“In the rooms of her ice-water mansion” by
(43 Stories)

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After my initial forced forays into music-making as a kid (the piano lessons turned to mostly self-taught guitar playing as a teen), I found my first real emotional connection to music in the folk songs of the late 1950s and 1960s.

"Within the songs are found our hopes, fears, challenges ... and even our desired potential."

It was here that the foreign language of the music out there, morphed into the soul-searing intimacy in here. I was hooked instantly when I heard the blending of a story with the melodic picking and strumming of guitar strings, from singers with either a singular, distinctive voice like Glen Yarborough, or the pulse-pounding harmony of groups like the Kingston Trio or Peter, Paul & Mary.

In love with a genre

So, veering slightly off the prompt of a “favorite song,” my love affair has been with an entire genre: folk music. Here is how writer Laura Jones explains the resonance of folk songs: “They’re the songs you know, without consciously recognizing that you know them. They lay dormant at the back of your mind, until needed when they appear on your tongue with tunes and lyrics remembered to perfection.”

As you read along in this retrospective, you’ll encounter highlighted links to some of these songs. Some of the singers are ones you’ll recognize; one you won’t. But hey, Mom always taught me I should do what I love, and it’s the thought that counts.

To be sure, other musical genres also move me — sometimes to tears, in fact — but it is the story element of folk music that connects me spiritually to the lives of people dealing with hard times or unique challenges. Many times those challenges are of their own making, such as the story found in my version of “Long Black Veil,” but sometimes not. The crew members of the Edmund Fitzgerald, for example, were certainly not to blame for their calamity.

When you add in the poetry in which these stories are often conveyed, you come to feel as if you know these characters as well as you might know your best friend. You are led to feel deeply for the iron boat “crew of a captain well-seasoned,” for whom, “the church bell chimed ’till it rang twenty-nine times.”

Edmund and Charlie

Those lines, of course, are from the Gordon Lightfoot song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” a true story of an entire crew lost in a Lake Superior superstorm in 1975. It’s at the top of my chart when it comes to folk music, because of its story, its poetry, and Gordo’s heartfelt voice. It rings true. I spent a lot of summers on the shores of Superior, and I met a lot of hearty people who reflected the spirit and guts of those 29 lost souls.

In other much lighter folk songs like the Kingston Trio’s “MTA” we can even feel a kinship to poor Charlie who couldn’t pay the added transit fare and had to “ride forever ‘neath the streets of Boston … the man who never returned.”

There are, in fact, so many of these stories; so many memorable folks songs. You realize you’ve forgotten so many more than you remember, and it’s why coming across one of those forgotten ones is such a great moment. Something like Super Mario stumbling upon a nugget of gold.

Finding new gold along the way

And then there are the even better moments when you discover new folk songs, written so many years after the glory days of the genre. Such was my case several years ago when I came across an entire folk album from a group called,”Cry, Cry, Cry.”  Composed of Richard Shindell, Lucy Kaplansky, and Dar Williams, these are the singer/songwriters who released their eponymous album in 1998.

I was introduced to this CD at Tower Records in Memphis, when I was living there then. Memphis will always be an emotional crossroads in my life for so many reasons, and “Cry, Cry, Cry” seemed to embody it with its soulful tales of people living through challenging events.

Just a few weeks ago I came across the CD in my music files and replayed a couple of its songs. Then I went a step further in picking up my guitar and recording my own cover of these tales. My hobby these days is making music videos and posting them to YouTube, and these two songs are among them.

Two new additions

The first of those songs is, “Cold Missouri Waters,”  that tells the story of 15 brave smoke jumpers in a 1949  Montana forest fire and the fate that awaited them. It was written by James Kallaghan.

The other is a tale out of the Southwest in the 1990s of three young men with trouble on their minds. Toward the end of the song there is a surprise twist, taken from real life, that floored me when I first heard it. Written by Dar Williams, the song is called,
“Shades of Gray.”

So, yes, I’m in love with folk music. It’s an art form that helps to build individual, and even national identities. Within the songs are found our hopes, fears, challenges, tragedies, values, history, and even our desired potential. And folk music will outlive us all, hopefully going on to be rediscovered anew by those who come after us.

Profile photo of Jim Willis Jim Willis
I am a writer, college professor, and author of several nonfiction books, including three on the decade of the 1960s. Several wonderful essays of gifted Retrospect authors appear in my book, "Daily Life in the 1960s."

Tags: folk music, edmund fitzgerald, long black veil
Characterizations: been there, funny, moving, right on!, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    I am with you 100% Jim. I love folk music and sing it to myself whenever I can (usually in the shower). I am drawn to the melancholy, old tales that I heard on Joan Baez’s first album; tales of jilted love like “Silver Dagger” or “John Riley”. I also loved Peter, Paul and Mary and several of the songs you mention in your story (of course, now living in the Boston area, “Charlie on the MTA” is standard fare). I even found the Ken Burns country music documentary fascinating, as the origins of our country music has it roots in the folk songs brought over from the Old World.

    • Jim Willis says:

      Thanks, Betsy. I lived in Boston for 10 years in the 80s and 90s and many times riding the T, I would think of poor old Charlie! I live now on the edge of Appalachia, and the mountain music is much appreciated around here. There was an interesting movie done in 2000 called, “Songcatcher,” about a musicologist, Dr. Lily Penleric, who ventured into the mountains in 1907 to capture some of the never-before-heard music there on early-day recording equipment. Perhaps you’ve seen it?

  2. Marian says:

    Wonderful recap of folk music, a genre I too really like, Jim. There have been some recent concert videos and a documentary on Pete Seeger, and your story reminded me of some great songs from him as well.

  3. Thanx Jim, I’m not nearly as knowledgeable as you but do love folk music. And among the music our family plays every year at Hanukkah is Peter, Paul & Mary singing Peter Yarrow’s Light One Candle.

    I’ve listened to Dar Williams but not in concert altho hopefully will one day – a good friend’s daughter is her agent. And I hope to hear more from you on Retro!

  4. Dave Ventre says:

    Great to come across another person who loves both Gordon Lightfoot AND Lake Superior!

    • Jim Willis says:

      You’re right about that, Dave! Lightfoot has always been a favorite, and the summers I spent in Bayfield, Wisconsin were terrific. We had a cabin about a half-mile from the lake front. I’ve never felt something so cold as Superior’s waters. I learned to kayak on that lake, and part of the drill was to roll our boats. I got a taste of what it was like for the Fitzgerald’s crew to go into the water. Although they never got to come out.

      • Dave Ventre says:

        We usually go to Copper Harbor or the Porkies, but our last trip (2019) was to Bayfield. It was lovely; sometimes Copper Harbor and its environs can get a little TOO rural and out-of-the-way. And not far from a mountain biking trailhead (Mt. Ashwabay)!

  5. Suzy says:

    This is great, Jim! I’m also a big fan of folk music. As a teenager, I went to a summer camp called Lincoln Farm where we learned lots of folk songs, along with civil rights and labor movement protest songs. I attempted to learn to play the guitar there, so I could play these songs myself, but found that I do better singing while someone else plays the guitar!

    Enjoyed your links too. But here’s a question about poor Charlie on the MTA – if his wife could come down to the Scollay Square station and hand him a sandwich, why couldn’t she give him a nickel?!!!

  6. Khati Hendry says:

    Definitely share an appreciation for folk music, which you described so well. It is for all the folks. I regularly play those songs on piano still. Thanks for the trip through the memories.

  7. Laurie Levy says:

    As the wife of a guitar-playing lover of folk music, your words resonated with me. So many wonderful songs and lots of great story-songwriters.

  8. Great to hear about your love for the stories in folk music songs, just after i posted my homage to country story-songs. And it sounds as though we have both ventured into YouTube territory as well. I love Gordon Lightfoot too. Thanks for a very engaging piece.

  9. Great minds. I had just referenced “Long Black Veil” to Dale in a comment on his story songs post. The others you had collected I hadn’t heard. You’re prompting me to run “Long Black Veil” again. It also works well in a mid-tempo, bluegrassy version if you have a mandolin and fiddle!

    My second cousin and her husband are very active in the folk scene in northern California. A whole new generation!

  10. Jim Willis says:

    Charles, although I’ve known “Veil” for decades, it’s one of those songs that waited awhile to take hold. I hadn’t thought about it for some time, then a few years ago I picked up a copy of Rosanne Cash’s album, “The List.” She had come across Johnny’s list of favorite songs, and “Long Black Veil” was on it. So she reimagined it, along with others on the list including, “Sea of Heartbreak” (which she sang with Springsteen), Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country,” and “500 Miles.” Good album.

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