Skip to content

The Persistence of the Song.


ON ONE OF the occasions when Charlie Parker was hospitalized, the frenzy of his appetites having once more overwhelmed even his sturdy constitution, a consultant suggested to his long-suffering and devoted wife, Chan, that he might be lobotomized. This, he explained, would calm the fellow down, slow him up, tranquillize and – well – lobotomize him. Chan explained patiently that Charlie was an improvisatory musician, and what, she wondered, would the effect of the removal of his frontal lobes be on the speediest saxophonist in the world? The surgeon confessed that he did not know, no detailed research having been done as yet on such a topic. Chan decided that she had better take Charlie back into the world, out of the reach of the lobotomizer’s instruments, with his drug habit, his drink habit, his sex habit, and all his other inconveniently frenzied appetites. She understood that if you separated Charlie from his frenzies and his appetites, it would be like splitting the obverse of a coin from its reverse: you would no longer have a coin. You had to accept both sides of him at once; that was the deal. Dizzie Gillespie describing his relationship to Bird in those heady bebop days said: ‘He was the other side of my heartbeat.’ He was evidently not the other side of the surgeon’s; fortunately, he was still the other side of Chan’s. 

Categories can ruin the intellect. Nowhere is this truer than in the realm of music; and it is particularly true of that species of music we call song. The prefixes employed are enough to close doors, ears, minds: popular, classical, rock, folk, jazz, blues. The designations act as an exclusion order, if not an outright declaration of war. This is a pity because the persistence of the song before, during, and after the era of modernity is a phenomenon worthy of some remark.

In modernity, information comes to replace wisdom, and the surface of shared values fractures.

The technology of recording has, of course, changed everything. The Grimm Brothers went out to collect and write down oral tales because they feared modernity would erase them from the collective memory: a new age of literacy, and the technology that accompanied it, would abolish that space in which the tale survived. They were right, and seem to have arrived in the nick of time. Walter Benjamin in his essay ‘The Storyteller’ analyzes the difference between the spoken tale and the written story: the former is situated in a culture of shared values, and coherent actions: its purpose is the dissemination of wisdom through narration. In modernity, however, information comes to replace wisdom, and the surface of shared values fractures. The communal aspect of the tale becomes individualized: the modern story is written and read in silence, even though, between writer and reader, a vast technology must intervene. The function is now less likely to be the conveyance of wisdom through an exploratory narrative, and more likely to be the gaining of attention through novelty and shock.

Mid-way between the story and the song are those children’s rhymes – sometimes sung, sometimes chanted – that tell a tale, often of a surreal nature. In their persistence from one generation to the next, such rhymes represent a bypassing of the era of modernity, a recapitulation of the older oral mode. And standing alongside them are the folk song and the street ballad. When Sir John Franklin disappeared during his attempt to discover the North-West Passage, a broadsheet ballad soon hit the streets: ‘Lord Franklin’s Lament’ (everyone thought him a lord because his stalwart spouse was a lady; in fact he was a mere Sir):

In Baffin Bay where the whale fishes blow
The fate of Franklin there’s no man may know
The fate of Franklin there’s no tongue can tell
Lord Franklin along with his sailors do dwell

Here the ‘oral culture’ of the song makes use of the technology of literacy for its own purposes. History is ‘written out’ in a song, in the same way that it will be written out in a verse in Yeats’s ‘Easter 1916’. And the song is still sung to this day: there are recordings available from Martin Carthy, John Renbourn, and many others.

During the Great War countless soldiers (and not only officers) wrote poetry. Between the original bright, confident morning of Rupert Brooke, who had never seen active service, elegizing himself cleanly and grandly, to the much dirtier elegies and laments of Owen, Sassoon and Rosenberg, who had seen the reality of battle, an age had surely been lost for ever. ‘The Soldier’’s ‘corner of a foreign field’ could have been anywhere in the last two thousand years. Not so the Western Front of the new war poets. This is nature devastated by the machinery of modernity. Paul Nash, an official war artist, described it as an inferno beyond the imaginings of Dante.

But for every soldier writing a sonnet or an ode there must have been fifty or a hundred singing those songs that were assembled to such effect in Oh What A Lovely War. These were not so much written down as invented, composed as the men marched along. And they are surely so much better than much of the saccharine prattle that constitutes versifying then and now, because of their vigorous rootedness in the oral tradition; their lack of interest in any form of correctness, either literary or political. As often as not they seize an existing song and parody it. The parodies were often simultaneously loving and savage, as in ‘When This Lousy War Is Over’, where ‘What A Friend We Have In Jesus’ – one of the most popular songs of all time – turns into a bitter lament about the longed-for end of soldiering:

No more church parades on Sunday
No more putting in for leave
I will kiss the sergeant major
How he’ll miss me, how he’ll grieve.

The songs are so filled with genuine longing and an irreverence towards all patriotic pieties that a retired officer was moved to complain in a letter to The Times on hearing marching squaddies singing:

Send out the boys from the Girl’s Brigade
To set old England free
Send out me mother, me sister or me brother
But for God’s sake don’t send me.

A fine message to be sending to the enemy troops, who never seem to have perpetrated any corresponding elegiac mockeries. They sang of the fatherland, its deep dark forests, and its need for blood. All the British infantrymen on the Western Front wanted was out:

Take me back over the sea
Where the alleymen can’t shoot at me
Oh my, I don’t want to die
I want to go home.

Neither poetry nor song has ever been any franker than that.

And at the same time the popular recorded song continued on its mighty progress. ‘Keep The Home Fires Burning’ is simultaneously lachrymose and affirmative: ‘When the boys come home’ could still be a headline in the Sun today. And the song takes none of Ezra Pound’s advice about the writing of good verse: natural word order is always reversed in favour of the rhyme:

There’s a silver lining
Through the dark clouds shining.

SOMETHING LEAKED PERMANENTLY out from the black experience into the world of popular music. It leaked because there was a gap to be filled. From the spirituals, which arose from the world of slavery, to the gospel tradition, which was still uttered out of a world of oppression, even if after manumission, to the curiously ageless tradition of the blues, this black tradition offered its white purloiners a tough lyricism, a blatant eroticism and a streetwise demotic that matched the vernacular vigour of Mark Twain in literature. It proved irresistible. The individual voices of Skip James or Robert Johnson are unreproducible, but the mode itself is highly imitable.

Blues has had an incalculable influence on modern song. Many of the basic riffs of the Rolling Stones come straight out of standard blues refrains: Keith Richards has been an assiduous student of black music. But even a Beatles song like ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ is rooted in a blues progression. Similarly, the Frank Sinatra version of ‘I’ll be seeing you’ doubles the tempo of Billie Holiday’s haunting version, but it’s still a blues.

All songs become the variorum edition of themselves. They arrive bearing the tradition of their own performance.

And here we can remark an oddity, if a delightful one: all songs become the variorum edition of themselves. They arrive bearing the tradition of their own performance. They accrue their own performative possibilities about them. The inflections of one generation are extended and developed in the next. Ray Charles plays around with the sentimental pieties of songs from musicals, and returns them to the street. By the time Bob Dylan sings ‘Sitting On Top of the World’ it has been sung many thousands of times by many thousands of voices. All of those experiences appear to have become encrusted upon it. Like a wine, it has aged, and not to its disadvantage. ‘It was a very good year,’ sings Frank Sinatra in his cello voice, while the strings from Gordon Jenkins’ arrangement provide their melancholy setting.

In a song you can be anyone and anywhere. In ‘Morphine’, Gillian Welsh actually becomes a black soldier wounded in the war and living a life married to the drug, a marriage that ends predictably badly. And in her ‘Hard Times’, she echoes Woody Guthrie’s songs, which mapped the America of the dust bowl 1930s, as vividly as the photographs of Walker Evans. So entirely did Guthrie’s world impregnate the mind of the youthful Bob Dylan that he insisted, on his arrival in New York, that he had come there by freight train, to the bafflement of his interlocutors. He had in fact arrived in the back seat of a four-door saloon. His testimony, in his autobiography Chronicle gives evidence, if any were needed, that you can live inside songs.

A life can in fact be mapped by a topography of songs. Sometimes they seem inescapable. They come up from the street ‘mechanical and tired’, as Eliot puts it in ‘Portrait of a Lady’. They linger on, whether it’s the innocent exuberance of Irving Berlin:

I could write a sonnet 
About your Easter bonnet

or the languid urbanity of Cole Porter:

If a Harris pat means a Paris hat

And the evocativeness of the lines and melodies of certain popular songs can sometimes appear uncanny:

No one here to love or understand me
Oh what hard luck stories they all hand me.

IT IS SAID of William Blake that he was either blessed or cursed with eidetic imagery, which is to say that whatever he thought, he saw. He saw angels in a tree and he thought them; or he thought them and he saw them. The nearest I ever get to this mentally is through the prompting of song. Play the Beatles’ ‘We Can Work It Out’ and I am back in a bowling alley in Bradford, which has now been demolished, pining for a girl named Denise (no idea what happened to her), and terrified of the man ten feet away reputed to be the hardest man in the city. I believe he was killed on his motorbike three years later. I can still see the place, hear it, smell it, all through the song. I don’t usually have this immediacy of association, even with a poem I have learnt by heart. Play ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’ and I remember dancing in the dark with another undergraduate. Her name has vanished from my memory, but the song persists.

The song persists and, if it is good enough, adapts itself for survival with evolutionary resilience. Jazz musicians tend to land on those standards which afford them sufficient ‘changes’, or chordal progressions, to facilitate their own improvisatory inventiveness. ‘Over the Rainbow’, however beautifully sung by Judy Garland, resurrects itself continually and still feels new. Keith Jarrett delineates it on a keyboard with the same unanticipated finesse with which Miles Davis revisited ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ on his horn.

Much of the best of modern song is hard and rough. Tom Waits has a profound lyrical imagination, and he has fractured the surface of his vocal delivery to the point of wreckage. Why, Duke Ellington was once asked, was there so much dissonance in his music? Because there’s so much dissonance in the world, he replied. So the song is mimetic as well as lyric: it reflects the world, as well as celebrating and lamenting it. The song is mentally portable: we carry it around in our heads. For every person who can recite a poem, a hundred can sing a song. Songs remain, often as components of our psyche. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land interrupts itself with song, sometimes Wagner, sometimes ragtime. Our consciousness does the same thing all the time, whether deliberately or haphazardly.

The lyrics of songs have, of course, continued to make themselves available in a way that modern poetry has not. You can argue this either way: that modern poets have largely abdicated a responsibility of communication, or that they have accepted the fragmentedness and complexity of modern life, and expressed it in their writing, in a manner that precludes any immediate communication.

Either way, the song persists. Perhaps in its persistence it offers a kind of redemption. Even when the story of a life seems to make no sense, the tune and lyrics telling that story can seem to hold it all together in the mind, however briefly. Charlie Parker took popular songs and fractured them into a thousand pieces. And when he had finished his supremely unlobotomized improvisations, the song (in defiance of the Second Law of Thermodynamics) put itself back together again. You can’t kill a good song, whatever you do to it.

Alan Wall was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor PlaceboJacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His bookEndtimes was published by Shearsman in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays was issued by Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, also in 2014. A second collection, of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, followed in 2018, and a third collection, Midnight of the Sublime, has just been published. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.


Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ian Seed
Ian Seed
1 year ago

This essay is just what I need to ward off the autumn blues. I love: ‘‘Either way, the song persists. Perhaps in its persistence it offers a kind of redemption. Even when the story of a life seems to make no sense, the tune and lyrics telling that story can seem to hold it all together in the mind, however briefly.’ And: ‘You can’t kill a good song, whatever you do to it.’

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x