Tuesday 15 July 2008

You didn't have to sing that song

Thu 10 Jul
Royal Oak, Lewes

In between Jim Causley's two sessions Vic managed to fit in half-a-dozen floor spots; there were so many there wanting to sing or play that they had to be limited to one piece each. Now most of them have repertoires in the scores or hundreds of songs - so how do they choose which one they're going to sing on any particular occasion? There must be all sorts of criteria at play in the mind of a singer when selecting what to sing: nice tune? nice words? good story? old song? new song? interesting harmonic structure? good chorus? makes people laugh? makes them cry? The reasons are very personal, and the list is potentially as long as the number of singers times the number of songs.

The approach to performance is also very personal. Some singers give lengthy introductions, others just stand - or sit - there and sing. Some prefer their audience to understand the context of their song, some want them to follow a story, others prefer to let the song do the talking. Almost always the singer wants their audience to get from the song something of what they, the singer, has put into it.

Sometimes the content of a song can be awkward. There may be sentiments expressed that not all listeners are comfortable with - sex, sexism, social attitudes, politics, death, to name but a few. At one point the other evening Jim Causley apologised for singing a song about a man who pushed his girl-friend in the river, with the excuse that he also sings one about a woman who metes out the same fate to her husband - though he wasn't going to sing it tonight. And we all laughed, or most of us did.

No-one laughed earlier, however, when one of the floor singers sang a version of Little Sir Hugh. In the song, Little Sir Hugh is playing at ball with his friends, the ball goes over a wall, a lady invites him to come in to collect it, and promptly lays him on a table and stabs him to death. So far, so traditional.

The Francis J Child collection of ballads has 20-odd versions of this song, which you can read through on the Sacred Texts website: Child Ballads 155: Sir Hugh, or the Jew’s Daughter. Most of these follow the original story, in which the ball goes into the garden of a Jew's house, the Jew's daughter entices him in with an apple plucked from her father's tree; his mother - Lady Mary - searches for him in vain, and the Jews try to get rid of the body but it keeps resurfacing and is eventually found in a drinking well.

At his burial “a’ the bells of merry Lincoln, without men’s hands were rung, and a’ the books o merry Lincoln, were read without man’s tongue.

So many motifs in one song. And so much history hiding behind these powerful and seemingly innocent, traditional verses.

It’s a much sung and much recorded song. Steeleye Span recorded a version in 1975 - here, it's a castle wall and the murderer is a "lady gay" - Maddy Prior apparently did a clean-up job on it.

It was the original ‘Jew’s Daughter’ version that was sung last Thursday.

The story is in essence a medieval urban myth: the Jews sacrifice Christian children and use the blood in their rituals. It was one of several such myths used to great effect in stirring up racial and religious hatred throughout the Middle Ages and since, across wide areas of Europe.

In this case the song is based on events in Lincoln in 1255, which led to the trial and hanging of eighteen Jews for ritual murder. It was the first time that the English government had executed on this charge; the King had previously arrogated to himself the right to take over the property of any Jews convicted of crimes. The Spanish Inquisition weren’t the first in this field.

If you’re not familiar with the history, a good place to start is the account on Wikipedia: Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln, which has links to much else, including sections on the phenomenon of ‘Blood libel’, of which this incident, and the song which celebrates it, is a prime example. The fostering of these myths led to periodic massacres of Jews throughout Europe, right up to the Kielce pogrom in Poland in 1946.

And it didn’t just happen in the Middle Ages, nor only to the Jews. Greeks used the Blood Libel against Jews, Romans and Jews against early Christians, and it still surfaces across the world - the Wikipedia article mentions dozens of contemporary examples.

So what is the poor singer to do? Some singers don’t explain their songs, and some listeners don’t listen to them, or don’t follow the story at least. In any case, the old ballads often have convoluted and defective story-lines which wouldn’t make much sense even if you were to follow the words on paper as you listen.

Does it matter what the song says? Does a song ‘say’ anything?

What responsibility does a singer have when presenting a song to the public?

These are all questions which I’ve no doubt have been discussed to death elsewhere. All I would say here is that a singer is at least responsible for selecting what they are going to sing. And for at least attempting to understand what the song is about. And for the manner in which they present the song to the public. And that in this instance mumbling something about not sharing any anti-semitic sentiments in the song is absolutely insufficient, and totally irresponsible.

Unless you’re prepared to accept these responsibilities, the bottom line is:

You don’t have to sing those songs.

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