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Banjo as Subtlety

Posted by Joanchek on Sunday, July 15, 2007

I was in a trivia game recently and the host asked a question:  "What is an amanita?"  I knew it was a poisonous mushroom, and I knew that because I had been looking up pictures of the flowers in "Wildwood Flower" in anticipation of some painting I want to do.  (Look for WF china and glassware in time for Christmas--I'll keep you posted.)

Anyway, I got to thinking about those flowers that Mother Maybelle mentions, and something occurred to me.  The song is about a young woman whose lover has left her, and she sits and pines for him and picks wildflowers.  Roses, lilies, myrtle, the elusive "eyes of bright blue"... she's out in a field.  [Note:  I believe that "eyes of bright blue" is actually "hyssop bright blue."  I know that in some folk music circles there has been much discussion about this, and lots of those people know way more than me.  But hyssop grows wild  in southwestern Virginia and is traditionally used to soothe wounds in herbal medicine.]  And then!  enter the pale amanita.  Now, WHO would pick poisonous mushrooms for a bouquet, or to "twine and mingle" in their hair?  Nobody.  This young lady is contemplating ending her life rather than suffer a broken heart.

This is a very interesting revelation because as a bit of lyric writing, it's so darned subtle.  The writer assumes that we know what an amanita is, and that we know it's deadly potential.  He doesn't throw it in our face.  Figure it out, son.  This gal's pickin' toadstools.  What else can we extrapolate?  Our young lady tells us that "he taught me to love him."  I think this is a clear indication of a physical relationship.  We are loved by our parents since infancy.  We observe romantic relationships as children.  We do not need to be taught to love our potential partners.  But a naive young girl might need a little coaching in the nuts and bolts of sex, and I think that's what's going on here.  So what we have:  a young girl loses her virginity to  a man who promised to love her, and said pretty things to her, and then he left her without warning or goodbye.  And now she wants to kill herself.  She's hidden some poison in her handful of posies.

So, keeping this in mind, I ran through Wildwood Flower today a few times, and got a little plaintive sadness in it, and I like it.

3 comments on “Banjo as Subtlety”

Sid Langley Says:
Monday, July 16, 2007 @2:01:50 AM

...and in much early literature the "wildwood", like the sea and the desert, is a place outside the normality of everyday life, where extraordinary things happen - a place of demons, magic, myths etc as in Grimm, Shakespeare ... and the girl of the song herself doubles as the wildwood flower, the violated maiden .... banjo as research fellowship in comparative literary criticism woth psycho-sexual overtones!

Paul Bock Says:
Monday, July 16, 2007 @8:28:09 AM

     If you listen to a lot of Bluegrass lyrics going all the way back to the 1940s, and folk lyrics going back much further, you will find occasional oblique references to a physical relationship.  In those days when any reference to anything even remotely sexual was strictly taboo, songwriters still found subtle ways to use the language to get the meaning across (and regarding the taboo, recall that "Sleep With One Eye Open" by Flatt & Scruggs was banned from airplay at WSM radio in the early 1950s because of its "suggestive lyrics."  Today we wouldn't give that tune a second thought).

     Which just goes to show that rural southern songwriters were not nearly as illiterate as the old stereotype sometimes suggests.


Paul Bock Says:
Monday, July 16, 2007 @10:21:20 AM

     I was also going to say that there are some lyrics to "Little Birdie" alluding to a young man being led astray by a married woman who claimed her husband was dead.....then the husband came back.....and you KNOW that the young man and the married lady didn't just sit around sipping tea and maybe holding hands.....     :-)

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