To Find Mad Maudlin
I met Mad Maudlin on the morning of All Hallows’ Eve. Sneakers squeaked on classroom linoleum; in swept the smell of sweat and magazine-flap perfume, cigarette smoke and Sweet Tarts—the usual. By the time the bell rang, I’d already slouched into my desk and was staring out the window. Outside, thick fog blurred the trees. And then—the unusual. A guitar case darkened the corner behind Mr. K’s desk. I pointed. “What is that?”
“A hurdy-gurdy,” Mr. K said. “The cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” He pointed at my 7-11 cup and shook his head. “Fascist coffee. I expected more of you.”
“Fascist” was one of Mr. K’s favorite words, and it also applied to television, contemporary pop music, and our high school in general. I shared his loathing for the school, but I loved his history lessons: a mulligan stew of art, music, and obscure jokes. He played us Woody Guthrie and Hildegard von Bingen. For reasons unrelated to the curriculum, he quoted 1950s sci-fi films. In one moment he’d critique his students like living research papers; in the next, he’d joke about adopting us. If I had one hopeful scrap of evidence that odd adolescents could survive to adulthood, it was this man. Was I myself so odd? I believed I was; my world felt tiny and dim compared to the wild, fascinating world I imagined was out there, somewhere.
After school I’d unlock the apartment door, wriggle off my combat boots and ripped fishnets, and do my homework over a microwaved Hungry Man. I’d put on my mother’s old vinyl and think of names for my future band; send away for two-bit poetry zines with names like Report to Hell; mail handwritten letters to friends I’d met in the psychiatric unit, whom I missed.
I knew of no one else in my high school who had spent weeks in an adolescent psych unit. I’d had my first bout with depression at thirteen; was cutting my arms by fourteen; had been hospitalized twice by age sixteen. By senior year, I’d been on eight different antidepressants and mood stabilizers. My psychiatrist was starting to think it was more than depression. In springtime came the euphoria, the buoyant energy, the boundless projects and ideas. Dozens of poems flew from my fingers. I could make things happen in real life just by imagining them. I was a single vein in the body of the earth and could feel its life force pulsing.... The wonder of hypomania was always short-lived, and after the flood of chemicals ebbed, the dark, dead air came back.
I was hungry all the time in those days, for something I couldn’t name, but I knew it had to do with the electric possibilities of out there, of feeling alive, feeling not alone. If I could make it to college, maybe I’d be okay. In the grim interim, Mr. K made me feel less alone—as he did that day, at the end of class, when he finally opened his guitar case, saying “Since today is Halloween...” That’s when I met Mad Maudlin. Here is the story he told us, or a version of it.
In seventeenth-century London stood an insane asylum. Once a priory called St. Mary of Bethlehem, it became an institution for the mentally ill, and the word “Bethlehem” eventually gave way to its colloquial name, “Bedlam.” By Shakespeare’s day, Tom of Bedlam had become a stock character, a catch-all term for inmates released to the streets to beg alms. In anonymous ballads like “Tom o’ Bedlam’s Song,” Tom sings of his woes, mentioning a lady friend: a lover by the name of Maudlin. (Today we use “maudlin” to mean “embarrassingly emotional,” but her name, in fact, comes from the weeping Mary Magdalene.) Most Bedlamite lyrics are from Tom’s point of view, but one Mr. K sang was in the voice of Mad Maudlin:
To find my Tom of Bedlam ten thousand years I'll travel,
Mad Maudlin goes on dirty toes to save her shoes from gravel.
Still I sing bonny boys, bonny mad boys, Bedlam boys are bonny,
For they all go bare and they live by the air, and they want no drink nor money.
He struck at the chords like rusted bells. I could imagine a madwoman tearing out the doors to a beat like that:
I went to Pluto's kitchen to beg some food one morning,
And there I got souls piping hot, all on the spit a-turning…
Everything in me came awake.
My family tree was dotted with women who would have been locked up in Bedlam, in the days before bipolar disorder was understood. My fascination with this song was bigger than that, though. Mad Maudlin was three centuries old, but this music felt fierce as any Nirvana bootleg. Her quest for love included murdering giants, devouring ten whales, and drinking from flaming cauldrons full of harlots. I felt like I’d received a postcard from my far-off ancestral clan: “Dear Fervent Soul: We’re here. We’re weird. We’re waiting for you. We’re sending you this postcard, rubbed with pepper and held over a bonfire, so you can smell the world out here…”
The bell rang; sneakers squeaked on linoleum. I could have stayed there listening for a year and a day.
* * *
Some months later, I escaped the bedlam of high school and made it to college. I no longer wore a black-lipstick badge of misery. I made a dozen new friends and ate meals that included vegetables. Yet even in my gratitude for every savory bite, the ache was still there. “Why are you downcast, O my soul?” wrote the ancient psalmist. “Why so disturbed within me?”
After some time had passed I noticed something. When I listened to music like the song Mr. K had played for us, that ache was joined by a kind of ecstatic hum. I started buying recordings of traditional music, especially from the British Isles, and I would listen to them on repeat until I could sing back every rapid-fire word:
of all the trades a-going,
oh sure begging is the best
and when a man is tired
he can sit him down and rest.
Once in a while, with my dorm room door safely shut, I would take out my viola and try to scratch out a few notes of a tune.
I visited Mr. K and his wife whenever I went home on school break. They both worked in the history field and had been playing traditional music for decades. They seemed to keep hundreds of songs catalogued in their heads, imbued with rich cultural and historical research. I listened like a child as they sang to me for hours.
“Bring your viola next time,” they’d say.
I never did. I couldn’t play without sheet music. “I can’t,” I’d say.
But then I started to wonder if I could. Within a year, I was roving across the country, having finagled an internship with the Seattle Folklore Society. For weeks I slept on my friend’s laundry room floor and catalogued original reel-to-reel recordings of traditional musicians. Then my folklore hosts took me to Rainy Camp, a festival of folk singing and traditional music north of the city.
I was hovering at the edges of the crowd, my viola case slung over my shoulder, when someone grabbed me and said, “Go check out the Irish jam in the lodge.” I wavered. If I joined all those fiddlers and banjo players, someone might actually hear me. But I went. I rosined my bow and picked quietly at my strings, trying to figure out the key. I’d never get this intricate melody. Maybe I could fill in with harmonies? Then something began to happen. One tune shifted into the next, and the next, and suddenly I was part of a body, a muscle responding to the nerve’s electric pulse: Move. Now here. Again. As we played, I wasn’t thinking; I wasn’t hungering; I wasn’t anything, really, except listening and moving. We played until two in the morning. “A spirit hot as lightning, did in that journey guide me,” Mad Maudlin declares in her ballad. On that night, it was true of me too.
* * *
After that experience I had a new freedom. If a bonfire was burning—on campus, at a festival—I would venture out with my viola. Usually some guitarist would show up to join me, like I’d conjured them out of the air. It was magic. It was the connectedness and electricity of a hypomanic episode, but there was no crash, no cost, and I could call up this contained wildness whenever I wanted it. All those things I’d done to pass the time alone in high school—it was like they’d foretold this.The grit and guts of vinyl, and Report to Hell, and reaching out into the dark for someone else like me. This music made a space that somehow magnetically drew people like me.
“WHEN YOU VISIT US,” Mr. K wrote to me, “BRING YOUR VIOLA!” Maybe the day had come. Maybe I could finally play music with the man who had led me to it.
We sat on the patio, bees looping around us. Mrs. K brought glasses of homemade iced tea and began to weed the onions.
Mr. K strummed the guitar. “You know St. Anne’s Reel?”
“I don’t think so.”
He sang me the tune and began to strum chords. I played a few halting notes, felt a wave of anxiety, and then stopped. “Just listen,” Mr. K said. “Dee, dee deedle-eedle—” I couldn’t even find a starting note. A squirrel fell off the bird feeder. He sang more slowly, pressed at the notes. “Dee dah DEE…” Was my suffering obvious?
“Oh, don’t pick on her,” Mrs. K said.
“Soldier’s Joy?” Mr. K began a brisk strum. I sat dazed, groped miserably for even one right note.
“I don’t think I can.”
“Just listen,” Mr. K said, and on it went.
He was frequently frustrated with me, but never deterred. As a teenager, I’d wished he would adopt me; now he seemed determined to bequeath his life in music to me. He handed me a recording. “Learn these tunes. You can play a summer concert with me.” Weeks later, we met at the designated gazebo in a scrappy park. As we set up, elderly couples brought folding chairs; families clustered on the grass.
I managed not to botch the few tunes I’d learned. Nothing bad is happening, I kept telling myself. And then, in the middle of a song, Mr. K unexpectedly pointed at me: “Fiddle solo!” I began to produce notes not only in the wrong key, but possibly in three different keys, until the song met its merciful end. I drove home humiliated, miserable.
Over time I got better, but something was shifting in me. The feeling I got when I thought about playing was darkening to dread.
Mr. K scheduled me to give a program at a local whaling museum. I spent hours researching, scouring the diaries of whalers’ wives. I showed up when I was told and sat down in a well-lit alcove, where people in polite button-down shirts were gathering in a few cozy rows of chairs.
I played my tunes. I explained to them how Captain So-and-So’s wife hated when he fished on the Sabbath. I tried to lead them in the choruses, they clapped along limply, and at the end of the concert I had to face up to it: all the electricity was gone. I was an exhibit, wooden as the oars bolted to the ceiling, dry as the journals trapped behind glass. I’d lost it—the spirit hot as lightning. Whatever it was in this music that made me feel whole and alive had sizzled itself away.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I told Mr. K. “I’m too anxious.”
“The anxiety is good,” he said. “The pain in your voice makes the emotion of the song real.”
How to respond to this? Something had changed. Something was wrong. I couldn’t explain why, but I had to stop.
* * *
I got married, bought a house, grew into the standard suburban way of life. For a while, I was okay without the music. For a while, I was even okay without the medication. A psychiatrist had once told me I’d need it for life, but I was considering motherhood and the particular drugs that worked for me weren’t safe for pregnancy. I got off them. Jogging and daily sunlight took the place of pills, and it actually worked. Even better, as soon as I got pregnant, some kind of hormonal chemistry kicked in, and I’d never felt so serene and normal. I nursed the baby for three months, then six, then twelve; the calm feeling continued. Was I “normal” now? Fixed?
As my son ate more solid food and my milk supply dwindled, the depression began to creep back in again. If baby-making had worked some kind of physiological magic on me, the spell was wearing off. Life as a new mother bore an eerie resemblance to my teenage loneliness, except now there were two of us crying. I walked laps in his dim nursery, alone in the house, trying to soothe him as he wailed. I microwaved a Lean Cuisine. I began to crave what Mad Maudlin’s music had been for me: a shot glass full of fire on days when I was listing into numbness. A live wire to other human beings when I was sinking in an empty room. The spirit hot as lightning.
I’m not the wild rover that Mad Maudlin is, but travel has a way of waking me up. A few times a year I would visit the Vermont mountains where I’d gone to college, where I found a grungy, tucked away little pub with black ceilings. I don’t remember the first time I signed up for their open mic, or how I mustered the will to do it. But on one occasion I finally stood up on the stage, played and sang “Little Beggar Man.” Of all the trades a-going, oh sure begging is the best. I felt the electricity again.
The next time I was in Vermont I performed at open mic again. And again. And no matter what tune I scratched out, no matter what chorus I taught the people in that bar, they all roared along with me:
One-two-three-four-five, hunt the hare and turn her
Down the rocky road and all the way to Dub-a-lin
Joy overtook that toasty room smelling of spilled beer, windows fogged with the breath of forty people. It was twenty below outside, with icicles two feet long, cigarette smoke rising toward the sharpened stars.
Oh dear-o, oh dear-o, my husband’s got no courage in him, oh dear-o.
One of the other musicians who played at those open mics was a writer. He asked if I’d ever written about this music. Had I ever chosen a song, for example, and looked into its history. Oh, God, not again, I thought. “Not for an academic presentation,” he said, “but just to see where the magnet of your curiosity takes you.” Come to think of it, there was a certain madwoman I’d once been fond of. We hadn’t spoken for quite a while, and I missed her.
I’ll be honest: I thought I’d find next to nothing about Mad Maudlin. Long ago in Seattle, I’d learned about the folk process—the way a song is passed along like a game of telephone, the alterations and errors becoming part of it as it travels. I assumed that Mad Maudlin’s song, like many others, had origins too cloudy and soot-smudged to make out. After all, this song was three centuries old. If I had to guess at the original singer, well, I pictured someone like me. A girl who’d once been locked up in Bedlam and then got her life together. Scrubbing pots in the kitchen, she channeled the Mad Maudlin character from all those popular Bedlamite ballads and imagined her own wild exploits. Her song would travel hand to hand, across the centuries, across the sea, to a folk music festival where Mr. K would learn it and then finally to a high school classroom where he would pass it on to me.
Five minutes into my quest I found liner notes for a folk record from 1977. “This song,” the singers noted, “does not seem to have had much currency in the tradition. It has been dug up from print.”
Not much currency in the tradition? Dug up from print? What did that mean? It meant that—very likely—the audiences of yore were not that into it. One specific songwriter made it up three hundred years ago and put it in a songbook, but there’s no evidence anybody wanted to sing it until some twentieth-century folkie decided to give it a go.
The more I researched, the likelier it seemed that the songwriter was not some soulful kitchen wench, but the English wit and satirist Thomas D’Urfey. Even worse, this song I adored appeared to be a parody. My alter-ego, Mad Maudlin, the invention of a wise-cracking old man? What did that say about me?
It was such a disappointment. I’d liked the song better when I didn’t know anything about it—yet another sign that I would never be the historian Mr. K. was. All the same, I hunted down some facsimiles of the songbook, and that became the redeeming moment of the whole enterprise. The songbook itself—a D’Urfey publication from 1720 where Mad Maudlin’s song appeared—had a curious title: Wit and Mirth: Pills to Purge Melancholy. Auditory antidepressants. It seemed so startlingly modern. It’s not that I’d thought of seventeenth-century England as a place any more jovial than our own; they had plagues, political unrest, and pottage for supper, day after day. But was there so much melancholy that musical purgatives were called for? Apparently. The number of books with absurd variations on this theme resembles an eighteenth-century version of Chicken Soup for the Soul:
Tory Pills to Purge Whig Melancholy, 1715.
South-Sea Pills to purge Court Melancholy, 1721.
Laugh and be Fat, or an Antidote against Melancholy, 1700.
This last title is so straightforward that the author risks giving away all his book’s advice in one shot. Laugh and be fat—if only I had known.
So the depressed of England were piling up in hopeless heaps, and music was a popular remedy. Thomas D’Urfey created a songbook for that, and even if he was seeking nothing but profit when he wrote the lyrics to Mad Maudlin’s song, he was drawing on an archetype who had a life of her own.
I called Mr. K to see if he had any more background on the song. It was clear that he still wanted me to play this music the way he played it, with academic rigor. He hated playing in bars; nobody paid attention. The more we talked, the more frustrated I felt, and at some point, I finally confessed.
“I don’t think I love these songs as pieces of history.” Timid, cautious. “I think I love them like the title of that songbook. Pills to purge melancholy. How much of a historian do you have to be, to perform this music?” There was a brief silence.
“Well, it helps,” he answered slowly, glumly. He had started me on this journey, tried to pass on his musical legacy to me, and I couldn’t live up to it.
Maybe that was okay.
* * *
All our pharmaceutical inventions, all our modern day “pills to purge melancholy,” can do wonders for tweaking the brain, but the chemistry of the soul is another matter. I don’t make a habit anymore of playing for hire, or playing to edify, or to educate. I need music for something else. I need that ecstatic hum, and Mad Maudlin, I have learned, does not show up to perform for the executive boards of museums. Mad Maudlin does not do folding chairs and gazebos. If I play St. Patrick’s Day fiddle tunes in my son’s first-grade classroom, Mad Maudlin is not coming. She is about hunger and wanderlust and rough-around-the-edges love that scraps with sluts and doxies. When I play, I play barefoot.
Finding other wild souls to play with is another story, of course—especially as a grown-up suburbanite, with bills and babies plentiful, but bonfires few. Sometimes I luck upon a Mad Tom, and sometimes not, but lately it occurs to me that maybe Tom was never the most interesting part of the story, anyway. The lady may sing bonny boys, bonny mad boys, but she does quite well on her own. And having come to this agreement, onward we travel—ten thousand miles on dirty toes, Mad Maudlin and me.
Jen Hinst-White's stories and essays have appeared in The Common, The Missouri Review, The Southampton Review, Consequence Magazine, Image Journal, Cactus Heart, and elsewhere. Her novella, A Fortune, was published by Big Fiction, and she is currently seeking representation for her first full-length novel, Electric Inklings, about an aspiring female tattooist in the early 1980s. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. You can find more of her writing, along with mischief and music, at jenhinstwhite.com.