Thursday, September 4, 2008

Politics, lullabies, and earworms

It has been interesting watching the Democratic and Republican conventions to observe, albeit as a sideline, the use of music to enhance the various messages being delivered, and to create drama, and to mobilize the energies of the participants. A topic worthy of discussion.

But somehow, after watching part of Wednesday night's installment of the Republican event--with its emphases from various perspectives on the family and children of Sarah Palin, the Republican Vice Presidential candidate--I have found myself possessed today by what is sometimes called an earworm, which in my case was a lullaby, with simple but haunting lyrics, that I haven't been able get out of my mind since this morning:

Hush little baby, and don't you cry
For you know your daddy's born to die
All my troubles soon be over

was the first stanza as I sang it decades ago, accompanying myself on the guitar or banjo, and adjusting the gender (usually sung from a woman's point of view) to suit my own.

We'll be discussing folk music more in the future, but this genre underwent a major revival in the mid twentieth century, launched on a major scale by legends such as Pete Seeger and the Weavers in the 1950's, and carried on by such artists as the Kingston Trio, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Joan Baez in the early 1960's. I learned the version I sang from several recordings, especially one by a now forgotten singer named Cynthia Gooding; the nature of folk music was that it was not "owned" commercially in the sense of popular music, but was passed along and modified by individual practitioners, with no concern for copyright or royalties.

I am still puzzled why this song came back to me after so many years forgotten. Perhaps it was because imbedded in the current political rhetoric are certain stark realities and contrasts:

If religion were a thing that money could buy
All the rich would live and the poor would die
All my troubles soon be over.

In the timeless lyrics: religion, wealth and poverty, death--the stuff of life and politics . . . .

As I tried to remember other verses, this came to mind:

Jordan River is deep and wide
Milk and honey on the other side
All my troubles soon be over.

Upon checking the Wikipedia entry on the song, identified in the original as a Bahaman spiritual popularized by Joan Baez, I found her Jordan River lyrics to be:

The river of Jordan is muddy and cold
Well it chills the body but not the soul.
All my trials Lord soon be over.

I have no idea whether the earlier version is what I actually sang decades ago, or whether it has been reshaped subconsciously in my mind by the current currents in the political arena of hope for the future.

But whatever the reasons for the change wrought by my own thoughts (then or now), the song somehow speaks to something deep within me, speaks of human spirit and struggle, perhaps not coincidentally in the form of a lullaby, a song sung, usually by a mother, to comfort her young child. And it continues still to play like a stuck record (something lost in the digital era), a stubborn soundtrack, in the bedrock of my brain, along with the question--which subject we will address as well in future discussions--of why the lullaby is a virtually universal expression of love and comfort.

And perhaps in this case, as a preparation for the hard realities of adult life.

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