Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Wednesday, August 25, 2004


First, I just want to say I’m not sure what I was trying to say in last night’s critique of the fact-iness of prose, and its antipathy to lyric. Hugh Kenner’s idiosyncratic, wonderful book “The Counterfeiters,” which I wrote about here on July 28, was in my mind, but his critique of the invasion of empirical scientific rational fact into 17th and 18th century poetry is different than the question of professional prose fictioneers writing songwords. I’m skeptical, but hopeful -- hopeful that the collaboration Carl Wilson describes turns out beautiful.

In last night’s urge to defend the classical lyric heritage of song lyrics, I forgot to mention another classical verse genre that has a lot of bearing on the discussion: Satire, which is a strong stream running through the sea of song, including Anglophonic song of the last 150 years. Horace was a lyricist as well as a satirist, but he kept the genres separate in his collections, as did William Blake and Ben Jonson. Anglophonic songsters have usually felt no need to keep them separate, and that’s fine.

Just as powerful a current in the sea of Anglophonic song as the lyric and satiric is a current that can combine them, and that, as far as I know, lacks a classical source: the ballad. Nick Tosches in his terrific book Country traces the geneology of the folk-country hit “Gypsy Davey” a/k/a “Blackjack David” a/k/a several variants back to the Medieval English mid-length epic “Sir Orfeo,” and thence to Homeric epic proper. I’m not so sure. A characteristic of the ballad as it has come down to us is the verbal (and musical) refrain, or chorus, which “Sir Orfeo” lacks. The earliest poetry I know with refrains is that of the Goliard Poets, Late Medieval Latin writers throughout Europe who, although they wrote in a Classical tongue, aren’t considered Classical -- not from the Classical period, not Classical in sensibility (supposedly -- the “Classical” sensibility is extremely wide-ranging). The Victorian Englishman John Aldington Symonds called his collection of translations of the stuff “Wine, Women & Song.”

The ballad is a supremely flexible form -- funny, tragic, uncanny, satirical, political. The 18th century collections of anonymous English ballads (which may be much older) -- they rock me. 19th century American cowboy ballads, well, Buffalo Skinners conveys the beauty and splendor and violence of nature, it’s political, and dramatic, and the ending is a shocker. One of the great songs, and one of the great poems, ever. And it lacks a refrain, which just goes to show that Franklin Bruno was right, several days ago, to warn us away from prescribing how good songwords get writ. (The absence of wise men in the vicinity should have been a warning to me not to rush in, but has that ever stopped me before? No.) (Carl Sandburg collected “Buffalo Skinners” -- it wouldn’t surprise me if the Lomaxes did too -- and Woody Guthrie sang it; I’ve never heard Arlo’s version; my favorite is my friend John de Roo’s, which as far as I know he never recorded.)

The ballad’s refrain worked its way into lyric poetry as well, as the closing song from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night shows. The refrain lines are the 2nd & 4th of every quatrain, not unlike countless Tin Pan Alley and jazz-era and Broadway gems, with their tag lines at the beginnings or ends of phrases -- “Do Nothing ‘Til You Hear From Me”; “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.”

Conclusion: etymology shmetymology. Song lyrics have an upstream in classical lyric, but also in satire and medieval ballad. Goddessspeed us all, be we gentle songworders or gentle else.

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