this (singing) life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Wendy Kurz

‘‘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.

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