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Lankum, 'Go Dig My Grave'

In her incantatory masterpiece A Ghost in the Throat, the Irish writer Doireann Ní Ghríofa unearths the spirit of Eibhlin Dubh Ní Chonaill, who wrote the famous 18th century lament "The Keen for Art ó Laoghaire." In it, Eibhlin Dubh mourns her husband, murdered on a country road; its preternatural fierceness has made it an immortal text. Ni Ghriofa loves the poem and is determined to put flesh back on its author's bones. At one point she stands before the decrepit crypt of Eibhlin Dubh's mother, also a ferocious matriarch, shouting her name, Maíre; she wonders if her own keening for this ancestor might reanimate her. The wind through a glassless window "rises to lash my hair against my cheek, sharp as a slap." In that moment the wall between the living and dead crumbles, as it does so often in people's hearts.

This scene came to my mind when I first heard the Irish experimental folk band Lankum's version of the traditional song "Go Dig My Grave." It's not a keen (in Irish, caoineadh) but a suicide ballad that's connected to more familiar songs like "Barbara Allen"; the best known earlier recording is by Appalachian legend Jean Ritchie, who rides it like a locomotive goingover a cliff. Lankum slows the tempo to a dirge as singer Radie Peat enunciates every syllable — this time, every word of the woman who hung herself for lost love will be heard and be judged sane. Layer upon layer of drones surface like water weeds behind Peat's clear delivery; then the words fall away and the din continues for four more minutes. Peadar Gill's stunning video shows hands entwined with rope and ghosts, played by Peat's band members, silent in their vigil. The images disturb; the sound is like little in folk music, closer to the Velvet Underground's "The Black Angel's Death Song." The gale force of a stirring afterlife echoes through the song, and that old reason for keening — to reveal the miracle of grief, that it can bridge death's barrier, if only for the span of a mourner's cry — is revealed.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.