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April 29th, 2008

The Folk Processor

So I'm working on a New York Between story featuring a pooka and Irish immigration to America in the mid-19th century, reading a wonderful book about what was once famous as the most squalid and dangerous neighborhood in America--Five Points. In the middle of the night, I wake up with Steve Tilston's "Slip Jigs and Reels" stuck in my head.

I used to know this song. I learned it off the tape years ago, and sang it with Ellen from time to time. At Christ o'clock in the morning, I couldn't even remember all the refrain, let alone the verses. One by one, lines surfaced in my mind like answers at the bottom of an 8-Ball: "He did love the ladies, the rise and the fall of their ankles and dresses down on the dance floor. Ya dadadada, Ya dadadada. But he took most delight in those slip jigs and reels."

But not all of them, and completely out of order. With lacunae. It drove me (as these things do) quite, quite mad.

So I drifted in and out of sleep, muttering lines and trying to figure out where they went, and when I got up, I rushed (as one does in this modern world of ours) straight to Google. Where I found plenty of versions of "Slip Jigs and Reels," all of which agreed on the broad outlines of the text, and none of which agreed on all the details. Which means they got the words the same way I did--off the record, which was notable for the beauty of the music, not the clarity with which Steve Tilston enunciated the lyric. None of the versions I found line up exactly with what I find I remember, now that my memory has been jogged. Which probably doesn't quite line up with what Tilston actually sang.

Which is how the Folk Processor works, and why there are 10,000 versions of every folk song in the world (except, perhaps "Row, Row, Row Your Boat"), all of them absolutely authentic to the singer you learned it (imperfectly) from. I'm so glad it still works that way, and that I am privileged to watch it in action.

Has this happened to any of you?

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