IMG_0114Do you remember old songs with pleasure? Really old songs? One hundred years old or more?

I do. I don’t know why I remember them or where I first heard them. I’ve never been a fan of barbershop quartets and I wasn’t in the school choir. But I’ll sometimes hum that big hit of 1892 — “Bicycle Built for Two.”

My last piano lesson, pre-coronavirus, was February 1, and I have been practicing the same two assigned pieces every morning since then, right after I pull the quilt up over the bed and before breakfast. After weeks of daily exercise, my fingers fall smoothly on the right keys for all the chords, without crashes. The harder piece begins to sound like music. The other piece is a march so even through fumbles, a steady rhythm saves it. 

But I have to practice something besides those two pieces.

Happily for me, a friend, learning I was taking piano lessons, passed along her childhood copy of  The American Song Treasury – 100 Favorites and it was right on top of my piano, staring me in the eye.  Almost every song inside is familiar to me.

But not some of the words. A cheerful tune does not guarantee cheerful verses.

Sure, things are great for Daisy Belle and her anonymous groom on that tandem bike, but what’s really going on in “There is a Tavern in the Town”? Turns out it’s not a jolly drinking song at all. It’s a song of betrayal ending with a grave.

And that haunting waltz, “After the Ball is Over”? It’s the heartbreaking story of a man’s true love, lost to him through his own mistrust, and how she died and he never loved another — as told to his little niece. Now there’s a bedtime story any little child would enjoy!

“The Man on the Flying Trapeze”? The handsome aerialist steals the singer’s girlfriend. “Listen to the Mocking Bird” is a tearjerker. The Sweet Hallie of the song sleeps in the valley and the mocking bird sings over her grave. Oh, also weeping willows (of course). “Camptown Races” glories in the joys of gambling. “Billy Boy” is about a child bride, unsavory (to say the least) from today’s perspective. But the tune is catchy.

Nursery rhymes can be problematic for me, too. Is Bobby Shaftoe trustworthy? What the heck is going on with the Spanish nut tree? Where do I stand on the politics of “Goosey, Goosey Gander”?

Because I never learned to carry a tune, I don’t condone these verses with my own voice. Why wreck a good tune with off-key singing?

If only I could refrain from thinking, the music would sound even better!


6 thoughts on “Those old (somewhat) familiar songs

  1. I’ve noticed that for some people, the words in sung lyrics leap out at them. It’s very hard for them not to follow what’s being sung. (It seems you may be like this?) Whereas, I’m at almost the opposite extreme. Sung lyrics often appear simply as sounds to me, unless I really concentrate, or the singer really enunciates. Though I have to admit the Camptown Races lyrics do break through to my consciousness.

    Another odd thing about Camptown Races is that it’s a minstrel song. Wikipedia claims minstrelsy “was featured in a television series as recently as 1975.”


  2. Yes, I am like that. I am a person who gets annoyed with grammatical errors in classic rock and roll lyrics.

    According to my music book, Stephen Foster himself wrote Camptown Races around about 1850. There was plenty of time to polish it for a television show.


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