Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Another earworm, forgotten lyrics and the Internet, and possibly humming

Despite the fact that I'm currently in Bhopal, India, immersed in the world of Hindustani classical music, I woke up this morning with an old widely known folk song, sung on a recording by Peggy Seeger from my college days in the early 1060's, running in an unstoppable loop through my brain:

I'm a rambler, I'm a gambler
I'm along way from home
And if you don't like me
You can leave me alone

I didn't think too much about it (earworms--see my earlier postings in November and earlier in September on the subject--often function at a level barely above consciousness) until, when we were downstairs in the Dhrupad Sansthan making our morning coffee, my wife Shubha Sankaran commented on the fact that I was humming--something she found very unusual-- and asked me what the tune was.

I proceeded to sing the above lyrics, which I assume are from the first verse to the widely known folk song, but for the life of me, I could remember no more than another line

My horses ain't hungry
They won't eat your hay. . . .

And that was as far as I could go. But I knew that I could return to our room and, assuming the electricity was still on (we have "load shedding"--i.e., deliberate power outages here at least twice a day for several hours), I could fire up my computer, hope that the Internet connection was at something faster than the glacial speed at which it often functions, and check to see what the rest of the song was, undoubtedly in multiple versions, the folk process being what it is.

First, I decided to try Peggy's Website, in hopes there might be some reference to the song there. But the only thing that came up for "I'm a Rambler" was a 45 second MP3 beginning to a song by the late Ewan MacColl, the iconic folklorist and singer, and Peggy's longtime companion and subsequent husband; the introductory lyrics might have been leading up to a chorus of "I'm a rambler . . . . " but then the clip faded out.

When I typed in "My horses ain't hungry", a sound clip of a totally different song by brother Mike Seeger's distinctive voice came up, and still no "I'm a rambler".

In short, nothing on Peggy's Web page.

Next step was a Google advanced search for "I'm a rambler, I'm a gambler" which came up with 11,600 hits!

The first was on a Website called sniff.numachi.com--an odd title, to be sure, but it did provide a set of lyrics, as well as simple staff notation for a related song--though I didn't remember in Peggy Seeger's recording the very frequent mentions of whiskey in the online version.

The third primary link was to a YouTube version by "Jasper Coal at Gabel's Square on St. Patricks Day. Sorry 'bout the lighting"--which accounts for the whiskey dominance in the first set of Web lyrics; the fact that the performance is barely visible, obviously in a dark pub, does not detract from the Irish high spirits of the song itself.

The fourth primary link was to Bob Dylan's Website with his own set of lyrics, which didn't mention whiskey at all, but did retains the general sense of melancholy that I associate with my remembered version.

So I decided next to add Peggy's name to the Google search,

Finally I typed in ["I'm a rambler, I'm a gambler" "Peggy Seeger" lyrics] on Google, which brought up eight links. The first- "Folk Music - An Index to Recorded Resources" has been compiled by uber-librarian Jane Keefer, and was revealed to be an extraordinary resource: an online concordance of recorded performances of thousands of folk songs by hundreds of artists. This link, impressive as it was, was simply a sub-link to the even more comprehensive www.ibiblio.org, an online bibliographic database of mind-boggling scope! However, the citations to the recordings did not include lyrics.

Trying a range of various combined search phrases, some including Peggy or "Peggy Seeger" , some not--sometimes including "my horses ain't hungry, they won't eat your hay"--but the various combination yielded no results. I'll simply have to wait until I get home to Washington to listen to Peggy's recording, and hear the rest of the lyrics that I've now forgotten.

For it seems that the broad folk idiom, without the benefit of copyright, and with its myriad substitutions and permutations of stock phrases, lacks the consistency and specificity of lyrics in current popular and rock music. I've found that when I hear a captivating fragment of a current pop or rock song on the radio, or as background to a television drama, I can usually trace the song and the artist (again, my obsession with taxonomy, or identification and classification--see my earlier post) by typing in a sequence of the words that I remember. For example, some time ago I heard a song with the phrase--"ate a slice of wonder bread", which in a Google advanced search took me to 94,000 links, mostly for the memorable song by Regina Spektor, a young Russia-born singer currently enjoying great success.

As for the humming, while we were making our coffee this morning, one of the Sansthan students came down, and he too was humming. As we exchanged humming references, I recalled that when I was a child I often used to hum when I was eating--an idiosyncrasy upon which my family often commented, saying that I certainly appeared to be happy. I realized that I very rarely hum now, and I wonder why. I'll reflect on that question for some time, and will leave to a later post a discussion of when and why people hum, and for that matter, why they whistle.

Probably time to leave this line of inquiry for the moment--load shedding coming up at any time now--but back soon with another fascinating Google lyric search that I conducted as part of celebrating the song traditions of my family . . . .

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