Saturday, August 7, 2010

Fairy Tales

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.


Julie K. said...

Some of Sting's compositions have that "dark fairy tale" feel. The one that immediately comes to mind is "Tea In the Sahara". The Police performed it, but I believe Sting wrote it.

The practice of cleaning up fairy tales or other written material to make it more appropriate for children is called "bowdlerizing" I recently learned.

It's also called "marketing".

Katew said...

I've pondered this kind of thing on, along with my students. Some that come to mind -- perhaps too literally -- are Donovan's Season of the Witch, Fairport Convention's Reynardine, The Flaming Lips, The WAND.
Cool post!

Darius said...

For those who keep track of such things, The illustration I used for this post is by Edmund Dulac, who is best known for his illustrations for Andrew Lang's fairytale collections. Dulac was one of a group of wonderful illustrators who were drawn to fairy tale themes, and worked in the Art Deco style. Arthur Rackham and Aubrey Beardsley are the best known, and I can also recommend the work of Kay Nielsen. Yes, fairy tale inspired art is also an interest of mine.

Anonymous said...

Addendum to what I wrote earlier: The lyrics of "Tea In the Sahara" tell the same story as told in the beginning of the existentialist novel, _The Sheltering Sky_.

Sting, who was once an English teacher, might have gotten the idea for those lyrics/song from reading that novel.

In "Don't Stand So Close to Me" he also makes a reference to "that book by Nabokov" -- referring to _Lolita_. Both share the common theme of an adult male being attracted to jailbait "nymphets".