Kristin Hersh – Child is Mother to the Woman
“Because of the intimacy of their relationship, mothers [of the 19th-century South] inevitably influenced the songs that were learned and remembered by their children, the style and inflection of their singing, and the moral and aesthetic sense that may have shaped their future musical choices. Some songs were sung consciously to children to amuse, divert, or comfort them. Children learned other songs unconsciously through repeated exposures to favorite ballads and hymns, as mother privately voiced her longings, her joy, or her loneliness and pain.”
— Bill C. Malone
Singing Cowboys And Musical Mountaineers:
Southern Culture And The Roots Of Country Music
At age 32, Kristin Hersh has already brought three children and nine records into the world. As a teenager, Hersh fronted Throwing Muses, a groundbreaking band that married shape-shifting punk rock and heaven-sent folk. In recent years, she has released two acclaimed acoustic CDs, 1994’s Hips And Makers and 1998’s Strange Angels. Her latest project, Murder, Misery And Then Goodnight, is a departure, a collection of Appalachian folk ballads available only by Internet or mail order.
Murder, Misery And Then Goodnight offers sparse acoustic delivery of twelve tracks, including a preponderance of murderous tales such as “Pretty Polly” (Polly is stabbed by a rascally suitor and thrown into a freshly dug grave) and “Banks Of The Ohio” (the heroine is stabbed and drowned when she declines a marriage proposal). Songs such as “Three Nights Drunk”, a tale of a clever adulteress, and “What’ll We Do With The Baby-O”, in which listeners are exhorted to stick their fingers in the baby’s eyes, give him a bottle of gin and “throw him up in the old hayloft,” add a darkly humorous element. Ethereal lullabies such as “Mama’s Gonna Buy” and “Whole Heap Of Little Horses” round out the collection.
Unlike the mockingly campy versions of traditional music often offered by indie-rockers, or the saccharine treatments sometimes rendered by folkies, Hersh offers covers that are matter-of-fact and unselfconscious, giving some of the most gruesome ballads the melancholy kind of fun they might have had at a 19th-century gathering. Hersh’s plainspoken, plaintive voice, which on her other records has delivered her own wry and impressionistic observations of domesticity, is well-suited to naturalistic interpretations of the ballads.
Her version of “Banks Of The Ohio”, for instance, complete with funereal organ and minimal acoustic picking, feels modern and sincere, not falsely antique. Her son Ryder and her husband Billy O’Connell (who is also her manager and co-producer) played backup on piano, harmony and kitchen implements, providing touches such as thumping percussion on “Three Nights Drunk” and sing-songy harmonies on “Poor Ellen Smith”.
An album of covers is an unlikely development for Hersh, given the urgency of her creative process. “I wish I could say I made myself a cup of coffee, put on my lucky bathrobe and sat down at the piano with my rhyming dictionary, but that’s not the way my songs happen,” she says. “They walk into the room of their own accord.”
Over the years, Hersh’s songs have given her torments as they demanded to be born. She sees them as spirits who have to be given “sound bodies.” She hasn’t been able to remember writing some of her songs. Balancing the absolute necessity of creation with family life has been difficult. Finally, she says, she was able to make a deal with her songs, that “I’d always write them if they’d stop knocking on the door at 4 a.m.”
The new CD, then, is a different sort of project, one she had doubts about releasing to anyone but her family. It is both an acknowledgment of the musical gifts her parents gave her and a gift to her own children, Dylan, 12, Ryder, 7, and Wyatt, 2.
“My parents are from Chattanooga; we were very much a Southern family,” Hersh says. “We moved up to Rhode Island. They wanted to make sure I wasn’t a damn Yankee. They liked Appalachian folk music, plus Patti Smith, the Doors, the Talking Heads, and Neil Young.”
When Hersh was young, her father played folk music to her on guitar, and the songs took hold of her imagination. Hersh’s husband convinced her to record these songs, though at first she felt she had no right to. “I was raised in Newport, Rhode Island, and played in a rock band,” she explains, readily admitting that she lost her Southern accent long ago. “I’ve met people lately who affected a Deep South accent and they went to boarding school in Switzerland; I thought it lowered your I.Q.”
As a child, Hersh’s sensibility supplied a wholly different context to the songs of mayhem and misogyny on Murder, Misery And Then Goodnight. For instance, Hersh thought that the woman who drowns herself in “I Never Will Marry” was simply going to live under the sea and “swim with the fishes.” She conceived of recording the songs in part to offer her children some of the beauty of her own childhood. “So, when I began to compile some old family songs in the hope of giving a taste of my warm, fuzzy childhood, I was intrigued to find that my soundtrack had been…let’s just say evil.”
“I remembered these beautiful songs. I was struck by the reality of the yuckiness. It was punk to talk about liquor and murders and Jesus and Hell. It was titillating. The chick always dies. She’s stabbed and poisoned and drowned.”
Yet Hersh, upon seeing the songs with adult eyes, didn’t hurry to protect her children from their pernicious influence. Her approach to sharing the songs with her children speaks volumes about the child-rearing methods she and her husband employ. “We’re mom and dad and we have to be tough because our lifestyle is weird,” she says. “We’re open with them about the fact that they’re little beings who are driving their own spaceships, but that as adults we know more about the vocabulary and rules of the world.”