When I first wrote about Vermont folk singer Dave Richardson’s new album Carry Me Along, I highlighted his wonderful song about squids. His latest single, just in time for Halloween, tackles a darker subject. Richardson covers “The Unquiet Grave,” an English folk song hundreds of years old narrated by a woman in her grave. It’s kind of a murder ballad for someone already dead, a man metaphorically killing a ghost by mourning so relentlessly her soul can’t finding peace.
“The first version I heard of this song was a recording by Jean Ritchie,” Richardson says. “The ghostly imagery of the woman speaking from within her grave, her ‘earthly strong’ breath, hooked me. It is an achingly beautiful and sad depiction of grief and loss. That combination of graphic imagery and devastating grief got into me and stayed with me. But both of those things are big in my life. I love scary stories, horror, and spooky ballads. And I really, really love sad songs that penetrate down to the deepest fibers of your being. I relate to the idea of being so deep in depression that it becomes consuming and habitual and really needing someone to say ‘hey, you have a life to live, get to it while you can.'”
The song has been covered many times, by artists both obvious (Joan Baez, Steeleye Span) and less so (Ween?). To make such an oft-performed song his own, Richardson says, “I wanted to create a hypnotic intensity that builds over the course of the song. It isn’t a song I play live too often, I want the right atmosphere where the listener is in the space to hear the story.”
He did so by modernizing the lyrics a touch – fewer “doth”s and “yonder”s – and teaming up with upright bassist Mali Obomsawin. “Her bass kind of sneaks up on you and crescendos at the most intense verse in the song, and then fades back to nothing,” he says. Now that song has a video, a simple and quietly powerful visual accompaniment that underlines the haunting, and haunted, song.
Watch Dave Richardson’s “The Unquiet Grave” below, then pick up Carry Me Along at his website.