Each year (roughly), I try to rewrite an ancient ballad or write a new on in that style, transposing the time, place, or context of the story to try to find something new in it. For instance, for FAWM 2014, I wrote a short version of Hind Horn taking place in rural America in the 1980s, and for 2015 I wrote a new ballad about Henry the V's victory at Agincourt (and I can't believe there wasn't already a ballad for that!).
I wanted to write something vaguely fairy tale-ish, since I'd been reading Calvino's collection of Italian folk tales, and was brainstorming a three-part challenge for the hero to go through involving proving his strength, courage, and wisdom, but I realized that would be far too complicated. When I pared it down to "wise," the simplest way to do that in rhyme is riddles, which naturally put it into the "Riddles Wisely Expounded" family (Child no. 1). This gave me some structure: The general story (answering riddles to get into bed with someone), the meter (tetrameter ... more on that in a second), the use of a suggestive burden (which I simplified to a chorus for length's sake), and of course the riddles.
I'll deal with the riddles first. The riddle game predates the song by many centuries. It's familiar to most people even in modern times thanks to Tolkein.
The riddle to which "mountain" is the answer is almost directly from the rhyme Tolkein gives. The river riddle is another famous/common riddle I'm pretty sure; and the third is basically my own but using common tropes. The combination (and these riddles in particular) are not lifted from the original ballad.
The meter is usual for a ballad: tetrameter (four-footed verse), written in couplets to boot. Very much NOT my favorite. One of the extremely interesting things to me about the various versions collected by Child is that they do not use tetrameter throughout the entire ballad. www.gutenberg.org/files/44969/44969-h/44969-h.htm
, but usually switch to it when the riddles come in. I'm not about to do independent research to go into this, and Child didn't discuss it, but that to me suggests that the riddles portion of the ballads are their own, set form, stuck into a framework story from another tradition. This doesn't seem like an unreasonable assumption. In any case, I decided to keep/mimic this interesting aspect and start out in pentameter before switching over to tetrameter.
The original, or at least most common, burden, involves the phrase "lay the bent to the bonny broom." This one's also used in many other ballads, including The Two Sisters (one of the most common ballads; Atlas Obscura had a great article about it recently, actually), and if I tell you that a "bent" is a horn, and that broom is a flower, you can probably fill in the lines yourself. I wanted something a little more understandable, so I just nabbed a couple phrases floating around in my head that were, at bet, tangentially related to the subject matter, as is tradition.
The story is pretty self explanatory, but because I usually like to go a little deeper with the explanation: It takes place in the late 1800s. The guy is a traveling worker, and he meets a semi-mystic woman bathing her feet in the river. The final riddle sounds like a riddle with a different answer (Time), which most people would get wrong, but he listens more carefully to her words and gives the answer she's actually looking for (which is "love") and she invites him up to her place for a cup of coffee.
For the music, I went super hard on the "very folky," as it's mostly lacking in syncopation and other modernizations, and it uses a simplified scale. Again, not my favorite way of doing things, but it did give it its own sound, and kind of informed how the rest of the arrangement would go.
For some dumb reason I decided to do the guitar and vocals together even though I hadn't fully fleshed out the tune yet. This meant something like 16 full takes (never mind false starts) before I got one I was happy with (there are a couple fixes so it's not a true "one"-take).
Rick basically learned the song and his harmony part during his drive to my house, banged out the banjo in a couple takes (tuning issues included), and then recorded a great tenor harmony like a frigging champ in probably 15 minutes. Rick and I both really like Old Time music (in fact, the reason he's in *my* band is because of a Craigslist ad when he was looking to form a band) so it was a pretty natural fit. The banjo is in standard capoed at the 5th fret after double-C tuning didn't really work out. (Cool sounding tuning, but it muddied up the track some.) Oh, and he went to play a four-hour gig with me right after. What a guy!
While this was far from my favorite thing I wrote for this year's challenge (though these might be my longest liner notes), I do think that the recording itself came out pretty well, and it was interesting to try to make something with a little bit of authenticity from another era. And as always it's a fun challenge to rewrite a ballad.