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Singing story songs
by Cindy Mangsen

What is it that I love about traditional ballads and story songs?

It's a question I've tried to answer for myself for many years, and I can't pin it down to just one thing. It has something to do with that sense of entering another world, another time, another reality.

There is some magic for me in singing words that have been sung for a couple of hundred years. There is some comfort in singing a very old song and realizing in a visceral way that the essential emotions and humanity of the story are as vivid now as they were when the song was first sung.

The first ballads I heard were from the folksingers in the 1960s. There was that wonderful album by Joan Baez, with "Mary Hamilton" and "The Great Silkie." When I first heard those songs, I fell under their spell and was fascinated by their long lineage.

When I started to sing them for myself, I found that they transported me even further. On a good night, a couple of things happen when singing a ballad in front of an audience.

For the first couple of verses, there is some restiveness, as both I and the audience settle into the tune and the pace of the song. We both need to get past the "What's the point of this?" modern-American mode.

But if we're lucky, there's a sense almost of stillness that creeps in, as if we're being allowed to breathe the air of another time. It's very much, for me, like watching a movie and reaching that point where you truly believe in the reality it presents you.

It doesn't surprise me at all that the really great ballads, like the great myths, have survived through many cultures and centuries. I know that I am never tired of singing them, and if I allow myself, I still find their stories moving after 20 years of singing.

The stories are so rich that as I change and grow older, deeper meanings are revealed, and I always feel there's another layer of understanding to be reached.

[� 2004 Cindy Mangsen]

Cindy Mangsen is well known in folk music both as a solo artist and collaborator, often with her husband, Steve Gillette, and in the trio Herdman, Hills & Mangsen with Priscilla Herdman and Anne Hills. Together with Steve, Anne Hills, and Michael Smith, she recently completed Fourtold, an album of 12 classic story songs. Find out more about Cindy's work at

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