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TED2010

Natalie Merchant: Singing old poems to life

February 12, 2010

Natalie Merchant sings from her new album, Leave Your Sleep. Lyrics from near-forgotten 19th-century poetry pair with her unmistakable voice for a performance that brought the TED audience to its feet.

Natalie Merchant - Singer/songwriter
Natalie Merchant's career spans three decades -- as the leader of 10,000 Maniacs and in her own solo work -- of making warmly personal music. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
(Music)
00:16
♫ My age is three hundred ♫
00:20
♫ and seventy-two ♫
00:22
♫ I think with the deepest regret ♫
00:25
♫ How I used to pick up
00:30
and voraciously chew ♫
00:32
♫ the dear little boys
00:35
that I met ♫
00:38
♫ I've eaten them raw
00:40
in their holiday suits, ♫
00:42
♫ Eaten them
00:45
curried with rice, ♫
00:47
♫ I've eaten them baked
00:51
in their jackets and boots, ♫
00:53
♫ And found them exceedingly nice. ♫
00:56
♫ But now that my jaws
01:01
are too weak for such fare, ♫
01:03
♫ I think it's increasingly rude ♫
01:06
♫ To do such a thing
01:12
when I'm quite well aware ♫
01:14
♫ Little boys do not like
01:17
being chewed. ♫
01:19
♫ Little boys do not like
01:21
being chewed. ♫
01:24
(Music)
01:26
♫ So now I contentedly live upon eels, ♫
02:12
♫ And try to do nothing amiss ♫
02:16
♫ And pass all the time
02:22
I can spare from my meals ♫
02:24
♫ In innocent slumber like this, ♫
02:27
♫ Innocent slumber
02:33
like this. ♫
02:37
(Applause)
02:44
I suppose I owe you an explanation.
02:56
I've been working on a project for the last six years
03:00
adapting children's poetry to music.
03:02
And that's a poem by Charles Edward Carryl,
03:04
who was a stockbroker in New York City
03:07
for 45 years,
03:10
but in the evenings, he wrote nonsense for his children.
03:12
And this book was one of the most famous books in America
03:15
for about 35 years.
03:18
"The Sleepy Giant," which is the song that I just sang,
03:20
is one of his poems.
03:24
Now, we're going to do
03:26
other poems for you,
03:28
and here's a preview of some of the poets.
03:30
This is Rachel Field,
03:32
Robert Graves --
03:36
a very young Robert Graves --
03:38
Christina Rossetti.
03:42
Ghosts, right?
03:45
Have nothing to say to us,
03:48
obsolete,
03:51
gone --
03:53
not so.
03:55
What I really enjoyed about this project
03:58
is reviving these people's words.
04:00
Taking them off the dead, flat pages.
04:02
Bringing them to life,
04:04
bringing them to light.
04:08
So, what we're going to do next
04:13
is a poem that was written by Nathalia Crane.
04:15
Nathalia Crane was a little girl from Brooklyn.
04:17
When she was 10 years old in 1927,
04:20
she published her first book of poems
04:23
called "The Janitor's Boy."
04:25
Here she is.
04:28
And here's her poem.
04:30
(Music)
04:32
♫ Oh, I'm in love
04:37
with the janitor's boy, ♫
04:41
♫ And the janitor's boy
04:45
is in love with me. ♫
04:49
♫ Oh, I'm in love
04:54
with the janitor's boy, ♫
04:58
♫ And the janitor's boy
05:02
is in love with me. ♫
05:06
♫ He's going to hunt for a desert isle ♫
05:11
♫ In our geography. ♫
05:15
♫ A desert isle
05:19
with spicy trees ♫
05:21
♫ Somewhere in Sheepshead Bay; ♫
05:25
♫ A right nice place,
05:28
just fit for two ♫
05:30
♫ Where we can live always. ♫
05:33
♫ Oh, I'm in love
05:38
with the janitor's boy, ♫
05:42
♫ And the janitor's boy, ♫
05:46
he's busy as can be; ♫
05:50
♫ Down in the cellar he's making a raft ♫
05:55
♫ Out of an old settee. ♫
05:58
♫ He'll carry me off,
06:03
I know that he will, ♫
06:05
♫ For his hair is exceedingly red; ♫
06:08
♫ And the only thing
06:12
that occurs to me ♫
06:14
♫ Is to dutifully shiver in bed. ♫
06:16
♫ And on the day that we sail,
06:20
I will leave a little note ♫
06:23
♫ For my parents I hate to annoy: ♫
06:25
♫ "I have flown to an island
06:29
in the bay ♫
06:31
♫ With my janitor's
06:33
red haired-boy." ♫
06:35
♫ The janitor's red-haired boy ♫
06:38
♫ The janitor's red-haired boy ♫
06:42
♫ The janitor's red-haired boy ♫
06:46
♫ The janitor's red-haired boy ♫
06:50
♫ I'm going to sail away ♫
06:54
♫ Gone to Sheepshead Bay ♫
06:56
♫ With my janitor's red-haired boy. ♫
06:58
♫ On an old settee ♫
07:02
♫ My red-haired boy and me ♫
07:04
♫ The janitor's red-haired boy. ♫
07:07
♫ The janitor's red-haired boy ♫
07:11
♫ The janitor's red-haired boy ♫
07:15
♫ The janitor's red-haired boy ♫
07:19
♫ The janitor's red-haired boy ♫
07:23
(Applause)
07:27
The next poem is by E.E. Cummings,
07:39
"Maggie and Milly and Molly and May."
07:41
(Music)
07:48
♫ Maggie and Milly,
07:58
Molly and May ♫
08:01
♫ They went down to the beach
08:08
one day to play ♫
08:12
♫ And Maggie discovered
08:19
a shell that sang ♫
08:22
♫ So sweetly she couldn't remember
08:29
her troubles ♫
08:35
♫ Maggie and Milly,
08:42
Molly and May ♫
08:45
♫ Maggie and Milly,
08:52
Molly and May ♫
08:55
♫ Milly befriended
09:03
a stranded star ♫
09:05
♫ Whose rays,
09:13
whose rays ♫
09:16
♫ Five languid fingers
09:21
were ♫
09:24
(Music)
09:29
♫ Maggie and Milly,
09:42
Molly and May ♫
09:45
♫ Maggie and Milly,
09:53
Molly and May ♫
09:56
(Music)
10:01
♫ Molly was chased
10:32
by a horrible thing ♫
10:34
♫ Which raced
10:42
sideways blowing ♫
10:47
♫ Blowing ♫
10:54
♫ Blowing ♫
11:01
♫ May came home
11:10
with a smooth, round stone ♫
11:12
♫ Small as a world
11:20
and as large as alone ♫
11:23
(Music)
11:28
♫ For whatever we lose
11:52
like a you or a me ♫
11:55
♫ Always ourselves
12:03
that we find
12:07
at the sea ♫
12:11
(Applause)
12:19
Thank you.
12:21
(Applause)
12:23
The next poem is "If No One Ever Marries Me."
12:37
It was written by Laurence Alma-Tadema.
12:40
She was the daughter of a very, very famous Dutch painter
12:43
who had made his fame in England.
12:46
He went there after the death
12:49
of his wife of smallpox
12:51
and brought his two young children.
12:53
One was his daughter, Laurence.
12:55
She wrote this poem when she was
12:59
18 years old in 1888,
13:01
and I look at it as kind of a
13:03
very sweet feminist manifesto
13:05
tinged with a little bit of defiance
13:10
and a little bit of resignation and regret.
13:13
(Music)
13:19
♫ Well, if no one ever marries me ♫
13:39
♫ And I don't see why they should, ♫
13:43
♫ Nurse says I'm not pretty, ♫
13:47
♫ And you know I'm seldom good,
13:49
seldom good -- ♫
13:52
♫ Well, if no one ever marries me ♫
14:00
♫ I shan't mind very much; ♫
14:04
♫ Buy a squirrel in a cage ♫
14:08
♫ And a little rabbit-hutch. ♫
14:11
♫ If no one marries me ♫
14:14
♫ If no one marries me ♫
14:18
♫ If no one marries me ♫
14:22
♫ If no one marries me ♫
14:25
♫ If no one marries me ♫
14:29
♫ I'll have a cottage near a wood ♫
14:37
♫ And a pony all my own ♫
14:40
♫ A little lamb quite clean and tame ♫
14:44
♫ That I can take to town. ♫
14:47
♫ And when I'm really getting old -- ♫
14:51
♫ And 28 or nine -- ♫
14:54
♫ Buy myself a little orphan girl ♫
14:59
♫ And bring her up as mine. ♫
15:02
♫ If no one marries me ♫
15:05
♫ If no one marries me ♫
15:08
♫ If no one marries me ♫
15:12
♫ If no one marries me ♫
15:16
♫ Well, if no one marries me ♫
15:19
♫ Marries me ♫
15:24
♫ Well, if no one marries me ♫
15:26
♫ Marries me ♫
15:31
♫ Well, if no one marries me ♫
15:33
Thank you.
15:44
(Applause) Thank you.
15:46
I became very curious about the poets
15:52
after spending six years with them,
15:54
and started to research their lives,
15:57
and then decided to write a book about it.
16:01
And the burning question about Alma-Tadema
16:04
was: Did she marry?
16:07
And the answer was no,
16:09
which I found in the London Times archive.
16:11
She died alone in 1940
16:16
in the company of her books and her dear friends.
16:19
Gerard Manley Hopkins,
16:24
a saintly man.
16:26
He became a Jesuit.
16:28
He converted from his Anglican faith.
16:30
He was moved to by the Tractarian Movement,
16:33
the Oxford Movement, otherwise known as --
16:37
and he became a Jesuit priest.
16:41
He burned all his poetry at the age of 24
16:44
and then did not write another poem for at least seven years
16:47
because he couldn't rectify the life of a poet
16:49
with the life of a priest.
16:52
He died typhoid fever
16:55
at the age of 44, I believe,
16:57
43 or 44.
16:59
At the time, he was teaching classics
17:01
at Trinity College in Dublin.
17:03
A few years before he died,
17:09
after he had resumed writing poetry,
17:11
but in secret,
17:13
he confessed to a friend in a letter
17:15
that I found when I was doing my research:
17:17
"I've written a verse.
17:19
It is to explain death to a child,
17:22
and it deserves a piece of plain-song music."
17:25
And my blood froze when I read that
17:29
because I had written the plain-song music
17:31
130 years after he'd written the letter.
17:33
And the poem is called, "Spring and Fall."
17:36
♫ Margaret,
17:43
are you grieving ♫
17:46
♫ Over Goldengrove
17:49
unleaving, by and by? ♫
17:52
♫ Leaves, like the things
18:00
of man, you ♫
18:03
♫ With your fresh thoughts care for,
18:05
can you? ♫
18:08
♫ But as the heart grows older ♫
18:16
♫ It will come to such sights
18:22
much colder ♫
18:24
♫ By and by,
18:26
nor spare a sigh ♫
18:28
♫ Though worlds of
18:35
wanwood leafmeal lie; ♫
18:37
♫ And yet you will weep
18:42
and you'll know why. ♫
18:44
♫ No matter child, the name: ♫
18:52
♫ Sorrow's springs are all the same ♫
18:55
♫ They're all the same. ♫
19:00
♫ Nor mouth had
19:07
nor no mind expressed ♫
19:10
♫ What heart heard of,
19:14
ghost had guessed: ♫
19:17
♫ It's the blight
19:24
man was born for, ♫
19:27
♫ It is Margaret
19:31
that you mourn for ♫
19:34
Thank you so much.
19:44
(Applause)
19:46
(Music)
20:31
I'd like to thank everybody,
20:38
all the scientists, the philosophers,
20:41
the architects, the inventors,
20:44
the biologists,
20:47
the botanists, the artists ...
20:49
everyone that blew my mind this week.
20:52
Thank you.
20:54
(Applause)
20:56
♫ Oh, a li la li la la la ♫
21:00
♫ La li la la li la la la la la la ♫ (Applause)
21:04
♫ La li la la la ♫
21:08
♫ La li la la la la ♫
21:11
♫ La li la la la la la la ♫
21:13
♫ La la la li la la la la la ♫
21:15
♫ You've been so kind and
21:26
generous ♫
21:30
♫ I don't know how you keep on giving. ♫
21:33
♫ And for your kindness,
21:37
I'm in debt to you. ♫
21:40
♫ And for your selflessness,
21:46
my admiration. ♫
21:51
♫ And for everything you've done,
21:56
you know I'm bound; ♫
22:02
♫ I'm bound to thank for it ♫
22:05
♫ La li la li la la la ♫
22:08
♫ La li la la li la li la la la ♫ (Clapping)
22:10
♫ La li la la la ♫
22:14
♫ La li la la la la ♫
22:17
♫ La li la li la la la ♫
22:19
♫ La li la la li la li la la ♫
22:21
♫ And you ♫
22:27
♫ Now you've been so kind and ... ♫
22:31
Curb the enthusiasm, just a little bit.
22:36
Just bring it down a little. (Laughter)
22:38
It's my turn.
22:41
I still have two minutes.
22:44
(Laughter)
22:46
Okay, we're going to start that verse again.
22:48
♫ Well, you've been so ... ♫
22:52
That's innovative, don't you think?
22:54
Calming the audience down;
22:56
I'm supposed to be whipping you into a frenzy, and I,
22:58
"That's enough. Sh." (Laughter)
23:00
♫ Now, you've been kind and ... ♫
23:04
I'm going to sing this to Bill Gates. (Laughter)
23:08
I have so much admiration for him.
23:11
♫ Now, you've been so kind and
23:14
generous, ♫
23:18
♫ I don't know how you keep on giving. ♫
23:20
♫ And for your kindness
23:24
I'm in debt to you. ♫
23:27
♫ And I never could have come
23:33
this far without you. ♫
23:38
♫ So for everything you've done,
23:43
you know I'm bound ♫
23:48
♫ I'm bound to thank you for it ♫ (Clapping)
23:53
♫ La li la la li la la la ♫
23:55
♫ La li la la li la la la ♫
23:57
♫ La li la la la ♫
24:01
♫ La li la la la la ♫
24:03
♫ La li la la li la la la ♫
24:06
♫ La li la la li la li la la la ♫
24:08
♫ La li la la la ♫
24:11
♫ Oh, I want to thank you for so many gifts ♫
24:15
♫ You gave in love with tenderness ♫
24:18
♫ Thank you ♫
24:21
♫ I want to thank you
24:26
for your generosity ♫
24:28
♫ the love and the honesty that you gave me ♫
24:30
♫ I want to thank you
24:36
show my gratitude, ♫ My love
24:38
and my respect for you ♫
24:41
♫ I want to thank you, thank you ♫
24:47
♫ Thank you, thank you ♫
24:51
♫ Thank you, thank you ♫
24:53
♫ Thank you, thank you ♫
24:56
♫ I want to thank you, thank you ♫
24:58
♫ Thank you, thank you ♫
25:01
You know what?
25:03
I'll show you how to clap to this song. (Laughter) (Clapping)
25:06
♫ I want to thank you, thank you ♫
25:19
♫ Thank you, thank you ♫
25:23
♫ Thank you, thank you ♫
25:25
♫ Thank you, thank you ♫
25:28
♫ I want to thank you, thank you ♫
25:30
It works better, right?
25:32
♫ I want to thank you, thank you ♫
25:40
♫ I want to thank you ♫
25:43
♫ Ooh hoo ♫
26:02
♫ Ooh hoo ♫
26:05
♫ Ooh hoo ♫
26:07
♫ Ooh hoo ♫
26:09
Let's bring it down.
26:11
Decrescendo.
26:15
Gradually, bringing it down,
26:17
bringing it down.
26:20
♫ I want to thank you, thank you ♫
26:22
Finger popping,
26:26
ain't no stopping.
26:28
Thank you so much.
26:32
(Applause)
26:34

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Natalie Merchant - Singer/songwriter
Natalie Merchant's career spans three decades -- as the leader of 10,000 Maniacs and in her own solo work -- of making warmly personal music.

Why you should listen

In the 1980s, Natalie Merchant led the great folk-rock band 10,000 Maniacs. She went solo in the '90s, and to maintain creative control over her music, she self-funded her debut album, Tigerlily, which had chart-toppers like "Jealousy," "Carnival" and "Wonder." She recorded her sophomore album, Ophelia, at her home studio; the album went platinum, and she headlined at Lilith Fair and joined the American Folk Music Tour before releasing Motherland, which paired her rich voice with more strings.

Merchant independently released her 2003 album, The House Carpenter's Daughter, which veers back toward classic folk; she covers traditional songs such as "House Carpenter" and "Weeping Pilgrim," an 18th-century hymnal she found in the NY Public Library archives. Merchant is dedicated to supporting a wide array of nonprofits and social justice groups. For the past five years, she has been researching, writing and recording a collection of songs adapted from the works of classic and contemporary poets. She is set to release Leave Your Sleep in March 2010.

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