Monday, January 27, 2014

Mother Malone: Family History through Song

When it comes to music, the two sides of my family couldn't be more different.

On the maternal side, I have a hearing-impaired grandfather who nonetheless taught himself to play the piano by ear; a songwriter for an uncle; and an up-and-coming singer for a cousin.

On the paternal side, I had a tone-deaf grandfather; a father who can't sing; and, well, that's about all that's worth mentioning.

And yet, when I conceived of a blog post talking about music and family history, it was the latter family I was thinking about. (Possibly this is because my musical skills are quite clearly inherited from the from the family that has none.)

Some of my most cherished childhood memories are of my dad singing lullabies to my sister and I each night before bed, and it's through these memories that I find some of the strongest connections to my grandmother, who died when I was too young to remember her well.

My dad's repertoire included standard lullabies, like "Hush, Little Baby." Other songs were show tunes. (I clearly remember that the visual I had for the line "Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow there'll be sun" involved someone with a large stack of money, betting only the bill at the very bottom.) Some were hymns, "Amazing Grace" being a favorite in honor of my sister's middle name. And then there's the song that sticks in my mind most clearly: "Mother Malone."

When I try to look this song up on the internet, every set of lyrics is slightly different, and none exactly match the version my dad sang to me, which his mother had sung to him, and which I will sing to my kids. Additionally, the melody in recordings I've found is a bit different from the one I know. I guess that's part of the beauty of a folk song: it's passed on through the generations. Maybe, sort of like DNA, it mutates a bit along the way, creating a unique signature that can identify your family. The version of the song that I learned growing up went like this:
Some boys when they go a-courtin'
They haven't the spunk of a mouse
They'll stand on the corner and whistle
Afraid to go into the house
But me I walk in with me swagger
As if the old place were me own
And I sit myself down with "Good evenin'"
"How are you, old Mother Malone?"
Then I kiss the old woman
And hug the old man
Give Johnny a shilling and shake hands with Dan
Fight for his sister
And do all I can
Do all I can
Then I walk out with me girl Mary-Ann

Have you ever discovered that a song - or a version of a song - is unique to your family? Where did it come from? How have you passed it on?

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Lisa Taisey said...

What a beautiful article. I can't remember any songs that were sung to me as a child. I do remember EVERY song my mom and grandparents listened to on the radio. As an only child growing up with grandparents and a single parent who were all Italian my early years of music were wonderful. Till this day I listen to the 50's on the radio. As I grew older all my friends were Irish and I learned the The Unicorn Song and the rest is all such wonderful memories. Thanks for reminding your readers to grab hold of those memories. Slainte...Chao...

JackLangton said...

My dad was an inveterate singer, so much so that I, American born, had memorized most of his songs while still a nipper. Mother Malone was one of his favorites, as well as many Kilkenny songs. And then there was the radio, with the Morrisseys, the McNultys,etc. Strange how you can remember an old song perfectly, after so many years.

Pamela D Lloyd said...

It was my mother who usually sang songs to me and my brothers. I wrote about one of my favorites in my blog in early December, in a post titled An Unusual Lullaby: The Whiffenpoof Song.

Michelle Thiele said...

I had just finished singing Jamie down for his morning nap when I read this. I love the idea of a song changing with a family. I don't know if there are any songs in my family like that, but my grandma taught us a lot of Filipino songs when we were little, and it's possible that her versions were unique since I never heard any recordings and, truthfully, she wasn't a very good singer. My mom sang a Filipino lullaby to us every night called Sa Ugoy ng Duyan (I had to google it to make sure I was spelling it correctly). I can hum the whole thing from memory, but I sing the lyrics mostly phonetically--there are just a few snippets here and there that I understand. You've inspired me to learn to sing it properly, because it's definitely something I want to pass on to my children.
My number one go-to lullaby for every naptime and bedtime since Jamie was born has been Sweet Baby James. It occurred to me recently that each of my kids may have to get their own personal lullaby now, but I guess that wouldn't be a bad thing.

Kathleen Scarlett O'Hara Naylor said...

I'm glad this post seemed to evoke memories for so many people!

Michelle - I hadn't thought about non-English songs, but my grandfather sings babies a clapping song in Italian, that I can't translate for the life of me. As best I can tell, it's in dialect that's gotten corrupted through the years, and in its current version mostly sounds like nonsense syllables. I can sing it exactly like he does, but I can't tell you what it means!

Anonymous said...

I also remeber my mother signing this song, but one line was quite different. Instead of "give Johnny a dollar and shake hands with Dan" it was "give Johnny a shilling to fill up the can". In old Ireland, the word "can" was used for any metal container which held liquids. In those days before six packs, customers would bring their own cans to the pub to be filled with beer. We sometimes do this today except that we call the containers "growlers".

Unknown said...

My father taught me, "When the fellas they go out a'courtin..." and then,
"Give Danny a quarter to fill up the can" (with coal)