I’ve taken to wearing earbuds whenever I come back into the city from an out of town job. Sometimes I listen to music or an audiobook, but the truth is, I can’t actually hear whatever’s playing at that point. That point of re-entry.
After a week spent in a black box talking to myself (the glamorous life of a professional narrator), Penn Station, in Manhattan, on Friday night, at rush hour, takes away my… I want to say “everything.” But that’s gross exaggeration. It takes away my ability to comprehend much of anything but the need for a wall at my back and a good cry.
But earbuds help, and something playing in the background. I don’t like being distracted. I don’t like not hearing what’s around me. But there’s just… too much… around me.
What seems to be working well right now is an “ocean wave” soundtrack. No music or anything, just waves.
Up from the Amtrak tracks: waves. Through station noise and waiting lines and cross-crossing, hellbent, one-track bee-liners: waves. Down the ramp, down the stairs, down that hall where the NJ transit people are rushing en masse toward me and I’m struggling upriver of them, up those cement stairs and to the platform to await the E: waves.
And while, yes, it makes me feel like I am, indeed, underwater, it also takes away the feeling that I’m drowning.
Or reduces it somewhat, anyway. So that’s nice.
There’s a line in Eric Klinenberg‘s Palaces for the People:How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life that I recently read that I want to remember here.
I remembered just the sense of it while I was on the subway, when my train stopped, and I was caught in that metal worm, caught between two brick walls, stuffed with strangers, down down down, and the announcement overhead was something something gerbils marbles mumble something sorry for the delay, and my agitation began to rise. I remembered just the sense of this passage, and I could breathe a little more easily again. Because I believe in it more than I believe in myself.
Let me find it. And while I’m at it, let me recommend this book.
The other day, my friend Tina Connolly posted the most fabulous picture of herself and her sunshiny shoes, and I swore to myself that I would write a poem about them, and here it is:
TINA CONNOLLY’S PATENTED TIME CAPSULE MOSTLY UNRHYMING POEM (™)
by C. S. E. Cooney
not glass nor fur nor iron nor red slippers to dance your death in but sunshiny shoes with strong rubber soles real leaf-kickers, city-trekkers
not stoles of mink or lynx or wolf nor cuffs of lace to dip your wine in but brown adventure jacket, battered, dapper owned by many, always yours
not pre-ripped, pre-faded, sexy/shabby denim nor embroidered like a wild west that never was but turquoise jeans, color of a merrow’s blood rolled to sea-wave navy at the cuffs
may your socks ne’er be matched may your lenses ne’er be scratched may your gleam never dim may the hum on your lips be a hymn to human genius
may the laundry of our lives brighten us may the dishes of our lives polish us may the theatre of our lives mischief us may the kerchiefs of our lives babushka us and all our friends and lovers rise to strengthen us when fragile we fall to the bedrock below
and if fragile you fall to the bedrock below may your sunshine shoes and strong rubber soul bounce
Before I start my writing for today, I want to say as how yesterday Carlos gave me–almost without thinking about it!–the perfect title for this novella I’m about done first-drafting.
I WANT TO TELL YOU BUT DO I WANT TO SPOIL THE SURPRISE???
When I’m finished with this one, I’ll have two–count ’em TWO!–first drafts of two VERY DIFFERENT novellas. And then I think–I do think–I might be ready to start revisions again.
After an intense 2 years of final revisions for Miscellaneous Stones: Necromancer to get her submission-ready, and for Desdemona and the Deep to get her publication-ready, I was pretty burnt out, writing-wise, and wondering if I would ever have a new thought in my head ever again.
And I guess I have my answer.
Both stories need a lot of work. They’re just sweet baby spiderling drafts, after all.
And I have, of course, the new round of Dark Breakers revisions to do to get them ready for the re-release. (Ideas about that . . . more to come . . .) And I have another first draft of a novella I wrote a few years ago. Total mess, but . . . I REALLY want to revisit it. And, and, and . . .
A long time ago, someone wonderful (was it Sonya Taaffe? Amal El-Mohtar? Caitlyn Paxson? S. J. Tucker? Francesca Forrest? Jessica P. Wick?) introduced me to John Pole and Terry Yarnell’s “Mister Fox.”
It is the creepiest, gorgeousest, FOXIEST Mr. Fox song EVER!
You can hear it for yourself at this soundcloud link, sung by Jenni Cargill-Strong, and read the lyrics/sheet music at Mudcat. Anyway, I adore it.
And then, for some charity art event sometime, I wrote a pastiche/sequel to it. Not for money or anything, just for love and continuing the conversation.
I ran across it today, since I had cause to use the word “potash” and I remembered I’d learned the word “potash” in order to write this song/poem. So I thought I’d dig it out and give it all to you. It’d be sung to Yarnell’s perfect tune, filk-style.
The Grand Finale of Mister Fox
Outside Mister Fox’s garden Two maids gazing at the wall Jenny of the Ax says to Suzie Long Bow: “For Mary and her golden ball!” The wall is high Sometimes girls can learn to fly
In they ran to fetch the ashes All that’s left of Mary now Iron and rust her little casket Buried ‘neath the willow bough The wall is high Past barbs and shards they slip on by
“I see you, Suzie! Jenny, I espy thee!” Cries Mister Fox from tower tall His teeth are white, his fine braid glistens His eyes are gold as Mary’s ball “The wall is high We built it well, my ghosts and I.”
Murdered ladies, shades and shadows Here a peasant, there a queen Shield-maids all, in brazen armor Their wounds a bright and bloody sheen The wall is high None enters who returns thereby
But three strange things did Jenny carry Nitrate of potash, sulfur, coal Suzie had flint, her steel and tinder Both girls shared a common goal The wall is high A hail of boulders from the sky
The house it shakes to the foundation The garden gate blows open wide The willow cracks right down the middle Mary’s casket lay inside The wall is high Mary, don’t you weep or sigh
They hunt him through the empty hallways Bowstring taut and blade edge keen Mister Fox, he taunts and teases them Always laughing, never seen The wall is high The dead say, “Seek — your prey is nigh.”
At last they found the thirteenth bedroom Suzie galls him toward bed With her silver ax and her strong heart singing Jenny chops his pretty head The wall is high Suzie shouts, “Bleed!” and Jenny growls, “Die.”
Now Mister Fox, he wanders restless One haunt more in that doleful hall From his shoulders trails a big black counterpane He cradles close his bloody skull The wall is high…
1. Well, Jamie was born number nine of out ten Sis took one look, said, “Ma, try that again.” Daddy said nothing–no, nothing at all But went out a brought home a goat so small A little black goat for his Jamie
2. So James had his hat and his grin and his goat Shoes made of rags and a sheepskin coat When Jamie was glad, he could sing all day long And when he was sad he would sing this song A secret song only for Jamie
“Little Man Jamie, Won’t you come to the stars? I’ve got a home there And it’s bound to be yours Little Man Jamie, Won’t you fly and be free?” Says no one in the world to our Jamie
3. Our James wasn’t able to work in the mines We tried him at the colliery, but he sang all the time We told him to sort out the coal from the rocks But Jamie, he turned them to building blocks A tower of coal for our Jamie
4. James tried to tell us: “Oh, it’s good to be me! “See, my heart is a hive for the honeybee!” Daddy strained and he strained to make sense of those words Like the babbling of brooks, or the chirping of birds He chirped like bird, did our Jamie
5. One day came a stranger to Candletown His face was a mask and his smile was a frown He played on his pipe, oh a sweet dancing tune And all of the children danced out of the room All of us danced except Jamie
6. Our Jamie jumped up and he cried, “Me! Me!” But the man laughed and said, “None so daft as thee.” Oh, he played and we danced and our eyes grew dim He carried us off, but he didn’t take him– He didn’t take with him our Jamie
7. Jamie, he wailed, little Jamie he cried Curled up with his goat, wouldn’t go back inside Oh, his sisters and brothers, we left him behind To sleep in that ship made of silver so fine To dream and forget our dear Jamie
8. Daddy came out and he sat at his feet Didn’t say nothing, but he said it so sweet Gathered his son up, pet goat and all And walked him on down to that ship so tall A silver ship all for his Jamie
9. Went up to the stranger who watched from his mask He said, “I am your man if you do as I ask The strength of my body, the sap of my bone Yours to devour if you give him a home A home in the stars for our Jamie.”
10. “He’s not worth my trouble,” that pied piper sneered “Nor hath he half the wisdom to be afeared He raiseth his arms when it’s low he should bow I bare all my teeth and he grins even now So why should I take thy Daft Jamie?”
11. Dad stood his height, and it reached to the sky And he looked the fiend right in his deep yellow eye He said, “Sir, I’ve got nothing to stake but my life You’ve taken my children, I’ve lost my dear wife And now I must part with my Jamie.
12. “You may be as rich and as shrewd as a king My boy wants so little and he loves everything You may be as mighty and deep as the sea But Jamie’s worth twenty-one thousand of thee. You don’t know the worth of my Jamie.”
13. The man in the suit took his pen, made a mark And his yellow eyes flashed like a lantern in the dark “Say your goodbyes then, and kiss ere you part– For I’ll take your lad, then I’ll eat up your heart. You bargained your heart for Daft Jamie.”
14. Daddy said, “James, oh my sweet little man Go on, do your best now, as only you can I’m sick and I’m old and I’ve not much to give But a chance at the sky, and a long life to live You’ll live in the stars now, my Jamie
15. Jamie awakes in a new silver coat Nibbled and frayed by his silver-eyed goat He sings to the walls, they ring back like bells He dances while everyone else broods and dwells There’s no one as glad as our Jamie
16. And it’s good to reflect in this unending dark There are things worth the weight of a whole human heart O my sisters, my brothers, come rise to that call We’ll tear out our chains from this high silver wall And follow the song of our Jamie
Little Man Jamie, Won’t you come to the stars? I’ve got a home there And it’s bound to be yours Little Man Jamie, Won’t you fly and be free? “I’ll fly wide and high,” sings our Jamie
I also think I need to re-think my song “Daft Jamie” from the title on down.
My character Jamie is a little boy with some mental disabilities who always wanted to explore the stars. He sings a song to himself that no one else can understand about this yearning. His father, though, who has always shared a special bond with his boy, gets it. When Jamie’s brothers and sisters are abducted by a sort of alien Pied Piper, his father sacrifices his own life to ensure that James has a place on the same starship–so that he won’t be left behind.
Jamie is named after the penultimate victim of the Burke and Hare murders, James Wilson, who was locally known as “Daft Jamie.” I did this because when I read about him, and the awful way he died, I just wanted him to _live_. And since I was writing these Distant Star Ballads, I thought he could live there. His story sort of collided with the Pied Piper story and my song “Daft Jamie” came out of it.
It’s a cruel song, about a bad bad bargain. And a little boy getting his heart’s desire at the end comes at a terrible cost, and may not be such a great thing anyway…
But I’m not sure, ultimately, the cruelty of Jamie’s nickname—which says something about humanity and human history—is worth the cost of singing it.
Need to tweak a lot of lyrics and think the whole thing through again.
There’s a video of the original here, on Facebook, from 5 years ago. It’s changed even since then, minutely. I will have to keep chewing on the idea of nuance, complexity, point of view, necessity, what serves the story, and the world.
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.
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.
Finally, this morning, I did what I’ve been meaning to do LO THESE MANY MOONS.
I re-wrote “Jenny’s Song for John.” Somehow that’s its title now, though once upon a time, I just called it “Song for Jenny and John,” but I think it’s really Jenny’s song, so that’s probably what happened.
It has three distinct melodic verses, and in the rough first draft–which somehow never advanced past that stage, even though I’ve performed it in public multiple times–those verses occur haphazardly, and there’s no predicting when I’m going to place the next one.
So I rewrote the lyric in order that the verses go ABCB, structurally. And each cluster of ABCB stanzas is one verse. 4 stanzas per “verse,” and the song is 4 verses long.
That doesn’t sound very long, except when you realize it’s really 16 stanzas, so . . . BALLAD TIME!
I like that it’s longer, because it’s the opening song to the new concept album (forthcoming), and it tells a fuller story about what happens to the body-snatched miners who find themselves on a silver ship sailing the stars.
I’ll be debuting the new version of this song at my a cappella concert at Irish WorldCon, this Friday in Dublin at 13:00 (or 1 PM). It’s a short concert, but I hope to give everyone a taste of the forthcoming Ballads from a Distant Star.
I’m planning on singing “Daft Jamie,” “Sisters Lionheart,” and “Strange Babes” (this last by Caitlyn Paxson, the others by me) as well. But we’ll see what we have time for!
In the meantime, for those of you who are interested, have some lyrics! And keep an eye out here for the CROWDFUNDING CAMPAIGN, coming soon to a social media platform near you. Amal El-Mohtar, Caitlyn Paxson, and I have been developing songs for Ballads from a Distant Star for many years now, and I am excited to be bringing it to your ears at last–in a more lasting form!
Jenny’s Song for John
1. My love, his name is John Fitzgibbon Strong as oak and tall as yew Soft as pine and so sweet-smelling Ne’er was any man so true
Down he went with lamp and hammer Down into the blackest seam Where the rock burns bright as diamond Daylight’s but a dead man’s dream
Oh, they came in flame and thunder Oh, they came in ice and steel Came and snatched my John Fitzgibbon Bound him to a silver wheel
Where’d you go, my John Fitzgibbon? Johnny, would you leave me so? John, I’m cryin’, John, I’m dyin’ John, you’re gone and I’m brought low
2. My love he shouted loud as lightning Broke his chain and smote his foe Ran those halls of pearl and sapphire Where no mortal man may go
“Turn this ship, O turn it back now!” Shouted John, so bold and brash “Bring me to my love, my Jenny Lest I burn this ship to ash!”
Oh, they laughed like flame and thunder Oh, they laughed like steel and ice “John,” said they, “she must be dandy “You’ll not need to ask us twice.”
Down they drove their iron casket Down through darkness wide and deep Found me stretched across my bower Sore with grief and fast asleep
3. My love, he spake to me so softly “Jenny, rise, we must away If we do not go this instant We’ll not live to see the day.”
“John,” said I, “I love you dearly Johnny, whither thou wouldst trod There will I put down my footprints This I swear by Holy God.”
Oh, I wept like flood and river Oh, I wept like sea and rain Wept and left my bower forsaken Ne’er to there return again
Down we flew, in night and starlight Down into abyssal gleam Down into that vast forever Where no mortal maid has been
4. For the love I bore for John Fitzgibbon I gave up the world I’d known Sought those distant stars forbidden That I could not call my own
Far we flew, and rough we landed Split the sky and chipped the hull Cracked our ship of ice and silver Spilled out from our prison walls
Oh, they wept like flame and thunder Oh, they wept like molten ore Even Johnny couldn’t save them And their proud race is no more
Down we delve with lamp and hammer Bearing children on the way As we dig, we sing forever: “We’ll return to Earth one day.”
On my way to our GOBLIN MASQUERADE at The Savoy Bookshop and Cafe in Westerly, Rhode Island at 6 PM.
Even if you’re far away with no teleportation device near at hand—throw on a costume, a mask, and join our virtual masquerade!
Celebrate Desdemona and the Deep with me! Post pics! Tag me! You’re welcome to join in!
If you want koboldish playlists, goblin recipes, and ideas for a night of dress up and books (very like how I’ll be be spending my night) (yes, drenched in rhinestones, yes), please take a nose-dive into this HOW TO I made for you!