Monday, May 07, 2012

Why do we love British songs?

Maple Morris gathered in Boston this weekend. Which meant a lot of dancing and a lot of singing. One staple of a Maple weekend is always a jaunty version of “Cornish Lads”:

Cornish lads are fishermen
And Cornish lads are miners too
But when the fish and tin are gone
What are the Cornish boys to do?

Another favorite is “Torn Screen Door”, about the loss of small farms:

They worked their fingers to the bone 
Nothing left they can call their own 
Packed it in under leaden skies 
With just the wheat waving them goodbye

Had a life that they tried to save 
But the banks took it all away 
Hung a sign on a torn screen door:
'Nobody lives here no more.'

It always strikes me as odd that a bunch of young urban Americans and Canadians, nearly all with degrees from expensive colleges, should get together to sing these particular songs. What makes a law student or a business consultant stay up all night singing about the poor economy in Cornwall or rural Ontario?

Sometimes I think it doesn't matter what the songs are about, and we would sing anything as long as it had a chorus with room for a couple of harmony parts. Morris is a hedonistic experience, with hard physical exertion all day and drinking and singing late into the night. There's a lot of hugging, a lot of enjoyment in being around people we love that we don't see often. Harmony singing is the sound of community. And some of it is just really excellent music (seriously, follow that link to “Torn Screen Door”).

But I also think it's because our real lives don't allow for much sentiment. Young urban people embrace irony. It's not cool to take anything too seriously. There is no song about our real lives, about the high cost of apartments in Boston or having to grade biology exams all weekend. The closest I can think of are parodies like White Collar Holler.

But the difficulties of rural life a century earlier, preferably on another continent? Those we can sing about, arms draped around each other.

Of course, the US has a genre about rural life, and about the love of friends and home: country music. When Stephan sang a country ode to

A little bit of chicken fried 
Cold beer on a Friday night

we listened with laughter, despite the fact that it was indeed sung on a Friday night, cold beer in hand. The real hilarity started with the last verse, apparently mandatory in country songs, thanking God for the Stars and Stripes. (To be fair, it was a really terrible verse, especially the line indicating that veterans must die to defend our right to fried foods.) And yet we can sing “Rule Britannia” with something approaching a straight face. Nobody really thinks we love the British navy, but a song that people in our own country take seriously has to be distanced with laughter.

I don't mind the irony, though, if it's a way we can get close to each other.

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