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Modern Ballads

by GennaRose Nethercott

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Wide River My baby said, “Meet me at the riverside— tonight I’m running off with you,” so I left my mama’s house behind with a train ticket tucked in the back of my shoe. I waited by the riverside. I waited ‘til the sun dipped low. I waited ‘til the moon arrived but my darling never showed. CHORUS: The river’s deeper than a wound & wider than a stain where many a woman has lain her life to never rise again. My heart’s become a cannonball. My knees have turned to stone. How easy it would be to fall & sink beneath the foam. I balanced on the water’s edge; the current called me hungrily but I just turned around & fled back home, beneath the apple trees. CHORUS BRIDGE: Oh my man, oh my sweetheart I won’t give you the satisfaction of another drowned woman. Next night I tracked my baby down & set out in pursuit I left my mama’s house behind with a switchblade tucked in the back of my boot. I found him dressed all up in white. I drove my switchblade through his heart which left a mark alive & bright ablaze against the dark. CHORUS The river’s deeper than a wound & wider than a stain where I lay down my sweetheart’s life— he’ll never rise again. My heart’s become a nightingale My knees have sprouted wings & if ever any man tries to fool me again I’ll make damn sure he sinks.
Shantymen’s Tune Come all you shanty boys take up the hatchet blade & as you lay the woodlands low sing out this serenade. The sycamore, once bold with might will tumble low at your feet until the bell peals dinnertime & lumb’ring’s complete. Hemlocks never die with ease but stumble out of life like drunkards dragging off their boots to bed beside their wives. There is a changing moment when the spirit is set free, when a man becomes a body, when wood replaces tree. O shanty boys, your axes high, you know this instant well for you alone have felled the trunks & watched the sap dispel. Yes you alone have seen the way leviathans may fall & rot upon the forest floor as one day will we all.
Phantom of Your Name The fire’s burning low & I can hear you moving like a ghost within these walls your handprints appearing on the windowpanes in our abandoned halls. There are moments I cannot remember the way the air grew sweeter at your touch but floorboards don’t forget the sound of those who walked across them in the dusk. CHORUS: A house is built of wood & stone while we are built of flesh & bone but ever since you walked away this house became a phantom of your name. Last night your voice rose slowly from the chimney while I fed sycamore into the stove & when I closed my eyes I almost could believe that you’d returned, my love. CHORUS I sweep your final shadows from the corners just to find they gather there anew so I resign to feel your presence linger on barely out of view. CHORUS
Miner’s Ballad I remember our days in the underground caves digging for opal & tourmaline. You carried a pail & a coal miner’s scale; I carried the lamp & the kerosene. You never much cared for the cut of my hair or the tales that I told in the quarry, but as we descended I fully intended to carve myself into your story. We were sixty feet down below Watertown when a tremor made both of us nervous. No sound could be heard when the cave-in occurred but a rumble far up on the surface. Too quickly the stones obscured the way home raining down on our jackets of gabardine. I reached for your arm to protect you from harm; you just reached for your photo of Angeline. We mapped out the math of the hundreds of paths that could lead us to ruin or salvation, so further we climbed down the throat of the mine praying we’d find liberation. Our rations were low so we savored them slow sipping nectar from canned Clementines. All the while you stared at the picture you carried & I wished the picture were mine. At night in the deep you thought I was asleep & undressed in the lantern light’s glow. Your skin looked like gold ebbing out through the cold as the shaft came alive with your shadow. If I loved you enough would it shuffle the dust or just snare on stalagmites & crumble? I can’t help but fear hope only lives here sprouting like weeds in the rubble. One morning I left before you’d gotten dressed & explored in a different direction. & there at the end of a wide tunnel’s bend I saw open sky in reflection. I ran back & found you asleep on the ground & knelt down to tell you, but faltered. With the way out so near, would I lose you my dear? Close by rose the calling of songbirds.
Phoebe Ann Phoebe Ann is a real sharp shot can knock the cap clean off of a bottle of pop. Carnival-goers pay ten bucks a piece to see her shoot a cigarette from the ticket man’s teeth. But I’m a quick draw too; I’ve never been beat. I don’t miss a mark & I never retreat. I came to Cincinnati to the Old Oak Fair to outdo the little girl with the violet hair. I said, “Phoebe Ann, darlin’, I’ve got a proposition: hit twenty-five targets— a simple competition. I’ll outdo you, I even put two grand on the trigger-ready skill of my own right hand.” The first round was quick, the air full of powder; the second as smooth, my ears ringing louder; in the third miss Phoebe fired a wink my way. My lungs turned to lead. My aim went astray. She beat me right there at my own damn sport, then took me by the arm & said “Won’t you escort me on a Ferris wheel ride?” She packed up her gun & bought a hot funnel cake with the money she’d won. It started to rain on the big band stand. The carnival shimmered like the promise land. Spotlights flickered & the wild wind tossed. There’s nothing to lose— I’d already lost. The hurricane came like a cannonball, snapped the horses right off the carousel. I was making love to Annie in the penny arcade as the sky fell in bullets on the bally stage. Early next morning, the carnival had flown, Phoebe gone with it, I woke up alone. & the only proof that she’d ever been mine was a casing in my pocket, her initials on the side.
Blood Moon A preacher by the Rio Grande claims the end is near. The fourth eclipse is coming on in as many years. The a billboard by the highway: says “Get your affairs in order. Wednesday night we’ll all be going across that final border.” Every rest stop & bodega beneath the Mason Dixon line is buying into all the hype & selling out of wine. But up here in New England nobody seems to mind— we’re more afraid of February than afraid we are of dying. The paper called it a blood moon but never mentioned whose blood the sky was letting. I’d gladly volunteer if you asked me to, my dear, but the night’s already red & I’m forgetting about the lengths I’d go for you, about the lakes I’ve filled for you weeping in my hands over you. Lend an ear to falsehoods & deceptions turn to truth. The wise, they lack conviction. The fools shout from the roof. But we fill our mouths with honey, we fill our ears with tunes, & if the world truly is ending I better kiss you soon.
Become You Blackbird Become you blackbird, I’ll be the feather upon your wing so you may fly & when of flying you grow weary I’ll sing to you this lullaby. Become you fox, I’ll be the bugle calling off the hunting dogs so you may slip away, my darling to safely wander through the fog. Become you wolf, I’ll be the moonlight to show the path & stir your blood & should you howl in my direction I pray it be a howl of love. Become you soldier, I’ll be the drummer signaling the battle’s end so you may come home & find me waiting to draw you close & take your hand. Become you dead, I’ll be your mourner & sing this song for all my days until my voice becomes a willow to grow & weep upon your grave. Become you blackbird, I’ll be the feather upon your wing so you may fly & when of flying you grow weary I’ll sing to you this lullaby.
The Ballad of Sedna -an Inuit folktale- Sedna waited at the sea watching the ships pass by & dreaming of the distant isles far past her reaching eye. Many a local villager had sought to win her hand but Sedna turned them all away for love of foreign lands. A man arrived from the east all dressed in finery. His coat was stitched with silver thread & pearls from out the sea. Come back, he said, & be my wife & wealthy you will be lain in our velvet marriage bed with golden filigree. Oh father, father, let me go he wants me for his bride. I wish to see exotic shores beyond the rising tide. So off she sailed across the foam but soon as land was scarce the air went cold as an empty tomb & her husbands eyes grew fierce. Feathers sprouted from his flesh & talons held him tall. She saw he was a winged loon & not a man at all. Sedna’s husband bore her back to his home of the cold north wind where her skin grew pale as ice & her wild hair wore thin. Oh father, father, hear my call for I have been beguiled— a marriage bed of fishes’ bones has claimed your only child Her father heard her sorrowed cry as loud as any drum & hastened o’re the darkened waves to bring his daughter home. He found her deep within a bower of mackerel & sand & they snuck away in a fishing boat to seek their own homeland. They had not sailed a league or two when the bird awoke to find his wife gone missing from her bed afloat upon the brine. The husband loon, he beat his wings wide as a merchant sail until the waters galloped high & the wind began to wail. Oh father, father, take my hand— the boat has tossed me up & I have fallen overboard into the ocean’s cup. Sedna clung to the rowboat’s side but her father feared the waves, dreading she would tip the boat & drag him to his grave. He drew a dagger from his belt as sharp as a pricking pin to drive into his daughter’s hands, & save his fearful skin. First, he cut her fingertips, which fell into the sea & from each drop of blood she lost a dolphin came to be. Then he cut her knuckles raw— but her grip would not be torn & out from every ounce of blood a school of fish was born. At last, he cut her fingers clean. Her grip did finally fail, & as she sank, her rising blood became a herd of whales. Oh father, father, I am drowned— it’s you that caused the pain. The ocean floor will be my bed. The waters, my domain. & I will send my sharks to you. I will send the squid who’ll drag you down to join me here to punish what you did. Sedna waits below the waves watching ships above she never sleeps, so does not dream of distant lands or love.


A collection of narrative ballads by poet GennaRose Nethercott, set to music by a lineup of America's best contemporary folk bands.


released January 29, 2018

Produced by GennaRose Nethercott
Mixing by Fiddlehead Studio, Toronto, Ontario
Mastering by Phillip Shaw Bova
Album Art by Maria Pugnetti/Wooly Mar
Album Design by Sean Trischka

Tracks #1, 3, 5, 6, & 8 engineered by Adam Iredale-Gray. Recorded at the Record Company in Boston, MA. Track #7 engineered by Andrew Nault, recorded at the Columbus Theatre in Providence, RI.

Co-sponsored by Club Passim & the Iguana Grant

All lyrics © 2017 by GennaRose Nethercott,


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GennaRose Nethercott Somerville, Massachusetts

GennaRose Nethercott is the author of THE LUMBERJACK'S DOVE (Ecco/HarperCollins, forthcoming 2018), selected by Louise Glück as a winner of the National Poetry Series. Her other recent projects include A GHOST OF WATER (an ekphrastic collaboration with printmaker Susan Osgood) and the narrative song collection MODERN BALLADS. ... more

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