Listen to this track by sisterly New Jersey vocal folk trio The Roches. It’s “Runs In The Family”, a cut off of their 1979 eponymous debut album The Roches. The group was made up of the three Roche sisters, those being Maggie, Terre, and Suzzy, hailing from Park Ridge New Jersey from a solidly Irish-American background.
The Roches’ sound isn’t the genteel and polite one that we might expect from folk-singing sisters. There is a distinct edge to it, with three singers who don’t stay in their lanes even as they mesh their voices, and with those voices marked by idiosyncrasies instead of by standard purity of tone. And talk about unexpected musical combinations. King Crimson-honcho and prog-rock prime mover Robert Fripp not only played guitar on the record, he also produced it.
Even the material undercuts what we expect of a folk tune. This is no fey tale that tells a story of times past. This is decidedly contemporary, concerning itself with an important question that very few of us can honestly answer; why do we make the choices we make and in some cases, do we even have a choice at all?
For many people, families are something of a mixed blessing. We love our families. But they drive us crazy sometimes, too. More often than not, I think this is because we see things in our families and specific family members that we can also see in ourselves. Sometimes that portrait isn’t too flattering. As they say with family though, you can’t choose those to whom you are related. Sometimes, patterns that have circulated within our families and that very often cross generations even before we’ve arrived on the scene tend to persist for good or ill.
That’s what this song is about, a tale of a daughter who is caught up in one of these patterns and finding herself to be a part of a repeating narrative that others in her family have lived out before her. Casting her mind over the history of her family, it occurs to her that young marriages as forced by unexpected pregnancies is recognized as a defining feature. Worked within the lines are the fears and frustrations that are associated with that, and the idea that this kind of emotional environment begins a vicious and self-perpetuating cycle for the generation to come, making the life’s path for the new arrival more easily predicted than as is entirely comfortable.
What makes this song so interesting thematically are some of the more philosophical points it raises about how we make choices, and how much latitude we really have as we do so within our own particular family situations. If a certain pattern repeats through out our family histories, are we magnetically drawn to them? Are we predisposed to making the same mistakes that can be traced in the story of our family because we inherit the flawed character traits that drove the destinies of our parents, their parents, and maybe even those of our ancestors? This song doesn’t answer that question definitively. What it does do is raise the question in the minds of the listener to consider how this idea of personal choice and inherited character traits plays into their own lives and our perceptions around family and its influence in our lives.
Another thing it does is to present a story that is found in folk traditions about family and fate in a very contemporary way. Characters in folk songs and tales are constantly stumbling into the sights of fate, very often becoming the casualties of star-crossed circumstances. Yet here, it’s not a curio as a lot of folk tales can sometimes be treated. Even in the misty and mythical world of folk songs, there is something to be learned about the constancy of human experience no matter what narrative tradition, era, or even what culture. No matter what context human struggle is placed into, there are certain threads that bind us all across any perceived barriers that otherwise divide us. One of them is certainly family and the importance that it holds for us, as well as the burdens that family presents.
The Roches continued as a family musical unit well after this release, with adjusted line ups over the years, going on hiatus in the late-nineties and embarking on solo projects. After a 2007 comeback and a new album Moonswept, the group have ceased touring. Each member of the group has put out solo records, including their brother Dave who joined them on a latter day tour.
Some things really do run in the family, then.
You can learn more about The Roches by reading this 1979 article from Rolling Stone, which talks about, among other things, how their relationship as sisters affects how their music comes out.