“Down and Down and Down”: The Distant Star Ballads and Thoughts on a Long Collaboration

When did our “Ballads from a Distant Star” project start? I’ve been chewing on this all morning, every since I started singing in my kitchen over morning tea.

Well. It all started back in the oughts, I think. The mid-oughts, that is. I didn’t meet most of my “goblin girls” (as I like to call them) till ’04 or ’05 at least, maybe a little later.

(Aside: I love saying “oughts.” I love this sense of a turning century, and having been a part of it. Maybe that’s why I set my Dark Breakers stuff at a sort of alternate turn of the last century. Scary parallels, but also glorious.

There was a period of time wherein all of us mid-twenty-something fantasy-writing, poetry-scribbling, performance-oriented folk, having just found each other at writing conventions, and perfectly ecstatic with our new friendships, started burning mixed CDs for each other.

This was, of course, back in the days we still did that.

(Aside: I have just discovered Spotify playlists in the last month, so. Now I know how to do that at least.)

Thus, from those days, I still have a whole playlist of music called “Goblin Girls,” which is some 13 hours, 4 minutes long: an eclectic range of songs straight from the minds of wonderful people, many of whom, over the course of the next decade and change, became my dearest darlings.

Part of that, but also separate from that, I began to learn that Caitlyn Paxson seemed to know EVERY BALLAD EVER.

And I? I only had a smattering, mostly as re-arranged by Loreena McKennitt.

I burned to know more.

So I said to her, “O GREAT CAITLYN! TEACH ME YOUR BALLADIC WAYS!” or something to that effect.

And Caitlyn responded by making me another playlist–this one only 6 hours, 58 minutes long–of all her favorite ballads.

Well! That sparked my imagination no end.

As I learned these ballads, and as we geeked out together over them, Caitlyn and I began writing to each other, talking about setting stories in a shared “Ballad” world. We even began–and got a good ways into–a few stories and novellas in said world.

Our big “what if” was this:

What if a bunch of miners from somewhere, say West Virginia, were body-snatched by aliens and made to mine on a distant planet?

The mining company–Candletown Company, I called it, and have used that company in various fictions, poems, and songs, though not all of them are the same Candletown Company on the same world–was, of course, complicit in this body-snatching event. The coal bosses agreed to trade their miners and their families (unbeknownst to the kidnappees of course, and without their consent) for alien technology that launched them into a space age rather earlier than our own history has it.

(Does this sound vaguely Desdemona-ish to you? THERE ARE SOME IDEAS THAT KEEP COMING BACK! I think about them and mull them and brood about them and work them in different ways. Why is that, I wonder? Why am I constantly writing about rich people who trade the lives of poor people in order to get richer, I wonder???)

But back to the body-snatching aliens . . .

They, being a conquistador-like creature, planned to send our Earth miners to a planet not their own. A planet that was, in fact, anathema to their physical beings. But these aliens wanted the resources on this planet, and so they sent humans there, who, after some body-modifications, could withstand and integrate with the atmosphere.

On the way to this planet, the humans aboard the prison ship mutiny. They take over the ship, but they can’t fly it, and it crashes onto the same planet where the original course had been set.

The aliens who kidnapped them do not survive the landing, and the humans are stranded.

The stories that Caitlyn and I started writing took place many years after these events.

We had the idea that they were being told from the point of a view of an ethnomusicologist space pirate who found evidence of the body-snatching in some old archives of a long-defunct mining company and went in search of these lost miners in space. She wanted, you see, to hear what sort of music had been preserved from that kind of trauma and isolation, and to study how it might have changed. So she’s a part of the narrative but also distant from it, an observer. She doesn’t want to corrupt this new music.

The distant planet itself, it turned out, was sentient in a way. It could not communicate in language with the humans who had crashed upon it, but it could respond to their music.

In essence, the ballads that the miners brought with them shaped the planet’s response to them. It tried to become the stories and songs they were telling it, in order to welcome them. But of course, ballads are often tragic.

Generations later, the planet has become a sort of living ballad that these miners’ descendants are all sort of trapped in/adapted to. Not only the miners, but the planet itself, have become hybrids, integrating with each other. Amal El-Mohtar, when she joined the project later, was very interested in all of us teasing out the differences between integration and assimilation–which we all found very exciting!

PHEW! So that’s the origin story for “Ballads from a Distant Star.” I still love the idea.

But what came out of this slapdash, happy, haphazard worldbuilding, ultimately, was not stories and novellas–as we had intended–but a body of music!

We ended up writing the ballads that our ethnomusicologist space pirate was interested in–ballads about the abduction, about the journey across the stars, and the landing. And about what happened after.

I also wrote a story-poem, which Mike Allen published over at Mythic Delirium, called: Voyage to a Distant Star.

We’ve sung our ballads at various cons and mini-tours, performing under the umbrella of the Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours. We also used that umbrella to perform various unrelated prose and poetry pieces as well. The group of us who did this kept changing and mutating, but the core of us were Caitlyn, Amal, myself, and Patty Templeton.

Now, after many years, we have enough material for an album. With Caityn’s permission, I’ll be using three of her songs:

“Rare Annie”–about a miner’s wife who learns her husband has died in a collapse, but won’t let them bury him, but places him in the heart of a spaceship she is building of “vine and twine and bone,” which she has called by the name “Fetch” and insists will take them both to their home planet, as he always promised her:

“Annie’s got a dead ship Fetch
Of vine and twine and bone
Annie’s gonna lure and catch
Her Willie-o, her Willie-o
She’s gonna bind her Willie-o
When Willie, he comes home . . . “

“True Thomas”–which is a retelling of Thomas the Rhymer, only instead of encountering the Faerie Queen, he is encountering this alien species;

“Tell me true, my Tommy,
You’ve been gone from me so long
What lands have you been wandering
With your banjo and your song?

“I’ll tell you true, my darling,
It’s amongst the stars I bide.
No earthly lands have touched my feet
Since the night I left your side . . . “

And “Strange Babes”–about a woman who takes an alien creature for her lover but cannot abide what happens after, and who is haunted by her actions forevermore.

“She fled the tunnels, fled the mines
Down and down and down
All to leave those strange babes’ songs behind
Down in the deep deep ground

“When she reached the surface fair
Down and down and down
She found their songs were waiting there
From down in the deep deep ground . . .”

I love these songs so much! I’m delighted to revisit them, and to collaborate with my musician brother Jeremy Cooney and our friend Stefan Dollak. They both played with me on my last Brimstone Rhine album, Corbeau Blanc, Corbeau Noir. Between them, Remi and Stefan play, like, one billion instruments. A lot of Caitlyn’s songs are for the banjo, which, thankfully, Stefan can play. Well, he plays his “banjolele”–close enough, as they say, for folk music.

Some other time, I’ll tell you about Amal El-Mohtar’s Embersong, another Distant Star ballad, though you can read about it yourself on her blog, and watch the video/hear the song. That’s Caitlyn on the harp. She arranged it all, beautifully.

I’ve been thinking about these songs a lot, since I’ll be singing some of them next week Friday at WorldCon, and I’ve been rehearsing.

This morning, as I mentioned earlier, I was singing Caitlyn’s “Rare Anne” and “Strange Babes” in my kitchen at the top of my lungs.

But singing these songs only whets my desire to record the album entire. It was ever thus.

And once that is done, perhaps, I will write some of those stories I started . . . at last.

Depicted, the Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours: Amal El-Mohtar, Caitlyn Paxson, myself, and Patty Templeton–who will be designing linocuts for the album cover and the internal art for the digital book of lyrics and poems.

2 Comments

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2 responses to ““Down and Down and Down”: The Distant Star Ballads and Thoughts on a Long Collaboration

  1. What an origin story! Marvelous. I loved your ballad of candletown, and I think this project is galaxy class, definitely. And I love the photo of the Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours. Good friends, fabulous imaginations, great music.

    • I’m having so much fun revisiting these songs and learning the ones that are not MINE PARTICULARLY more intimately. I’ve seen some of Patty’s early sketches for her artwork and THEY ARE SO COOL! She’s look at early miners’ folk art and tattoo art! So great and weird and lovely. And she’s having FUN! Which I love.

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