Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Jonathan B. Hall on Oral Tradition

We are continuing discussion of oral tradition from here.

Jonathan B. Hall's writings mostly concern the pipe organ and sacred music. Before studying organ, he studied English literature. In this piece, he combines his interests in music and literature.

Over at his blog, Jonathan has written about how symmetry (what I call "binary distinctions") are an aspect of the form that provides greater meaning.  He notes that the loss of grandfather in a popular holiday poem, results in imbalance and loss of meaning. The Bible sustains the binary distinction of male-female, heaven-earth, God-Mankind, because the tension of the opposites reveals the greater meaning.  In this thoughtful piece, Jonathan demonstrates how this is so.

Jonathan writes:

One of the holiday songs we all don’t know in common is “Over the River and Through the Woods,” a poem by Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880) of Medford, Massachusetts.

Five miles northwest of Boston, Medford is, I think, the birthplace of much of our historic New England, Currier-and-Ives iconography of an American Christmas. “Jingle Bells” was composed here, in honor of the sleigh races down Salem Street. The most popular American liquor, Old Medford Rum, was made here. Paul Revere stopped here, rousing Captain Hall of the Medford Minutemen.

My own family roots are deep in the town that gave us all of this iconography.

So, what’s the correction?

The opening lines of the song, that’s what.

Normally, we Americans sing the song like this:

Over the river and through the woods,
to grandmother’s house we go;

Later on, if anyone’s still singing, we sing: “…now grandmother’s cap I spy! Hurrah for the fun! Is the pudding done?…” and so on. It’s all there on YouTube. But:

Where’s grandfather?

Well, he is supposed to be there too. He’s been edited out—I’ll leave the reader to decide why.

Here’s how Miss Child wrote the poem:

Over the river and through the wood,
to grandfather’s house we go;
the horse knows the way
to carry the sleigh
through the light and drifting snow…

Grandfather’s house. Not Grandmother’s. The early appearance of “grandfather’s house” in the original text makes “grandmother’s cap” all the more delightful, all the more poetically balanced, when it appears in its proper place in the poem.

There’s equality, too; it’s Grandfather’s House, but the first person we see, the one whose sight delights us first, is Grandmother! (The “cap” is a synechdoche, standing in for Grandmother the way “house” does for Grandfather, only with greater personal immediacy. We meet the Grandparents via synechdoche; neither one is erased.)

What a beautiful image of America, the spiritual Zion, and our heavenly destiny. Grandfather’s House. This poem resonates because it’s also deeply anagogic: the poet is also thinking of our journey home to God, Who may be appropriately envisioned as an elderly male (though of course, God transcends gender, even if we cannot). The poetry is exquisitely Christian:

Over the river: by the agency of Baptism; by crossing the Jordan. (Literally, the Mystick River that flows through Medford.)

Through the woods: the vale of tears, the earthly life of uncertainty. The Selva Oscura. (Literally, the religiously-iconic wilderness of Massachusetts.)

Grandfather’s House: heaven.

Grandmother’s cap: the foretaste of glory. What great female saints we shall meet there as well! How welcoming; how like a complete family it shall be. (May one dare to think of our Lady?)


Is the pudding done? The feast of the Kingdom.— O sacrum convivium… futuræ gloriæ nobis pignus datur.

From now on, I will make a point to teach and lead this song with its correct, deeply-resonant text. Grandfather’s house it is, and shall remain!


poetreader said...

I had never heard the song/poem with Grandfather in it before. Now I have checked, and that is indeed the original version. This is a good example of how the formal structure remains constant in folk transmission, but the logical form often changes dramatically. One word can do it, and in so doing reverse the meaning. Oral tradition is indeed one of the primary witnesses to history and one of the primary vehicles of preserving vital tradition -- but it is dangerous to take oral tradition as authority without a deep investigation as to what changes may have crept in, or what the full context may have been.
This kind of drift even occurs in the use of written materials, being endemic in the subtle and often unnoticed misquoting of Scripture, and of historical and legal documents.

As Child was a strong Christian, writing with a strong Biblical awareness, I do think Hall's exegesis of her poem stands up well.


Alice C. Linsley said...

I agree. He's done a good job with this.

Georgia said...

Perhaps Grandmother's cap is the the renewed mind that transforms the church.

Alice C. Linsley said...

The only "renewed mind" the Church needs is that of its Head, Jesus Christ.