Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Why songs matter: Miners and Negroes

Do you remember old songs, the kind people supposedly actually sang a lot once? I do. They taught them to us in school as part of the curriculum.

Oh my darlin, oh my darlin, on my darlin Clementine, you are lost and gone forever, dreadful sorry Clementine..........In a canyon, in a cavern, excavating for a mine, dwelt a miner, forty-niner, and his daughter, Clementine.

Or, the mysterious and simple, but maybe most beautiful of all: "Shoo fly"

Shoo fly don't bother me, shoo fly don't bother, shoo fly don't bother me, for I belong to somebody
I feel, I feel, I feel like a morning star, I feel, I feel, I feel like a morning star
Shoo fly don't bother me, for I belong to somebody.

We were told at the same time we were taught them, what these songs were: Miner's songs and Negro Spirituals, and what those were. This was Venable School in Charlottesville Virginia, around 1950. None of us seven or eight year olds knew any miners or Negroes personally of course; our lives were lived separately from theirs (Negroes and miners)--one separated by neighborhood, the other by time, that is to say, in an eight year old's imagination, long, long ago. It was some time before I understood that the miners  in the songs from out West and my own great, great grandparents in Parsonsfield Maine were alive at exactly the same time, and that the essence of being a slave is eloquently expressed in "Shoo fly."

It occurs to me that whatever the people who ran Venable school planned to have happen because of their curriculum, they got it right. Children were exposed to actual relics of days gone by and it stuck in their heads (because songs do) to eventually inform the child when it is well into its forties or fifties what it must have been like back then being a slave. Knowledge like that is universal and invaluable.

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