Christmas carols in the U.S. and Britain

As Christmas approaches, carols leak into the folk (and occasionally other kinds of) songs at the pub’s singers night. It happens every year, and every year I ask myself if I shouldn’t take a week or two off to avoid them.

I have a couple of reasons for that. The first and simplest is that I expect carols to be unchanging and over here they’re not. Some have the same words as the American ones and at first the tunes sound like they’ll behave, then they take a sharp left and head off in some new direction, leaving me all alone and on the wrong note. Usually at full volume. In others the tune stays the same but the words are different.

Sending you light in the darkness and good wishes for whatever you celebrate.

Sending you light in the darkness and good wishes for whatever you celebrate.

The first few times I heard that, I’d turn to someone nearby and say, “That’s not the way we sing it.”

I might as well have said how shocked I was that gravity was operating over the holidays. Whoever it was would say, “Oh, I know. That’s the Cornish version.” Or the Boscastle version. Or the Padstow version. They’d learned a different version back in Shropshire, or Essex, or Truro, or Wherever.

I’d explain: In the U.S., Christmas carols are harder to change that the Constitution, which (to simplify things a bit) only needs a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate and then the approval of three-quarters of the state legislatures. It’s a high standard to meet, but at least a procedure’s mapped out and ready to use. Christmas carols, though? Sorry, but we don’t have a way to change them, so they stay fixed, the North Star of our culture.

Whoever I was talking to would hear me out and then tell me all over again about Shropshire or Essex or Wherever. Eventually I stopped trying.

So that’s one reason I think about disappearing for the holidays. The next is that some of the carols are—well, let me tell you a story instead of trying to sum them up: Wild Thing and I went to a school Christmas concert to hear a friend’s daughter, and one of the carols was about Mary’s womb. And there we were expecting “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” Which, by the way, I hate.

Wild Thing leaned over and whispered that the Methodists in Amarillo never talked about Mary’s lady parts, let put them to music. In Amarillo, it was all “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-o(etc.)ria.” They sang the same carols I did, whose religion had, at least to my ears, been worn away by repetition. But change the words a bit and toss in Mary’s womb and you’ll jolt me out of my dozy acceptance. It starts to sound, you know, religious.

I should add that the word womb doesn’t make for a particularly singable line.

I grew up celebrating Christmas as a secular holiday. The extended family came to our apartment (and later, to our house) to eat, give the kids presents, and enjoy an argument or two, usually about politics. What can I tell you? Arguing was a form of entertainment in my family. But one year an older cousin’s girlfriend played the piano and we gathered around and sang carols, and every Jewish atheist one of us knew the songs as well as the few non-Jewish family members did.

It’s a moment I remember fondly. It was decades before I stopped to think what deeply weird picture it makes.

Then I moved to Minnesota and started to feel smothered by Christmas, and that’s my third reason, if you remember after all these words what we’re counting. In New York—at least in the circles I traveled in—there were enough Jews around to create a space for people who didn’t celebrate, and that made celebrating feel voluntary. I never paid much attention to who was Jewish and who was something else, but this wasn’t about individuals. It was about the impact of demographics. (At the time, my experience was pretty much limited to Jews and Christians. I don’t know if the New York created space for other forms of non-Christians over the holidays.)

Minnesota, though, is packed with people who even if they’re not religiously Christian are at least culturally so, and that left less space for people who didn’t celebrate the holiday. Celebration stopped feeling voluntary, and I developed mixed feelings about it—part celebratory, part crabby.

And in Cornwall? As far as I know, I’m the only Jew for miles around, and probably ditto for the only person whose family wasn’t, at some point, Christian. I still celebrate the holiday, which is good since Wild Thing never saw a holiday she didn’t want to be part of and has a strong historical claim to this one, but the more insistently it surrounds me the more footnotes, caveats, reservations I add.

This year, the carols weren’t overwhelming at the pub, and the harmonies on a couple of them were stunning. My crabby meter registered only minimal grumpiness. Maybe repetition is starting to blunt the edges of the religion.


Whatever you celebrate and whether it’s religious or secular, I wish you a good one of it. And if you don’ t have a holiday at this time of year, tuck my good wishes away and save them whenever your next holiday comes around. If you still remember by then where you left them.

Minims and crotchets: surviving British musical notation

“It’s simple,” G. tells me. “There are two quavers in a crotchet, two crotchets in a minim, and two minims in a semibreve.”

She’s not explaining the Harry Potter universe but musical notation in British as opposed to American. I give her a panicky nod, but I don’t fool her, because she stops before she gets to the full breve—which has a long E so that it sounds like breathe, in case you need to know that. And crotchet is pronounced like crotchety, with a T you can actually hear, not like that thing you do with a length of yarn and a crochet hook.

I explain to G. that I learned to call them whole notes, half notes, quarter notes, and so on, and she seems to believe that if I learn to translate those into the terms she knows we’ll be able to discuss time—that’s time as in music, not as in clocks. But because the eyelids of my mind fluttered when she said “It’s simple” and shut completely when she got to the quavers, my end of the conversation is mostly hand signals. I’m trying to show her the written notes, for some reason, with my fingers indicating whether the notes have stems and whether they’re filled in or hollow in the center.

Surprisingly relevant photo of a courgette. Or a zucchini is you prefer. Photo by Mmm Daffodils, on Wikimedia.

A courgette. Or a zucchini is you prefer. Photo by Mmm Daffodils, on Wikimedia.

G. and I know each other from the singers night at a local pub. Her head harbors a fine range of folk songs, from the sweet to the raunchy, with several stops in between, and she understands both time and notation, although she can’t necessarily communicate either of them to me. In spite of that, we’ve worked out a couple of songs that we sing together, and she tolerates my musical ignorance—a gift I admire even more than her ability to harmonize spontaneously. We’ve been working on a new song, Les Barker’s “Non, No Courgettes,” which is a mash-up of French and English set to the tune of Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.”

A courgette, in case you need to know this, is a British zucchini.

Somewhere in the midst of our run-through, I’ve fallen foul of a hemidemisemiquaver. Or something very much like one. There is such a thing. Really there is, although probably not in “No Courgettes.” I can’t say for sure because I wouldn’t recognize one if it snapped my finger off and added salt. All I know is that they’re very short, but then so are piranhas.

So am I, if that’s at all relevant.

I’m not completely uneducated about music. I took piano lessons as a kid, and I’m sure you could have found a more resolutely untalented student somewhere but you’d have had to look hard. The lessons were about either classical music or some damned silly song about my pretty dolly, and I wasn’t interested in either of them. I don’t remember how long I took lessons for. It seemed like forever, and my teacher must have felt the same way, but given how little I know it could have been no more than two months. I came out of it almost able to read music. I can follow the treble clef if the notes don’t go too far above the stave and the time signature doesn’t get complicated and there aren’t more than one or two flats or sharps. Forget about the bass clef—I can’t read that at all. To translate that, if we were talking about words, I could read the vowels but not the consonants. It’s ever so handy.

No one, in all the time I took piano lessons, ever mentioned a minim, a crotchet, or a quaver.

G. lets the abstract discussion slide—this is both wise and merciful—and we tackle the song again, both of us tapping time on the coffee table. In my head, the words run, “Non (two three), no courgettes (two three four)….”

She manages not to pack up her guitar and leave. It helps that one of the cats has crawled into the case and gone to sleep.

Folk Music and English Accents

I’ve lived in Cornwall for eight years, and I’ve gotten used to the gap between, on the one hand, Wild Thing’s and my accents and on the other the accents of pretty much everyone else we know. Most of the time, I don’t hear the difference. Even when I listen to the other Americans in the village, I don’t notice their accents. I’m listening to words, not what they’re wrapped in.

Except for the times when I do, of course, when it’s like being hit on the head with a rock. A small, soft rock, but still a rock.

I was at Singers Night at a nearby pub last week when out of nowhere I heard my accent. Whack: small, soft rock to the side of the head.

Irrelevant Photo #2: Bude Canal in the late evening light. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Irrelevant Photo #2: Bude Canal in the late evening light. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Singers night is a wonderful, unpredictable gathering of mostly amateur singers, although one professional shows up regularly, for the sheer love of singing. In the summer, the place gets crowded, with some of the visitors singing and others listening and occasionally taking pictures, which is strange since they’ll go home with pictures of a bunch of people in chairs, with their mouths open. But who am I to judge? This particular night gathered in a strong group singers, and any song with a chorus sounded great—rich voices, good energy, harmonies. I admire the hell out of people who can harmonize spontaneously.

G. had started a song whose chorus repeats the line “Didn’t I dance?” and we must’ve sung the words three times before I heard myself: dahnce. My accent had melted into the accents around me instead of sending that good ol’ American A up my nose to spin itself so flat you could use if for a plate.

Dahnce? I thought. Dahnce? Who the hell am I turning into?

Some people pick up accents when they move, but I’m not one of them. To lose my accent, or even modify it, has always seemed like a much larger loss, as if I’d be losing some part of who I am, or hiding it behind a cardboard cut-out of a personality. I lived in Minnesota for decades without picking up more than a bit of shading on the O. Or so M.’s friend, who’s a dialogue coach, tells me. I’d have sworn I still sounded like the purest of New Yorkers, but she has an ear for accents, so I’ll have to take her word for it.

I’m not claiming my attitude’s better than anyone else’s, and to demonstrate how little sense it makes, I’ll tell you that I’m not bad at picking up accents in other languages. In my head, that’s a matter of respect—for the language; for the people who speak it. In English, though, I count the same act as disrespect.

To make even marginal sense of this, I have to mention the toxic history that imitating other people’s accents has in the U.S. When I was a kid, whites imitating African-American or Mexican accents did it badly and to make fun of them. It was skin-crawlingly awful. These days, I know white kids (okay, they used to be kids; you turn your back for ten minutes and they grow up) who adopt African-American accents because they like them and want to blend in. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but I don’t suppose it matters, because it’s not my feelings that count.

My point here is that there’s a do-not-cross line in my head that keeps me from picking up accents in English, but there I was, singing dahnce.

Every language, and every accent within a language, is a song. I’d love to claim credit for that insight, but I heard someone say it in a radio interview. Unfortunately, I haven’t a clue who it was. A woman, I think, so that narrows it down a bit. Whoever you are, I apologize for not crediting you. But to illustrate your point, whoever you are, when I was still living in the U.S., I heard a recording of kids playing in a schoolyard, and without being able to catch a single word I could tell they were English. The song of their accent rose free of the words. And that’s what swept me along in that chorus: the song.

British singers often sing in American accents. It drives the purists nuts, and they blame it on American rock music. If you listen to enough of it, the accent pours itself on top of the notes and you may not even notice that you’ve picked it up.

Unfortunately, picking up an accent doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get it right. You’re likely to revert to your own accent at any time. Sometimes a word is so firmly stuck in your head that you don’t notice you’re reverting: Michigan comes out Mitchigan; Houston comes out Hooston. The line that tickles me is from a hard-luck, down-and-out folk song with the line “I can’t go back home this a-way.” Only it was an English singer, and it came out as cahn’t. “I cahn’t go back home this a-way.” Hard-luck, down-and-out meets silver-spoon. Cahn’t isn’t limited to a silver-spoon accent here, but put it in an American song and it sure sounds like one. And that’s one of the problems with singing in accents that aren’t your own.

Me? I avoid songs that demand an accent transplant. Most of what I sing is American folk music, and the U.S. is a long way from here, so if I end up singing songs I can’t lay claim to by right of either geography or heritage (and I do; they’re fantastic songs), from this distance they don’t sound as absurd as they would if I were back home.

To the extent that I sing English songs, I keep my accent in place and avoid anything I know is going to sound ridiculous. And if anyone who’s heard me wants to warn me off some particular song because I do sound ridiculous, just throw a nice, soft rock at my head. It would be a kindness.