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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