Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Childhood Tunes

When I was a youngster I used to listen to music by means of plastic disks with little bumps that encoded the music in analog. We called them records because sounds had been recorded on them. One of these records contained a series of American folk songs, and I committed many of them to memory over time. The result of one such memorization is that I was trotted up in front of the Miller elementary school play finale to sing the verse to Irving Berlin's "Grand Old Flag" since I was the only person in that school to apparently know it. (In the parlance of songs of that era, the "verse" is a unique portion at the beginning of the song, treated more as an optional introduction nowadays.) I remember my teacher being a bit puzzled when I asked her, "Why aren't we singing the whole song?" She asserted that we were singing the whole song. I remember her astonishment when I proceeded to recite the verse for her. She immediately dragged me in to do it for the music teacher, and next thing I know I am leading the finale at the ripe old age of 7.

Anyway, I digress...

One of the songs I have had bouncing through my head for the past, oh, 30+ years or so was a story about a man walking past a dilapidated cabin wherein an old man was playing a fiddle. When the traveler advised the old man to fix the roof the old man replies, "I couldn't fix it now, on a rainy day." Maybe you already know this song. I didn't know the name until this weekend when I heard someone playing it on "Prairie Home Companion" and the song was referred to by name. It's called "The Arkansas Traveler." I've heard the tune so many times over the years, but never the name. This weekend I actually sought the lyrics and found them.

Oh once upon a time in Arkansas
An old man sat in his little cabin door,
And fiddled at a tune that he liked to hear,
A jolly old tune that he played by ear.

It was raining hard but the fiddler didn't care
He sawed away at the popular air,
Though his roof tree leaked like a water fall
That didn't seem to bother that man at all

A traveler was riding by that day,
And stopped to hear him a-practicing away
The cabin was afloat and his feet were wet,
But still the old man didn't seem to fret.

So the stranger said: "Now the way it seems to me,
You'd better mend your roof," said he.
But the old man said, as he played away:
"I couldn't mend it now, it's a rainy day."

The traveler replied: "That's all quite true,
But this, I think, is the thing for you to do;
Get busy on a day that is fair and bright,
Then pitch the old roof till it's good and tight."

But the old man kept on a-playing at his reel,
And tapped the ground with his leathery heel:
"Get along," said he, "for you give me a pain;
My cabin never leaks when it doesn't rain."

(Copied from here.) I have yet to find a vocal version with these lyrics in my intertube searchings. I'm a little shocked that the song is pretty much as I remember it. Granted, I couldn't recite all the lyrics, but I remembered the concepts and some snippets.

1 comment:

  1. You know, I learned a ridiculous number of folk songs from the Smothers Brothers when I was in high school - they'd gone out of fashion then, but we'd had one of their albums that my mom had unearthed when I was around 11, and I thought they were so marvelous that when I was able to drive I went and found all of their others at a used records store. It took me a while to realize that most of the ones I'd learned had been cannibalized by the Bros, but I knew the gist and melodies.

    I recently went and downloaded every single digital version I could get my hands on and presented them to my nephews, who found them as hysterical as I did and promptly memorized them as well. Now we have 2 generations of faulty folk music.

    I do highly recommend their music for kids - they intersperse the humor with some really enchanting harmony and solid musicality; most people nowadays just assume they were all about the political commentary of their TV show, but it's been forgotten that they were really solid musicians who'd been on the non-political comedy circuit for years before that!

    Anyway, to this day, I love folk music because of them.


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