Songs of Orpheus
Prepare yourselves – I’m about to go classical on your sorry asses. I figure there are few better ways to enter the new week than a bit of a musical education in the world of Greek mythology. I wrote some weeks ago about a wonderful album by Anäis Mitchell, Hadestown, which uses the not-particularly-common medium of folk opera to tell the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. The album has taken me, and carried me away (not unlike Eurydice is tempted away in said folk opera), and for a while I’ve been seduced by the wonderful album. I’ve also been suffering from a sort of Baader-Meinhof complex, and noticing Orpheus popping up in several of my favourite songs.
So, the education: Orpheus gets around in Greek mythology – he’s got all sorts of stories about him, from his time with the Argonauts right up to his overly romanticised death. But the most famous Orphean story is that of Hadestown and the Nick Cave album The Lyre Of Orpheus. Our hero is happily married to Eurydice, who by all accounts seems like a pretty nice, if slightly foolish person. Whilst out for a family picnic, Eurydice is bitten by a snake, and promptly dies, as snake-bite victims are wont to do. Orpheus, being an emotional artistic type, plays a lot of very sad songs on his lyre. So sad and so beautiful are they that the gods and nymphs wept, and recommended he pop down to the underworld to try and sort things out. Orpheus does just that, and melts the hearts of Hades and his consort Persephone. A deal is struck: Orpheus and Eurydice may leave, on the condition that Orpheus walks in front for the duration of their return, and never looks back until they both reach the surface. Orpheus, desperate and in love, reaches the surfaceworld, but looks back to Eurydice before she reaches it herself, and she is lost forever.
The story has been tragic enough to be told hundreds of times in song, with Mitchell and Cave’s versions only two of the more notable tellings. Seeping further into the literate conciousness, Orpheus’ story has been used to draw comparisons with Zooey Deschanel’s love life in ‘Don’t Look Back’, and his failure to look after his wife was referenced in Rufus Wainwright’s song ‘Damned Ladies’, in which he sympathies with ficitional women who have been wronged. Even Jakob ‘Don’t Mention My Dad’ Dylan references the duo in The Wallflowers’ song ‘Nearly Beloved’. Check out just a few of the Orphean songs of pop culture in a lovingly put together Spotify mix here, with the tracklisting below.
1. Anäis Mitchell with Justin Vernon – Wedding Song
2. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Breathless
3. She & Him – Don’t Look Back
4. Rufus Wainwright – Damned Ladies
5. The Wallflowers – Nearly Beloved