Labor & Love: A Garland of American Folk Ballads

What I know about American folk ballads stems from dimly recalled reading in fourth grade. I didn’t remember, for example, how grisly and odd some of them were.

Labor and Love cover

In this mini-anthology, Sam Costello and Neal Von Flue do an excellent job pointing out the strange nature of these cultural nuggets. Four songs are included:

  • The Wind and the Rain — about two sisters in love with the same man, and the murderous events that resulted
  • The Wreck of the Old 97 — in which an engineer, pushed to catch up his work schedule, crashes the train
  • The Mermaid — in rhyme, sailors face the death they know is coming by shipwreck when a mermaid is spotted
  • Henry Lee — a demonstration of the twisted mind that thinks “if I can’t love him, I’ll kill him”

After each comic adaptation, there are text pages that provide some history about the song and how the comic was made, including the lyrics for the version used and on which recordings you can hear them.

The first tale is sectioned into panels, with thick black borders making the page resemble a memory box. While the larger sections illustrate the story, the smaller establish setting, with glimpses of a rainstorm and other events to come. The introductory section takes on ghoulish new meaning once the reader is familiar with the whole tale. The events aren’t realistic, but they’re primal and oddly satisfying to ponder.

Von Flue’s colored pencils are perfect for the subject, providing an old-fashioned, looking-through-time feel, as though watching something softened by memory. This book does just what a comic should, taking us to another time or place and making us understand what life might be like there. Even if, as in some of these cases, that other land is one of madness.

Labor and Love is debuting at this year’s Small Press Expo, or it can be ordered from that title link. I can’t imagine re-reading this, but the time I spent with it was unsettling and transformative, as intended. (The publisher provided a digital review copy.)


5 Responses to “Labor & Love: A Garland of American Folk Ballads”

  1. Thad Says:

    …so…only one of the “American Folk Ballads” in question is actually American, then?

  2. Kris Larsen Says:

    The group Clannad has a version called “Two Sisters.” It is their version of the first story/song. My kids love that song but have no clue whatsoever of what it’s about.

  3. Johanna Says:

    Thad, Sam addresses that in some of the text pieces, about the roots moving backwards.

  4. James Moar Says:

    Yes, it’s clear that a lot of these pieces were in popular circulation for a long time, and they were carried from Britain to America, where they went on evolving.

    I read the first volume of the Child Ballads collection recently, which is mostly British but records a few American variants — for instance, for “The Demon Lover”, it gives the text of a couple of versions, mentions larger variations, and has part of an American one (“House Carpenter”) which is much the same but sets the action in America.

  5. Sam Costello Says:

    Thanks for the review, Johanna!

    It’s definitely true that all of these songs except Old 97 originated outside of the U.S., but in adapting them, Neal and I did our best to use the Amercanized versions of them that descended through history and immigration to become part of the American cultural fabric. No doubt that that fabric is made of threads that stretch across the ocean, but we tried to focus on the forms the songs took here.

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