By Kamayani Bali–Mahabal
Becky Poole is an artist with a difference. This Chicago–based actor, comedian, voice over artist and saw player has been writing original songs, producing sketch comedies and performance pieces for over a decade now. But whether it is music or theatre, she chooses to highlight the feminist perspective through her work.
It has been 14 years since Poole first picked up the saw, a carpenter’s tool, to play music. Robert Charde, her friend and colleague at Blue’s Clues, introduced her to this unusual instrument. “The saw is a simple steel and wood instrument that creates the most wonderful music when one bends it back and forth. I like its range and the fact that it has no frills. Initially, Robert let me play his son’s saw and I would practice in his office listening to Ween and Radiohead,” she recalls.
While most people might find the saw a rather eccentric instrument to pursue, Poole animatedly talks about its rich musical history, “It is an American folk musical instrument with its roots in the early 19th century. Somewhere in the Appalachian Mountains a musically–inclined resident, who remains nameless, first took a fiddle bow to the bent blade of his hand saw that he held firmly clamped between his knees. Not before long mountain music bands throughout the region had a member manipulating the blade of a common carpenter’s saw and stroking it with a well–rosined bow.”
Traditional Appalachian folk music has been derived from various European and African influences, including English ballads, Irish and Scottish traditional music (especially fiddle music), hymns, and African–American blues. It was the immigrants from England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland who brought with them the musical traditions of these countries when they arrived in Appalachia in eastern United States in the 18th century.
According to Poole, the history of Appalachia is like a drama where the men played all the central parts while the women were the extras, hidden behind quilts and sun bonnets and confined to their tradition–bound domestic roles. They just lent support to their fathers, husbands and sons, who went about transforming the region and making veritable history.
Considering that she has a deep understanding of the Appalachian culture and tradition, would Poole call herself an expert in their folk music style? “I am no expert or even student of Appalachian history. But my interest in their songs, especially in the murder ballads, came from what I believed was an imbalanced representation of the female perspective. I had always been attracted to the dark and mellow music of murder ballads but used to get infuriated by their underlying misogynistic and patriarchal notes. These songs employ specific thematic elements, chronological events, and have several stock characters – there’s a female murder victim, her male lover–murderer, and the victim’s grieving parents.”
Poole gives a glimpse of the story depicted in a typical murder ballad, “Just imagine this scenario. A young woman is lured away from home by her lover to a secluded spot either on the pretext of matrimony or to initiate a discussion on the matter. Presumably, she is pregnant. Once the couple is alone, the lover murders her either to ‘deal’ with her pregnancy or to ‘punish’ her for her supposed sexual philandering. Oftentimes he disposes off her corpse in or near a water body. The concluding stanzas generally disclose one of the two outcomes. In some cases, the perpetrator admits his crime and pays for it with his life. Usually, however, he gets acquitted after a trial or manages to escape legal retribution, gaining his freedom through his masculine resourcefulness. To me, this one–sided narrative was never acceptable.”
So what did Poole do? She started a band of her own and decided to write murder ballads from the heroine’s point of view. “I met my friend Christine Stulik, who plays the banjo, while performing for ‘Pirates of Penzance’, a two–act comic opera on stage. When we got talking we discovered our common interest in transforming murder ballads and together we set up the band, Eileen. Today, Eileen produces murder ballads that tell the story of a woman’s survival and triumph instead of portraying her as a helpless victim, which is the convention. Using the banjo, saw, accordion and ukulele, we play original songs as well as tampered traditional fare,” she elaborates.
Producing music for Eileen has helped Poole fulfil her long cherished dream of creating her own version of ‘Omie Wise’, a legendary murder ballad inspired by an actual incident. “Way back when I was living in Seattle, one afternoon I was sitting with a friend in her kitchen when she played ‘Omie Wise’ on her cassette player for me. I was mesmerised by the crackling voice of the woman singing it. So I started doing more research into the song and realised that it had various versions with their own endings. I found that weird because I thought the piece was supposed to be based on a real incident that happened with a girl in North Carolina. Later on I felt that if it’s a myth then why can’t history give the woman a voice? Why can’t we have a woman win for once? It’s always about something a dude does. He pushes some woman in the river and then feels so bad about it that he needs to write a song. So I decided to pen an adaptation where she’s not dead and told her story,” reveals Poole.
How does she manage to balance so many projects? “I guess I want to be a complete artiste who has a lot of tools to choose from. Comedy, violence and tragedy – they all interest me and feed my imagination,” she shares. And does she have any unfulfilled dreams? “These days I am collaborating with neuroscientists, techies and artists to create works that explore the mysteries of the human mind. In fact, I hope to create theatre pieces based on the way our brain functions and in time, maybe design an entire museum or art space based on this theme. I know it sounds a little bizarre but I want to give it a shot. Of course, I would need a lot of money and resources for that. Till then, I will continue to write and perform more songs that tell women’s stories through Eileen,” she signs off. (WFS)