About 15 years ago there was a massive controversy in The OK Chorale involving a camp song called “The Titanic.” Something similar has come up and again it involves camp songs. Who would have thought that camp songs– camp songs!—would exercise so many people? I have finally realized that what most people call camp songs are “Home on the Range” and “Red River Valley” and all their friends. I call those folk songs. Camp songs are those satires and re-writes that kids do in order to upset the adults. They’re supposed to be puerile. That’s their charm—to me, evidently not to everybody.
For the Chorale’s summer quarter we are singing a set of standards (“It Had to Be You,” “Under the Boardwalk,” “Isn’t It Romantic?”) We were to sing a bunch of camp songs, but I am amending them to folk songs as a result of the uproar, which I admit is probably going on more inside me than anyone else. In any case, the offending songs were “My Gal’s a Corker,” “Oh dear what can the matter be, seven old ladies got locked in the lavat’ry,” “Clementine,” and “As Time Goes By.” Yes, you read that last one correctly.
We had several new people sign up for the quarter and they all brought their Presences with them. That’s fine. I like people who are direct and comfortable with themselves. But I noticed some smirks, and raised eyebrows on their faces and heard some snarky comments during the course of the rehearsal and I didn’t like that. As we were packing up I asked them how they were doing after an hour and half of The Chorale Experience.
“Well, it’s a fun, welcoming group,” one woman said, “but I had some trouble with the content.”
I immediately thought of a particularly crude verse depicting the experience of one old lady who was locked in the lavat’ry from Monday to Saturday, and for a second saw it through the eyes of someone who was young, earnest and idealistic. But no, the first “content” she sited was a line in “As Time Goes By:
“Woman needs man and man must have his mate/that no one can deny.”
“Oh!” I was completely nonplussed. “But that’s just one line. Have you seen Casablanca?”
I was speechless.
She went on to the “exploitation of children” in the song “Clementine.”
I had always assumed that Clementine was a grown woman. I don’t know what else to say.
I passed out temporarily and didn’t take in her comments on the seven old ladies locked in the lavat’ry from Monday to Saturday. The song does make the females in question look ridiculous, but why do I need to re-iterate that that is the whole point? I’ll also add that I can be considered an “old lady” by over half the population and I think the song is hilarious, especially since I grew up singing the sweet little song “Oh dear, what can the matter be, Johnny’s so long at the fair.” Besides that, it scans and I enjoy pretty much any song that scans. Just so you understand the indecency that’s being referred to, here is not the nastiest verse:
The next to come in was dear Mrs. Mason,
The stalls were all full so she peed in the basin;
And that is the water that I washed my face in,
And nobody knew she was there.
By the time I got home that night I was stewing with ingredients that all belonged in different dishes. When I deconstruct the text of some of the songs, of course I can see the images of “male domination over women.” If I were to strip my library of songs to reflect that single thought state, there would be nothing left to sing except a mind-numbing song someone sent me with a single rhythm pattern, five notes, and the same four words “Do the right thing,” repeated over and over and over and over and over. I’d rather be locked in the lavat’ry from Monday to Saturday.
Beyond that, though, was this question: who walks into a choir rehearsal for the first time with little or no experience of music or singing or songs (or Casablanca) and appoints herself supervisor of the teacher, someone who has been making music for 56 years. I felt patronized—anyone torturing me for information who knew about that vulnerability would find me spilling my guts in three minutes. Maybe if I were a parent I would be used to having my inconsistencies and failings pointed out to me by someone half my age, but I’m not so I ain’t.
My question remains: who does that? Well, on second thought, I have done it. I suppose a lot of us have, hopefully when we were much younger although that isn’t the case with me. It’s tacky behavior no matter the perpetrator or at what time of their life. However the incident in the Chorale rehearsal does bring up some thoughts about the disparate generations that inhabit the earth at the same time and their differing associations with music.
The older we get the more layers of memory are embedded in songs that connect our pasts and presents. I was raised in a fundamentalist church and grew up singing about grotesque religious images of death and lamb’s blood. Today I am not connected to any church or religion but there are things about those old songs—a stray phase and certainly the tunes—that I love. I would even sing one again in a group such as mine because the song is a connecting thread, not because I subscribe to any of the content. As for male-domination, if it wasn’t my generation’s facing down condescension and fighting back discrimination the young women in that rehearsal wouldn’t have, at their birth, been handed a world that contains the consciousness to deconstruct the songs let alone the nerve to comment on them.
The three new women are not coming back, and in fairness to one of them, she wrote me a thoughtful note. I’m sorry they couldn’t have given us more of a chance. However, in my (temporary) questioning of my own competence, I polled some of my regulars and found out that I am pretty much the only woman who likes the camp(y) songs. Maybe it’s because I was a Sunday School child and never got to be bad. I’ve decided to drop the Ladies who were stuck in the lavat’ry from the Chorale’s program but I am going to sing it to myself from Monday to Saturday. So there.