I write best when the room is absolutely silent. No TV, no chime of a DS game, no tumbling of clothes in the dryer, no music. Nothing.
So when I realized the topic this week was “how music inspires your writing,” I thought uh oh, this is going to be a short post.
I realized this as I was doing the dishes and listening to this song on the iPod:
It’s a song about two sisters who both love one guy. He strings them both along, but proposes to the younger one. The older sister gets the younger sister to go for a walk, then pushes her into the millpond to drown not only to get the guy but also because the younger sister was always so much prettier.
Its earliest print version dates from the seventeenth century, but it was probably sung a lot earlier.
This is the sort of thing I listen to pretty much all the time when I’m not writing. I love the storytelling quality of folk music, how primal these songs feel. Here’s one about murder, betrayal, unrequited love, treachery, unhappiness and death:
And here’s one about taking advantage of someone and having it bite you in the backside:
These songs have a meter and language and tone to them that act as a window into the thoughts and values of people who lived in former times. The farther back you go, the harder it is to get to ordinary people’s lived experiences, but these songs are one way we can. They were created by the same people who enjoyed them, and even though they were tweaked and re-versioned by singers over three hundred (and more) years, these are glimpses into another world we’re not going to get in more official records.
These songs also remind me how much in common we have with people in the past. Sure, the past is filled with people who believed in the divine right of kings and the white man’s burden and foot-binding and sati, but it was also lived by people who loved their children and made sacrifices for their families and cared for sick pets and made solid lifetime friendships.
We share a lot with historical people, and that means the past can be made relatable. You just have to approach it in a certain way. And to do that you have to really get into their mindset, not just dress up modern people in oldtimey clothes and have them parade around spouting modern opinions. These songs help me get there. They help me feel the past in a way book research really can’t.
It also doesn’t hurt that many of these songs are hilarious and/or dirty as hell. Just like the past itself.