Song Of The Day 7/1/2015: Frank Hayes – “Like a Lamb to the Slaughter”

Talkin' Talkin' Blues Blues Week: “Matty Groves” is a British folk ballad that dates back to the 17th century. Like virtually every piece of long-standing folk storytelling and song, it's gone through several translations, rewrites, reconfigurations and fixes. It’s survived to the current day, in versions by everyone from Fairport Convention and Joan Baez to Alison Krauss and Tom Waits. Common to all accounts is the basic set-up: A lady seduces a young church-going boy (Matty) into a sexual tryst. Her husband finds out via pageboy, comes home and finds the pair entangled. The husband challenges Matty to a duel and offers him first strike, but he kills Matty dead on the second strike before turning the sword on his wife. Insert Florida joke here.

Various embellishments were added to the song as it progressed through the centuries. The most popular renditions have the lord piercing his wife through the heart and sticking her to a wall; still others suggest decapitation. Subtle. Several versions – including most of the versions titled “Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard” – add quite a few more details, stretching the verse count to near prog-rock extents.

That’s where Frank Hayes’ talking blues version of the tale, “Like a Lamb to the Slaughter,” comes in. My, but I do love this song. Hayes is one of the pre-eminent technology writers of all time, but had an earlier sideline as a humorist musician. Many of his contributions have centered on the “filk” supersubgenre, which involves topics primarily concerned with science-fiction and fantasy set to traditional folk music, thereby imbuing the sci-fi field with a heretofore undetected sense of humor. Ba-BING! I'm kidding, sci-fi fans! (But do let me know if you need to have that joke explained to you.)

Although no real version of “Matty Groves” is exactly quick and snappy, Hayes’ spoken contention that the original version ran 400-plus verses might be a tad exaggerated. Still, it’s a long sucker, and Hayes does the world a great service by squeezing all the extraneous details out and fitting the song into talking-blues length. (He also, notably, omits the adulterous lady's murder.) This of course forces him to stick to the guts of the song, but Hayes still adds a certain, uh, cutting detail regarding the nature of the wound Matty first inflicts upon Lord Arnold. I shan't give it away, but let's just say that’s what I call downsizing.
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