The short answer that this folk song describes an actual event that took place on February 8 and 9, 1889. That being said, there’s an almost endless array of discussion/argument about its wording. To give you just a taste of this backing and forthing, there are whole threads on discussion forums talking about why the song says “from Yarmouth down to Scarborough” when Scarborough is clearly north of Yarmouth. (Don’t believe me? Here’s the link to Google maps.) Since I’m no sailor, I can’t pretend to understand the reasoning as to why this wording is perfectly accurate in nautical terms, but it has something to do with the direction of the winds and currents. I think. And that’s just one small point in the whole mix. If you’re of a mind to do some reading yourself, google “Grimsby Town fishing disaster” and you’ll have more than enough to keep you busy until the concert. (Don’t just google “Grimsby Town” on its own, as all you’ll get is stuff about their football club—soccer to us ignorant Americans. Very interesting in its way, of course, but not much to our point here.)
I know. This song is, like, seriously crazy. Right? Well, yes and no.
First of all, the crazy part. Or at least the let’s-not-take-this-too-seriously part. This is a get-up-and-dance, stomp-those-feet kinda tune. (Okay, I’ll try not to use any more hyphens.) The words don’t really matter all that much in the final analysis. If you were around for our Celtic concert several years ago, you might remember that we sang a song about a lonely fish!So by the time we’ve sung “Si do
Based on extensive polling (from my husband and brother-in-law), most people think that Danny is dead. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard or sung this song myself, and that’s what I always vaguely thought. Somehow, though, as we guys (I sing tenor) were working on the piece in sectionals last week, I realized a startling truth:
Danny ain’t dead.
So who is? It’s whoever is speaking. Let’s do our usual plodding through the words and figure it out.
Why yes. I’m glad you asked.
First, a little personal context. I’ve just spent awhile trying to find a picture that has haunted me ever since I visited Ellis Island back in the summer of 2010. I think it’s one of the many blown-up photographs that line the Great Hall, the area where immigrants were initially processed, but I haven’t been able to find it. So I’ll just describe it: a woman on her hands and knees, with a bucket and a brush, scrubbing a hallway. Her back is to the picture and you can’t see her face. Out of all the old photographs I saw that day I remember only this one. To me it’s a representation of the life that many of these people faced. On that same trip we also toured a tenement museum, trying to imagine the lives of people just like the woman in that photo, living in crowded apartment buildings with no running water and barely enough space to breathe. People slept in all sorts of strange contortions, the most memorable being that of the boys who had their upper bodies on a couch and their feet on chairs. (Visit the Tenement Museum the next time you’re in NYC!)
Let’s begin with Thomas Moore, the author of our lyrics, an Irishman who lived from 1779-1852. He had a long and varied career, as they say, which could have ended much sooner if the duel he was supposed to fight in 1806 had not been stopped by the authorities; he forever afterward had to deal with rumors that his opponent (the editor of a critical review) had been given an unloaded pistol.
Eventually Moore was persuaded to write lyrics to some already-established Irish airs; in addition to “Sing, Sing” we are performing another selection from these works, “The Minstrel Boy,” but its meaning is pretty self-evident. This collection of songs also included the more-famous “The Last Rose of Summer” and “Believe Me, If All These Endearing Young Charms.” Perhaps we’ll get to those at some future date.
I’m going to have to admit that my thunder has been somewhat stolen by the excellent writeup on the back of our sheet music and also by the Chorale member’s comment last week about the two meanings of the phrase “rough unforgiving wood.” But I’ve been so intrigued, and so touched, by this selection that I decided to go ahead and write about it anyway. I would encourage you, though, to read the sheet music material if you have not already done so. (See Note below.)
Note the nicety of the double question mark, please!
Okay. If you’ve ever thought about it at all, didn’t you assume that this Christmas carol was along the lines of an old folk song? I certainly did, at least partly because the words don’t make a lot of sense—to me, at least. But when I googled “Do you hear what I hear meaning” I found something quite different, and rather surprising, about its source.
One of the joys of writing these posts is that I have an excuse to dive into the meanings of Christmas songs that I’ve been hearing all my life and always vaguely wondered about. Up today: “The Little Drummer Boy.” I sort of assumed that it fell into the genre of stories about gifts brought to the Christ child, and it does. I will point out that we have another selection, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” that also uses the image of gift-giving. That song uses such an interesting poem for the lyrics that I hope to get a post written about it before our concert.
On to the Little Drummer Boy! There’s a surprising amount to say here. Let’s start with its origin. (As I’m writing this post I’m listening to the Pentatonix version; you can access the video below.) The song was written in 1941 by a woman named Katherine K. Davis, an American composer and music teacher. Out of her 600+ compositions she is known today only for this one piece. When first published, the heading included the words “Czech Carol freely transcribed by K.K.D.” However, as our friend Wikipedia points out, the original carol has never been found. I guess no one said at the time, “Hey, Katherine! Where’s your source?” or words to that effect. It would be interesting to know what the Czechs had to say in their version, but I guess we’ll have to accept our ignorance.
This is another one of those posts where I may get completely carried away. I’ll try to rein myself in, however. And I do want to start out with some info about the composer, David N. Childs. Brian had mentioned that he’d self-published our piece, and it is indeed true that it isn’t listed with his publisher, Santa Barbara Music Publishers, nor do I see it on his own website. But the impression I had was that he was some struggling young guy, with this perhaps his first “real” composition. Such is absolutely not the case, my friends. He sounds like an extremely busy composer with lots of irons in the fire. I would encourage you to take a look at his professional website, River Avon Productions, just to get a taste of what he’s up to. Interesting little note: he’s married to a laryngologist. Isn’t that like, so cool? Somebody in one of his choirs is having vocal problems? No prob! He can call in his wife to diagnose the case.
On to the matter at hand, Childs’ magnificent rendering of the Magnificat. I think everyone reading this is at least vaguely aware that the words are Mary’s response to the angel’s announcement to her that she would be the mother of the Messiah. So the Ave Maria and our piece form a pair.
We are repeatedly singing the phrase “bish’al han’ilah”–”as the gates begin to close.” So what are these gates?
So much to say here! Let’s start out with the context of these words and indeed of the whole piece. It’s not tied to Hanukkah but to Yom Kippur, the “Day of Atonement,” and is typically sung at the closing service in observance of this special date on the Jewish