In the regular column Saoghal Sheonaidh of the latest number of Cothrom (issue 72) the author expresses under the heading Tha clann feumach air gaisgich ùra ‘s fealla-dhà his concern that the Royal National Mod, or at least the way it’s carried out, does little to promote Gaelic among children. While I generally agreed with his argument, the wittiest passage made me first laugh…
Tha na h-òrain a gheibh a’ chlann sean-fhasanta […] tha fhathast aon òran ann […] mu ghaol a th’ aig caileag do chìobair a shiùbhlas nam beann a’ marbhadh nam fiadh. […] Nam eòlas, bidh na nigheanan seo a’ meas leithid Lady Gaga no Katy Perry mar ghaisgich, no ‘s dòcha Cris Hoy no Usain Bolt. Do na balaich, tha òran gruamach eile mu bhàta a sheòlas ann an droch aimsir far oirthir Ìle. Chan eil guth air Lionel Messi no Seumas Bond. […] Seo cuid [chuspairean] bho na beagan bhliadhnaichean a dh’fhalbh: an cìobair a bha siud air a’ bheinn, sealgairean dàna a loisgeas air fèidh, banarach is a’ bhò aice, sionnach a’ reubadh cearc às a chèile is banntrach a’ caoidh a leannain mhairbh is an ceann aige pios bhuaipe ‘air stob daraich’. An gabhadh e a bhith na bu mhiosa?!
(The songs which children are given are out of date […] there is still one song […] about the love a lass has for a shepherd who roams the mountains killing deer. […] In my experience, girls are more likely to admire Lady Gaga or Katy Perry or perhaps Chris Hoy or Usain Bolt. For the boys, we have another dirge about a boat that sails in bad weather off the coast of Islay. Not a word about Lionel Messi or James Bond. […] Here are some [subjects] from recent years: yon herdsman on the mountain, brave hunters who shoot deer, a milkmaid and her cow, a fox ripping a hen to shreds and a widow mourning her dead lover whose head is impaled on an oaken stave a short distance from her. Could it be any worse?!)
… and then stop and reflect. (Not about having to find out in Wikipedia who Perry, Bolt and Messi might be. I know I’m undereducated in popular culture.) It occurred to me that for the majority of people, as long as they like the melody, musical style &c, the lyrics of a song are not necessarily important.
I remembered how just one of the people in the folklore band I was once a member of knew (or indeed, cared) what a certain obsolete word meant, despite its featuring in our signature tune. I remembered the lyrics of a Moravian song, one that is among the most often sung not just in folklore performances, but also spontaneously in pubs, at parties and so on, which go like this: “They bound a she-goat to a blackthorn / She broke away at night / A high juniper / As high as me / Jump over it my dear / With straight legs.” Could it be any worse?! And I remembered some of the songs we liked to sing in summer camps. For example John Brown’s Body, which in Czech begins “The black man lived under the whip of the slaveholder…” and gets no more contemporary as it goes on.
It seems to me that an interesting text can make a song even better for anybody; that (perhaps except during adolescence) most people are quite capable of enjoying the crappest words as long as they enjoy the music; and that this is even more so with pre-pubescent children.