Transcript 112–Rhiannon

NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.

Hello! And welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, the show that takes a closer look at songs from the rock and roll era, and we check out some of the stories behind those songs, and the artists who made them famous.

My name is Claude Call, and it’s an awkward time to have a sinus infection.

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Here’s some groovy trivia for ye today:

[JIMMY CRACK CORN]

Daniel Decatur Emmett was a composer from Ohio who was working in New York City as a songwriter and performer for stage shows. But of all the songs he wrote, nowadays very few of his compositions still has any level of fame, including this one, “Jimmy Crack Corn”. But there’s another song that was HUGE in its day, and it’s still very well known today. What still-famous song does this native of Ohio and resident of New York City have on his resume?

I’ll have that answer to that question, and the story behind it, near the end of the show.

Have you ever heard of Bibliomancy? Bibliomancy is a belief dating back to the 1700s that says, if you pick up a book—it’s usually the Bible but it doesn’t have to be—and open it to a random page, the first word or sentence you see will reveal something important, whether a prediction of the future or a personal epiphany, depending on the model you use. There’s a little bit of that going on with today’s show.

This week we’re talking about “Rhiannon,” the 1976 hit by Fleetwood Mac. But before we do that, we have to go back a couple of years. And by “a couple of years,” I’m talking about Medieval days, and to the British/Welsh literary tradition, specifically a series of stories called the Mabinogion. In those stories, Rhiannon is a pretty important goddess-type of figure who comes from the underworld, and she was known for being intelligent, beautiful, wealthy and generous, but also rather strong-willed. In fact, Rhiannon chose a prince named Pwyll over another god as her consort, even though she was already betrothed to the god. She has a baby named Pryderi with Pwyll, and Pryderi is kidnapped. Rhiannon is accused of killing the baby and is forced to confess to the murder, but the baby is found later on. Later on she marries a man from a British royal family and she has more adventures involving enchantments. Now, it could be argued that Rhiannon is an echo of an earlier Celtic deity, but we’re not going to worry about that part. You just need to know that Rhiannon was a character in medieval Welsh stories.

Now, let’s jump into a more modern time, and an author named Mary Bartlet Leader. Leader wrote a book that was published in 1972 called Triad: A Novel of the Supernatural. The book itself wasn’t anything special; in fact it’s out of print these days and getting a used copy is pricey only because of this song and the fact that it was Triad that inspired Stevie Nicks to write the song. For what it’s worth, you can get copies of The Mabinogion from Amazon, and there’s even a free edition available for your Kindle. I’m going to talk about that just a little bit more later.

Anyway.

There’s a character in Triad who believes that she’s being possessed by the spirit of a woman named Rhiannon. So Rhiannon the character in Triad has practically nothing to do with Rhiannon the Welsh goddess. But Nicks read this book, which she later described as “trashy,” and was kind of enchanted by the name, and around Halloween of 1974 she started conjuring a story of her own about someone named Rhiannon. Now, as it happens she started to put together a series of songs related to Rhiannon, possibly with the idea of building an entire album or perhaps a movie around the character.

[ANGEL]

In fact, this track from the Fleetwood Mac album Tusk, called “Angel,” was originally based in the Rhiannon story…

…but a couple of things intervened before she could bring the project to fruition. First was the fact that she and Lindsey Buckingham were still an act separate from Fleetwood Mac, and it wasn’t very long after she wrote the song that the two of them joined the group. So “Rhiannon” the song, plus “Monday Morning” and “I’m So Afraid,” all of which appeared on the 1975 album Fleetwood Mac, were originally slated to appear on the second Buckingham/Nicks album, which never happened because they joined Fleetwood Mac, and also probably because they broke up while the band was making the Rumours album.

[RHIANNON]

Anyway, although Buckingham and Nicks had been performing the song a little bit when they were a duo, she gave her demo version of the song to Fleetwood Mac to see what they could do with providing the right mood for this character she’d created. According to an interview she did in 1976 with Jim Ladd, Nicks said that when she was asked about the vibe that Rhiannon is supposed to inspire, she told them that [quote] “it’s when you feel like you see a seagull and she’s, she’s like lifting up. Well that’s Rhiannon.” [unquote] And there are other sources where Nicks has described the song as having the feel of a bird lifting off, so she’s really latched on to that imagery. But the band was able to take that piano-based demo and really flesh it out into a full-on image.

The bottom line of all this is that Stevie Nicks didn’t discover until later on that the name Rhiannon derived from the Welsh goddess, at which point she began to introduced the song to audiences with some version of “this song is about an old Welsh witch.”

Now, one of the things that made the song kind of tough for the band to record was the drum pattern. Remember that Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham had already performed the song a few times, so there was a specific rhythm that they had in mind, and Mick Fleetwood’s drumming style, which had more of a bluesy rock feel to it, didn’t quite match up to their vision. Finally, after a couple of days of attempts, producer Keith Olsen took two different takes and spliced them together to create a loop. Remember, this was still in the tape days, and that sort of thing took some careful work with literally taking a razor blade to the tape, cutting it up and taping it back together. I did this sort of thing back in the day, and it’s not tough to do, but it’s VERY tough to do well.

But in the end the song proved to be a big hit, and part of the energy that finally lifted Fleetwood Mac into the higher echelons of the music business. “Rhiannon” peaked at Number 11 on the Billboard Hot 100, plus it was a Top Five record in Canada. In Australia and the Netherlands it was Top 20, and it barely cracked the Top 50 in the UK, but maybe not everyone over there is so excited to hear Welsh mythology immortalized in song. However, it became a centerpiece for the band’s live performances and the heart of Stevie Nicks’ image, with the chiffon scarves and the top hat and such, and they often push this four-minute song out to over six minutes, with Nicks pushing the song out to the point where Mick Fleetwood once described it as being like an exorcism. Sometimes she would sing the song to the point of straining her voice and the band would have to cancel shows to give her an opportunity to recover.

And, of course, Rhiannon became a very popular girl’s name in the late 1970s, rising as high as #418 in popularity in 1977, and then it surged again in the late 1990s when Fleetwood Mac re-formed, making it to #423 in 1999. If you look the name up in baby books or websites, the translation is usually “night queen” or “divine queen.”

[WAYLON]

There are several covers of the song out there, perhaps most notable among those would be this one, from Waylon Jennings in 1985, from his album Turn the Page. So far as I know, it wasn’t released as a single.

And I guess I should mention that in 2010, Stevie Nicks teamed up with Taylor Swift to do a piece of the song during the Grammy Awards ceremony. It…didn’t go great…

[GRAMMYS]

I mean, believe it or not I kinda like Taylor Swift—she’s way more talented than some people give her credit for being—but she was definitely off-key this particular evening.

Okay, remember how I said I’d come back to the Mabinogion? A woman named Evangeline Walton took the time—a big chunk of her life—to translate it from medieval Welsh into modern English, and she published her version in 1974. After Rhiannon became a big hit, someone sent a copy to Stevie Nicks, and in 1977 she got an opportunity to visit Walton at her home in Tucson. Nicks told Classic Rock dot com that Walton’s house was totally Rhiannon. Quote, “she spent her whole life on the story. She never married. She had in essence almost become Rhiannon. And it was trippy.” Walton told Nicks that she’d heard about the song and how she, too, had become entranced by the name. And Nicks found a certain poetry in the fact that Walton’s work ended in 1974, around the time that hers began.

This might be the part where we all sing Circle of Life.

Or maybe, instead it’s time to answer today’s trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you about Dan Emmett, the composer of a song that still enjoys some fame today. Well.

As I noted earlier, Emmett was born in Ohio, specifically in Knox County, which at the time of his birth in 1815, was still pretty much frontier country. Young Dan taught himself how to play the fiddle and when he was 21 he enlisted in the US Army, where he became an expert fifer and drummer at the Newport Barracks in Newport Kentucky. After his discharge in 1835 he toured with various circuses as a blackface banjoist and singer, and in 1843 he formed the Virginia Minstrels, who performed chiefly at the Chatham Theatre in New York City. Now, blackface was already a well-established mode of performance, but the Virginia Minstrels appears to be the first group to “black up” the entire band rather than one or two performers, which makes them the first true minstrel show. It’s not a great legacy to have, but it’s kind of important to the story.

[DIXIE]

Because: one of the songs that Emmett wrote for his minstrel show was a little tune called “Dixie”. It was first performed at the Mechanics’ Hall in New York City while he was in a group called Emmett and the Bryants, in 1859. The song became a runaway hit, with everyone—you should excuse the expression—whistling “Dixie” within a few weeks. And, of course, it became a huge rallying cry in the Southern states. Now, Emmett was a staunch Union supporter, and the story goes that he once said, “If I had known to what use they were going to put my song, I will be damned if I’d have written it.” After the Civil War, though, he did come around to appreciate the South’s love of the song.

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Next time around, we’re going to find out How Good It Is when we give a little redemption to Taylor Swift, when we Shake it Off.

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