I became an Olivia Chaney fan when I heard the Offa Rex album she did with The Decembrists. The album is called for an old Child ballad, The Queen of Hearts:
The album is mostly traditional British and Irish, with the addition of Ewan MacColl’s First Time Ever I Saw Your Face and Mike and Lal Waterson’s To Make You Stay. Chaney’s versions are always personal; she tends to punch things up with some wandering from the melody, which works well to make a ballad interesting; the members of the group do the rest. First Time, MacColl’s ode to his lover Peggy Seeger made popular by Roberta Flack in 1972, is perfect for Chaney’s extravagant voice; she can roam around and play with rhythms to her heart’s content.
I don’t like her extravagance so much on The Old Churchyard, though, a gospel type song collected in the Ozarks and also published in 1972, according to the Mostly Norfolk site. I learned the song from The Wailin’ Jennies. Better to stick to the format in that genre, this comparison taught me. The Watersons also recorded the song in 2002, or rather The Watersons plus Martin Carthy, Norma’s husband.
When I heard tracks from Chaney’s solo album it was a no brainer- had to get it. Chaney’s Irish roots are there, in her dense poetry that sometimes ignores the rhyming convention of most songwriting. There’s a lot of memoir; of lovers and Mother, of childhood. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, with its references to Cockles and Mussels and Daddy’s dreaminess and alcoholism, is a good example of Chaney’s insightful, nature-based poetry:
Father’s a drinker/Rolls down the stairs
When I am with him/I could be anywhere
I will read every book of the world/Turning pages, Irish girl
In my tenement fairy-tale
He calls me prima donna/Still rubs my nose
Says I’ve got a bad, bad case of growing up
Is dream time closed?
The language of angels/Mussels and seashells
Is when Pappa sings old ballads/Scatters like petals
When we walk/There is Spring in my cheek
I fear that Mamma thinks that he’s a cheat
The Brooklyn reference, in case you don’t know, is to a 1943 bestselling book written by Betty Smith, about a girl growing up in a poor tenement in Brooklyn, of course. Dad is an alcoholic, second generation Irish immigrant; a dreamer. The story is generally supposed to be one of overcoming adversity; I haven’t read it for centuries. Or more accurately, decades. Perhaps I shall, though. It’s at the local library. The tree, the one that symbolizes the ability to grow despite difficulties, is a weed tree, in fact; the commonly named Tree of Heaven, or Ailanthus. I spent enough time trying to eradicate them that I can’t feel at all romantic about them, despite the puzzlingly poetic name.