Thomas the Rhymer: Johnny D’s, Somerville, MA, USA

Reprinted from Green Man Review.

Ellen Kushner says that her novel, Thomas the Rhymer, was inspired by traditional folksongs of the British Isles. The novel is full of these stories, woven into the larger story about True Thomas the Minstrel, stolen away by the Queen of Elfland for seven years and doomed to speak only the truth when he returns to earth. When I read the novel, I recognized the old familiar stories I knew from old familiar songs, but on the page, the songs didn’t add much for me.

In contrast, when Kushner performed Thomas the Rhymer as a combination reading/musical performance at Johnny D’s, the synergy between the songs and the narrative was much stronger. The pauses, in particular, highlighted the words far better than the end of a paragraph on a page ever could. Kushner sang and played guitar, whilst Josef Kessler played fiddle and mandolin.

It was evident that Kushner is a radio host — she hosts the excellent “Sound and Spirit” radio show on Public Radio International — both by the assurance with which she made announcements at the beginning, and by the ease with which she slid from prose into songs and back. She kept the audience spellbound for the hour-and-a-half performance, which in an environment like Johnny D’s, with a kitchen behind the stage and a bar at the other end of the room, was quite a trick. On the other hand, the audience with full bellies and beers in front of us provided a traditional wayside-inn atmosphere. It could only have been improved if the tale had been told by a fireside, with wind-whipped October rain rattling the shutters.

The songs, in addition to punctuating the text, also served as the curtain coming down over one scene and setting the mood for the next. Anyone who knows the story of Thomas the Rhymer knows exactly what’s going to happen to him, but the telling changes with each teller. Kushner is sensitive both to the sound of the story and to the intricacies of love and loss between travellers and those left behind. Bits of “Rattling Roaring Willie” and “Low Down in the Broom” move the story along briskly from introducing Thomas to his budding romance with the lovely young Elspeth, before we hear a bit about how “True Thomas Sat on Huntley Bank”. When we hear that, the audience already understands that Thomas will disappear from the fields we know.

The portion of the story told in Elfland was harder to integrate with the music. On one hand, the eery “Unquiet Grave” conveys its strangeness and menace, and the introduction of riddle contests and riddle-songs fits as well. The section where Kushner sings mouth music (singing nonsense words to provide music for a dance) is intended to bring a bit of earthly sensibility to Faery, but at least for me, the words and music that established the setting weren’t strong enough to withstand this well-done song. Once I heard it, I was ready to get back to earth and was impatient with the “Famous Flower of Serving Men”. This section also showed some of the gaps in the story caused by reading excerpts. Plot points made little sense to anyone who hadn’t read Kushner’s novel.

Still, Thomas’ (and hence the audience’s) return to earth — heralded by a delightful fiddle tune — brings the resolution, as Thomas and Elspeth win their way back to each other. By the time Kushner started singing, “I Know Where I’m Going”, the sweetness brought tears to my eyes.

(October 24th, 2006)

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