The light at the end of the…

Last summer, Eoin O’Mahony and I went off in a camper van and made a series of recordings in a campsite under Old Sarum, down in the South. This one is called Swannanoa Tunnel.

It’s a magical thread, actually, this song, that ties together a group of people in all sorts of ways. Cecil Sharp, one of my folk heroes, collected this song in 1916 in North Carolina. Although it’s no doubt a variant on one of a number of other tunnel songs (yes, they are apparently a sub-genre all of their own), it is linked to the actual Swannanoa Tunnel which went through the Blue Ridge Mountains: hand-dug and haunted, in this song, with such dreadful nostalgia. The first time I heard the Bascom Lamar Lunsford version I put it on repeat and listened for hours, lying on my back in the dark with goosebumps. These old folk songs, wonky and broken and always slightly out of tune, are like crooked little paths that open from my heart into the past. And there’s a lot of good ones, but some are just… some were written to fit where nothing else fits, and to comfort when nothing else comforts.

Here’s Bascom’s version if you want to hear the real/old thing. He was a lawyer and amateur folklorist/raconteur type figue who used to turn up to lectures in unimpeachable white tie only to haul out the banjo. Nothing is less dignified than a banjo.

I’m going back to that Swannanoa Tunnel,
That’s my home, baby, that’s my home.

Asheville Junction, Swannanoa Tunnel,
All caved in, baby, all caved in.

Last December, I remember,
The wind blowed cold, baby, the wind blowed cold.

If you hear my watchdog howling, /Somebody around…

If you hear that hoot owl calling, /Somebody dying…

Hammer falling from my shoulder /All day long…

Ain’t no hammer in this mountain /Outrings mine…

This old hammer, it killed John Henry, /It didn’t kill me…

Riley Gardner, he killed my partner, /He couldn’t kill me…

Riley Rambler, he killed Jack Ambler, /He didn’t kill me…

This old hammer rings like silver, /Shines like gold…

Take this hammer, throw it in the river, /It’ll ring right on, baby, it’ll shine right on.

Some of these days I’ll see my lover/Coming on home,

He promised to me, he’d soon be coming, /and that’s no lie baby…


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