Wednesday 19 December 2012

Two Salt-Water Ballads

John Masefield 1878-1967

In the days immediately following the senseless carnage in Newtown, Connecticut, I found myself returning to this song, probably because its mood of uncomprehending desolation approximated my own. The poem is John Masefield's Vagabond, part of his 1902 collection Salt-Water Ballads. Masefield's Vagabond is a far cry from Robert Louis Stevenson's The Vagabond of 1896 ("Give to me the life I love, / Let the lave go by me, / Give the jolly heaven above / And the byway nigh me."). No romance of the open road for Masefield, especially in this haunting musical setting by John Ireland, composed in 1922. The singer is Bryn Terfel.

Dunno a heap about the what an' why,
Can't says I ever knowed.
Heaven to me's a fair blue stretch of sky,
Earth's jest a dusty road.

Dunno the names o' things, nor what they are,
Can't say's I ever will.
Dunno about God - he's jest the noddin' star
Atop the windy hill.

Dunno about Life - it's jest a tramp alone,
From wakin'-time to doss.
Dunno about Death - it's jest a quiet stone
All over-grey wi' moss.

An' why I live, an' why the old world spins,
Are things I never knowed.
My mark's the gypsy fires, the lonely inns,
An' jest the dusty road.

To end on a brighter note, a Bryn Terfel encore: Masefield's Trade Winds, beautifully set by Frederick Keel in 1919. Keel's lulling melody and the legato shaping of the phrase "the steady trade winds blowing," especially its extension in the third verse, evoke the scene - a fine example of musical picture-painting.

In the harbor, in the island, in the Spanish Seas,
Are the tiny white houses and the orange trees,
And day-long, night-long, the cool and pleasant breeze
Of the steady trade winds blowing.

There is the red wine, the nutty Spanish ale,
The shuffle of the dancers, and the old salt's tale,
The squeaking fiddle, and the soughing in the sail
Of the steady trade winds blowing.

And o' nights there's the fire-flies and the yellow moon,
And in the ghostly palm-trees the sleepy tune
Of the quiet voice calling me, the long low croon
Of the steady trade winds blowing.

Initially I thought I'd adorn this post with appropriate scenic photos to help set the mood. Then I thought: How unimaginative. How unnecessary. All that's needed is that you close your eyes and listen, and you'll "see" these songs in mind-pictures more vivid than anything Google Images has to offer.

Saturday 15 December 2012

Flit-man, spare that fly!

'Tis the season for universal compassion, extended even to the wee beasties among us. Hence this musical excerpt from the 1930 film Just Imagine, a science fiction fantasy in which a fellow wakes to find himself fifty years in the future, in 1980. (Imagine that!)

The song is Never Swat a Fly by DeSylva, Brown & Henderson, performed by Frank Albertson and Marjorie White aboard a wondrous, state-of-the-art mode of travel called... a dirigible! Why Frank and Marjorie are ruminating on this particular subject is unknown to me; I've not seen the complete film. If the verse is to be believed, love explains all, but one suspects they've been reading Robert Burns, or studying up on Buddhism. I've heard this sermon before, delivered in 1992, sans verse, by those eminent theologians Marty Grosz, Keith Ingham and their Hot Cosmopolites, but here it is in its original incarnation:


Love has made me tender, I now appreciate
Ev'ry little creature on this Earth that has a mate.
Once I hated crickets, I couldn't stand a bee,
Now here is the motto that I follow faithfully:

Never swat a fly,
He may love another fly,
He may sit with her and sigh the way I do with you.
Never harm a flea,
He may have a favorite she
That he bounces on his knee the way I do with you.
Never stop a bee if he is going anywhere,
You may be concluding some terrific love affair, be careful!
Don't step on an ant
In the middle of a pant,
He may want to, but he can't the way I do with you,


I'm the same as you are, tears come to my eyes
When I see professors chasing helpless butterflies.
Fishermen are hateful, they lead a wicked life,
Why, ev'ry day they separate the husband from his wife!

Never swat a fly,
He may love another fly,
He may sit with her and sigh the way I do with you.
Never spray a nit
With a great big can of Flit,
He may think some nit has "It" the way I do with you.
Never stop a moth as he is gliding through the air,
He may have a date In someone's flannel underwear, be careful!
Don't you dare to slay
Two skeeters while they play,
They may want to make hey-hey the way I do with you!

Two questions arise:

(1) How exactly does a bug, when making hey-hey, evince that sexy quality known as "It"? With flirtatiously fluttering ganglia?

(2) Even more puzzling: What was the dialogue leading up to this number? This question has me so flummoxed that I'm throwing it open to my readers. A valuable prize awaits anyone who can create a believable exchange connecting Never Swat a Fly and a futuristic flight in a dirigible. For the sake of this contest, we're assuming that the song was logically integrated into the plot, and not just randomly interpolated. (The latter is far more likely.) The best I can do is this:

"Oh, look, honey! We're flying so high the people on Earth look just like ants!"

"Funny you should mention ants. I've been thinking..."

No, that won't fly.

This contest is open only to those who've never seen the complete film. That's probably 99.44 percent of my entire readership (in other words, optimistically speaking, roughly nine people). Each entry must be accompanied by two box-tops from Kellogg's Pep. In case of a tie, duplicate prizes will be awarded.