Society featured

Singing lessons

June 15, 2024

As my daughter and I travelled home over the Wicklow Mountains, our voices echoed between the cliffs, turning the heads of passing sheep as we rolled into the wooded hollows below. She knows these songs by heart from years of lullabies and sing-alongs since, but doesn’t yet realize that children like her might have sung the same songs on the same paths hundreds of years ago.

The water is wide, I cannot cross over . . .
Neither have I the wings to fly . . .

We would turn the heads of most humans, too, these days; most people never sing aloud anymore, except meekly in church, and snicker at those who do. Older people, though, can remember people whistling as they swept the streets, everyone singing at the pub, neighbours gathering at each other’s homes in the evenings to sing, or people gathering around a deathbed to caoin. * This constant singing of songs our ancestors knew let traditions thrive and wisdom accumulate through the generations.

Today we cannot choose to avoid the latest hits; even here they blast from loudspeakers in buses, restaurants, gas stations, and the earphones of the kid sitting next to you, cranked up so loudly you can recognize the song. The problem is that after many years of this, we have lost touch with what music is for. For thousands of years, in every part of the world that I know of, songs were made to be sung by ordinary voices in communion, and they told the basic stories of the human condition.

Families here had their own sets of carols for any number of seasons or tasks. They told us who their people were and why this day was different. They kept the rhythms of churns and scythes, of tanneries and looms, and grew and changed as they were passed on. They were sung secretly about the days when earthly kings would be overthrown, by farmers who feared a rapping at the winter door.

The summertime has come, and the trees are sweetly blooming, I hear my daughter sing idly to herself, And the wild mountain thyme grows around the purple heather. . . .

The older the song, though, the more questions my daughter has, and the more I’m reminded of why I teach them to her.

Tell her to buy me an acre of land between the salt water and the sea strand . . .
Tell her to harvest with a sickle of leather, and bind the crop with a rope of heather.
Tell her to make me a cambric shirt without any seams or needlework . . .
Tell her to wash it in yonder well, where water ne’er sprung nor rain ever fell . . .
. . . then she’ll be a true love of mine.

“Why are all those jobs impossible?” she asked.

How do you know they’re impossible? I answered.

“Well, you can’t really make a shirt without seams,” she said.

You’re right, I said, and you can’t wash it in a dry well. You can get an acre of beach below the seaweed strand, but it disappears with the tide. The song is meant as a kind of joke, I explained—it’s a love spell, but it’s a sarcastic one.

“Is it a potion?” she asked, “and the herbs are the other ingredients?”

Yes, I said, but the potion will never work, because you can never do those impossible things, or if you can, they’re not worth it. And you can’t get someone to love you if she doesn’t, and if you can, you shouldn’t. Most dreams will be like that, I tell her; they’re not fun anymore up close.

That, I think, is what these songs were for—teaching lessons we abandoned when everything became cheap and fast and easily discarded. They do not tell us that we can accomplish anything if we believe in ourselves, or that we deserve to follow our hearts. They tell us our lives are brief and sad and funny, subject to injustice and bound by duty. They pass down, in a way spoken words cannot, our forbears’ grief and gratitude, their violence and remorse, their comfort and joy.

Sometimes I try to explain these things to her in common language, and her spirit is willing to learn, but her flesh is nine years old. So we go back to singing the old songs, whose lessons, I hope, she stores inside like seeds awaiting the spring.

* In Irish, a grieving wail. Pronounced keen.

Brian Kaller

Former newspaper editor Brian Kaller wrote his first magazine cover story on peak oil in 2004, and since then has written for the American Conservative, the Dallas Morning News, Front Porch Republic, Big Questions Online and Low-Tech Magazine. In 2005 he and his family moved to rural Ireland, where he speaks to schools and churches, and writes a weekly column for the local newspaper.  

Tags: music, traditions