I should like to consider the folk song, and expound briefly on a theory I have held for some time, to the effect that the reason most folk songs are so atrocious is that they were written by the people. If professional songwriters had written them instead, things might have turned out considerably differently. For example, consider the old favorite, with which, I'm sure, you're all familiar, Clementine, you know:
In a cavern, in a canyon, dadada dadadada... *
...a song with no recognizable merit whatsoever - and imagine what might have happened if, for example, Cole Porter had tried writing this song. The first verse might have come out like this:
In a cavern, in a canyon, Excava-ha-ha-hating for a mine, Far away from the boom-boom-boom of the city She was so pretty - what a pity, Clementine. Oh Clementine, can't you tell from the howls of me This love of mine calls to you from the bowels of me. Are you discerning the returning Of this churning, burning, yearning for you...oo oo...ah ah...
... well, supposing at this point that Mozart (or one of that crowd) had tried writing a verse, the next one might have come out as a baritone aria from an Italian opera, somewhat along these lines:
Era legera e come un fairy E suo shoes numero nine, Herring bo-ho-ho-hoxes sans-a to-ho-ho-hopses, Sandalae per Clementina si, per Clementina si, Per Clementina sandalae, per Clementina sandalae, per Clementina. Clementina, Clementina, Clementina... Herring boxes sans-a topses sandalae per Clementina, Herring boxes sans-a topses sandalae per Clementina, Che sciagura** Clementina, che sciagura Clementina, cara Clementina, cara Clementina-na-na-na-na-na-na-na!
Supposing at this rather dramatic juncture in the narrative, one of our modern cool school of composers had tried writing a verse, the next one might have come out like this:
A one, a two, a three... Drove those ducklings to the water... yeah brach! doddley doo doo uh ah! Ev'ry morning like 9 a.m. ...ooh pah! de do de do do do, biddley da! Got hung up on a splinter, got a-hung up on a splinter... cloo ge mop! Huh huh! [do de do de do do do] Fell into the foamy brine, dig that crazy Clementine, man!
To end on a happy note, one can always count on Gilbert and Sullivan for a rousing finale, full of words and music and signifying - nothing.***
That I missed her depressed her young sister named Esther, This mister to pester she tried. Now her pestering sister's a festering blister, You're best to resist her, say I. The mister resisted, the sister persisted, I kissed her, all loyalty slipped. When she said I could have her, her sister's cadaver Must surely have turned in its crypt. Yes, yes, yes, yes! But I love she and she loves me. Enraptured are the both of we. Yes I love she and she loves I And will through all eterni-tae!
- see what I mean?
*For reference, here are the original lyrics to Clementine:
In a cavern, in a canyon [Cole Porter verse 1] Excavating for a mine, Dwelt a miner '49er, And his daughter, Clementine. (Chorus) Oh, my darling, [Cole Porter verse 2] Oh, my darling, Oh, my darling, Clementine. You are gone and lost forever, Dreadful sorry, Clementine. Light she was and like a fairy, [Mozart verse] And her shoes were number nine, Herring boxes without topses, Sandals were for Clementine. (Chorus) Drove she ducklings to the water [Beatnik verse] Ev'ry morning just at 9, Struck her foot against a splinter, Fell into the foaming brine. (Chorus) Ruby lips above the water, Blowing bubbles soft and fine. As for me, I was no swimmer, So I lost my Clementine. (Chorus) How I missed her, how I missed her, [G&S verse] How I missed my Clementine. So I kissed her little sister, And forgot my Clementine.
** Che sciagura: Italian for "What a disaster"
*** A reference to a line from Macbeth:
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more: it is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing. (5.5.28)
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