Review: Hanging by a Hair — Playing Rapunzel

It’s been a long time since I really loved a filk album. “Hanging by a Hair” broke the drought. Mich Sampson and Marilisa Valtazanou, performing as Playing Rapunzel, put the emphasis where it counts: on the songs. The topics are fascinating, the lyrics clear, and the musicianship aimed at bringing out the songs.

album cover, Hanging by a Hair“Hanging by a Hair” has a mix of popular oldies, filk oldies, and new songs. Picking a favorite is hard. I think I’d go with “Lizukha,” for its storytelling, fitting the words to the rhythm, and its frame structure. I could also mention the very distinctive setting of Jodi Krangle’s “The Lady” or the old favorite “Starship and Haiku.” “Ophelia” had me puzzled till I noticed the title; it takes an oblique approach, and I think I’ll have to listen a few times to grok it completely. Mich and Marilisa use a lot of different instruments without overwhelming the vocal lines.

According to the website, it’s available as a download or CD purchase from Bandcamp, but shipping to the US isn’t available yet. (I got the CD at the release party in Germany. I paid for it like anyone else; there aren’t many review copies in filk.)

If I have a complaint, it’s that there are only ten songs on the album. But which is better: a ten-track album with at least eight tracks I’ll want to listen to repeatedly, or a sixteen-track one with four really memorable songs?

Update: There’s a carefully concealed lyrics booklet in the package. It was over a month before I noticed it. Like many such booklets, it puts prettiness over readability, with black lyrics on a mottled blue background. I don’t know why anyone does this. Black text on white paper is not only more readable, it’s cheaper.

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A short history of “Yankee Doodle”

One of my current projects is a book called Yesterday’s Songs Transformed, a history of how songs have been rewritten, repurposed, and parodied through the ages. It’s a lot of fun to research, if nothing else. Here’s a section of my draft on “Yankee Doodle” and some of the changes it went through.

Undoubtedly the most rewritten and transformed song of the American Revolution was “Yankee Doodle.” Its origins are uncertain, but its earliest versions mocked Americans as country bumpkins. The tune is older than any form of the words. A British Army surgeon, Dr. Richard Shuckburgh, is credited with writing one of the mocking versions, though the song has gone through so many changes that it isn’t clear which words are his. These may have been his words:

Brother Ephraim sold his Cow
And bought him a Commission,
And then he went to Canada
To Fight for the Nation;
But when Ephraim he came home
He prov’d an arrant Coward,
He wouldn’t fight the Frenchmen there
For fear of being devour ‘d.

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