The Rowan Stave: A Sharyn McCrumb Commentary

One finds the oddest things in the Archives here at the Kinrowan Estate as I found an odd one-off that Sharyn McCrumb of the Ballads novel fame, did with the able assistance of Sweetwater, a well-known folk band.

Sharyn wrote and recorded ‘The Rowan Stave’, the song that is the heart of her novel, The Songcatcher. As was noted in me review of the novel, The Songcatcher has a more straightforward plot than some of the earlier Ballad novels. In 1751 Islay (off the coast of Scotland), Malcolm McCourry is shanghaied and turned into a slave on board a ship heading to the New World. On the voyage, he hears and learns a typically haunting ballad (I’m bein’ quite serious — is there any other kind in a mystery novel?). In the Colonies, McCourry makes the most of his ill fate and soon becomes a member of the legal profession, after apprenticing himself to a lawyer, and starts a family. He hands down the ballad to his sons who in turn hand it down to their sons and so forth.

But what happens if you’re an author and no existing ballad will do? Why, you invent one! As she say’s not an authentic old song. It was written for this book, because I thought that I could not find a song so obscure that no reader would be familiar with it, so I composed one. However, it is true that my family did hand down authentic folk songs from one generation to the next as part of our oral tradition. It took me a while to find this out, though. My father left the mountains for World War II and never went back, so my contact with my mountain kinfolks were limited to visits in the summer and sometimes at Christmas.

And that’s precisely what McCrumb has done as ‘The Rowan Stave’ is a modern song done in a very traditional form that a Scottish songwriter of three centuries ago might have penned if he or she had encountered such ballads as ‘The Unquiet Grave’ and its variants such as ‘Cold Blows the Wind’. It sounds like a traditional ballad — Sharyn wrote the lyrics –and Sweetwater’s Shelley Stevens penned the tune which is played by Sweetwater using guitar, mountain dulcimer, bodhran, and tin whistle. Earlier this year, Sharyn flew to Ohio to record the CD that features this song, with Sharyn singing along with Sweetwater. The music is followed by a rather excellent reading from the book by Sharyn.

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