The Writer's Life: Film & Book Reviews, Observations, and Stories
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Mary Hamilton


I woke up hearing Joan Baez sing “Mary Hamilton” this morning. Not on the radio or on cd, but in my head. It was a song from one of her first albums, when her voice and temperament were so pure. Neither before nor since has a female artist sang an English ballad with such perfection, except, perhaps, Sandy Denny.

Last night there were four marys
Tonight there’ll be but three
It was Mary Beaton and Mary Seton
And Mary Carmichael and me.

When I first started listening to Joan Baez, I didn’t know that so much emotion could be packed into a ballad. These ballads are the last of the English oral tradition. I soon learned that they were made like water shaping stone, through thousands of repetitions that create ellipsis and understatement that are more moving than openly expressed grief. It is Mary Hamilton’s restraint and dignity we admire. Of course, no one understands pain the way a woman does. It is part of her life, and she accepts it in a manner that no man can.

I’d play you the song, but it’s not worth the risk. One never knows when the rabid wolves of the music industry will strike. Still, it’s a simple download from Amazon or iTunes and well worth the price.

November 18, 2009   Comments Off on Mary Hamilton