Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Parodies at Singing Time

Since the Ale, I've been thinking a bit about singing sessions, and what makes for a singing session that I enjoy to the point of transcendence. I've thought about this a great deal before, and have had some discussions with my friend Bob W. about what factors -- what evanescent factors -- make for a good singing. I've written before that my own Morris team is very close to having all the components that seem to be prerequisite for having a good "singing team" -- close enough that in some circumstances and with a couple of plants we actually become a good singing team. Bob told me recently that he thinks a big factor here, that I hadn't noted, was that we as a team have nowhere to go on a regular basis to sing and so we don't develop the skills and sensitivities and repertoire to be a singing team, and I think he's on to something there.

I always come back from the Ale, for example, all het up about making sure I know all the words to various songs I nearly know (and which people sometimes ask me whether I know). I come back determined to increase my repertoire, to learn a passel of good chorus songs that would have been a lot of fun to share at the Ale. But between one Ale and the next an entire year goes by with barely an opportunity to sing good chorus songs with a like-minded group, which is in part why so many songs have fled from my memory nearly as fast as I learned them -- without reinforcement, the brain discards the lyrics as useless.

There's another conclusion I'm just tentatively dancing around -- which is that what I remember as the best singing sessions did not happen because they were planned as a gathering for singing, but were an adjunct to another event. Thus the Mayday morning singing, when the Braggarts sang between dawn dancing and the day's gigs, right after breakfast, was a great experience for me. Singing at a pub stop at an Ale can feel like this, or even singing late night after a day's dancing. Sometimes good singings happen at a social event, a nice dinner party perhaps or another sort of party, where the singing is not the only purpose of the gathering but an enriching thing. Heck, I even remember singing on the band bus as achieving this transcendence I note. This leads to a contradiction, because how do you organize a gathering for a purpose that I'm saying should not be the purpose. It's a tough call.

Certainly it's true that singing gatherings -- "hootenannies" even -- are a fine thing and I've enjoyed many. But going around a circle, presenting songs for other people, is a different sort of event than I'm talking about. You'd think that with the rarity of any sort of singing session at all I wouldn't concern myself with any manner of distinction, since we need more singing and we need it now. But what I'm really concerning myself with is trying to figure out what works and doesn't work to contribute to group singing energy, and what I might be able to do myself to help make sure there is more of it in the world.

This is a surprisingly huge topic, although I suspect it's of concern to few besides me. All I meant to write about today was parody songs, and their place in a singing session. Because many of us write parody songs all the time, and there are hundreds of them floating around. They are wonderful things. And yet, in excess and in sequence one after the other, they can start to kill off a singing session. It's like making a meal entirely of dessert.

This came up at the Ale because Tom B, who has written many wonderful songs -- parodic and otherwise -- sang his extremely even painfully clever "Hard Rhymes Come Again No More". In the shower the next morning Steve S. said to me that he was surprised that Denise hadn't heard the song before. I said that I was sure she hadn't, and that I hadn't either. He said oh, it was clear it was new to her, but Tom wrote it a long time ago. I wasn't quite awake, and I replied, "Well, it's deservedly little sung" and then I realized that this was absolutely the wrong way to put it -- it's not that it's an undeserving song in any way -- it's fiercely clever, a tour de force such as only Tom can muster -- but that it's the sort of funny that is funny in moderation. The humor rests on the cleverness of the rhymes. It was a delight to hear at the singing in large part because it is not sung very much. It's like a song Rick N. wrote for an Ale skit night many years ago, "Bledington is Hard to Do" (about the back-destroying style of dancing my team dances, to the tune of Breaking Up is Hard to Do). It's also fiendishly clever, but it's not the sort of song you would bring out as a chestnut regularly at a singing session.

I guess my line of demarcation here is: Does the parody stand up on its own as a bringer of group pleasure to people who are completely unfamiliar with the original? But it's not a clear line. And even if the answer is "no", it can still be a great thing to bring to a singing. As with all things, context and mood and sensitivity are all.

When I think about parodies and their misuse, I think about the story of "The Rolling Hills of the Border". This is a sweet, perhaps even saccharine song that made its way around folk music circles back in the 70s. My father sang this song, and it's always been half-known in the back of my head. It has a slow wallowy sort of chorus, of the sort that can be sung gently by an entire room. What happened to this song was that John Roberts and Tony Barrand sang (and I think wrote) a parody of the song called "The Rolling Mills of New Jersey", which as parodies go was abominably stupid and snobbish to boot: The song was sung in a fake blue-collar trucker accent that seemed to be poking fun at poor people more than at New Jersey (or the sentimental excesses of the original song). I would call this a rare misjudgment on the part of John and Tony, whose repertoire and singing was usually impeccable and wonderful and influential. I do get the joke about sentimentality, and the title alone is compelling and funny, but in the execution I just didn't like it -- and I never did, from first hearing, although I probably couldn't have articulated why at the time (well, I was a teenager).

But what happened to The Rolling Hills of the Border is not John and Tony's fault at all. What happened is that their parody was easy to pick up -- in part for the same reasons that the original song is compelling -- and it seemed to appeal to the uglier side of what people find funny, mockery that seems to be about being mean rather than good-natured. It spread quickly. Which, in essence, killed off the original song. And then, in time -- over ten years -- people stopped singing the parody, because without the original song being around the parody lost a good part of its appeal -- if not all of it.

So now I'm reviving the original song. I sing it when the situation calls for it, and people like it -- at the Ale I sang it with the folks playing bridge, because it can be sung while you play. An entire generation doesn't even know the parody. And I'm now old and obnoxious enough so that when somebody says, "I know a parody of that song" (as people were compelled to do for years) I'm able to jump in with, "Yes, that's such a stupid parody. I don't know why anybody would ever sing it." Ok, I haven't done that yet. But I'm prepared to.

It's all about judgment, I say.
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