Song of the Day: April 19

Written by Maria Valdes


In category: Song of the Day

Published April 19, 2016

San Francisco Opera Singer Headshots | Anna Wu PhotographyThis week, soprano María Valdés curates Song of the Day. She will perform with NYFOS next Tuesday, April 26th, in Compositora: Songs by Latin American Women, alongside baritone Efraín Solís. She is a recent alumna of the Adler Fellowship at San Francisco Opera where she sang and covered several roles. Her performance with NYFOS will mark her New York recital debut.


Today’s song is brought to you by Joanna Newsom, one of my ALL-TIME FAVORITE singer/songwriters. (Please forgive the exclamation…!) She has carved a very special niche in the folk music realm. Though she doesn’t identify with any particular genre, some have coined her as one of the founding artists of the “freak folk” movement. As usual, the nomenclature gets a bit sticky (but I’m a nerd for this kind of thing so I indulge it). In a nutshell, the genre is characterized by acoustic instruments, pastoral themes, early American folk and avant-garde music. Basically, it is weird and kind of indescribable, but you will totally understand once you hear it.

“Monkey & Bear” is from the album Ys (2006). It is a ten minute song on the album and can be 20 mins+ live. It is a creation story about one of the Ursa constellations. A performing bear, Ursala, searches for freedom in the face of a duplicitous monkey overlord. Luckily, the bear escapes, teaching us a valuable lesson.

Here are the lyrics (you’ll need them!):
Down in the green hay,
where monkey and bear usually lay,
they woke from a stable-boy’s cry.
He said: “someone come quick —
the horses got loose, got grass-sick —
they’ll founder! Fain, they’ll die.”

What is now known by the sorrel and the roan?
By the chestnut, and the bay, and the gelding grey?
It is: stay by the gate you are given.
And remain in your place, for your season.
And had the overfed dead but listened
to the high-fence, horse-sense, wisdom…

“Did you hear that, bear?” said
monkey, “we’ll get out of here, fair and square
they left the gate open wide!

“So, my bride.

“Here is my hand. Where is your paw?
Try and understand my plan, Ursala.
My heart is a furnace
full of love that’s just, and earnest.
You know that we must unlearn this
allegiance to a life of service,
and no longer answer to that heartless
hay-monger, nor be his accomplice —
(the charlatan, with artless hustling!)
But Ursala, we’ve got to eat something,
and earn our keep, while still within
the borders of the land that man has girded,
(all double-bolted and tightfisted!),
until we reach the open country,
a-steeped in milk and honey.
Will you keep your fancy clothes on, for me?
Can you bear a little longer to wear that leash?

“My love, I swear by the air I breathe:
Sooner or later, you’ll bare your teeth.

“But for now, just dance, darling.
C’mon, will you dance, my darling?
Darling, there’s a place for us;
can we go, before I turn to dust?
My darling there’s a place for us.

“Darling. C’mon will you dance,
My darling?
The hills are groaning with excess,
like a table ceaselessly being set.
My darling we will get there yet.”

They trooped past the guards,
past the coops, and the fields, and the
farmyards, all night, till finally,

the space they gained
grew much farther than
the stone that bear threw,
to mark where they’d stop for tea.

“Walk a little faster,
don’t look backwards —

“your feast is to the East, which lies a little past the pasture.

“When the blackbirds hear tea whistling they rise and clap.
Their applause caws the kettle black.
And we can’t have none of that!
Move along, Bear; there, there; that’s that.”

(Though cast in plaster,
our Ursala’s heart beat faster
than monkey’s ever will.)

But still,
they have got to pay the bills.
Hadn’t they?
That is what the monkey’d say.
So, with the courage of a clown, or a cur,
or a kite, jerking tight at its tether,
in her dun-brown gown of fur,
and her jerkin of
swansdown and leather,
Bear would sway on her hind legs;
the organ would grind dregs of song,
for the pleasure
of the children who’d shriek,
throwing coins at her feet,
then recoiling in terror.

Sing, “dance, darling.
C’mon, will you dance, my darling?
Darling, there’s a place for us;
can we go, before I turn to dust?
My darling there’s a place for us.

C’mon, will you dance, my darling?
You keep your eyes fixed on the highest hill,
where you’ll ever-after eat your fill.
O my darling…dear…mine…if you dance,
dance darling and I’ll love you still.”


Deep in the night
shone a weak and miserly light,
where the monkey shouldered his lamp.
Someone had told him the
bear’d been wandering a fair piece away
from where they were camped.
Someone had told him
the bear had been sneaking away,
to the seaside caverns, to bathe;
and the thought troubled the monkey,
for he was afraid of spelunking
down in those caves.
Also afraid what the
village people would say,
if they saw the bear in that state —
lolling and splashing obscenely
well, it seemed irrational, really,
washing that face;
washing that matted and flea-bit pelt
in some sea-spit-shine —
old kelp dripping with brine.
But monkey just laughed, and he muttered,
“When she comes back, Ursala will be bursting with pride —
till I jump up!
Saying, ‘You’ve been rolling in muck!
Saying, ‘You smell of garbage and grime!’”

But far out,
far out,
by now,
by now —
far out, by now, Bear ploughed,
Because she would
Not drown:

First the outside-legs of the bear
up and fell down, in the water, like knobby garters,
Then the outside-arms of the bear
fell off, as easy as if sloughed
from boiled tomatoes.
Low’red in a genteel curtsy,
bear shed the mantle of her
diluvian shoulders;
and, with a sigh,
she allowed the burden of belly to drop,
like an apronfull of boulders.

If you could hold up her
threadbare coat to the light,
where it’s worn translucent in places,
you’d see spots where,
almost every night of the year,
Bear had been mending,
suspending that baseness.

Now her coat drags through the water,
bagging, with a life’s-worth of hunger,
limitless minnows;

in the magnetic embrace,
balletic and glacial,
of bear’s insatiable shadow —

Left there!
Left there!
When bear
Left bear;

Left there,
Left there,
When bear
stepped clear of bear.

(Sooner or later you’ll bury your teeth)

author: Maria Valdes

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