Thursday, January 4, 2018

Step It Out, Nancy vs. Step It Out, Mary —on the folk process and Holly Near's misstep with a Robin and Linda Williams' song

Back before the internet, many songs effectively had no writers. If a song seemed traditional, people shared it assuming that's what it was. Albums were sometimes released with songs miscredited as "traditional" or with no credits at all.

Two of my favorite writers ran into this problem. Charles Vess decided to do The Book of Ballads, a graphic album with adaptations of folk songs written by fantasists, and asked Emma to write one. She chose one she loved, "The Black Fox".

Charles did the art, and just as the book was about to go to press, they discovered it wasn't trad—it was written by Graham Pratt. Fortunately, there was time to get permission and add an explanatory note in the book.

The same thing happened to Pamela Dean. She wrote "Owlswater" based on Stan Rogers' cover of "The Witch of the Westmorland", thinking it was trad, and learned after it had been bought that Archie Fisher wrote it.

And when Jerry Clark heard "Step It Out, Mary", he didn't know it was written by Sean McCarthy. It has all the elements of a great trad song: a European setting, a danceable tune, and a tragic ending.

Clark decided to write an American version with Robin Williams, which Robin and Linda Williams played. I love it for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is it shows how the folk process has always worked: songs from the old country are changed for the new.

In this case, the big change is the ending.

Holly Near covered it and engaged in the folk process herself: she added a final verse. Frankly, it's a mistake. She breaks a basic rule of great art: don't tell the audience what they're supposed to think. While "Step It Out, Nancy" has a feminist subtext, it's about another kind of injustice too, which Near's new verse omits.

But her version is otherwise fine, so here it is for your edification: