Most "folk songs" aren't. They're tunes written for a contemporary commercial audience that by choice share the acoustic and melodic properties of actual folk songs — whose own creation predates mass audiences, and which sounded like that because they had to.
But a real folk song, like the nightmarish one Susan Philipsz highlights in her Carnegie Museum of Art sound installation One and the Same, can still intrigue and move us. From three wall-mounted speakers comes Philipsz' voice, unadorned and unaccompanied, singing three different versions of a ballad best known as "The House Carpenter."
It's about a woman whose lover returns from sea to find she's married, then lures her from her husband and children with promises of riches and wonders. But their ship abruptly sinks, and all indications are she's bound for Hell. (Some versions are titled "The Demon Lover.") Listen to one version at a time, or sit in the Forum Gallery's center and hear all three sounding, ethereally, at once.
In wall text, Philipsz suggests pondering how the three versions she sings differ. Because folk songs grew from the oral tradition, the fact that there are multiple versions of "Carpenter" isn't odd. But it is worth asking, for instance, why in some versions the lover seems to be a human — or, perhaps, a ghost — whose boat merely "springs a leak," while in others he's the Devil himself (complete with cloven feet), who sinks the ship on purpose. And why does one version append a final verse in which the carpenter (who's offstage in the other version) loudly grieves?
"Carpenter" dates from 1685 or earlier, and is Scottish in origin; Scottish artist Philipsz' lightly accented singing voice is welcome. And it's among the best-known Western folk songs: Clarence Ashley's 1930 version was featured on archivist Harry Smith's landmark 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music, which kick-started the folk revival. The tune has since been covered dozens of times, by everyone from Dylan to Nickel Creek and Natalie Merchant.
The society that birthed "House Carpenter" valued social controls rather more than ours does: An early subtitle was "A Warning for Married Women." It's a fever dream, a ghost story, lurid entertainment, cautionary tale. From a time and place with a tragic view of life, it's a window into a foreign culture.