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Something recently reminded me of two songs. I'm not sure of the exact dates, but I believe both were popular during the folk music boom of the early 1960's:

New Christy Minstrels "Julianne"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qy3CJ0n90Dk

Kingston Trio "South Coast"

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1psCACHj4as

These are at least nominally folk songs, with words that supposedly tell a story. But I didn't pay much attention to those stories at the time. I just enjoyed the general feel of the songs and the way they sounded.

More recently I got to thinking about these two songs again, and what, if any, sense they make.

Consider the first one, "Julianne". From the title character's point of view it's just a catalog of woes: First her boyfriend cheats on her, and then she gets eaten by a bear. If you take it from the man's viewpoint, with the woman as his property (a common attitude back then, and probably still not all that rare) it can be read as a karmic lesson: He neglected his property and ended up losing it.

The other song is murkier. A Spanish settler somewhere in the Americas wins a woman in a card game, apparently a no-no in his parents' culture. They both get on his horse and ride off to his cabin deep in the wilderness.

Some time after arriving there he gets hurt in a landslide. As he lies there with several broken bones she saddles the horse and rides away. Before she gets very far a mountain lion scares the horse. She falls off and dies.

It's unclear whether the narrator or anyone else involved actually lives to tell the tale. And it also isn't clear what meaning, if any, this whole woeful tale is supposed to have. Maybe it's just that life as a settler in the wilderness is hard and dangerous. That's kind of what the chorus is saying.

Then I got to thinking of old versions of various fairy tales. Look at the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm. Many of them don't have the kinds of happy endings we've come to expect from fairy tales today. And in some cases where there is a happy ending, it seems to be the result of accident, impulse, or chance. For example, in the original version of "The Frog Prince" the princess isn't happy to have the frog around. When she finally throws it against a wall in disgust it surprises her by turning into a prince.

In a way this is like modern news stories. Something happens, and it gets written up and published. The story as published may not have a happy ending, or may not have a coherent ending at all, if the matter hasn't been neatly resolved by deadline time. It's just a random slice of life.

There may be some plot resolution later on, or there may not be. The story may just fade from view. Think, for example, of people or ships or planes that disappeared and were never found, or serial killers who just stopped killing before they could be caught.

Back on the songs, they do both make sense if you think of them as we think of news stories, with no expectation of the plot being neatly tied up. That's assuming they really need to make sense. Not all songs are meant to be analyzed rationally.

So were folk tales (including songs) in bygone ages more like news stories are today, random slices of life with no expectation of any particular kind of resolution? If so, when and how did the custom of giving them definite (preferably happy) endings start?
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