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. Yet here in the Irish countryside, my older neighbors remember a very different world. As late as the 1970s many people lacked electricity or cars, so television and Hollywood culture arrived much later than in most places. They grew up with people whistling as they swept the streets, farmers singing their vegetables to passers-by at the market, and neighbors gathering at each other’s homes in the evenings with fiddles to sing songs and tell stories.
Music holds immense power over us. Babies who can’t yet speak will giggle and bounce to a familiar tune, and elders who can no longer remember their names will revive at the sound of an old standard. According to Daniel J. Levitin’s book This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession, we form our musical tastes in youth and never abandon them. The teen anthems that played during your first kiss or last fist-fight remain with you forever, the intensity of feeling gone but the tastes frozen in amber.
Such inborn switches served us well for thousands of years, allowing children in Tipperary and Turkmenistan alike to hear songs over and over and pass them on as adults, letting 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.
I’m told that families and towns around here had their own sets of carols for any number of seasons or tasks. They told children 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. . . .
Christmas was the one time of year we would sing carols and hear songs older than our parents, and so remains our main umbilical reference to a universe of traditional songs. Many years ago, my relatives visited a rural pub where everyone took turns singing local songs, and when they invited the American guests to take a turn, my relatives sat frozen for a moment. Finally, they dredged up kindergarten memories of “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain,” and everyone joined in obligingly.
Many Irish folk songs lead to delicate father-daughter talks about when to obey the law, respect the Church, believe the authorities, and avoid violence. My daughter understands that the protagonist of “Whiskey in the Jar” is an unreliable narrator, a bandit who bemoans yet deserves his fate. She gets that “John Barleycorn” is a symbol of grain, so a gruesome song about his slow death becomes a story of where our food comes from.
Other songs lead to more difficult territory, but I’m glad to see her wrestle with her small understanding, in the hopes it will strengthen her moral immune system. She often asks for the “Digger Song,” that rousing cry of Evangelical farmers in the 1600s, and knows most of the words by heart. Each verse deals with a different group that tries to evict the farmers from their land: the Cavaliers, the gentry, the lawyers, and the clergy.
The club is all their law, stand up now, stand up now.
The club is all their law, to keep all men in awe,
That they no vision saw, to maintain such a law,
Stand up now, Diggers all . . .
“What was the club?” she asked. The king’s men tried to force the farmers off their land by hitting them, I explained. The farmers said that only men with clubs have a right to rule. That’s all most leaders are.
“Did they fight back?” she asked. No, I said, they didn’t want to become like the king’s men. They were better.
“You don’t always have to fight,” she said, and I agreed—I had just shown her Destry Rides Again, in which Jimmy Stewart’s pacifist deputy tamed a violent town. At some point, though, I will have to explain why there are no more Diggers.
At times, we accidentally mix up verses from different songs; for example, we combine bits of different songs with “The Water Is Wide,” yet it’s stuck in our heads that way now. But that happens in folk music all the time. The lyrics to “The Water Is Wide” itself, I read, mixed verses from other songs in the 1700s, and the Christmas song “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day” oddly mashed a light-hearted romantic ballad into the Nativity story. These songs have survived the centuries partly because they evolved and cross-pollinated over and over, back when every village and family had its own storytellers and musicians, and over time the most viable of them remained.
The older the song, though, the more questions my daughter has, and the more I’m reminded of why I teach them to her. I knew she would face a difficult future, and wanted to teach her an older set of skills and values, which most of my generation had either to learn painfully as adults or not at all.
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 forbearers’ 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 she stores inside like seeds awaiting the spring.
Brian Kaller worked in newspapers in the U.S. before moving with his family to the Irish countryside. He has written for the American Conservative and Front Porch Republic, among others.