Nobody owns a folk song. By definition, folk music belongs to the people, an art form that’s shared among people like fables or other cultural traditions. The stories and often the melodies within those songs remain familiar, but it’s in the varied interpretations in which they truly come alive, whether it’s Nick Cave’s profane version of “Stagger Lee,” The Smothers Brothers’ comical retelling of “The Maid Freed from the Gallows” (as “Hangman”), or any of Fairport Convention’s intricate folk-rock interpretations of classic English folk songs. These songs live on for years—changing, evolving, constantly being reborn into something new and often entirely different. They often speak from a particular time and place, be it 19th century England or early 1900s Appalachia, but their ghosts continue to haunt us long after that time has passed. Sometimes, those ghosts even take on a more sinister form.
Patty Waters was only 19 years old when she recorded her debut album, Patty Waters Sings, a concise yet breathtaking collection of vocal jazz that carried an undercurrent of darkness and doom. It’s an ambitious album, but by no means overstuffed, several of its songs carrying a barely-there duration of two minutes or less. But there’s a confidence and mastery to the music, and indeed Waters’ evocative yet often subdued vocal performances show an immense talent beyond the young singer’s years, reflective of her time spent performing throughout the U.S. as a teenager and meeting and working with jazz legends such as Miles Davis and Albert Ayler, the latter of whom connected her with the famed underground label ESP-Disk Records.
There is, however, one song on Patty Waters Sings that tends to overshadow the rest—a side-long, avant garde reading of the Appalachian folk song “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” (which may or may not have actually originated in Scotland) that stands as one of the most deeply unnerving listening experiences ever caught on tape. Prior to Waters’ take on the song, it was recorded by the likes of Joan Baez and Nina Simone, with likely hundreds of versions existing, most recently tackled on a collaborative album between drone-metal artists Big|Brave and The Body. Yet arguably nobody’s recording of “Black Is the Color” is more famous, or perhaps infamous, than Waters’. It’d be erroneous to say she owns it, however—it’s more that she’s been possessed by it.
“Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” is long. It comprises fully half of the 27-minute Patty Waters Sings, and it openly challenges the very title of the album. Patty Waters doesn’t sing the traditional folk song. She endures a series of harrowing trials and what sounds like immeasurable pain and malignant forces. It creeps and lurches with horror-film tension and unseen menace. By the end of it, it’s not even entirely clear that she’s survived the ordeal.
A rare collision of vocal jazz with free jazz, Waters’ reading of “Black Is the Color” does more than deconstruct the idea of singing standards. She douses it in gasoline and flicks open a Zippo. It’s more than avant garde—it’s physical torment, less a listening experience than a purely visceral one, the scraping of piano strings in its opening portending the kind of unnerving experience that comes with hearing Throbbing Gristle at their most confrontational, or late-period Scott Walker going all-in on dissonance and funereal fables about dead fascists and Americana’s morbid underbelly.
Waters makes it through only one verse before the song transitions from standard to nightmare. Waters repeats the word “black” nearly 100 times throughout the song’s 13 minutes and 51 seconds, at first an expression of numb detachment, then a repetition of what feels like deeply held grief, and then—for most of the duration of the song—a descent into the maelstrom, as if her tether to this reality has been severed and she has nowhere left to go but swirling into madness. She yelps and screams, unleashing harrowing shrieks from the very core of her being. No, this isn’t singing. It’s an exorcism.
“Black Is the Color” is a heavy experience, and rightly regarded as an avant garde masterpiece. This kind of soul-erupting vocal performance was unprecedented in 1966, and it left an indelible mark on similarly innovative artists such as Patti Smith, Diamanda Galas and Lydia Lunch. It’s artistically breathtaking, but it’s hard not to feel as if there’s more than mere artistry going on beneath the surface. The song has been described as a “suicide note,” and it feels like a complete breakdown happening right before our ears.
The fact that Waters spent the next 30 years without releasing any music or performing live makes “Black Is the Color” all the more intense of a cliffhanger. As we all know in situations where no information is available, the mystery then becomes the story itself, and the idea of this being her last statement before a long period of reclusiveness has some heavy implications that can lead that imagination to go to some pretty dark places.
What really happened is less dramatic than where rumor might have led, though not without some real sadness at the heart of it. Waters took a long break from music to raise her son, Andrew, and her parents disowned her as a result of her interracial relationship with jazz musician Clifford Jarvis, as she revealed to JazzTimes in 2004. But she didn’t really disappear, exactly. She just walked offstage for a while, eventually returning in 1996 with her first new album in three decades, and subsequently began performing again at jazz festivals. When asked what brought her back to the stage, she simply said, “Well, I was invited.”
And as recently as four years ago, she was still at it, the extended fruits of a long-overdue return like that of Linda Perhacs or Bill Fay. However late it may come, it’s reassuring to see that an audience for her work doesn’t just still exist, it’s expanded greatly over the past 56 years (and it helps that her music is readily available on streaming services). It’s a once-in-a-lifetime artist that can create a magnum opus on the caliber of “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” a song so torturously gripping that even the empty space left in its wake still haunts us.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.