Happy Child-hoods: Or Why Alma is a little Strange, part ???

Did you have a family member sing you lullabys when you were young? A babysitter perhaps, or an aunt or grandmother? I grew up hearing “All the Pretty Little Horses” and “All My Sorrows (Soon be Over)”. And “Hush Little Baby” and “Scarborough Fair,” among others. Among the others were “Greenwood Sidie-O” and “The Great Silkie,” both of which are also found in the Child Ballad collection, one of the earliest indexed, cross-referenced and annotated collections of folk ballads and narratives. And neither are really what you might call children’s music. Not that that stopped my parents from playing or singing them, but it might help explain why I grew up a little bit Odd.

As you would expect from folk songs, the several thousand texts and tunes Child collected range from funny to bawdy to so dark that hard-core goths shiver and say “Wow. Lighten up a little!” Many came from Scotland and are in dialect, and most of the English ballads also have some dialect terms in them. This doesn’t stop people from reading and studying them to this day, but it can be a titch bit confusing (like the Scottish love song “Ca’ th’ Yeows” meaning call in the sheep)

From the outset the lullabys I heard tended to be in minor keys with minor-key texts. For example, “The Cruel Mother or Down by the Greenwood Sidie-o”

THERE was a lady, she lived in Lurk,

Refrain: Sing hey alone and alonie O

She fell in love with her father’s clerk. Refrain: Down by yon greenwood sidie O

She loved him seven years and a day, Till her big belly did her betray.

She leaned her back unto a tree, And there began her sad misery.

She set her foot unto a thorn, And there she got her two babes born.

She took out her wee pen-knife, She twind them both of their sweet life.”

I learned a different version, that picks up with “She leaned her back against an oak/ O a lee and lornie/ First it bent and then it broke/Down by the greenwood sidie-o.” Then it picks up with the thorn again. She returns to her father’s hall and:

She saw two babes a playin’ at ball/ Down by the Greenwood sidie-o.

“Oh babes oh babes if you were mine [R]

I’d dress you up in scarlet fine {R]

“Oh mother oh mother when we were yours [R]

“Scarlet was our own heart’s blood!”[R]

“Oh babes oh babes its heaven for you!” [R]

“Oh mother, oh mother it’s hell for you!”/ Down by the Greenwood sidie-o!

Just what every child wants to hear as she’s trying to go to sleep at night, no? “All my sorrows” is a Spiritual that includes the verse “If salvation were a thing that money could buy/ The rich would live and the poor would die. All my sorrows, Lord, soon be over.”

“The Great Silkie” is another ballad, this one about a young woman who is courted by a shape-shifter who turns into a seal. She bears him a son, then marries a harpooner. “And the very first shot that that gunner did shoot/ killed the son and the Great Silkie.” Hearing ballads like these since I was a baby probably explains why I am so drawn to verse poetry and memorize long ballads very easily. On my own I picked up “The Hills of Shiloh”, “The Two Sisters,” which is a charming tale of murder and justice, “John Riley,” the original version of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home,” which is a bit too gruesome even for me to sing much in public, and a few other equally upbeat and happy tunes.

I like story songs and story poems. I get a certain satisfaction out of stories where the bad guy or gal gets what he or she deserves. Apparently I’m not the only one, because morality tales feature strongly in the Child Ballads. It probably also explains part of my fondness for Kipling, that and being exposed to him for almost as long.

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7 thoughts on “Happy Child-hoods: Or Why Alma is a little Strange, part ???

  1. We share that musical heritage. I also grew up loving such songs, and have hundreds of them in my music collection today. I particularly enjoy how they’ve influenced some aspects of rock and pop music – Jethro Tull, Blackmore’s Night, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, Martin Carty and oh, so many others.

    • For some reason, only some of Kipling’s poetry appeal to me. I don’t dislike any of it, it is just that only some it “speaks” to me, so to speak. But then I’m usually not a big poetry fan, though every now and then something catches me.

      Kipling’s prose is something I love almost universally. Every prose pose of his I’ve read I’ve enjoyed, although a few are rather surreal in spots. Sometimes the dialect (Irish, Indian, and unlettered English) in places can make reading it a bit slow going, but I always find it rewarding.

      • As much as I love a lot of Kipling’s poems, I agree, there are some that go “thud” for whatever reason. And they may be pieces that other people love to bits. I suspect when you have as many as he wrote, there are going to be a few hits and as many, if not more, misses. Some of his political poems require so much context, for example, that they bounce off of me.

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