October 10, 2020
Salem singer-songwriter Molly Pinto Madigan will officially launch her folk-rock opera, "The Ballad of Tam Lin," in November.
PHOTO CREDIT: Bob Tanner
Molly Pinto Madigan can’t tell you exactly when or how she first came across the centuries-old Scottish folk ballad “Tam Lin.” All she knows is, it has occupied a pretty large part of her life since then.
Madigan, a singer-songwriter from Salem, has written a trilogy of novels based on “Tam Lin” and more recently composed and recorded a folk-rock opera, “The Ballad of Tam Lin,” that is now available via her Bandcamp [mollypintomadigan.bandcamp.com].
Madigan voices the ballad’s heroine, Margaret, and prominent Boston-area singer-songwriters Vance Gilbert, Mark Erelli, Jenne Halstead, and Alec Hutson sing the other parts. She also plays guitar, keyboards, and other instruments, with a small ensemble of musicians supplying additional accompaniment.
Known for her delicate but dramatic singing, Madigan – who has six albums to her credit, including one of Christmas songs – has performed at Club Passim, Boston Celtic Music Fest, First Night Boston, The Bull Run Restaurant, and Cantab Lounge, among other venues and events.
On Nov. 5, she will officially launch “The Ballad of Tam Lin” through Club Passim in Harvard Square, either live or in virtual format, depending on the COVID-19 situation at that time; details and updates will be provided on the Passim website, passim.org.
The considerable time Madigan spent on her writing and musical projects doesn’t include all the hours she’s spent just thinking about “Tam Lin,” which has drama, mystery, romance, suspense, and supernatural elements that rival anything modern-day popular culture has produced. Plenty of material to fire the imagination of Madigan, whose body of work, while contemporary-minded, has deep roots in the themes, imagery, and language of folk and traditional music from Ireland and the British Isles.
“From the beginning, I was totally swept away by ‘Tam Lin,’” says Madigan, who integrated lyrics from traditional sources with her own for the opera. “I read, and listened to, as many different versions of it as I could find. I used to lie awake, trying to memorize all the verses. ‘Tam Lin’ is simply a wonderful story.”
Answering the musical question “So, what is ‘Tam Lin’ about, anyway?” merits a disclaimer. Describing the song as “a centuries-old folk ballad” simultaneously helps provide an answer and at the same time complicates it, because ballads – especially older ones – typically derive from so many sources, oral or written, that folklorists and other scholars have filled volumes upon volumes tracking their origins and histories. One ballad may have innumerable versions, among which character or place names vary, and may also share some elements – like plot or protagonists – with other ballads.
The basic story in “Tam Lin” concerns Margaret (or Janet in some versions), a high-born young woman who goes to the forbidden forest of Carterhaugh/Carter Hall, where she encounters the mysterious Tam Lin (or Thomas Lynn, among other variants), who has a reputation for collecting the virginity – or other prized possessions – of any maiden passing through. When Margaret returns home, she subsequently discovers she is pregnant, and at length journeys back to Carter Hall to confront Tam Lin, whom she has discovered to be an elfin knight.
Tam Lin tells her he had once been human but was captured by the Queen of Fairies, and now fears that the fairies will give him as a tithe to Hell on Halloween night – but adds that Margaret can save him by pulling him off his horse as he rides by with the other elfin knights. When Margaret does so, the fairies turn Tam Lin into a variety of creatures, but Margaret holds onto him until he finally regains his human form. Though the Queen of Fairies rages at this, she acknowledges she has lost Tam Lin to Margaret, who can now marry the father of her child.
That bare-bones summary doesn’t begin to cover the folklore, symbology, literary allusions, and other facets that have made “Tam Lin” – mainly found in Scotland but with some possible offshoots in Ireland and the US – a highly popular ballad in the folk music revival that began in the 1960s. One of the most celebrated versions of it was recorded by the folk-rock band Fairport Convention in 1968, with lead vocalist Sandy Denny setting a widely hailed standard of excellence in her performance.
While there are many things Madigan admires about “Tam Lin,” it’s the character of Margaret which particularly intrigues and inspires her. “You don’t often find such a fully realized female protagonist. There’s a strength and depth to Margaret. Everything falls on her shoulders. She has to face the prospect of being an unwed mother, and it’s up to her to fight for her man – and against the Queen of Fairies, no less.”
Yet Margaret also has her vulnerabilities and moments of self-doubt, and Madigan’s opera reflects this, such as in “Fortune’s Fool,” when Margaret muses on her naivete and unworldliness while journeying back to Carter Hall: “I’m untried/I know not of men and their cruel ways/Or how to make them stay/How to love, my fingers all slick with slipping days/I cannot, cannot make them stay.”
“Tam Lin,” however, is not just Margaret’s tale, Madigan adds. “My whole point in composing it as an opera was to flush out the other characters, give a little sense of back stories and explore their psychological motives.”
Thomas, for one, is a fascinating character as well, she says. In fact, there’s a whole other ballad centered on him, “Thomas the Rhymer,” that could be viewed as a prologue to “Tam Lin,” and Madigan interpolates those verses into the opera – as part of the song “Rhymer” – when Thomas recounts to Margaret his seduction by the Queen of Fairies: “As she mounted her palfrey/As she reached for me/How could I turn away?”
Although Thomas initially comes off as challenging, even haughty (“Why to Carter Hall would you/Dare come without my leave?”), Margaret is smitten by him and the memories of their tryst. “Rhymer” starts to pull back the curtain on his true nature, and later on, in “Threnody,” he reveals his plaintively reflective, romantic side: “Yet the woodlark’s warbling threnody/Cuts me deep but cannot be/A true parting/For we will love.”
“I wanted to give Thomas some more substance,” says Madigan, “to give a sense of him as someone who is more nuanced and, in his own way, an artist – rather than simply a rapscallion or a dupe of the Queen. You can better understand how Margaret would be drawn to him.”
For “An Earthly Knight,” a conversation between Margaret and her father, Madigan also interpolates another ballad narrative, drawing lyrics and melody from “Willie o’ Winsbury.” In that ballad, a king returns from a long period abroad to find his daughter now grown, and pregnant. The king is enraged and threatens to kill the man responsible – Willie/William – but upon seeing him is struck by his fine features, and offers both the daughter’s hand and land; Willie/William accepts the marriage proposal but declines the property, thus enabling the daughter to maintain her high standing.
That happy ending doesn’t figure into “An Earthly Knight,” but with the “Willie o’ Winsbury” thread we get some insight into father-daughter dynamics. He’s saddened at having been absent for much of her life, and distressed by her pregnancy, but responds with a bludgeon where paternal empathy would be more useful. Margaret points out that she has had to carry on without him and is prepared to do so again.
“She’s represented in the tradition of being the ‘good daughter’ who has always tried to follow the rules,” says Madigan. “Now, she’s dealing with a crisis, and her father isn’t there for her. It’s a very modern, relatable moment in the ballad. The melody for ‘Willie’ is just so beautiful, I just felt I had to use it – it makes the words all the more powerful.”
All of which, says Madigan, underscores the point that traditional ballads and songs can be appreciated for their own sake, but no matter how archaic some of the language or details may be – people on horseback, knights in shining armor, wicked witches, supernatural events – there is a timeless relevance and universality to them, Madigan says.
“At a basic level, ballads, folk songs, fairy tales contain essential truths of humanity; they’ve been passed down for so long, yet those truths remain. Some of these old songs are magical, crazy, even ridiculous, but if you listen you can find in them what you need. It’s a personal, yet communal experience.”
The durability of these stories holds up even when adapted for contemporary times, says Madigan, who set her novelization of “Tam Lin” in the present day. Musically, “The Ballad of Tam Lin” has identifiable traditional elements yet crosses over into other genres – a couple of tracks have Madigan singing over an organ drone, evoking a sean-nos style, while others include a small string section – and throughout is a folk-rock sound similar to that of Pentangle or Olivia Chaney.
Madigan has some Irish ancestry – her grandmother came from Belfast – and has always appreciated Celtic/folk music (she was briefly involved in Irish dance as a child), but she never made it her primary focus.
“I got more into the ballads themselves, and looked to them for source material. I knew I wanted to write my own songs and create something new. But I can trace the lineage of a lot of my work to folk and traditional ballads.”
Once she finished the Tam Lin trilogy, which had started out as her high school senior thesis, Madigan thought she had the story out of her system. But she got the idea for a couple of “Tam Lin”-related songs, and then more, and began thinking of a concept album. She found a template in the Tony Award-winning musical “Hadestown,” an operatic retelling of the Orpheus-Eurydice myth created by singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell (who subsequently recorded a highly praised album of traditional ballads, including “Tam Lin,” with Jefferson Hamer). But she wasn’t quite ready to embark in earnest on the project, so she put it off to the side and recorded some albums.
Then, three years ago, she applied for and won the first of two grants from the Passim Iguana Music Fund, which supports artists’ projects and career development (she also received funding from another local philanthropic arts organization, 9 Athens Music).
“It was great to win that Iguana grant, but also terrifying, because it meant I was now committed to finishing the opera,” says Madigan. But she finally reached a point where she was ready to start recording, so she began working with Sam Margolis at Riverview Sound in Waltham, and recruited her cast of vocalists and musicians.
“I wanted voices that gave a sense of the characters they would play, and that I felt would convey the story in vibrant, exciting ways – I knew Alec, Mark, Jenee, and Vance would be perfect. With the musicians, I encouraged them to take some creative liberties; I gave them a framework in which to play, but nothing specific, because I wanted them to follow their instincts.”
Whether finishing the opera finally fulfills Madigan’s appetite for “Tam Lin” remains to be seen, but she believes she accomplished what she set out to do.
“It did take a while to pull everything together – we’re talking about 25 tracks, after all – and Sam sometimes asked, ‘So how much is left to do?’ I did wonder occasionally where the light at the end of the tunnel was.
“When the album was done, I was exhausted but satisfied, and I was able to step away. I was relieved that, in the great scheme of things, it made sense. I do think I have an even greater appreciation for the story of Tam Lin now, and I’m glad I was able to tell it in this way.”