We’ve been singing “The Sloop John B” this term. This is a song I first learnt at school, from one of those wonderful Singing Together collections, published by the BBC and linked to a radio programme, though at our school we never listened to the radio. I don’t know if it was just the booklets that we had in stock, but I remember there being an awful lot of seafaring songs – The Mermaid, Shenandoah, and this one for a start.
It’s one of those songs in which the music seems to flatly contradict the content of the lyrics. It’s jolly and rollicking and upbeat. It’s in a cheerful major key and swings along merrily. Meanwhile, we are hearing in the lyrics how “This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on.”
Coincidentally, I’ve been reading The Worst Journey in the World. This is the story of Scott’s Antarctic expedition of 1910-13, written by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, one of the youngest people in the crew. The conditions they endured are almost unimaginable, with temperatures down to -77°F, chasm-like crevasses, howling winds that sound like an express train going through a tunnel for days on end. Their food is a mixture of pemmican, biscuit and cocoa, although at the point I’ve reached they are having to kill their ponies and are eating the meat. In 1911 they knew that lime juice prevented scurvy, but they did not know about vitamins or that you had to take them daily – they thought scurvy was some kind of bacterial infection, made worse by too little sleep. Why am I enjoying this book?
Telling tales of the trips you’ve been on is both enjoyable and entertaining. How it rained every day, and how terrible the food was at that particular pub, and how rude the landlord at the B&B, are the really memorable bits. We survived! Now that you are telling it in a nice warm space, with friends and a drink, it enhances all the things you might take for granted – like a roof, a warm bed, and enough to eat. It gives you a warm glow to look back and see how you got through situations that were physically and mentally exhausting.
That’s where the major key comes in. That’s why it doesn’t seem inappropriate to have a cheerful, upbeat tune when you’re singing about awful times. The music adds a layer of depth to the lyrics. It reminds you that your horrible experience is now something you can put in a box and confine to the past, with relief and gratitude.