In the olden days, before there were radios in cars, folk travelling on long journeys used to sing. As a child, I always liked story songs best. Our family of four used to rattle out Clementine and Walzing Matilda with gusto. Walzing Matilda has a ghost in it and ghosts are always good. I think of Clementine as our mother's song, Walzing Matilda as our dad's — I never learned all the words to Walzing M. because they were so mysterious — jumbuck and tucker bag and swagman. But it was great hearing dad sing it and joining in the chorus..
At bedtime, sometimes an adult would sing to my sister and me to get us off to sleep, especially our grandmother on dad's side (we called her 'Nanny'). As I get older, her songs draw me back, and I wonder about the world they came out of — music hall, perhaps, or old 78 records. Where did she first hear them? Inside what kind of life? How did she know all the words — because she did know all the words, and once I did too, and so did my sister, who had a fabulous memory. As we grew up and were assailed by contemporary tunes, the words started to disappear.
It's a very strange thing about being a granny-age yourself, though. You find yourself losing some bits of memory while other bits come back, like an onion unpeeling and rediscovering itself. Snatches of those old songs keep coming back to me in bits and pieces, phrases and flashbacks. Thanks to the wonder of the web, if I can remember even some of the words, I can find recordings, I can even find (what a joy!) all the words.
Here, for example, is one of Nanny's favourites — 'I wouldn't leave my little wooden hut for you'. And she often sang a lullaby — 'Sweet and Low', the words of which are by Tennyson (we were injected with poetry without knowing). I can hear her quavery voice now, and since I'm the age she would have been then, mine quavers too.
She liked strongly sentimental songs. Her repertoire included 'I'm forever blowing bubbles' and 'Sonny Boy'. And she particularly liked (and we did too) 'If those lips could only speak', which I'm betting she knew in the Peter Dawson version I've linked to. It's a music hall song and she told us this song was based on a true story — that the woman in the beautiful picture in a beautiful golden frame was shot by her husband in a hunting accident. Did she invent this?
But the song I loved best was one I could never find, and mum sang it. I thought it was called 'Eileen Orr', and I always remembered, and loved, the tune, and some of the words — but with gaps. A few years ago I looked for it on the web and failed to find it.
But this week I looked harder and there it was, in several recordings on YouTube. Where did our young mother first learn this song? Lord knows. Her version, as I remember it, was not wholly true to the Percy French lyrics. I think she did sing 'Eileen Orr', not the proper name in the Irish song, which is Eileen Òg.
Eileen was the Pride of Petrovore, not (as I'm sure my mother sang and we sang with her) the Pride of Pethragar.
The villain of the story should be 'the hardest featured man in Petravore' — not, as we sang, 'the ugliest looking man in Pethragar' — but we would never have understood 'hardest featured' — maybe she changed it. I'm sure we sang: 'Eileen Orr, sure that was what her name was, / Through the Blarney she was also famous'.
In fact, the official version goes:
Well Eileen Òg, that was what her name was
Through the Barony her features made her famous
In whatever mode you sing it, it's a beautiful song, a cracking tune, and some of the lyrics are terrific. Boys oh boys, it's where I first learned how cannily words can fit to a rhythm and how utterly satisfying it is when they do.
And 'Eileen Òg' is a story, sad and funny. To think that some of its words have been ringing in my head all my life and now — by some miracle — I find people still belting it out, making new recordings, passing it on. Cathy Jordan's version is a delight. I'm singing along at this minute. Eileen Òg — sure that was what her name was!