother in an effort to identify the perpetrator and the body’s whereabouts.  I include a 1932 recording of a popular Victorian melodrama enacting the story and a description of the widespread fascination which this case held and some particularly morbid consequences.  I also include a snippet from a popular period ballad recounting the tale.

Digging up the grave. A Victorian Penny Dreadful.
Digging up the grave. A Victorian Penny Dreadful.

Vincent Price’s 1979 series of radio shorts, “Hall of Horrors,” gives us a audio introduction to the de facto founders of the Spiritualist movement, the Fox Sisters, Margaret, Kate, and Leah, of Hydesville, New York.  Like the unfortunate Maria Marten, a murdered peddler and his attempt to communicate in 1848 with the siblings through a knocking code is the purported initiator of this historical movement.  Even as the sisters are developing a following in the 1850s, other small groups of friend and relatives are gathering in “home circles” to emulate the Fox’s supernatural communications, and other “public mediums” are gathering their own followers and offering performing on an evolving circuit of Spiritualist hotspots. We return to the Foxes in Episode 12 next week for the unexpected end to their tale.

The Fox Sisters
The Fox Sisters

One of these “public mediums” was Jonathan Koons of Mt. Nebo, Ohio, who in the early 1850s, claimed to have been directed by the spirits to build his “Spirit Room,” a log cabin, in which bizarre musical seances were held around a mysterious “spirit machine” handmade by Koons. We hear some strange firsthand accounts of the goings-on from newspaper accounts of the period.

As things progressed, greater proof of the spirits’ presence was demanded, and mediums complied with all sorts of gimmicks including physical tokens supposedly manifested from the spirit world (“apports”), spirit photography, and even impressions of ghostly body parts made in plates of warm paraffin left out during seances.  We hear a couple cases of apports and spirit prints going terribly, terribly wrong.

We visit William and Horatio Eddy of Chittenden, Vermont, whose showman-like seances upped the ante with a cast of dozens of costumed spirits including costumed Native Americans, elderly Yankees, Russians, Asians, Africans, and pirates.  A bizarre incident with a rat (or is it a flying squirrel?) and a dancing spirit is recounted.

William Crookes & "Katie King"
William Crookes & “Katie King”

Next, we hear the more well-known case the teenage medium Florence Cook investigated by Sir William Crookes, known for his pioneering work with vacuum tubes and radiography.  Crookes’ fanatical investigation of of Cook’s spirit guide “Katie King” did not meet with the same success as his mainstream work.  Listen for the rather embarrassing conclusions drawn by his colleagues in the scientific community.

Annie Fairlamb Mellon with her alleged materialization Cissie.
Annie Fairlamb Mellon with her alleged materialization Cissie.

The show concludes with some tricks of the trade, a look at the a super-secret catalog used by fraudulent mediums and an exploration of ectoplasm, how it might be simluted, what exactly it feels and looks like, and what it should be capable of doing.

Ectoplasm produced by Stanislawa P. 1913. Photo Albert von Schrenk-Notzing.
Stanislawa P. during séance of 25 January 1913. Photo Albert von Schrenk-Notzing.

 


Episode 8: Dreadful Ships



On this episode of Bone and Sickle, we look at the folklore of ghost ships, undead sailors, some nautical elements in gothic literature, a song about a ship piloted by the Devil, and other horror stories of the sea.

We begin with a little reminiscing about our last show on the Pied Piper and a story by George G. Toudouze that I’d wanted to include but didn’t have space for, “Three Skeleton Key,” It features both a ghost ship and a horde of ravenous rats like those devouring the wicked Bishop Hatto in Episode 7.  Clips from a 1956 radio dramatization featuring Vincent Price are included.

Discovery of the ghost ship Marlborough" 1913, from Supplément illustré du Petit Journal
Discovery of the ghost ship Marlborough” 1913, from Supplément illustré du Petit Journal

We then take a look at some notorious derelict ships from history, beginning with The Mary Celeste, which entered the popular imagination through a fictionalized account by Arthur Conan Doyle.  Ships adrift in the Arctic with frozen crews,  a ship cursed by malevolent spirits picked up in Zanzibar, and a ship discovered with its lifeless crew in a particularly grisly state are all discussed.

Edgar Allan Poe, in his only full-length novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, describes a ghost ship in ghastly detail in a passage dramatically interpreted by Wilkinson.

"Pym" Illustration for Jules Verne's essay "Edgard Poë et ses oeuvres" by Frederic Dargent, 1862
“Pym” Illustration for Jules Verne’s essay “Edgard Poë et ses oeuvres” by
Frederic Dargent, 1862

In between the Edgar Allen Poe passage and my introduction to the Flying Dutchman, you heard a snippet of David Coffin and friends singing the sea shanty “Roll the Old Chariot,” which you can hear in its entirety here.

We then have a look at the lore of The Flying Dutchman, best known as the supernatural ship from the Pirates of the Caribbean films or the opera by Richard Wagner,  Wilkinson relates some eerie accounts of Dutchman sightings from surprisingly recent times.

Hartwig & Vogel's Chocolate trading cards, "The Flying Dutchman" (1906)
Hartwig & Vogel’s Chocolate trading cards, “The Flying Dutchman” (1906)

A favorite explanation for stories, in which ghost ship are said to luminesce, is the phenomenon of St. Elmo’s fire, a weird electrical anomaly, which we find showing up everywhere from Melville’s Moby Dick to the laboratory of Nikola Tesla.

Ghost ships are sometimes said to arrive as omens of death, or their appearance may recreate the tragic end of ship and crew.  These otherworldly aspects have been noted in mariners’ accounts and served as the basis for a few poems, including a work by Longfellow, which we’ll hear.  Along the way, we learn about the Klabautermann, a strange sea-going gnome said to haunt ships on the Baltic and North Seas.

Klabautermann from Buch Zur See, 1885.
Klabautermann from Buch Zur See, 1885.

Next, it’s a musical break featuring the 17th-century  folk ballad “House Carpenter” also sometimes called “The Daemon Lover.”  This tale of demonic jealousy or the Devil’s retribution on the high seas is hauntingly rendered by Appalachian singer Jean Ritchie, Scottish singer A.L Lloyd, and in an instrumental arrangement by Adrian McHenry, and we hear bits of all these versions.

Samuel Coleridge’s epic poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” has often drawn comparison to the Flying Dutchman legend.  We have a look at its undead sailors, ominous allegorical figures, and how its arctic setting may have influenced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Gustave Doré illustration for "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (1876)
Gustave Doré illustration for “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1876)

And who would’ve known, but it seems there’s a peculiar link between Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Richard Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman.  I work it all out in the conclusion of the episode.

Claude-Joseph Vernet, "A Shipwreck in Stormy Seas" 1770.
Claude-Joseph Vernet, “A Shipwreck in Stormy Seas” 1770.