Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Deteriorated Lyrics: Not the Folk Process

Sometimes when I'm first looking at or learning a song I get a sense of what I call "deteriorated lyrics" -- the feeling that the words I'm encountering have lost something from an earlier version: A proper rhyme, an image that makes sense. Often I later find a different version, or source material, which provides the missing piece, and the song becomes something I can sing.

For example, there's a silly song called "The dogs they had a meeting" that gets sung around some folkie circles and which includes this verse which has that "deteriorated lyric" air I mention:

And that is why when dogs meet, on land or sea or shore
Each one sniffs the other's asshole in hopes it is his own.

"Shore", in context, rhymes with the previous couplet, but still there's something wrong here since it should rhyme with "own". Besides, why are dogs meeting on sea or shore? Do dogs frequently meet at sea, perhaps while taking a cruise? The phrase "sea or shore" distinguishes land from water -- why do you need to call out "land" a second time? This bothers me. That has the air of having been thrown in, a phrase in somebody's head that popped into the song there.

Ah, but an Internet search yields many instances of a fairly common nonsense poem that seems to be the source for the song version, which includes some version of this couplet (sometimes with better scansion, but always with the same rhyme):

That is why you'll see a dog leave a juicy bone,
to sniff another dogs butthole in hopes he'll find his own.

Problem solved (except for scansion) and I can sing the song.

What I'm getting at here is that in the folkie world in which I was raised one often heard somebody sing a song -- even in a performance context -- that they hadn't bothered to learn very well and would excuse themselves by claiming (in semi-seriousness) "it's the folk process". Well, no, it's sloppiness. More than sloppiness -- it's disrespect (to the song, possibly to the audience). Sometimes the sloppiness would manifest itself as not distinguishing the melody of the verse from the melody of the chorus. Sometimes there would be the loss of a rhyme or the insertion of a phrase that makes no sense. Songs change all the time -- in the remembering, in the melodic sense of the singer, in a word-replacement for an unknown cultural reference. But that's not the same thing as the belief that the words of the song don't matter -- which is what, in my mind, often underlies deteriorated lyrics and is part of what I mean by disrespect here. To me, the words always matter (which, paradoxically perhaps, is why I sometimes have to change them to sing the song).

I was thinking about this lately because of the song "Farewell to Nova Scotia", which is a classic example of a song that yields this sense of deteriorated lyrics. I learned that my friend Matt likes this song but doesn't feel he can lead very well, so I thought I should learn it for him. I'd certainly heard this song a billion gazillion times -- it's in the repertoire of pretty much every pop-folk band and I think the Nova Scotia Tourist Board uses it as background to a promotional video. The Irish Rovers sang it. Battlefield Band sang it. Hmmm... maybe this could be another song I could learn that would increase the number of people who can join in a singing. That's usually the goal of my singing, to get other people to sing as well.

So first I had to wonder why, after all the hearings, I still didn't know the song. There are countless songs that stick after only one hearing; why doesn't this one stick at all, except in snippets, after a million? Because there's nothing to stick, melodically. There are three lines that are sort of la-la guitar-strum no-hook lines with a range of four notes. The fourth lines gets a little more interesting, with a nice descending line -- and that's the hook I tend to remember -- but there's really nothing else in the melody. And then the verses all have the same non-melody as the chorus (one of my deterioration clues). If you go to YouTube and check out the videos of performances of this song, the interesting ones all add a lot to the song in other ways than melody -- raucous instrumentation usually. The Gordon-Lightfooty strum-strum versions put you to sleep; just try to get through one of those with your attention intact.

So already you have a song that doesn't cry out for the unaccompanied chorus-leading that usually appeals to me and which I have in mind here.

But even when melodies don't stick for me, words to a chorus usually do without any particular effort. But not here, Looking at the words, I can see why: They make no sense:

Farewell to Nova Scotia, the sea-bound coast
Let your mountains dark and dreary be
When I am far away on the briny oceans tossed
Will you ever heave a sigh and a wish for me?

There's all sorts of lovely evocations: Farewell to Nova Scotia, sea-bound coast, briny ocean, heave a sigh and wish. Pretty pretty lyrics. Strum strummy guitar. But what does this mean? Why are the mountains dark and dreary in a song about how much you will miss your home when duty calls you away from your parents and sweetheart? And is it really Nova Scotia itself that will heave a sigh and wish? That's, um, sort of poetic, albeit with creepy undertones of the land-monster. But mostly it's those dark and dreary mountains that bother me.

And the lyrics. The unmemorable lyrics. Here we come to deterioration.

This is the first verse, as it is canonically sung. What's wrong with this picture?

The sun was setting in the west
The birds were singing on ev'ry tree
All nature seemed inclined to rest
But still there was no rest for me

[Cue Jeopardy theme... Pencils down.]

Ok, the sun is setting, all nature is inclined to rest but the speaker is restless. So why are the birds singing? Generally birds sing at daybreak, not at dusk -- especially when the point of their singing is to show how they are inclined to rest. Two pretty images: setting sun, birds singing. Yet they rub up against each other like a rasp.

So here's the good news: The song is based on a poem from the early 19th century by Robert Tannahill called "The Soldier's Adieu", which begins with this verse:

The weary sun's gane doun the west,
The birds sit nodding on the tree,
All nature now inclines for rest
But rest allow'd there's none for me:

The birds aren't singing, they are nodding. Ah, sense at last.

The rest of the original poem also makes more sense than the song as she is currently sung in a variety of ways (there are no dead brothers, for one thing, who seem irrelevant to the rest of the lyrics in the song). And here's the classic deteriorated rhyme. The lyrics as they are found in most places:

I grieve to leave my native land
I grieve to leave my comrades all
And my aged parents whom I always held so dear
And the bonnie, bonnie lass that I do adore

We've moved to the realm of free verse. Even if you want to accept the loss of the rhyme in lines 1 and 3. "Comrades all" does not rhyme with "do adore". Should the singer be grieving to leave his "comrade whore"? Maybe the bonnie bonnie lass stands so tall? No, no -- nothing like that. Here's the original poem:

I grieve to leave my comrades dear
I mourn to leave my native shore,
To leave my aged parents here
And the bonnie lass whom I adore.

So now I have that poem, and it's a lovely poem about a young man who must go off to war, leaving his friends and family and sweetheart. It's an oft-told story, but it never gets tired and it gets me every time. And while if I do figure out a way to give the melody some drive in unaccompanied singing (not a given by any means) I'll have to sing about the dreary mountains since those are the words people know and the point is to get them to sing.

But I will know, inside of me as I sing those poor excuses for sentiment, that this looms as subtext in the background:

Adieu! dear Scotland's sea-beat coast!
Ye misty vales and mountains blue!
When on the heaving ocean tost,
I'll cast a wishful look to you.

And at least I will know who is casting the wishful look (the singer, not the mountains), and that "blue" is probably not a synonym for "sad".
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