Margo Carruthers,
Speech from the Crone: Scarytales
(Theatre Folk, 2001)

While they drink out of skulls newly torn from the grave,
dancing 'round them the spectres are seen.


Theater is usually a visual experience. But Margo Carruthers repudiates that belief with Speech from the Crone: Scarytales.

Carruthers is a Maritimes treasure, an accomplished Gaelic singer and storyteller, and one-half of Halifax-based Theatre Folk. On Scarytales, subtitled "traditional women's songs of the supernatural from Atlantic Canada," she brings the art of theater home to listeners everywhere, who can't help but feel a few thrills as she assumes voices and evokes characters to bring tales from the Canadian Maritimes to life. Don't let the subtitle throw you off; while women figure prominently in these tales, these aren't ancient Harlequin romances to be sure. Be they victims or villains, these women have depth at their disposal, fully realized as folk characters in song.

This is the darker side of relationships, as these male and female protagonists find themselves snared in brutal conflict and love gone wrong.

The 13 stories presented on the CD are, as the title suggests, spooky. Each has its roots in folklore, drawn from the traditions of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, as well as their forebears in Celtic lands across the sea, including several from the renowned Child collection. There are murders, betrayals, seductions, tortures, voices from beyond the grave and ghosts on land and sea. Among them you'll find "Sweet William's Ghost," "The Bloody Gardener," "Rinordine," "The Cruel Mother," "Lost Jimmy Whalen" and "The Grey Cock." The album ends with "Bloodlines," an original piece of spoken drama, a sort of stream-of-consciousness poetry.

Carruthers, as the storytelling Crone, sings, chants and employs audio effects to paint her characters and settings in full color. Her classical guitar supplies the haunting music, and it's sufficient to create and accent the moods of the tales.

It's a lot to take to all at once. There's an hour's worth of material here and, while all good, it's too much for nonstop listening. But the CD is perfect for playing a story here, a few stories there -- they range in length from 2:11 to 8:16 apiece -- and the thick booklet included with the liner provides every line of narration and dialogue, laid out like tiny illustrated plays, so it's easy to follow along.

Carruthers has done a marvelous job of recreating a purely oral tradition on this album. With no props or costumes, without even the benefit of facial expressions and gestures to help the story along, she brings 13 tales to vivid life. Anyone with a fondness for the storytelling tradition should find this one and play it over and over again, just as I did.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 14 September 2002