Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Piecing the Lyrics Together

Some chorus songs that strike my fancy come into my purview fully formed and ready for me to learn and make mine. Sometimes, however, I find I need to make some sort of change before I can feel right and comfortable with the song. In fact, it was epiphanic for me when I realized that songs -- particularly traditional songs, or songs that have worked their way through various processes -- are not sacrosanct objects, untouchable and immutable.

Last night at the 3rd Monday Pub Sing at Merlin's I sang a song for the first time that is probably a keeper that required more research and compilation than usual. I thought I'd write down the whole process of how I came to sing the song as I do and why. I'll say in advance that I think this was a success because somebody I don't know came up to me afterward to ask me about the song, and she had totally gotten the subtext I was going for, and was intrigued by the song itself (which is the goal, or at least part of it -- the main goal is for people to enjoy singing it with me).

The song I sang was a version of "My Coffin Shall Be Black", which I have discovered is quoted in Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" -- one person who set it to music noted that Joyce may have written the lyrics himself, but since it was collected by Sabine Baring-Gould in 1893 that seems unlikely to me. The song came to my notice on a CD called "Dusty Diamonds" by Martin and Shan Graebe. They attribute the melody they use (which is very simple and repetitive but quite lovely, particularly in their arrangement) to one that Ralph Vaughan Williams collected. This is what I'm recollecting as the lyrics they sing (I may have this slightly wrong in my memory -- I'll check it later and correct it perhaps):

My coffin shall be black
Four little angels at my back
Two to watch and two to pray
And two to carry my soul away

Ding-donged the parson's bell
Farewell to my mother
I shall be buried in the old churchyard
Along with my own mother

When I am dead and in my grave
And all my bones are rotten
Jesus Christ will rise again
When I am quite forgotten

The liner notes say that Baring-Gould collected it in 1893 from a boy who learned it from his aunt.

[As a side point here, I have long known a song from the singing of Joe Hickerson that includes the lyrics "Two, two, to my head; Two, two, to my feet; two, two, to carry me Lord, when I die." I think I now know where that "two two" comes from.]

This song was compelling and lovely, but I had some problems with it, at least if I were going to sing it. For one thing, it seems to be a bedside prayer for somebody who is very poor at arithmetic. Or maybe there are 10 angels, but that's a stretch. Also why is he saying farewell to his mother if he's going to be buried beside her? But the most dissonant note is "Jesus Christ will rise again" which seems tonally and thematically quite off from the rest of the words.

So it was off to Google to see what I could make of this, which is where I found the countless references to James Joyce. But I also found a bunch of references that made me think this was some sort of takeoff/parody of an old poem about a little orphan girl (which is mostly found referenced as a street rhyme, but everything about it points to its origins as a Victorian poem):

I am a little orphan girl,
My mother she is dead;
My father is a drunkard,
And won't buy me my bread.
I leant upon the window-sill
To hear the organ play
And think of my dear mother
Who's dead and far away.

Ding dong my castle bell,
Farewell to my mother,
Bury me in the old churchyard
Beside my eldest brother.
My coffin shall be white,
Six little angels by my side,
Two to sing and two to pray
And two to carry my soul away.

Ah, already we have some things that work for me: two angels + two angels + two angels = six angels (somebody has used a calculator this time). And the first two sing (rather than watch). Now, "two to watch" sings and flows better than "two to sing", but I like the image of the singing, praying, and transporting pairs of angels. We also have the "castle bell" which is a new problem -- why is there a castle here? Other versions use "parting bell" -- an archaic reference at the time that would easily be changed to a more familiar image. (Martin Graebe may even be singing "parting bell" on my recording, although I hear it as "parson's bell".)

Also here we have a dead brother (in addition to a dead mother, but I'm ignoring that) -- and that, to me, was the key to understanding the song: This may be a morbid little ditty, but it makes emotional (rather than self-pitying) sense for a boy who has lost his brother to be contemplating his own death. There is also the twist of anger: Your coffin in the original may be pristine white, by *my* coffin will be black. This is no sweet little Victorian lad.

But what to do with the line "Jesus Christ shall rise again", which still rings an odd tone for me in this lyrical context. That verse seems to have it's origins elsewhere, in this poem which I found described as a "book rhyme":

When I'm dead and in my grave,
And all my bones are rotten
This little book shall tell my name
When I am quite forgotten.
Jeannie Rodger is my name;
Dundee is my nation;
Heaven is my dwelling-place
And holy habitation.

Yes, this makes sense to me, in the story that's forming in my head: With these words the speaker, legitimately concerned with the impermanence of life, is trying to make a mark. He wants you to know his name -- or at least it's a "he" in my song so I need to change the name. So I moved things around and this is what I sing:

My coffin shall be black
Six little angels at my back
Two to sing and two to pray
And two to carry my soul away

Ding-donged my passing bell
Farewell to my mother
I shall be buried in the old churchyard
Along with my own brother

Johnny Rogers is my name
Dundee is my nation
Heaven shall be my resting-place
And holy habitation

When I am dead and in my grave
And all my bones are rotten
You'll hear this song and know my name
When I am quite forgotten.

In verse two the singer announces -- proclaims -- his name and home. Then he sneaks up on you in verse three by saying "Now you'll know my name, long after I've gone." It is still a song of pathos, but it has a ring of sincerity to it. It is not a joke, despite the gruesome nature of the lyrics. Plus it's still a pretty tune.

It will take me a few singings to get this right. At this point it almost comes across as a joke when I begin "My coffin shall be black!" (although the person who spoke to me afterward said, "Oh no, it's not a joke song.") All that I'm writing here is totally subtext -- the story I think the song is telling -- that I don't think anybody would explicitly get. But if I have that sincerely in me when I'm singing the song, something of it comes through.

And that's how I've come up with my version of this song. I may ultimately change "sing" to "watch", since my brain seems to want to do that. And I've got to work on a slightly less bombastic approach to the singing (I begin by capturing the air with a big "MY" at the highest note in the song). But I think this has potential. Time will tell.
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