this (singing) life
‘‘DO ye ken John Peel with his coat so gay/ Do ye ken John Peel at the break o’ day/ Do ye ken John Peeeeel when he’s far, far away . . .’’ We all sing along enthusiastically with the lady on ABC radio in our weekly ‘‘music of the air’’ singing lesson. Our music books are open in front of us.
Ten-year-old Aussie kids, sitting in straight rows in a prefabricated 1960s West Australian classroom, freezing in winter (despite the woodburning, smoke-belching Wunderheat), boiling hot in summer, we have not the foggiest who ‘‘ken’’ is, let alone John Peel, or what his relationship is to his hounds and his horns in the morning. The niceties of the English hunt are lost on us, but nevertheless we sing with great heart.
The next week we boom out ‘‘Men of Harlech, on to glory, this will ever be your story.’’ The grammar is strange and no one tells us who or what Harlech is. It is many years before some of us realise it is an ancient castle in Wales and what it represents to Welsh nationalism.
The girls sing Greensleeves so sweetly, the boys reluctantly. Do we girls react instinctively to the possibility of a historical love story in the beautiful melody? We certainly don’t know what it means but we know it sometimes chimes prettily from a music box as the ballerina twirls to its melody. Later, as scholars of Tudor England, some of us would learn that despite rumours to the contrary Henry VIII did not compose this ballad for the luckless Anne Boleyn.
More to the boys’ taste another week is, ‘‘While we were marching through Georgia . . .’’ ‘‘Hurrah! Hurrah!’’ they shout out with gusto and our teacher grins. Who is marching, through where, when and why? None of us knows and we don’t care; we just sing as instructed by the voice on the radio, line by line. American history was not revealed to many of us in Australian classrooms in those days. I’d wager most of us still wouldn’t know what that song is about.
However, throughout our lives, we have come to piece together the meaning of most of the songs we sang as schoolkids, as snatches of almost-forgotten lyrics suddenly bounce into mind and meaning, while reading a novel or watching a TV documentary or a film.
‘‘Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing . . . Carry the lad that’s born to be King/ Over the sea to Skye.’’ We are told this is Bonnie Prince Charlie, clearly not the present one close to our own age. But why is he speeding over the sea? From the music, we sense something bad awaits him, but it takes some years to find out what. ‘‘Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling . . .’’ The deep lament of Ireland, not fully understood until retirement, provides an opportunity to discover Irish roots and then to feel the guilt of a family on the wrong (Ascendancy) side.
‘‘One man went to mow, went to mow a meadow.’’ We sing blithely of places and things unknown to us, music from the empire, coloured pink on the world map that hangs permanently on the classroom wall to remind us of who we are, some of us grandchildren of war brides from England.
We do not think then that we will grow old, or that things will change so much in our lifetimes, or that our own kids will have no knowledge of these songs or little interest in their associated history. No traces remain now of our prefab classrooms.Our voices rebound loudly through the school and echo faintly into our own histories.