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Origins: The Vulture of the Alps

Lighter 30 Sep 18 - 02:41 PM
Lighter 30 Sep 18 - 06:19 PM
GUEST,henryp 01 Oct 18 - 05:50 AM
Jack Campin 01 Oct 18 - 08:40 AM
Lighter 01 Oct 18 - 09:35 AM
Steve Gardham 01 Oct 18 - 10:53 AM
Lighter 01 Oct 18 - 10:52 PM
Steve Gardham 02 Oct 18 - 08:49 AM
Steve Gardham 02 Oct 18 - 08:54 AM
Lighter 02 Oct 18 - 10:29 AM
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Subject: Origins: The Vulture of the Alps
From: Lighter
Date: 30 Sep 18 - 02:41 PM

"The Vulture of the Alps" (Roud 4777) has rarely been reported from "tradition." Roud lists only two independent versions. One was recorded in 1959 by Mary Celestia Parler from Mrs. Attie Dillingham of Fayetteville, Ark., and the other collected from Mr. Dee Hicks (1906-83) near Jamestown, Tenn., in 1978 (he'd learned it from Daniel Hicks, his father).

The Traditional Ballad Index dates the song to "c1842," and notes that the music was composed (in an ornate, operatic style) by the well-known Hutchinson Family of singers.

Scott Gac's account of the Hutchinsons, "Singing for Freedom" (Yale U. Press, 2008), credits the music specifically to Judson Hutchinson (1817-1859). The song was published by the highly successful firm of Oliver Ditson in Boston in 1843 and widely advertised.

The origin of the lyrics is less clear. Their earliest traceable appearance looks to have been in "The New Year's Gift; and Juvenile Souvenir," ed. by "Mrs. Alaric Watts" (London: Longman, 1830). Mrs. Watts's Introduction is dated "Sept. 17, 1829."

Alaric Watts was an editor and noted minor poet of the day. His wife, Priscilla ("Zillah") Maden Wiffen Watts (ca. 1800-1873) produced eight annual editions of "The New Year's Gift," an anthology for children.

While most of the pieces in Mrs. Watts's "Gift" for 1830" are attributed to named authors, "The Vulture of the Alps: A Fact" is one of a number of anonymous poems. It is tempting to assume that either she or her husband was the author - though neither ever seems to have claimed credit for it.

"The Vulture" became a popular recitation almost immediately. In America, the Richmond Enquirer reprinted it in its issue of January 16, 1830, with credit to "The New Year's Gift," describing it as a poem "powerful in its simplicity, to interest the hearts of both parents and children."

It also appeared in a few schoolbooks of the 1830s - and in at least one as late as 1910.

Well worth hearing is the 1976 recording by the Eastman Wind Ensemble and Chorale on their Vox album "Homespun America" (now on CD). The song must have sent thrills of horror through many "hearts."

The actual "vulture of the Alps" is officially called the lammergeier or "bearded vulture" and is found in Africa and Asia as well as in Europe.

The birds weigh about fifteen pounds on average, with an impressive wingspan of eight or nine feet. They live largely on bone marrow, and occasionally attack living prey.

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Subject: RE: Origins: The Vulture of the Alps
From: Lighter
Date: 30 Sep 18 - 06:19 PM

You talked me into it. here is the original 1829-30 text of this masterpiece of nineteenth-century horror and kitsch:

                                  THE VULTURE OF THE ALPS: A FACT

I've been among the mighty Alps, and wandered through their vales,
And heard the honest mountaineers relate their dismal tales,
As round the cottage blazing hearth, when thei rdaily work was o'er,
They spake of those who disappeared, and ne'er were heard of more.


For some had gone with daring foot the craggy peaks to gain,
Until they seemed like hazy specks to gazers on the plain;
But in a fathomless abyss an icy grave they found,
Or were crushed beneath the avalanche, that starts at human sound.


And there I from a shepherd heard a narrative of fear,—
A tale to rend a mortal heart, which mothers might not hear;
The tears were standing in his eyes, his voice was tremulous,
But wiping all those tears away, he told his story thus:


"It is among these barren cliffs the ravenous vulture dwells,
Who never fattens on the prey which from afar he smells;
But patient, watching hour on hour upon a lofty rock,
He singles out some truant lamb, a victim, from the flock.


"One cloudless sabbath summer morn, the sun was rising high,
When, from my children on the green, I heard a fearful cry,
As if some awful deed were done, a shriek of grief and pain,—
A cry, I humbly trust in God I ne'er may hear again!


"I hurried out to learn the cause, but overwhelmed with fright,
The children never ceased to shriek, and from my frenzied sight
I missed the youngest of my babes, the darling of my care,
But something caught my searching eyes, slow sailing through the air.


"Oh, what an awful spectacle to meet a father's eye,
His infant made a Vulture's prey, with terror to descry;
And know with agonizing breast, and with a maniac rave,
That earthly power could not avail, that innocent to save!


"My infant stretched his little hands imploringly to me,
And struggled with the ravenous bird, all vainly, to get free;
At intervals I heard his cries, a shriek and stifled scream!
Until upon the azure sky a lessening spot they seem.


"The Vulture flapped his sail-like wings, though heavily he flew,
A mote upon the sun's broad face he seemed unto my view;
But once I thought I saw him stoop, as if he would alight,—
'T was only a delusive thought, for all had vanished quite!


"All search was vain, and years had passed; that child was ne'er forgot,
When once a daring hunter climbed unto a lofty spot,
From whence, upon a rugged crag the chamois never reached,
He saw an infant's fleshless bones the elements had bleached!


"I clambered up that rugged cliff,—I could not stay away,
I knew they were my infant's bones thus hastening to decay,—
A tattered garment yet remained, though torn to many a shred,—
The crimson cap he wore that morn was still upon the head!


"That dreary spot is pointed out to travellers passing by,
Who often stand, and musing gaze, nor go without a sigh."—
And as I journeyed the next morn along my sunny way,
The precipice was shewn to me, whereon the infant lay."

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Subject: RE: Origins: The Vulture of the Alps
From: GUEST,henryp
Date: 01 Oct 18 - 05:50 AM

Many pubs in England are called the Eagle and Child, and take their name from the crest of the Stanley family. (The original Stanley Cup, awarded annually to the National Hockey League playoff winner, was donated in 1892 by Frederick Arthur Stanley, Baron Stanley of Preston, 16th Earl of Derby, then Governor General of Canada.)

From Wikipedia; Many legends exist about the origin of the eagle and child crest of the Stanleys which was probably taken from the crest of the Lathoms. One account tells of a Sir Thomas Lathom who greatly desired a male heir, but his wife was advanced in years and their only child was a daughter.

One day, he and his wife were walking in Tarlescough Woods, a wild section of his estate when they heard an infant crying. Servants were sent to investigate and they returned with a young male child which they had found lying in the grass below an eagle's eyrie.

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Subject: RE: Origins: The Vulture of the Alps
From: Jack Campin
Date: 01 Oct 18 - 08:40 AM

The Haast's Eagle of New Zealand (probably extinct before Europeans arrived) would have been quite capable of picking up fairly large children before dropping them from a great height to tenderize them. Its normal mode of predation was to dive from hundreds of feet straight down onto a moa (like an ostrich but twice as big) and hit it like an antipersonnel bomb, killing it instantly. There were probably Maori stories about them.

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Subject: RE: Origins: The Vulture of the Alps
From: Lighter
Date: 01 Oct 18 - 09:35 AM

Thanks for the posts, henryp and Jack. I'd never heard of Haast's eagle. "Woodward's eagle" appears to have been similar but lived in California, probably before humans arrived.

That the author of the poem felt it necessary to add "A Fact" to the title suggests to me the possibility that the story was based on an account (probably fanciful) that he had been told as true.

Unlike eagles, vultures, of course, are scavengers.

The black vultures we have around here only weigh about five pounds, with a five-foot wingspan. They have shiny white feet and look pretty funny when they hop earnestly toward a road kill.

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Subject: RE: Origins: The Vulture of the Alps
From: Steve Gardham
Date: 01 Oct 18 - 10:53 AM

Impressions, Jon.
A very well-crafted piece and as you imply it could very likely have started out as a poem or recitation. For an American to set such a piece in a far-off country does not normally smack of a 'folk' piece and the whole poem is written by a sophisticated writer anyway: It is well-balanced and, though matter of fact, builds up the tension carefully. Of note is that there is no mawkish appeal to religion except perhaps a mention of the Sabbath. The imagery is also pretty sophisticated.

I have a similarly horrific Swedish piece called The Bluebell of Hull which I have translated. It's on Mudcat somewhere.

Not sure who is the narrator in the last stanza.

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Subject: RE: Origins: The Vulture of the Alps
From: Lighter
Date: 01 Oct 18 - 10:52 PM

Hi, Steve. My initial post may not have made it quite clear that the *poem* first appeared in England, though the only "traditional" versions of the song were collected in the U.S.

You can hear Attie Dillingham sing the song here:

Mrs. Dillingham told Mary C. Parler, "My father, G.L. Hart, back in Kentucky, used to sing this song when I was a small child. It made such an impression on me; and I always remember that when I was about four or five, there was an eagle—which was unusual—flew over our area, I ran and hid, on ac­count of what he sang about the eagle carrying the child away...
This was about 75 miles southeast of Louisville, in Grayson County."

Parler adds, surprisingly : "The Library of Congress sent Mrs. Dillingham the words to this song 'as performed at the concerts of the Hutchinson Family' and at the bottom of the page it says, 'Words arranged from the First Class Reader, Music by J.J. Hutchinson, published by Firth and Hall, Number 1 Franklin Square, 1873."

Dillingham's tune is pretty standard Southern U.S. folk stuff, though I can't identify it. It's nothing at all like Hutchinson's super-sophisticated melody, and it may have been added independently to a printed version of the anonymous poem by somebody like Kentuckian G. L. Hart.

What appears to be Hicks's tune is sung here (though at second hand). It too is different, and closely resembles "The Battle of Shiloh's Hill":

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Subject: RE: Origins: The Vulture of the Alps
From: Steve Gardham
Date: 02 Oct 18 - 08:49 AM

Hi Jon,
Written in England doesn't really change much to what I said. To the vast majority of ordinary people in England at that time The Alps were still a remote exotic place. Such pieces are often based on legends or even stories with some truth. Having had another look at the 'original' I could be wrong but it seems to be more in the style of a recitation.

What would be useful is to see what the Hutchinsons did with the text (if anything) and then what oral tradition did with it.

Such pieces would sit happily in those American songsters of the mid-nineteenth century.

I have the Southern Folk Ballads Vol II Hicks and Dillingham versions. The only source of the original McNeil mentions is 'The First Class Reader'.

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Subject: RE: Origins: The Vulture of the Alps
From: Steve Gardham
Date: 02 Oct 18 - 08:54 AM

It is interesting that both traditional versions have lost the final stanza which is an appendage anyway.

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Subject: RE: Origins: The Vulture of the Alps
From: Lighter
Date: 02 Oct 18 - 10:29 AM

> Having had another look at the 'original' I could be wrong but it seems to be more in the style of a recitation.

No doubt in my mind about that.

Thirty seconds of the 1976 recording of Hutchinson's song, with its histrionic music, may be heard at Amazon:

We recall Zeus' abduction of the youth Ganymede in the form an eagle. So there's a even a dignified, classical folklore basis for discussing "The Vulture of the Alps."

Nowadays such stories require a UFO, not a bird.

Zeus also did interesting things in the form of a bull, a swan, and a shower of gold pieces, but those are other stories.

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