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Golden Vanity

My dad used to sing this song, and he still does sometimes. It's an old one. There are versions as early as the Carter Family, and it predates them. It has a lot of different verses, melodies and song structures, but the story is roughly the same in each one.

I always have liked narrative songs, and i tend to write a lot of songs in a narrative style. I appreciate the abstract nature of some songs, but a story arc like in "Golden Vanity" really draws me in. I like the sing-songy melody of this version too, it's a bit of an ear worm and it sticks with you.

I'm sure I misremembered the melody and the verses a little bit, but over time that misremembering morphed into "my version" like so many folk songs have done. Songs passed or even just player to player go through an evolution that I think is really special. It personalizes the song. You end up knowing what parts are important to the person learning it because those are the parts that are kept. Consequently, you get to know that new person a little.

On top of all of that it keeps the songs fresh and modern. The language changes to match the modern vernacular, and even though the story is old, it still relates to the modern world because a younger generation has put their twist on it. It was not until the advent of recorded music that we became obsessed with "correct" versions of a song. Without a recording to reference the best you could do was go find the oldest person you knew who could sing the song, and what ever version they had became the "official" version. That is, until they were dead and the next oldest person who knew the song became the "official" version.

All that to say, I didn't look up any old versions, and I didn't ask my dad how his version went because I wanted this recording of "Golden Vanity" to continue that evolution. It's probably not too much unlike other versions of the song, but I'm sure there are minor differences. Future generations who might learn it will change it as well I hope.

I think that when we are learning folk songs we should learn them just enough to get the structure and the gist of the words to scrape our way through it. Then, as we play it more and more, we find the things we like about it, we settle into a groove, we learn how the song suits our voice and spirit. We learn where it fits in our set, and how it sits in the culture.

I think we have a responsibility as folk musicians to understand the roots of our music, and perhaps even to curate and reproduce that past in some ways. But one of the ways that folk music remains relevant is that it gets reinterpreted and updated with generations. The styles change and the songs follow. The industry changes and the songs follow. If we are going to learn to play something exactly like the record, it may be a good exercise for our skill, but it is not moving the music forward. The version on a record is already on a record.

So I often ask myself, when I choose to record a song, "what do you have to say about this?" and "Why do you think this song is important?" and "How can you emphasize those things in a song?" Sometimes those decisions are made consciously, and sometimes the song evolves organically. The longer you know a song the more organically it develops. I've known this song my whole life, and it has been jingling around in my head for all of these years. I just had to choose to trust that the song was already there, and that this version was the way I felt it and understood it.

So, this is my contribution to the (hopefully) endless evolution of the song "Golden Vanity". If you're so inclined, you should learn it to and see where it takes you, or where you can take it.

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