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Natalie Merchant - TEDTalks: Natalie Merchant—Singing Old Poems to Life

  by Owen Peters

published: 18 / 4 / 2015

Natalie Merchant - TEDTalks: Natalie Merchant—Singing Old Poems to Life


In his 'TV Music Memories' column, in which he looks at TV music programmes, Owen Peters watches an unusual concert film in which 10,000 Maniacs' front woman Natalie Merchant performs songs from her 2010 album 'Leave Your Sleep', in which she converted nursery rhymes to songs

I’ve always thought more poems should be arranged into songs. Strangely, this can be extremely contentious, almost sacrilegious to some poetry lovers. Tampering with the written word can only be a dilution of its construction and turn of phrases. Messing about with Keats, Coleridge, Wordsworth, not likely. Off with the offenders’ heads! Well, I came across someone who just may either change your mind or confirm the benefits of putting tunes and poems together. Firstly, let me introduce TED (Technology - Entertainment and Design). TED is a non-profit firm devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks (eighteen minutes or less). Its conception began in 1984 and covers a host of topics - science, business, ethics, religion, well-being, and, most importantly for this article, music. It seems to be available on a whole range of platforms, from YouTube, TED TV, Freeview and NOW TV. So, let’s move onto the artist. If I said Natalie Merchant, that may wake up a few cells of grey matter from the past. If I said Natalie Merchant, she of 10,000 Maniacs, the recall would be complete. Merchant put together an album ‘Leave Your Sleep’ in 2010, in which she converted a whopping 26 nursery rhymes into songs. I’ve chosen a concert she performed on TED in February 2010, which features a selection of the tracks from that album. There are some crackers here. Merchant and her trio are adorned with French masquerade ball masks as they open with ‘The Sleepy Giant’ by Charles Edward Carryl. It is a simple every day story of a 372 year old giant who ate little boys, but whose jaws are now becoming weak. The trio are a string section, consisting of one cellist and two acoustic guitarists. They provide backing as Merchant dances, sways, curtsies to an imaginary partner. A cello solo and the storytelling are both sublime, evoking memories of Dory Previn in her prime. Sassy, flirtatious, hip wiggling, with a guest clarinet player in full cry, ’The Janitor's Boy’ by Nathalia Crane is given the Dixieland jazz treatment, for adults only. She loves him, he loves her. They are going to sail off on a raft made from an old settee. I don’t doubt it for a moment. ‘If No One Ever Marries Me’ by Alma Tadema and ‘Spring and Fall’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins have excellent arrangements, but more serious undertones. Tadema tells of all the things she’ll do if no one marries her, buying a pony and tame lamb to take into town. As for her personal life, she never did marry and died alone. Hopkins became a Jesuit priest, deciding not to write for many, many years. Whilst Merchant was researching the poems, she came across a request by Hopkins. He had secretly penned ‘Spring and Fall’ explaining death to a child. He asked for his lines to be turned into song. Some one hundred and thirty years after his request, Merchant completed the task. Merchant sits on the side of the stage, for a very quiet, simple, personal rendition of ‘Maggie and Milly, Molly and May’ by E.E. Cummings posing the view: “It’s always ourselves we find by the sea.” There is deft touch of flamenco strings from the lead guitarist allowing Merchant to once again captivate the TED audience with her ability to turn nursery rhyme into meaningful adult themes. Merchant’s trademark vocal tremble is still in place sounding very much like Patti Smith in parts. Her delivery and touch of theatre adds to making this a very enjoyable and unusual performance. Maybe in 2010 you didn’t have children, or they were in their infancy. Half a decade ago these were some of the worldwide key events, and not so key events. Unrest in the Arab world sparked what would become known as the Arab Spring. Spain had a trio of sporting successes. They won the World Cup, Alberto Contador won the Tour de France and Rafael Nadal took over the no. 1 tennis ranking from Roger Federer. BBC Director General announced 6Music was planned to close as part of cost cutting measures “Oh no it won’t,” screamed thousands of fans. Supporters of the station won their battle. Volcano eruption in Iceland grounded hundreds of planes, due to the perceived dangers of volcanic ash. Ed Miliband attended his first Prime Minister Questions as Leader of the Opposition. Liverpool FC was bought for £300 million by New England Sports Ventures. Yes, I know there are some events you would prefer to forget. Sorry! The official website http://www.nataliemerchant.com/ has a lovely layout to the album. By a tab selection poetry/songs can be read, listened or watched. So, if it is for your own enjoyment or if you want to read poetry to your kids, it is all here: Edward Lear, Christina Rossetti, Arthur Macy, Ogden Nash, Robert Graves etc. So ideally this is a reminder, if one were needed of Natalie Merchant’s skill in musical arrangement and differing styles of performance. There is also a new medium to some readers TED, which is excellent for music and many other diverse topics. Hope you give them both a try.

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