Monday, March 02, 2009

What the songs have to say

Did you ever notice how many pop songs from the 50s and 60s involve references to marriage, even when it seems totally out of place? Think of John Lennon's tomcat howling to "Dizzy Miss Lizzy" with the totally incongruous line "Girl, I want to marry you." Earlier periods had songs that really were about marriage - think 1873's hit "Silver Threads among the Gold":

When your hair is silver white,
And your cheeks no longer bright,
With the roses of the May,
I will kiss your lips and say,
Oh! My darling, mine alone, alone,
You have never older grown!

But that transition period in the 20th century seemed to produce a lot of songs using marriage references as a weird coverup for songs about short-term sexual attraction.

The songs that have been running through my mind, though, are the older traditional songs of America and Britain. There are some bitter ones, complete with child abuse, cold feet on your legs, no dinner, and screaming babies:

The very first year me wife I married
Out of her company I could not stray
Her voice as sweet as a lark or a linnet,
Or the song of the nightingale at break of day.

Now she's fairly altered her meaning,
Now she`s fairly changed her tune
Nothing but scolding comes from her mouth
A poor man's labor's never done.

All young men that is to marry,
Don't, they'll grieve you evermore
Death, o death come take my wife,
And then my troubles will all be o'er.

Or this one:

Come all you young men that are going to be wed
Don't be trapped like a bird with a small bit of bread
I'd have you be careful in choosing of a wife
O, for when you are trapped you remember it through life.

Or from the woman's perspective:

Sorry the day I was married
And sorry the day I was wed
And it's oh, if I only had tarried
When I to the altar was led.

Think, pretty maids, ere you marry
Stand fast by your sweet liberty
And as long as you can you must tarry
And not be lamenting like me.

The pressures of poverty:

When I was single, went dressed all so fine,
Now I am married, go ragged all the time.
Three little babes crying for bread
With none to give them, I'd rather be dead.
When he comes in it's a curse and a row
Knocking down the children and pulling out my hair.
Lord, don't I wish I was a single girl again.

But there are happier ones. There are a lot about young lovers who face down angry parents to win their own happiness. Usually the man turns out to be somehow better than they thought, as in Willie O'Winsbury when he's unexpectedly good-looking and rich:

But when he came before the king
He was clad all in the red silk
His hair was like the strands of gold
His skin was as white as the milk

"It is no wonder," said the king
"That my daughter's love you did win
For if I was a woman, as I am a man
My bedfellow you would have been."

"Now will you marry my daughter Janet
By the truth of your right hand?
Will you marry my daughter Janet?
I'll make you lord of all my land."

"Oh yes, I'll marry your daughter Janet
By the truth of my right hand
Oh yes, I'll marry your daughter Janet
But I'll not be the lord of your land."

He's mounted her on a milk-white steed
Himself on a dapple grey
He has made her the lady of as much land
As she will ride in a long summer's day.

In "Jock O' Hazeldean", the bride deserts the man her family has picked out and runs away with her lover instead:

The kirk was deck'd at morningtide
The tapers glimmer'd fair
The priest and bridegroom wait the bride
And dame and knight were there
They sought her baith by bower and ha'
The lady was na' seen:
She's o'er the border and awa'
Wi' Jock o' Hazeldean.

I love how old songs aren't nearly as straightforward you would expect. The king meets the man who got his daughter pregnant. . . only to declare that it's fine because he's so hot? We'll finish with "The Blaeberry Courtship", about a highland man who woos a lowland woman . . . with jam.

"O the hills are bonny when the heather's in bloom.
'T would cheer a fine fancy in the month o' June
To pu' the blaeberries and carry them home,
And set them on your table when December comes on."

At the end of the song he turns out to be her old sweetheart from school, whom she somehow hadn't recognized. He reminds her of how she used to share her lunch with him:

"For don't ye remember, when at school wi' me,
I was hated by all the rest, loved by thee?
How oft have I fed on your bread and your cheese
When I had naething else but a handful o' peas.
Your hard-hearted faither did hunt me wi' dogs;
They rave all my bare heels and tore all my rags."

"Is this my dear Sandy whom I loved so dear?
I have not heard of you for mony a year.
When all the rest went to bed, sleep was frae me
For thinkin' whatever had become o' thee.
In love we began and in love we will end,
And in joy and mirth we will our days spend."


No comments: