Born in Belfast but having relocated as a teen-ager to the Appalachian part of North Carolina, the singer and songwriter – in his case those terms begin to sound trite, and actually he has the makings of a bard about him – Alyn Mearns, who has been working under the moniker Yes the Raven for the last couple of years, has traced in his own life one of the main paths by which the music of Ireland, especially that of the Scots-Irish, reached America to begin with.
Amongst the performances which he’s placed on his Youtube channel, there are, as one might expect, some covers, and in these as well as in his own original songs his close rapport with the acoustic guitar is evident. (This rapport he speaks of as follows on his website: “Alyn’s body seems to have grown a guitar and his guitar seems to be inhabited by a voice,” which, the cautious rhetorical attenuation notwithstanding, is in fact a striking and rather apt apostrophe to his two instruments and their relationship.) These covers all comprise sensitive treatments of the songs in which, with love and skill, he lends what he’s got to them while yet not stifling the resonance of their original moment; this is most apparent in his very moving version of The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?,” which makes me close my eyes and think – not so much of “nothing in particular” as back to 1985 specifically, when the single was released just about at the right time, so it seemed and seems to me and I’d guess to quite a few others as well. Now, most covers of older songs, of course, fail to achieve an effect of such specificity, and thus those that do are usually memorable in their own right simply on that account, whatever the other qualities they may also happen to display; after all, it’s a special depth of sense that a musician would seem to need if such a thing is to be accomplished, and considerable tact too. Mearns has clearly been gifted with both.
Alongside these covers there are quite a few of his original songs which are entrancing both musically and lyrically. In fact, several of them are ballads, and thus it isn’t so strange to characterize them as having “absorbed modern pop and folk music” while nonetheless at heart remaining “much more ancient, something Orphean, Homeric, Davidian,” in the words of Mearns’ website. While those terms may sound presumptuous at first, upon further reflection they do seem to me to suit his music rather well.
The power of music to charm those who listen and to render them quiet for as long as they listen – which is in essence its Orphic principle (I leave to one side the fables of Orpheus’ musical command over the inanimate) – is evinced to a considerable degree when Mearns takes his guitar in hand: just see if his music and his voice do not transfix you too. And as for the descent into the underworld and the eventual journey back alone, the dark scenes he passes across lyrically, be they impersonal and urban in some songs or private and intimate in others, are in his vision of them bleak indeed: and yet from our point of view what mainly matters is not the hardship but the verses he steps again into the light to sing.
Finding the right words to devote to the memory of one who but for an unlucky coincidence would have remained in the obscurity of private life and whom we otherwise never would have heard of – and who, given the price of the fame, might well have preferred it that way – as Mearns does in putting into a ballad (“Fifteen Loaves”) a poem by the young Irish poet Matthew Rice about the tale of Ginnie Wade, a civilian whose life a stray bullet extinguished near the battlefield at Gettysburg long ago, may certainly be regarded as a pointed expansion of the impartiality that runs throughout Homer’s epos, which would thus clarify and justify the invocation of the term “Homeric” in Mearns’ own case – the Homer who in rendering victors and vanquished, Greeks and Trojans alike their due in song, has shaped as hardly any other has done our common notions of the historian’s task.
What the specifically Davidian in music might be, seems rather obscure at first sight, but with a little reflection and perhaps after consulting the Bible one will think of the manner in which praise, supplication, and lamentation could be lent a musical expression worthy of the one who gives it voice, of the utterance itself, and of the addressee; and as in several of Mearns’ songs we hear how each of these three human postures can be conveyed in a mode that would touch even the hard of heart, this term may properly be applied to his work.
Of course, these three aspects of Mearns’ music – the Orphean, the Homeric, the Davidian – vary in their respective proportions from song to song; but there is one in particular into which all three enter in roughly equal measure, and it’s the song that first attracted my attention to his work: his acoustic version of the aria “When I Am Laid to Rest” (“Dido’s Lament”) from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, which, he demonstrates conclusively, may be transposed for a male voice without forfeiting its great power.
Not to descend too far into the specifically operatic detail, let alone into the doleful Carthaginian history in the background – how right was Flaubert when he confided in a letter* during the work on Salammbô: “Peu de gens devineront combien il a fallu être triste pour entreprendre de ressusciter Carthage !” – but there are a few points that ought to be mentioned concerning the aria.
* Of November 29, 1859, to Ernest Feydeau.
A recent article about Dido and Aeneas by Patrick Hunt, a professor of archæology at Stanford University, informs us that in this aria the librettist, the poet Nahum Tate (who, it should be noted, was born in Dublin), made use of a specific metrical form derived from the type of Hebrew lamentation known as a kinah (from the word for a dirge). Now, a quick consultation of synopses in some reference works of relevant parts of the linguistic scholarship, and also of a few of the entries on the blog maintained by Peter Bekins, a graduate student at the Hebrew Union College and an instructor at Wright State University, Balshanut, does throw some light on the meter in question and clarifies how Tate utilized it.
According to Karl Budde’s old but still plausible investigation,* the meter, which is termed an elegiac pentameter, comprises a first colon with three accented syllables, followed perhaps (I should think) by a very brief pause, and then succeeded by a second colon with two – a description which would, if it is accurate, already tend to suggest that any English verses created in such a meter could not be prolonged.
* “Das hebräische Klagelied,” Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft, vol. II (1882), pp. 1-52.
And yet, open the King James Bible to the relevant passages and scan some of the most moving lines or parts thereof: they will reveal pairs of these meters, which lend an especial turn to the sense. In these most of the syllables bear weight and are accented, as in the following example: “and likewise all the men that were with him.”* Or in this one (although in the first half of it there is one syllable too many, the last syllable of the word “many” could go unaccented), “for my sighs are many, and my heart is faint.”** And readers will begin to discern this meter, either outright or with various interpolations of unaccented syllables, at other points in the King James as well – and the audience will hear it in Tate’s aria, in particular in the stunning conclusion, which is built of a triad of these meters (I am leaving out of account the “ah!” whose exhalation is marked in the text): twice the words “remember me,” where it’s understood that the second word will be elongated in the operatic performance into two syllables, both accented, and then “but forget my fate!”
* II Samuel 1, 11. ** Lamentations 1, 22.
So the text of the aria already bodies forth the cadence of lamentation, while its content clearly shows that it is in some manner a supplication; as for the other piece of the special Davidian music, praise, it may perhaps be discerned as an element in Dido’s avowal that she is strong enough to accept her fate alone and does not regret the turn of events that brought Aeneas to her shores in the first place. While it might be a reach to consider her deportment as an instance of amor fati, what is noteworthy is how free she sounds of any ressentiment and thus in the end how she would be prepared to praise.
As for us, her envoi notwithstanding, it’s not in the least likely that we would forget her fate; but nor should we overlook the obvious fact that were it not for Aeneas she’d never have been drawn forth from obscurity at all; and then suddenly one discerns in her story something like the tale of Ginnie Wade writ large, very, very large. Thus the interest that it has aroused amongst a long line of poets, librettists, singers, and now a bard like Mearns, may be understood; in their hands it’s another exemplification and amplification of the impartiality that is so fundamental in the Homeric epos – another case of song tendering their due to the vanquished and the forcibly forgotten, another instance where in retrospect music can render at least some justice to them.
The Orphic aspect of Mearns’ entrancing version of “When I Am Laid to Rest,” this last word before a descent into the underworld, is in need of no elucidation – res ipsa loquitur, if only one has the ears to hear it. One will either be claimed by his performance, or not.
Thus his acoustic transposition of the aria is sustained by the three modes of music which Mearns himself identifies – and some similarly sustained balance, in variable proportions, may be heard in his other ballads and songs as well. Probably it’s the co-existence of these three in many of them that leads him so consistently and memorably to “sing of human unsuccess in a rapture of distress.”
N.B. In addition to his work as Yes the Raven, Mearns also collaborates musically in a duo called The Belfast Boys, where he is joined by the well-known Irish poet Adrian Rice, who has likewise settled in Hickory, North Carolina and who may perhaps be family of the aforementioned Matthew Rice (this I was unable to ascertain one way or another): their great love of Irish folk music is evident in the spirited recordings that they’ve begun to post on their Youtube channel.