My son Thomas, age eight, has been taking piano lessons long enough to start studying Beethoven, but his younger sister Jane is new to that instrument, and currently practicing from Keyboard Talent Hunt, Book One. The book is part of a program from John W. Schaum Publishing for the “early childhood beginner,” and the copyright on it dates back to 1967.
The folk tune “Aunt Rhody” is among the pieces Jane is learning. To my consternation, however, the piano teaching junta behind Keyboard Talent Hunt has tamed Rhody’s lyrics. This is the Schaum version:
Go tell Aunt Rhody!
Go tell Aunt Rhody!
Go tell Aunt Rhody,
We’re waiting in the car.
Whoa, doggy. Waiting in the car?!
You must understand that my brother and I grew up listening to vinyl records just as the “New Folk” movement was taking off. Dad was short on Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez, both of whom were displaced for sentimental reasons by the Andrews Sisters. He was, however, big on Peter, Paul, and Mary. His record collection also included Up With People, Dusty Springfield, and Mitch Miller. One consequence of this musical taste is that while other people were starting to holler about the Beatles and the British Invasion, my brother and I learned to appreciate music by waiting out the folk acts until we could persuade dad to play Irish tunes enough to make us spin ourselves dizzy on the orange shag that covered our living room tile (an album by David Curry called “My Ireland” seemed made for that sort of thing).
While waiting out the folk singers, we heard a lot of them. We respected Mitch Miller and his orchestra more than most of his contemporaries, partly because Miller, who never tried to hide his bald spot, looked more like a barber than a conductor. Miller was forever inviting people to sing along with the cornball tunes his chorale performed so well, and his status as a frequent guest on the family turntable made me remember that cars do not exist in the original version of “Aunt Rhody.” What people are trying to tell the woman is not that they’re waiting for her, but that her old gray goose is dead.
A subsequent verse in the song has the blunt force of a detective two-fingering a police report on a manual typewriter: The goose “died in the mill pond, standing on her head.”
Irony, finality, pathos, black humor: it’s all there, next to a Lucky Strike, a snap-brim fedora, and a stale cup of coffee on some farmer’s porch. And yet my daughter, ostensibly learning the same tune, knows nothing of the anserine drama that I grew up with, presumably because “you of tender years / can’t know the fears / that your elders grew by.”
Young as they are, Jane and Thomas don’t mind singing about death, as long as it comes with a catchy beat. Motoring home from the grocery store, all three of us have joined Willie Nelson and Ray Charles on the verses to “Seven Spanish Angels” (“There were seven Spanish angels / At the altar of the sun / They were praying for the lovers / In the Valley of the Gun”).
OF COURSE MY WIFE and I do not want to drag our children out of the innocence that is rightfully theirs, but we do not want to sugarcoat what it means to be human, either. Any child who has seen what a predatory housecat can do to a bird or a rabbit is not likely to be traumatized by lyrics about a dead goose; my kids happen to have a father who is nonplussed by lack of carnage where carnage should be. It bothers me that there are people who don’t know that a certain miner (Forty-Niner) and his daughter Clementine have something to be dreadfully sorry about. Such people have probably heard “Kumbayah” in a candy-coated form (no “someone’s dying Lord, Kumbayah”), but Tom Dooley’s short temper and date with the hangman means nothing to them. Nor are they likely to sit down with Marty Robbins for a whack at the ballad of old El Paso, where frontier justice in the fourth verse is retribution for murder committed in the second.
The bowdlerizing impulse at work in the fowl example that provoked these thoughts also cons certain church musicians into wrecking “Amazing Grace.” It’s a tough hymn to wreck, but some doe-eyed imbeciles wreck it anyway, by substituting “saved and set me free” for “saved a wretch like me.”
Where revisionist lyrics pretend that life has no rough edges, original lyrics sometimes manage the same trick through understatement. Consider the gospel tune “Lord, Build Me a Cabin,” by bluegrass legend Bill Monroe; it scans as too laconic for its own good:
Lord, build me a cabin
In a corner of Glory Land,
In the shade of the Tree of Life
Where it may ever stand,
Where I can just hear the angels sing
And shake Jesus’ hand,
Lord build me a cabin
in the corner of Glory Land.
That lyric drives me crazy. A mandolin player from a part of the South where grown men are moved to tears when the dog dies at the end of Old Yeller ought to know better than to greet his Savior with the same gesture he’d use to congratulate Cletus or Bobby Lee for a good game of horseshoes. A handshake in heaven seems emotionally constipated. If nothing else, it’s evidence of a dire need for more range in the emotional woofers and tweeters that occupy every human heart. Any self-respecting Italian author of self-help books for manly men would have told Monroe to lighten up and give Jesus a hug.
HAVE I BEGUN TO SOUND like some cranky uncle? With apologies to Arthur Conan Doyle’s dog that did not bark, I must blame the goose that did not die, and also perhaps David Baron’s stirring chronicle of interaction between cougars and humans. One of many salient points in Baron’s 2004 book, The Beast in the Garden, is that “ecologists call the zone of transition between habitats (for instance, forest and prairie) an ecotone,” and that “America is becoming one vast ecotone where civilization and nature intermingle.”
As with topography, so also with personality, else we could not be (as Blaise Pascal so aptly put it) both “the glory and scum of the universe.” C.S. Lewis approached the same insight in The Weight of Glory, saying that “it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”
By shielding our children too much — sealing them off from the ecotones in ourselves and in our culture, or acting as though begrimed splendor is all there is — we raise journalists who write blithely about “immigration rights” without ever using the word “illegal,” nationalists who see no problem with remixing an iconic anthem so that its opening line could be styled “Jose, can you see?” pundits whose friends all vote the way they do, historians who mythologize the “noble savage,” priests who never preach on sin, and policy makers who confess themselves puzzled when crime rates go down as incarceration rates go up.
Often our shields are misplaced. Whether through vestigial guilt, as Shelby Steele argued recently, or through simple ignorance, we’re more frank with each other about sex, for example, than we are about terrorism. When the next Broadway fan geek says, “life is a cabaret, old chum,” the proper response is “bite me.”
So here’s to Aunt Rhody and the people who tell lies about waiting for her in the car because they think a dead goose will induce a fainting spell. She gave me a new axiom: when a culture’s video games are more violent than its laughably sanitized folk songs, soul-searching is in order.