Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Words and Lyrics

We have a CD of children’s songs and nursery rhymes. It is musical saccharin, with happy, bouncy tones and in many ways is ideal for playing to a child during a game of musical chairs, as it’s been hacked to death enough by the producers and musicians that its musical quality is hardly dented by repeated stop-starts. I detest what the production company has decided to do to traditional lyrics – the black sheep has become a woolly sheep and the drunken sailor has become the jolly pirate.

Let’s consider What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor as a telling case of the misguided assumptions made by adults that take exception to the traditional lyrics and impose a new-speak devoid of cultural or historical significance for children. Basking in their own lack of lyrical and practical knowledge, they believe that removing the reference to alcohol somehow stops kids thinking about beer. If they’re wrong, as I believe, then they are just wasting their time and lessening the song, but if they’re actually right, and songs are able to influence behaviour then the drunken sailor song is actually quite a strong anti-drinking message. The traditional lyrics document a wide variety of punishments including keel-hauling, a naval punishment whereby a rope is attached at one end to the bound feet of a miscreant, and at the other to his hands, the salient detail being that in the rope then forms a loop running across the deck, down one side of the boat, under the boat (and water) and up the other side. To keel-haul and individual the rest of the crew would pull on this rope so that the bound individual completes a lap of the boat. As a communal punishment, keel hauling is unique in that there is almost no way for the administrators of the punishment to be “nice”, pull too slowly and they drown their mate, pull a little harder and they grate his supine form across the barnacles encrusting the bottom of the boat &nadash; as any rescue diver will tell you, such an injury is almost certain to get infected. All in all I think you'll agree this is hardly an advertisement for drinking!

I have a sneaking suspicion that Baa Baa Black Sheep may be being re-branded because of some vague sense that the word “black” may be in and of itself racist. This is a rather stupid assumption on their part. When filling out passport application forms we are told to“use a black pen”, because pens, like sheep (and indeed the wool they produce) come in a variety of colours including black. Countless government offices, employment agencies and other lovers of easily scanned filled in forms all instruct us to “use a black pen”, they don’t sidle round it by saying “use the darkest pen you can find, nothing too gothic but darker than blue” and I feel we should have the same faculty to describe sheep in song.

The other reason this bugs me of course is that “woolly” sheep sounds like such a weak cop-out when presented with a musical educational opportunity. If we really want to go for it we could mix and match animals and cooking techniques so that kids are still learning something (I’ve composed two examples below):

Recipes with Duck
QuackQuack Cooking Duck
are you nearly done?
Yes Sir, Yes Sir, lunch at half past one.
Breast meat with orange sauce,
A leg in cassoulet,
The other we'll have tonight, in Chinese takeaway!

(this only works if you pronounce cassoulet as a French word (kas-ou-lay)

The Tesco Horsemeat Song
Clip Clop Lonely Horse
Have your friends all gone?
Yes Sir, Yes Sir, round here there are none.
One's gone to Tesco,
he is in a pie,
Yet they tell you all it's beef, keeping prices high!

That's all for now. If anyone knows a production company that wants to put children's songs with teeth and educational value on a CD have them drop me a line


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