Wednesday, January 05, 2005

The Leaves of Life

I remember the first time I heard The Leaves of Life. I was sitting next to my father's radiogram in the unheated hallway, of our house near Coventry, while the rest of the family watched television in the next room. My finger was poised on the record button, ready to tape the songs as I listened to Folkweave on Radio 3. This was the only concession the BBC made to the tiny minority of listeners who loved traditional folk music. I was seventeen, and it was the tail end of the folk revival: that all too brief resurgence of interest in traditional English folk music in the 1970's.

I'd discovered folk music one day when I found Individually and Collectively; a compilation album of early recordings by the band Steeleye Span in the sale bin in W.H.Smiths. I took a risk on the music and bought the record with the wages from my Saturday job. From the first bar of The Lark in the MorningI was hooked: traditional folk music was unlike anything I'd ever heard before. The songs were from the heart and were rough edged and real. You didn't need the most beautiful of voices to sing them effectively, as I discovered in the warmth and privacy of the bathroom.

Hungry for more songs, I searched Birmingham Public Library and borrowed both books and recordings on my father's ticket, but never enough to satisfy me. The greatest thrill, though, was in hearing for the first time original field recordings, reissued on the Topic label. And then, of course, there was Folkweave; which I faithfully listened too each Friday night so that I could record the songs and learn to sing them.

Thus it was that I encountered ballads of great antiquity; broadside ballads, which had been sold for a penny on the streets; sad Irish airs and music hall songs. There were songs of the countryside, the sea, and the angry songs of the new industrial towns. I made the acquaintance of loyal lovers and brokenhearted milkmaids, highwaymen, servant girls waiting to be employed at the hiring fairs, fabulous monsters who turned into beautiful women after being let into the beds of their victims, young men who visited their girls at night and turned into handsome cockerels by day, gallant poachers who were caught and transported to Van Dieman's land, and Napoleon on the Plains of Waterloo. There was plenty of advice too, how to discipline an errant wife, what road to take to heaven in the in the afterlife, and why a young maid shouldn't wed marry an old man. All these, and many many more, were a part of a heritage that I had never been told about.

The Leaves of Life was one of the loveliest songs I recorded and tells the story of Christ's passion. It was in a programme about songs recorded from Gypsy singers.

Gypsies are careful to recycle what the rest of the world throws away, be it secondhand clothes, scrap metal or the old songs that the settled population had no more use for. In the early years of the twentieth century, such songs had to be hunted out like endangered animals, and captured on paper or on cylinder recordings.

The composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams first heard The Leaves of Life in September 1923. He accompanied his friend, solicitor’s wife, Ella Mary Leather, to visit some of the Hereford gypsies whose acquaintance she had made. The gypsies were tired after a long day in the hop fields, but welcomed their visitors. They provided them with upturned buckets to sit on and lit a fire so that they could write down the songs: the composer noting the melody, and Mrs. Leather the words. One by one the gypsies sang their songs. And then, out of the shadows came the sweet voice of Angelina Whatton singing The Leaves of Life

All under the leaves and the leaves of life
I met with virgins seven
And one of them was Mary mild
Our Lord's best mother in Heaven

Oh what are you seeking you seven pretty maids
All under the leaves of life?
We are seeking for no leaves Thomas
But for a friend of thine

Go down go down into yonder town
And sit in the gallery
And there you'll see sweet Jesus Christ
Nailed to a big yew tree

Oh peace mother oh peace mother
Your weeping does me grieve
But I will suffer this he said
For Adam and for Eve

Oh the rose the gentle rose
The fennel it grows so strong
Amen good Lord your charity
Is the ending of my song

A few days later the song was recorded on cylinder at a local farmhouse. This was the version that I had heard on the radio, and the only recording of the song I was to hear for many years, until I came across the Waterson's Frost and Fire album.

I loved the song for its unusual imagery: the tree of life, a symbol of life continuing and strengthening, even as Christ hung on the yew tree, the dark tree of death. I was intrigued by the idea of seven virgins making the journey to witness Christ's passion. This was not a version of the story that I had read in the bible. Most of all, though, I was in love with the plaintive melody, and I recognized it immediately when I heard it again, recently, and in a very different setting.

I was invited to a hair-cutting ceremony (bercukor) by one of my sisters-in-law, Kak Diah. Her son, Adam had moved to a highly paid job in Silicone valley, and was earning much more than he ever would in Malaysia. Now he was back with his family, for a short holiday, with his wife, son and newborn daughter. I felt doubly connected to Adam, for as well as being my nephew, he had been my student at one time.

The hair-cutting ceremony is seldom performed nowadays, but was a traditional Malay way of welcoming a child into the world, and for Kak Diah, it was a way of bringing together the whole extended family. When I arrived at the house, there were people crammed into the lounge and spilling out into the small garden, where caterers had set up marquees and were busy cooking biryani rice and chicken kurma.

Adam's youngest son hadn't been back to Malaysia since he was born, and even though he was dressed in the traditional baju melayu, just like the men folk, he felt more at home giving relatives a high five rather than kissing the hands as is the custom.

The ceremony began, and the women, dressed in finest silk kebayas and baju kurong found space to sit on the floor on one side of the room, the men on the other. The imam from the local mosque said prayers of blessing, and then the baby, Elisha, was presented to each relative. They took the scissors in turn and snipped off the tiniest piece of a lock of her hair. They then applied a drop of tepong tawar, a milky paste of rice flour and scented water, to her forehead.

When the ceremony was complete, four women, hired from the local mosque began to sing a song in Arabic. I could not understand the words, but there was no mistaking the melody - it was that of The Leaves of Life - identical to the traditional English version that had put down roots in my own heart.

I never had a chance to speak to the women and ask them where the melody came from, and what their own version of the words might be, as I found myself caught up in the obligatory family photographs and then the move towards the tables laden with food which had been set up on the lawn.

But the mystery of the song had deepened. Where had the melody come from? Could it have originated in the Middle East, and been carried in one direction, by the gypsies, and in the other, by the spread of Islam, to meet up with me on opposite sides of the world?


Suzan Abrams, email: said...

Interesting thought for a conclusion, Sharon, in that globalisation of the cultures may have existed even before we knew it.

Chet said...

A lot of things existed before man named them. It's in naming them that we recognise its existence. But that does not mean something's not important or does not exist just because man has not acknowledged it.

Suzan Abrams, email: said...

Exactly Chet and I guess that's why someone like me far from a "know-all" is contented to just "play dumb" and to be always learning. I'll leave the fullness of Earth's existence to the experts or the preachy, and stay happy with my own stupidity.