Appalachian ballads, like medieval romances and Greek tragedies, cannily offer insights into the human condition in wry and nonchalant, almost carefree, ways. With a knowing nod to a lover’s betrayal, the death of a lover, or the insidiousness of social inequities, such ballads deliver haunting morals to the tales they tell. In his version of the classic ballad, “House Carpenter,” Harris’ slow rolling banjo strums and plucks wander mournfully around Chance McCoy’s doleful fiddle pulls as Harris’s shivering vocals evoke the woeful and dire consequences of a young woman’s decision to leave her children and husband behind to make a better life for herself with a man who can offer her a wealthier life. As these ballads go, things don’t turn out quite the way she hopes, and we’re left to say either “I told you so,” or to shrug our shoulders, or to cry for those left behind; Harris’ emotionally moving version openly renders these moving and memorable lessons of the song.
Reflecting on “House Carpenter,” Harris says: “I’m not quite sure where I first learned this tune, but it’s been cemented in the recesses of my mind for several decades now. As a lifelong historic restoration carpenter myself, I’ve always been fascinated by the history of the trade; in the 17th and 18th centuries (likely the most recent era of this ballads’ origination) different types of carpenters were delineated in gilded orders: within the hierarchy, a house carpenter was the bottom tier, below the millwright, who was below the ship’s carpenter, and so on and so forth. Knowing this order, one can understand that though her husband works a dignified trade, the woman in the song is easily lured away from her own house carpenter by the appeal of a man with his own ship (who later turns out to be the devil in disguise), no doubt far wealthier and well-respected than the everyday man she’s married to.”
J.P. Harris’ Dreadful Wind & Rain, Don’t You Marry No Railroad Man is out on June 25th via Free Dirt and available – HERE
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