After a bittersweet guitar intro, the song's first lines tell of unrequited love. Sung in a woman's plaintive voice, the lyrics and melody evoke the primitive purity of some Appalachian old-timey tune you may have heard on a scratchy field recording.
The song, "He Seems Like a God to Me," is more than old-timey; it's ancient. It is a fragment left behind by the Greek poet Sappho, in which she admits her love for the person who is keeping the god company:
And your lovely laughter sets
my heart trembling in my breast
seeing you makes speech impossible
Sappho's confession appears on 19 Old Songs, one of four CD recordings of archaic Greek poetry translated and put to music by Chris Mason, a Baltimore City teacher, and Mark Jickling, a Library of Congress economist.
Tonight at the Roots Cafe in Charles Village, Mason, Jickling, as well as vocalist Liz Downing of Radiant Pig, accordionist Anne Watts of Boister, David Fair of Half Japanese and others, will perform the poetry of Sappho, Hipponax, Xenophanes and other lyric poets who flourished in antiquity.
Accompanied by a lyre or a flute-like instrument called an aulos, Greek poems were originally performed as choral songs. "Nobody really knows what the music sounded like," Mason says. "You can try to get a feel for the rhythm of the songs from the rhythm of the poems.
"We know it was simple music with not many notes, because a lot of music was played on the four- or seven-string lyre," says Mason, who works with deaf students at Chinquapin Middle School.
He has studied Greek on his own for about six years. Jickling was a classics major at the University of California, Berkeley. When they discovered their mutual interest at a friend's wedding, they decided to collaborate on a project that would combine their love of classical Greek with that of American roots music.
As one half of the Tinklers, a whimsical, Baltimore-based musical duo, Mason met Jickling, a member of Half Japanese, a seminal punk band, when the two groups worked together in the early 1980s. Both men have gravitated to American folk music, so it was no stretch to imagine setting Sappho to haunting mountain harmonies and string-band instrumentation.
Nor was it difficult to find the common ground that united two very different cultures. Back in the B.C. days, poets had pretty much the same concerns as did their literary descendants in rural Appalachia. In an interview that appeared online, Jickling described those concerns as "sex, crime, the dead, booze, the gods, escapism, official corruption, geography and landscapes and pure, pure love."
Still, there is no obvious explanation for Sappho's compatibility with high-lonesome melodies, Jickling says during a rehearsal in Downing's Lauraville home. Sappho and her contemporaries were "very sophisticated poets," while old-timey musicians were borne of a more rural, less studied tradition. It's a mystery, Jickling says, "one of those serendipitous collisions."
The two artists seem particularly fond of the poet Hipponax, whom Mason calls "the Greek Charles Bukowski." He "writes about the lower strata of society ... but in a really rich way," Mason says.
In one Hipponax poem, a surly beggar repeatedly demands: "Hermes give me a coat," and preys upon others for shoes and cash. From the song's roiling comedy and anger springs a fully realized character; one you could imagine prowling Baltimore streets.
Even though scholars have already translated these poems, Mason and Jickling's compositions are based on their own translations, which are made with mandolin, banjo, fiddle and sometimes flute in mind. "You get a feeling from the Greek that gives you an idea for the melody and [in turn] that melody will influence the way you translate," Mason says.
Drawing from the trove of Greek literature, Mason and Jickling selected poems to translate and score. Some of the poems are mere snippets of larger pieces lost to time. But even two lines of poetry, such as those belonging to Alcaeus' tribute to Sappho, whom he loves as she has loved so many others, can describe an emotional odyssey:
Sappho, sweet-smiling, purple hair, pure,
I want to tell you something but I don't dare
Who: Chris Mason and Friends
When: 8 p.m. today
Where: Roots Cafe in St. Johns Church at 27th and St. Paul streets.
Call: 410-880-3883 or visit www.rootscafe.org
For more information on 19 Old Songs and other CDs by Mason and Jickling, visit www.mindspring.com ~oldsongs. Their CDs are also available at Normal's Bookstore, 425 E. 31st St.