Friday, November 5, 2010

Singing Dark Songs

I like singing, and do it when I can. Actually, I really like the dark, bloody ballads, "Cruel Mother" especially. And sad, bittersweet Scots songs (there are a lot of those).

About ten years ago, I asked my friend Paul if he knew of any Guy Fawkes parties, and he said, no but there should be one, and here we are, ten years later, at his and Darcy's house in suburban Minnesota, hurling poor old Guy on the bonfire again. Every year that I've made it, I've been asked to sing the old song that goes:

As I was out a-walkin' in the fields
I met a man as black as his heels
He asked me if I would not fight
With his face and hands as black as night.

Guy! Guy! Guy!
Stick him up on high!
Stick him on a lamp-post,
And there let him die!

Holla, boys, Holla, boys,
God save the Queen!
Holla, boys, Holla, boys,
God save the Queen!

So here's a loaf to feed the Pope
And a hunk of cheese for him to choke
A pint of beer to wash away sin
And a good old fire to roast him in!


So give the poor Guy a penny
For you know he hasn't any
If you haven't got a penny, a ha'penny will do
If you haven't got a ha'penny, God bless you

After a couple years, I got more and more uncomfortable singing this song. Guy Fawkes was executed for trying to blow up the Houses of Parliament and basically all the power elite of 1608 England. He was, in short, a terrorist and assassin. So, not a nice fellow. But the song doesn't remember that (the other famous bit of doggerel does: "Remember, remember, the Fifth of November! Gunpowder, Treason and Plot!"). No, the song remembers that Mr Fawkes had dark skin (but probably not African-dark, just Italian-dark) and was a Catholic. That, in the opinion of those who wrote and sang this ditty, was enough to get you roasted. Bleh.

And yet I sing it, because I also hate it when we forget how mean and nasty we can be, when we congratulate ourselves for becoming "nice." Not to sing it is to paper over history, making Guy Fawkes into a generic "Bonfire night" with no real context. For a few years, I'd preface it with a little speech that was meant to distance myself from the song, and sober us up. This year I just sang the damn thing—Paul said "and without further ado..." in introducing me, and I didn't have anything planned, so I figured what the hell. And about half-way through, I realized, this thing needs one more verse. I'm fast, but not that fast, so it had to wait until I was in the car on the way home:
Guy Fawkes is dead and so's the king
Four hundred years, and still we sing
The bonfire's burning, red and hot
Who the next to be tossed on, ready or not...?
I feel a little better about singing it next year...


Joe Banks said...

I love the last verse, and identify with the difficulties you describe.

I'm actually having the same problem with a lot of Mother Goose right now (my kids being Of That Age) -- and I'm sort of horrified by about 1/4 of what I'm reading to them.

But they really like it, and I remember liking it as well. I think part of it is that those dark, ferral parts of our collective history are just more Real than the sanitized versions that affirm more of what we actually want to be/celebrate.

Like the (unsanitized) versions of the Grimms maerchen, or Struwwelpeter -- they are real commentary about our world and the situations we all find ourselves in.

There's a line in Ian Anderson's (of Jethro Tull) song "No lullabye," that goes:

"There's folk/out there/who'd do you harm/so I'll sing you no lullubye."

I don't mind the odd lullabye -- but I'll keep reading them the icky stuff too, even though it makes me squirm. Maybe they will ask questions about it themselves.

natcase said...

Thanks Joe.

For the record: Cammy Kaynor asked me on Facebook what the tune was, and as I tried to find a source I remembered that I learned this version (which in several respects is nowhere else on the web) from Lynn Noel, who sang it with a trio from Madison whose name I can no longer remember, and is on their long-out-of-print tape The Last Sheaf. What I wrote above includes a bunch of minor changes to what I learned from Lynn. The folk-processor at work...