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The Old Songs

Honoring John Jacob Niles

Guest poem by Caryl Johnston

In heaven they will hear your high, sweet voice
You, with the large dulcimer on your lap,
Singing the songs you found in the mountains
Before the coal lords came to topple them.
Songs of love, distress, betrayal, and loss—
Is there any other story than this?

The singers came from Scotland, Ireland, Wales—
Their forebears, at least—and set the English folksongs
To a minor key: what began with hope, in those who sailed,
Was delivered here to sorrow…those folk,
Far from home—exiles rather than immigrants.

Yankee America, self-engorged,
Engrossed with profit, squeezed the people here,
Mined the land, sheared the mountain tops;
The exiles were exiled yet another time,
The mountain folk. Nor could the Yankees
Listen to your music, or hear the old ballads—
Too busy making money, I suppose.

But the music will last longer than Yankees ever will,
For it tells of the heart, that Lord Rendel
Who became Jimmy Randal somewhere in Carolina,
And ate the fried eels and parsnips that made him sick…
Though he said his sweetheart poisoned him,
And asked only to lie down…
And the Wife of Usher’s Well who became, mysteriously,
“The Wife of the Free” or even “The Fine Lady Gay”—
Yet her three sons died all the same before Christmas,
And poor or prosperous, she was the same bereft.

And what of the story that was told all over the world?—
Lady Ishbel and the Elfin Knight?” There are versions
Of the ballad everywhere: a bad man attempts to drown a lady,
But she outwits him, and, returning home, tells the parrot
Not to tell what she’s been up to…
The English called him the Outlandish Knight.

So the stories traveled the oceans, thousands of miles,
And they found you, who heard the songs and melodies
And made more of them, and sometimes your own—
Turning the Appalachian backbone of our nation
Into an instrument of music.

Caryl Johnston

Explanatory links inserted by David Martin. Thomas Merton corresponded with Niles.

The writer is a native of Birmingham, Alabama, who lives in Philadelphia. This poem is from her 2023 collection of poems, Storyteller in Times Square.

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