The folk tales of old pass through the ears of the next generation, inherited as one might inherit an estate. They’re the songs that tell their history, the songs that define the singer’s bloodlines through history. They don’t need to say much; in fact, there’s beauty in that simplicity. But the folk songs someone sings tell you who that singer is, and whose tradition they carry on. Wussy are your usual heartland indie band, a talented gaggle of Neil Young guitars mindful of their heritage and of what made that heritage special. I mean, this is the band that wrote a song about listening to the Who with straight-faced sincerity. They jumble between grungier distortion and drawn out electric folk. Sometimes they play with pop-minded efficiency. Other times, they’ll crank out a few riffed power chords and stir up some brooding feedback.
For a band whose heart comes from the classic rock playbook and folk rock tradition, Public Domain, Volume I seems obvious. Wussy is exactly the type of band to repurpose traditionals and drench them like some kind of duster-clad Sonic Youth.
Public Domain is a simple set of old world folk songs, played with the Wussy formula. Guitars slug a Crazy Horse cadence in “Poor Ellen Smith,” rewriting the murder ballad as something fierce. “Alone” sounds like an Appalachian landscape churned into a distorted Western, while “Lavender Blue” sees Wussy play the gentle balladeer.
There’s no real missteps; no tracks that sound off-putting or out of Wussy’s world. The folksiest songs rumble behind droning guitars. Riffs crackle against amplifiers. Wussy juggles its vocals between its own Johnny and June; Chuck Cleaver and Lisa Walker lead their songs with no real gripes about where they start and where they go. The songs have already been laid out for them; just throwing in some Wussy flair was all they really needed. Like Springsteen and Young before them, Wussy followed the Ohio River into the American heartland for the great American songbook. What they threw together isn’t a surprise; Public Domain is a perfect easel for Wussy’s distorted Americana. But while an EP of grunged-out folk tradition isn’t an earth-shaker, it’s something Wussy does well. Public Domain might only be a cover EP hanging from a branch on rock’s family tree, but its fruit might be one of Americana’s best kept secrets.
The best image I can ascribe to the traditional/ballad/broadside tradition is that of the briar patch—more specifically a briar of roses. A briar is messy, intergrown, deeply rooted and baffling: a repository of the growth and development of the genus Rosa; each rose that grows holds in its folds and sumptuous hips the history of the rose as well as its own unique facets and nascent being, either developed naturally or (as is more likely these days) consciously cultivated by human hands.
So it is with the traditional. And on Public Domain Vol. 1, bona fide great band Wussy have rolled up their sleeves and gone to the garden, hoping to work hard and produce a cultivar.
I had a devil of a time tracking down information on each of these songs, although once I stumbled across Fresno State’s Traditional Ballad Index it was just a matter of finding which songs had the same opening lyrics.
Earliest date: 1856, published in The Poetical Works of Thomas Moore.
Lyricist Thomas Moore (sometimes referred to as Anacreon Moore, in honor of the Greek lyric poet) is still a legendary figure in Irish poetry. “I Give You All” is not one of his most noteworthy accomplishments; that honor goes to penning “The Last Rose of Summer” (famously weaved into Leopold Bloom’s peregrinating thoughts in James Joyce’s Ulysses, in Chapter 11) and “Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms” (the melody used in a stock Looney Toons gag involving TNT and a piano and/or xylophone) as well as burning Lord Byron’s memoirs—even though Moore was named literary executor and charged with publishing them.
Sometimes the song is called “My Heart and Lute.”
Sir Henry Rowley Bishop, known for teaching at Edinburgh and Oxford, as well as being the first musician to receive a knighthood and writing “Lo, Here the Gentle Lark,” of whom not much more can be said, wrote the music. The tune served as the basis for the White Knight’s Song in Through the Looking-Glass.
In Wussy’s hands, the song has a sort of Western cant, with a marching rhythm—also evidenced by the fact that they change the lute in the song into a guitar. Lisa Walker’s vocals are, as they are most of the time, strong and wonderful.
Earliest date: 1893.
Interestingly, although the Wussy version opens up with the Broadwood lyrics, about a forlorn maiden who “Alas … must live all alone,” there’s an even earlier version dating from 1778 that holds the same sweetheart but hinges on the line “I’m weary of lying alone.” The maiden must wait for her sweetheart, evidently a sailor or a soldier: “Come back one day from ocean waves / and take a sweet bride of your own.” There’s something mythic in this image. It brings me back (inevitably) to Penelope’s plight in The Odyssey.
Out of this collection, “Alone” is the most distinctive, opening with long steely notes that thread through the whole track. Chuck Cleaver’s vocals are strikingly mournful.
Earliest date: prior to 1685
Also called “Diddle, Diddle (Or The Kind Country Lovers)” and more often called “Lavender’s Blue,” this song has had an interesting history. On the surface, it’s nothing more than a “come hither/it’s okay, sex is natural” song. After all just as “lavender’s blue,” it’s okay for the singer and the dedicated to be together. In spite of the obvious innuendo, the song is still a popular nursery rhyme; it’s been sung by Burl Ives in a Walt Disney film, made into a 50s pop song, interpolated into a Benjamin Britten opera based off Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw,” used by David Bowie to introduce the song “Heroes,” and included in numerous television shows and novels.
On Public Domain, Wussy plays it straight, although it’s fair to say Walker’s delivery ranks alongside Ives’ rendition.
Earliest date: 1915
Ah, the murder ballad. How can you go wrong with a little homicidal dolor? The crux of the song is simple: “Poor Ellen Smith / How was she found? / Shot through the heart / lying cold on the ground.” The song is sung from the point of view of either the culprit or an innocent bystander, depending on how you interpret it. Generally, it does not end well, with the singer either convicted of murder or condemned to prison. In the song, the singer’s fate is malleable. But the death of Ellen Smith never is.
The electric guitar has an eerie echo, like it’s playing through miasma, and builds throughout the song until it too becomes miasmal. As good as Cleaver’s delivery is, the instrumentation outpaces his singing, better signifying the anguish inherent to the song’s situation.
Earliest date: 1800s
According to Fresno State’s index, this song dates from 1868. However, Raymond F. Glover, writing in The Hymnal 1982 Companion, Volume 1, places the song’s nascence in the year 1811, when the words were published in a Methodist Episcopal “camp meeting” guide, A General Selection of the Newest and Most Admired Hymns and Spiritual Songs Now In Use under the title “What wondrous love is this.” This would situate the song in the timeframe of The Second Great Awakening.
The melody is generally believed to be borrowed from an old English traditional, “The Ballad of Captain Kidd.”
Between then and now, the hymn has undergone so stanza shifts and word changes, but the message is still the same: oh, how is it a poor sinner such as I am worthy of God’s love.
The band has never shied away from making religious associations in their work, and “Wondrous Love” is no exception. Wussy makes the song sound eerie, rising out of uncertainty, rather than the welcome billow of a camp revival or the solid walls of a church. After all, the singer feels barely redeemed: “When I was sinking down / Beneath God’s righteous frown / Christ laid aside his crown / For my soul! For my soul!”
Perhaps my only complaint at the end of all this is that the band did not, for all their wonderful handiwork, take the traditionals far from their source, did not (as it were) produce a unique cultivar.