Sunday, February 20, 2011


It just doesn't pay to go digging around in the origins of beautiful old tunes from the British Isles. I recognised the tune this morning but couldn't place it. Jonathan leaned over to remind me that it was "My Love" by Steeleye Span. Interesting that the less musical of my two original sons has often been remarkably good at this. I think my wife scored very high on a Johnson-O'Connor scale for tune recognition, and he gets it from her.

Geoff Twigg, the worship minister, identified the tune for me as "Kelvingrove." He and his wife, when they were in their original British context, had known both John Bell of the Iona Community (who wrote the lyrics in the first video) and Maddy Prior of Steeleye Span (in the second video). It's a beautiful tune, used for quite different lyrics here.

Now let me ruin it for you completely. Just so I can share my discomfort.

The tune has been set to many lyrics, and the earliest known version seems to have been a rather plaintive song about a girl who was raped, impregnated, and abandoned. Later versions soften that to seduced and abandoned, then seduced and had to get married, then a suggestion that it is she who inveigled he, then a more innocent romantic song of come and go with me to this beautiful grove, my love. Even those are never quite innocent, as even without the dark background of earlier versions, the mind leapt naturally to sexual suggestion at any mention of encouraging lasses to go to groves in the 19th C, just as it might now. The Steeleye version seems to date from midway through those changes.

This sort of dragging the words wherever you want them to go probably starts up as soon as one gets out of the reach of the original artist, whether by distance or expiration of copyright. And it continues on indefinitely. One youtube version of The Summons was being used at a wedding, clearly referring to the bride following the groom, not a Christian following Christ. These things bug me. I know they have a long tradition in the church, and God Himself seems to be entirely comfortable with the idea - see Ruth's speech, Song of Solomon, and Bride of Christ, just for openers. But I always thought of those as earthly analogies meant to lead us upward. Taking the Christian sense and making it earthly again seems different.

Another youtube version described one of those midway versions of "The Shearin's Nae For You" in more modern terms, that the husband was saying to his wife that she was too old to go out and have fun, and to mind her babies instead. Those lyrics were probably another woman telling the girl that she should grow up. But the thirtysomething female performer was unlikely to gravitate to that meaning. Other versions have the youngish husband and wife in mutual recrimination. How one sees the girl's desire to put buckles on her shoes and ribbons at her knees likely hinges on where on this continuum of blame for her own lot one places her.

I admire in theory those who can rescue a tune that way, but it seldom works for me. The lyrics of the first version I hear infuse the tune with that meaning forever.


Dubbahdee said...

Yet I think the practice is old and common. How many of the songs we sing as hymns today started as drinking songs in the taverns?
I once attended a church service in PA near Delaware Water Gap with a young woman from Germany. We sang a hymn (the exact tune escapes me at this moment) which the congregation sang with gusto. Turns out that the tune was Germany's national anthem.
Like you, she had a hard time getting into the spirit of the new usage.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I am going to guess that was "Wondrous Things Of Thee Are Spoken," which has the tune Austrian Hymn, used for "Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles."

Dubbahdee said...

That sounds right.

Cheap Diablo 3 items said...

this is just too cool for words! :)
great job!