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Saturday, October 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 59.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Anaïs Mitchell breathes new life into old folk with Child Ballads
Recycled relics
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<i>Child Ballads</i> is proof that Mitchell loves a challenge.
Child Ballads is proof that Mitchell loves a challenge.

Like many singer-songwriters, Anaïs Mitchell has a gorgeous voice and writes deeply felt songs about heartbreak. She's anything but ordinary, though. Her albums are conversation pieces that explore different types of stories, from ancient myths to modern-day mysteries. She'll visit Redamte Coffee House with singer-guitarist Jefferson Hamer on May 17.

Mitchell's 2010 album, Hadestown, is a folk opera about the Greek god Orpheus that's set in Depression-era America, while 2012's Young Man in America is a coming-of-age tale inspired by her father's experiences. Her latest release, Child Ballads, features English and Scottish tunes folklorist Francis James Child collected in the late 1800s. Filled with stories of crimes and curses, it's definitely not for small children.

Along with Hamer, Mitchell infuses the songs with so much gusto that you might think she penned them herself. It's one thing to refashion "Riddles Wisely Expounded," a story about grappling with some of life's greatest mysteries, for the 21st century, but it's quite another to make 500-year-old tales sound like entries from her own diary. On "Geordie," she turns into a mother pleading for the life of her son, who's on trial for a terrible crime. And you may wonder if she is the lady in "Willie's Lady," who is sad and barren due to a witch queen's curse. Not bad for a woman No Depression described as "girlishly sprite and brimming with innocence."

Child Ballads is also proof that Mitchell loves a challenge. She's the daughter of a novelist and a professor, so it's no surprise she's intrigued by texts of yore. While studying the original ballads, she modernized the language so contemporary listeners could relate to the stories. She knew she risked criticism but forged ahead anyway, she recently told NPR. After all, a line like "In twa glassen een ye pit," from "Willie's Lady," is a tad difficult for present-day listeners to digest. In Mitchell's version, it's "You must make two eyes of glass," referring to a doll created to break the evil queen's spell. Thanks to some TLC, the tune is as bewitching for modern listeners as it must have been when it debuted.

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