I still don’t know what it is about ‘folklore’

“I love her. And true love lasts a lifetime. Joni Mitchell is the woman who taught your cold English wife how to feel,” intones Emma Thompson’s character during the first act of Love Actually before delivering a wordless, heartbreaking scene to the melancholy wisdom of ‘Both Sides Now’ in the third. In the scene, she is standing alone in her bedroom, having just discovered her husband’s infidelity. Together, she and the audience listen to Mitchell sing about trying, struggling, to pull back the curtain on love; about how hard it is to see past its illusions and get at the heart of the matter.

But now it’s just another show
And you leave them laughing when you go
And if you care, don’t let them know
Don’t give yourself away

I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take
And still somehow
It’s love’s illusions that I recall
I really don’t know love —
I really don’t know love at all.

Joni Mitchell, ‘Both Sides Now’

I was listening to folklore when this image and sound thrust itself back into my memory, having lost count of the number of times I had played Taylor Swift’s new album. It has been the soundtrack to walks, errands, and mountain drives with my husband, who indulged me for the first two listens or so before tactfully requesting some variety.

I’ve been struggling all week to put my finger on what I find so special about this album. I have never felt driven to write about music (though if I’d been writing when Lemonade came out, that might have been different). Listening to music is a passive activity for me, the furniture for something else: working, driving, running. I don’t generally treat it as an activity of its own. But every once in a while I hear something that compels me to listen over and over, sitting in my car in the parking garage with groceries in the back seat, not wanting to move until I hear that part just one time. A few days ago, I was stopped at a light, crying over the following verse from the gut-punching ‘epiphany’, a song for healthcare workers in COVID’s America:

Something med school did not cover
Someone’s daughter, someone’s mother
Holds your hand through plastic now
”Doc, I think she’s crashing out”
And some things you just can’t speak about

Taylor Swift, ‘Epiphany’

Maybe it was the kinship between the lines ‘some things you just can’t speak about’ and ‘don’t give yourself away’ that made this connection in my mind; maybe it was just the emotional sisterhood we all feel when a song makes us cry, no matter what it’s about. But I had a moment of clarity when I could finally put my finger on the history and the tradition that this album is connected to and making new. Realizing what is probably painfully evident to anyone with more than a grade-school musical education—that folklore follows directly in the footsteps of Joni Mitchell, Stevie Nicks, Janis Joplin—was a small epiphany of my own. The signature unplugged sounds of acoustic guitar, piano, harmonica and tambourine of folk Americana, the soft musicality with unexpected bursts of strength and emphasis that seem to come straight from the chest, the rich storytelling, the precision of the writing all belong squarely in that firmament, but the modern touches like synthesizers and the otherworldly echo effect that makes her sound like a chorus (what is that called?) give it a ghostly, dreamy, electrified feel.

Swift was always a gifted storyteller and writer. The first song that captured my young heart was ‘Love Story’, a reimagining of Romeo and Juliet with buried hatchets, reconciliation, and reunion. More than a sweet and romantic story, it was an elegy to what could have been, a mourning of a senseless loss. Still, despite the precociousness of her writing, the unrequited crushes and fairy-tale endings of her early songs about love betray a certain naïveté about the whole thing.

If the earlier songs in Swift’s oeuvre were an example of the sweet, naïve innocence of youthful love; and the next phase of her art characterizes a young woman undergoing that familiar transformation of being in your twenties, getting educated on what love feels like from all sides, and developing your sense of self; then folklore feels like an arrival on the other side of something. While these songs are mostly fictional stories rather than autobiography, the lyrics have a wisdom and maturity that comes from a well of experience, imbuing them with emotional truth. The last great American dynasty tells the story of Rebekah (Harkness), a once-divorced, once-widowed eccentric ostracized by her highbrow community of Rhode Island blue bloods. She tells Rebekah’s history through her house on the beach and adds herself as a character in the song in one of the album’s rare self-referential moments. While this song tells a very specific story, by connecting it with herself, Swift reflects on the universal experience of the women’s punishment for “bad behavior”:

There goes the last great American dynasty
Who knows, if she never showed up, what could’ve been
There goes the most shameless woman this town has ever seen
She had a marvelous time ruining everything

They say she was seen on occasion
Pacing the rocks, staring out at the midnight sea
And in a feud with her neighbor
She stole his dog and dyed it key lime green
Fifty years is a long time
Holiday House sat quietly on that beach
Free of women with madness, their men and bad habits
And then it was bought by me

Taylor Swift, ‘the last great American dynasty’

She brings this human dimension and newness even to her retelling of the story of a love triangle, one of the oldest stories there is; her take has evolved since she first cast herself against a short-skirt-wearing cheerleader (gasp!) as the Girl-Next-Door archetype in ‘You Belong With Me’. The former is an exercise in the ‘not like other girls’ self-mythologizing that many young women perform in the hope of garnering male attention, but in folklore, three sides of the triangle each get a thoughtful treatment. In ‘Betty’, a character named James makes a front porch apology to a girl he betrayed (‘The worst thing that I ever did was what I did to you… I’m only seventeen, I don’t know anything; but I know I miss you’). In ‘Cardigan’, a young woman reflects on the magic and memory of a lost love, the hurt caused when he left her, and the possibility of rekindling (‘I knew you’d miss me once the thrill expired / And you’d be standin’ in my front porch light / And I knew you’d come back to me’). I connected these two tracks first because of twin images and phrases like ‘cobblestones’, ‘cardigan’, ‘kissing in (my) car’ and ‘I don’t know anything/‘they assume you know nothing’. I didn’t initially pick up on the third arc, a compassionate take on the other-woman trope, told in ‘August’, from the perspective of a girl who spends a brief time in the throes of a new romance, ‘living for the hope of it all’, only to be left herself at summer’s end. It is less teen angst and more the familiar unrequited longing of being young and wondering ‘why not me?’ In telling this story from all of its sides, she humanizes each of the characters and examines how one decision reverberates through each of their lives from then on, and how deeply each of them feels the pain of it.

‘Exile’ has a similar feel to me — a duet with Bon Iver about former lovers: a man who doesn’t yet understand what went wrong that caused her to ‘suddenly’ end things, and a woman unheard and exasperated after she ‘gave so many signs’. They sing together, but they talk past each other, an example of how often we don’t hear the ones we love and don’t realize it until the damage is done.

Folklore is an unguarded and unpretentious examination of love from different angles and acknowledges that it is asking more question than it tries to answer. How does memory of first love echo through a life? When is it too late to fall back in love? Can we ever really listen to each other? What happened to us? What could have been, if not for…? It’s the self-awareness in the not-knowing that gives these songs and stories their wisdom. I wonder if she smiled to herself when writing the line, ‘I knew everything when I was young’ in ‘Cardigan’. Like Mitchell, she seems to be saying, “I really don’t know love at all.” And anyway, who does?

Tears and fears and feeling proud,
To say I love you right out loud
Dreams and schemes and circus crowds
I’ve looked at life that way
Oh but now our friends
they’re acting strange
And they shake their heads and tell me that I’ve changed
Somethings lost but something’s gained
In living every day
I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose, and still somehow
I really don’t know life,
At all

Joni Mitchell, ‘Both Sides Now’

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