I confess, I love fairy tales. But, I hasten to add, I’m not talking about the sanitized and prettified Disney versions. Yes, the Disney movies are examples of great animation, but they are certainly not true tellings of the tales. The urge to make these tales “safe for children” is certainly not limited to Disney, but they are the best known offenders. The fairy tales as I love them are both richer and stranger than the best known versions. There is a darkness to them, and endings are not so purely happy. Evil stepmothers are made to dance in iron shoes that just came out of a furnace. Hansel and Gretel may go to a better place, but the tale does not forgive the parents for abandoning them. And some of the episodes along the way are genuinely frightening.
So what does all of this have to do with music? Songwriters have long been inspired to include allusions to fairy tales in their lyrics. Some songs are tellings of classic tales, often from a fresh perspective. And some songs put me in mind of a fairy tale, even though the songwriter may not have even known the tale I had in mind. All of this happens because fairy tales and songs have one thing in common: they address feelings and situations found in real life. Let me show you what I mean.
Emilie Autumn: Shalott
Emilie Autumn is a gothic songwriter and performer. Both her music and her words evoke strong emotions, and convey an air of mystery. So fairy tales are perfect material for her. The title Shalott brings to mind the Arthurian tale of The Lady of Shalott, who waited in vain for her knight to return. But Autumn’s lyrics also evoke Sleeping Beauty, as if she was aware of her surroundings for the entire time she was “asleep”, and waiting for her prince. The connection between the two tales makes perfect sense here.
Los Lobos: Hearts of Stone
Los Lobos probably didn’t have any fairy tale in mind when they wrote Hearts of Stone, but I am reminded of a tale called The Golden Heart of Winter. The youngest son of a blacksmith must find the heart of the title, and turn it from stone to living gold, or the world will be condemned to permanent winter. Thinking of this tale gives the song extra resonance for me.
XTC: My Bird Performs
Likewise, XTC may well have not been thinking of The Nightingale when they wrote My Bird Performs. The connection makes sense to me though. The song has the “bird” singing only for one person, while the tale has the bird singing only when it is free, so linking the two introduces a level of irony into the song that I find appealing.
Gillian Welch: Paper Wings
Paper Wings is a special case. Gillian Welch could not possibly had the tale I think of in mind, because she recorded Paper Wings before the tale was published. Garth Nix is a fantasy author who works mostly in the young adult category. In his just completed series The Keys to the Kingdom, there are paper wings that actually work. So including this song is a bit of a stretch, but it does invoke a sense of magic for me, albeit after the fact.
Spotlight Song of the Week:
Bread and Bones: I Know Stories
I was going to have this album for my Spotlight feature this week before I knew what my theme would be, but it worked out beautifully. Bread and Bones are a trio from Vermont who feature wonderful male and female singers. At the last after party that I attended at The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival, I almost left before they went on. Something told me to stay, and I’m glad I did. I Know Stories is a great example of the group’s ability to inhabit a character and bring them to life. This particular song is also a wonderful telling of Jack and the Beanstalk from the point of view of the giant.