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Black is the colour
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Author:  benhall.1 [ Thu Feb 13, 2020 12:29 am ]
Post subject:  Black is the colour

I saw a version of this posted on a Facebook page. (It was posted by what I think is a Czech band, called "Irish Rose", on the 'Irish Music and Musicians page. It was pretty good, although I was slightly bemused by the implication that they might think it was Irish ... :-? )

The tune they were using is the one that is normally used these days, which I think is the one written by John Jacob Niles, as opposed to the traditional tune. As far as I can make out, the song seems to have originated in the Appalachians, although apparently Alan Lomax was convinced that it was Scottish in origin. But I can't find any support for that notion.

That's the background to my search so far, but I'm stuck. I would like to know more about the song.

Firstly, although the text seems fairly stable, and consistent, there is the question of the tune. Does anyone have sheet music for the definitive, traditional tune? Also, does anyone have sheet music for the original version that John Jacob Niles wrote?

Can anyone point me to any information on the song's origins? Was it Scottish or did it, as it seems to me, originate in the Appalachians?

Author:  an seanduine [ Thu Feb 13, 2020 12:52 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Black is the colour

I have no idea where it originated. Apparently Séamus Ennis and Willie Clancy were familiar with some version of it and seemed willing to ´adopt´ it into the ¨Canon¨ :D I would speculate they got it in passing from Lomax, when he was collecting in Ireland.

But then, it´s a wise child (song) that knows it´s own father. . .or so Homer once mumbled. . .

Bob

Author:  Mr.Gumby [ Thu Feb 13, 2020 2:21 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Black is the colour

Willie Clancy learned the tune from an US (Appalachian?) singer while in Eastern Europe for a panceltic event or some other folkmusic related thing. I can't straight off think of the name of the singer (it's early, pre coffee). Séamus Ennis took it up, Sean 'ac Donncha took Willie's air fitted existing words to it and made it his own. That's basically its history in Ireland. That is pretty well documented. It has gone around a bit since: Christy Moore had his version, Ronan Browne used the Nina Simone one for his playing of the air.

I have a book by Niles, I am not sure it's in there although I do remember a rant by him stating he wrote the song. Which struck me as a bit odd when I read it. But it's probably thirty-five years since i looked at the book at all. I'll check that later *

* I checked and it's not in the book.

Author:  benhall.1 [ Thu Feb 13, 2020 7:35 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Black is the colour

Mr.Gumby wrote:
Willie Clancy learned the tune from an US (Appalachian?) singer while in Eastern Europe for a panceltic event or some other folkmusic related thing. I can't straight off think of the name of the singer (it's early, pre coffee). Séamus Ennis took it up, Sean 'ac Donncha took Willie's air fitted existing words to it and made it his own. That's basically its history in Ireland. That is pretty well documented. It has gone around a bit since: Christy Moore had his version, Ronan Browne used the Nina Simone one for his playing of the air.

I have a book by Niles, I am not sure it's in there although I do remember a rant by him stating he wrote the song. Which struck me as a bit odd when I read it. But it's probably thirty-five years since i looked at the book at all. I'll check that later *

* I checked and it's not in the book.

That lot confuses me even more. The words are those collected from the Appalachians by Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles in 1916, and apparently of relatively old origin in those parts. The tune that is almost always sung to it these days is the one that John Jacob Niles wrote for it, or so I understand. What is this documentation that gives it a different, and contradictory, history in Ireland? Also, the tune is radically different from the traditional on, as collected by Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles. It's never struck me as sounding remotely traditional, which is, I guess, because it isn't.

Author:  Mr.Gumby [ Thu Feb 13, 2020 7:54 am ]
Post subject:  Re: Black is the colour

Quote:
What is this documentation that gives it a different, and contradictory, history in Ireland?


As I said, Clancy brought it back from a tour of Eastern Europe where he learned it from an Appalachian singer who was at the same event/tour. Seán 'ac Donncha chased up the words and started singing it and people in Ireland took it up from there. There isn't a lot more to it. The process has been described in various articles although I can't immediately recall which ones.I'll PM you with Seán's take, if you want it.

Author:  benhall.1 [ Thu Feb 13, 2020 1:24 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Black is the colour

Mr.Gumby wrote:
Quote:
What is this documentation that gives it a different, and contradictory, history in Ireland?


As I said, Clancy brought it back from a tour of Eastern Europe where he learned it from an Appalachian singer who was at the same event/tour. Seán 'ac Donncha chased up the words and started singing it and people in Ireland took it up from there. There isn't a lot more to it. The process has been described in various articles although I can't immediately recall which ones.I'll PM you with Seán's take, if you want it.

I would be very interested. Very interested indeed. Do you also have what date it was (year, or thereabouts)?

Author:  Nanohedron [ Thu Feb 13, 2020 4:21 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Black is the colour

benhall.1 wrote:
Was it Scottish or did it, as it seems to me, originate in the Appalachians?

Well, there's the line "I go to the Clyde for to mourn and weep". There are a number of Left Pond rivers named Clyde, but from what I can tell none are in the Appalachian region. In the US I could find only two listed: one in northern Vermont, and the other in New York State; the rest are in Canada. So given the song's Appalachian life, for me this line strongly suggests a Scottish origin, or at least a Scottish authorship, wherever the words were first penned.

Here's a rendition of the purportedly original melody, sung by Jean Ritchie:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RLE_AnTMUMI

Author:  benhall.1 [ Fri Feb 14, 2020 2:17 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Black is the colour

Here is a link with at least some of the history of the Niles version ... which turns out to be the other version, I think, i.e., the non-traditional version. I could have sworn it was the other way round ... If it's this way round, the other tune, which Niles' Dad had said was a dreadful tune, is way, way better.

Author:  Peter Duggan [ Fri Feb 14, 2020 2:34 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Black is the colour

Since the first version I knew I was the Easy Club's, that's how I hear it... which, from a quick Google tonight, seems to be jazzed-up Christy Moore (which in turn seems to be a minor variant of the one Nano posted)!

Author:  Nanohedron [ Fri Feb 14, 2020 3:06 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Black is the colour

Yeah, Ben, I already came across that link's webpage in my searches for the older version. It took me a long time before I found Jean Ritchie's version, such that it became clear to me that Niles' version has eclipsed the original practically out of existence. Throughout, it also became clear that it's well known that the popular version is Niles' revision. The problem for me with Ritchie's rendition is that I haven't yet found anything else to compare it to, so I can only assume it's the original melody.

From the link:

Quote:
... therein lies the beauty of "Black is the Color of My True Love's Hair": female vocalists sing this ballad to their men; the men dedicate it to their enamoradas.

I do believe certain demographics would have something to say about that. :wink:

As an aside, if you don't know anything about Rhiannon Giddens (featured in Ben's link), I recommend her highly. She is a deeply entrenched exponent of American traditional music, and she has a formidable knowledge of its roots, provenances and styles; yet for all that, she isn't afraid to move it forward and apply surprising settings now and again. Her treatment of Black is the Color (the Niles version) is a prime example of that, and one is even tempted to speculate that the Niles version not being the original, she felt thus emboldened. But who knows; she's a force of nature who, when all is said and done, does things on her own terms. Plus she's an adept performer, composer, and multi-instrumentalist who even trots out gourd banjos and the like. She always brings the weight of history along in her performances, but rather than a burdensome thing, it's a delightful discovery.

Author:  benhall.1 [ Fri Feb 14, 2020 4:04 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Black is the colour

Nanohedron wrote:
Yeah, Ben, I already came across that link's webpage in my searches for the older version. It took me a long time before I found Jean Ritchie's version, such that it became clear to me that Niles' version has eclipsed the original practically out of existence. Throughout, it also became clear that it's well known that the popular version is Niles' revision. The problem for me with Ritchie's rendition is that I haven't yet found anything else to compare it to, so I can only assume it's the original melody.

This thread has taught me a lot. I didn't realise that the Niles version was the Niles version. And, to be honest, I had never heard it before. I have only ever heard the other one, which now appears to be the traditional tune. It's always been one of my favourite trad song tunes. So, over here at least, so far from Niles' version eclipsing the traditional one, it has hardly made an impact at all, I would say. I'm actually really glad, because the traditional tune is way better.

Author:  Nanohedron [ Fri Feb 14, 2020 4:12 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Black is the colour

benhall.1 wrote:
So, over here at least, so far from Niles' version eclipsing the traditional one, it has hardly made an impact at all, I would say. I'm actually really glad, because the traditional tune is way better.

I'm glad to hear that it's not altogether moribund, but still out there. How does that version compare with Jean Ritchie's?

Author:  benhall.1 [ Fri Feb 14, 2020 4:21 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Black is the colour

Nanohedron wrote:
benhall.1 wrote:
So, over here at least, so far from Niles' version eclipsing the traditional one, it has hardly made an impact at all, I would say. I'm actually really glad, because the traditional tune is way better.

I'm glad to hear that it's not altogether moribund, but still out there. How does that version compare with Jean Ritchie's?

It's essentially the same tune. There are small differences here and there, but not a great deal.

Author:  an seanduine [ Fri Feb 14, 2020 5:10 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Black is the colour

And of course, as part of the puzzle, we have all the pictures of Bonnie Jeannie and Séamus Ennis from 1952/53.

Bob

Author:  Nanohedron [ Fri Feb 14, 2020 5:53 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Black is the colour

I'm clueless, there. Could you expand on that?

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