The Music Meme: Day 8

Day 8: A song you liked when you were younger


As a professional educator, I am frequently called upon to evaluate not merely students' answers, but the questions they have been asked, and all too often I find that the questions (even my own) are not well-constructed. This is a particular problem with multiple-choice questions, where a lack of clarity may result in an incorrect answer because there's no way for the respondent to explain the reasoning behind his response.

Today's prompt is an example of such muddled clarity. Should the topic be a song you liked when you were younger BUT NO LONGER LIKE, or a song you liked when you were younger AND STILL LIKE, or a song you liked when you were younger REGARDLESS OF YOUR CURRENT OPINION? In other words, should the response demonstrate how your tastes have changed, how you were smart even as a youngster, or simply how things used to be? Are we celebrating growth, precocity, or just nostalgia?

Any of these interpretations are possible, but my song of choice is one that focuses on youth in several ways. It's a folk song, one I first learned at a very early age--probably three or four. Thanks to my parents' fondness for folk music, I got to hear material from a wide variety of performers of the folk revival of the 50s and 60s: the Kingston Trio, the Weavers, the Brothers Four, the New Christy Minstrels, Simon & Garfunkel... (We listened primarily to ensembles, now that I think about it, probably because of my mother's love of vocal harmony. Solo acts like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, or Phil Ochs did not get as much play in our household, though Judy Collins and John Denver would eventually take over the turntable.)

One LP that got plenty of spins, though, was a 1962 album by the Limeliters, an album recorded live with a chorus of schoolkids. Through Children's Eyes was a commercial success, charting for a solid 29 weeks, but it didn't turn the group into a household name. I suspect a lot of those who enjoyed Christopher Guest's wonderful folk-music mockumentary A Mighty Wind didn't notice the tips of the hat that the producers and performers made toward the Limeliters, but I had been prepared by zillions of spins of TCE. Guest's character, Alan Barrows, played banjo and sang for the trio known as the Folksmen, a group largely caricaturing the Kingston Trio, but Barrows' warbling tenor was 100% based on that of the Limeliters' Glenn Yarbrough.

In addition to prepping me for a 2003 movie, Through Children's Eyes was also the album that introduced me to folk standards (some of which were referenced in A Mighty Wind) such as "This Train," "Grace Darling," and "Stay on the Sunny Side." The song that stuck with me the most, however, was "The Whale," whose combination of catchy melody and vivid imagery captured my imagination powerfully. (I was even prepared to forgive it for the nonsensical lyric "whale-fish," which any young student of the animal kingdom knew was zoologically inaccurate.) The narrator tells of an English crew sailing to Greenland's waters in search of prey, but after its spout is spotted, the titular whale smashes the pursuing whaleboat with its tail, and five men are lost--the kind of grisly detail that a kid will gnaw at for years.

In fact, the song stuck with me well into the 1980s, when I was surprised to discover a version of it in an unexpected place: on side two of the Pogues' debut album, Red Roses for Me. This version was titled "Greenland Whale Fisheries" and it had a bit of a lyrical twist to it: in the Limeliters version, the captain is grieved by the loss of the whale, but grieved "ten times more" by the loss of those five brave men. In the Pogues' treatment, the captain's grief for the men is eclipsed: "the losing of that fine whale fish, oh, it grieved him ten times more."

I was soon to be given academic understanding of that variation thanks to Professor Daniel Patterson's popular class in folksong. As he explained, using "The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez" as his text, folk music is a terrible, terrible way to learn history, but a great way to understand people: "History tells you what happened; folk songs tell you how people felt about what happened." It's not hard to see that one of these "Whale" variants expresses attitudes about an authority that would probably keep it from being sung in the presence of such an authority, while the other would be safe, as it merely recounts the unfortunate events of a failed commercial venture. This variation led me to write a paper on the song and its various treatments (including recordings by Theodore Bikel & Judy Collins, among others), so I can certainly consider this song one that I have enjoyed throughout my life, from preschool to graduate school, to the present day.

But yeah--I still like the Limeliters' version best. 

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on August 13, 2017 9:05 AM.

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