On Coping with Temporal and Spatial Imprecision in Early American Folk Songs

 

No issue too trivial, no remedy too irrelevant in structuring my universe.

She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes 
She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes
She’ll be coming round the mountain, she’ll be coming round the mountain,
She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes

She’ll be riding six white horses when she comes (Hee Haw) 
She’ll be riding six white horses when she comes (Hee Haw)
She’ll be riding six white horses, she’ll be riding six white horses,
She’ll be riding six white horses when she comes (Hee Haw)
 

Most of us feel a mystic kinship to Early American folk songs: case in point, the jaunty call and response song She’ll be Coming ‘Round the Mountain. Traditional ditties like these from the Early American songbook convey a sense of unbridled optimism stretching out over a robust country ripe with opportunity. And yet for all its nationalist fervor and manifest destiny the song fairly bristles with an inexcusable lack of time-space coordinates. More specifically, once the listener realizes an unnamed and otherwise phantom “she” will be coming ‘round the mountain, our first reaction is to wonder when she’ll arrive – when will “she” be coming ‘round the mountain? Our reptilian logic centers are primed for processing the precise locus of this event. And despite our anticipatory curiosity, all we are told is that she’ll be coming ‘round that mountain, “When she comes.” I’m afraid this simply will not do. Although I loathe words that have a “b” followed by an “h”, I nonetheless abhor songs whose feel good, sunny lyrics betray an appalling lack of time and place.

 

As the song opens we know this much: “she” will be coming ‘round the mountain (which mountain is unclear, but I’ll leave that for another time) and “she” will get there whenever she gets there – WTH, no ETA (What the Hell, no Estimated Time of Arrival). Am I supposed to just quietly rollover and accept this temporal imprecision. And to rub chronological asynchronicity into an already open and untimely wound, this crude approximation of time (when she comes) is emphasized 3 times in the song’s reiterative verse. Although I abhor words that end in “the”, I nonetheless loathe song lyrics whose feel good, sunny lyrics betray an appalling lack of time and place.

 

If nothing else I’m a team player when it comes to granting 150-year-old folk songs a latitude of expression. In fact the unilateral bestowal of artistic expression on old American folk songs is one of my better qualities. After all, it’s just a song and not a life or death situation – at least not yet anyway? I’m big enough to move off my dime and look at the bigger picture. But since I don’t know when she’ll arrive or even around which mountain she’ll be coming, I’d hoped the lyricist might provide a clue as to how I might identify this anonymous “she.” And, appreciatively, he does by indicating that our nameless cowgirl will “be riding 6 white horses when she comes.” OK. That’s helpful. I’ll be on the lookout for any female rider coming ‘round the mountain on 6 white horses. That I can do.

 

Easily Discerned Form of Conveyance – Not so Fast 

But wait. How does a singular lady ride 6 easy to spot white horses? How does one ride 6 white horses? Is she some mythic figure like the many-headed Hydra or in this case an epic creature with 6 white asses saddled into 6 white horses? Now I’m off the rails (which is how I wished “she” was traveling). Or is this woman some kind of collective “she” consisting of 6-apple-cheeked Annie Oakley-types spiritedly galloping into town on 6 white horses? My nerves are frazzled and my ability to process this event has seized – like a rusty Johnson Bar on a steam locomotive (which is how I wished “she” was traveling). The unanswered questions are piling up: How many riders, from what direction and when will they arrive – and we’re only 6 seconds into the song. Do I need this? Could any of this been prevented? Also, and this is completely beside the point, I wonder if there’s really any downside to eating Top Ramen Noodles that supposedly “expired” 2 years ago? I think they’d be safe to eat if they were found in King Tut’s tomb and served at a museum opening.

 

Trying to Cope with the Tatters from My Shredded American Songbook

All pervasive gloom surrounds me. What should’ve been a sweet little singalong has devolved into a bitter mélange of mixed messages and gnawing anxieties. How does a homespun folk song morph into my Appalachian nightmare? I blame the uncaring lyricist who exhibited lofty hubris and biting contempt in failing to address the needs of the ADD hillbilly listener who requires only two simple things: her time of arrival and the number of riders. This omission, this cavalier attitude of imprecision is a blight on our Early American Songbook. Musical etiquette demands at least a general timetable of expectancy and an indication of the number of riders. That is, when might one expect the arrival time of this mysterious “she” who is coming ‘round our mountain and how many of them are “she.” That last sentence may not be grammatically correct, inasmuch as nonetheless was heretofore already used in this story – nevertheless I standbyit.

 

Soliloquy of the Chronologically Misbegotten

I have asked little. Perchance to hear: “She’ll be comin ‘round the mountain at 3:25 Eastern Standard Time,” instead of the carelessly tossed-off “She’ll be comin’ ‘round the mountain When She Comes.” The chronological inexactitude offered is foul indeed. My God, such a brazen display of entitlement to temporal inaccuracy. But is this not typical of elitist “show biz” types talking at us, not to us? I’ve come to call this musical effrontery “Lyrical Paternalism.” All I’m requesting is a “She’ll be comin’ ‘round the mountain this morning sometime between 10 and 11?”

 

So What if My “Big Picture” is Microscopic

I, of course, recognize that musical considerations enter into the construction of this time/lyric dynamic, but aren’t we at least owed some kind of time-space parameter so those who are awaiting our mythic “she” do not neglect our never-ending coal-mining chores. Call and response para-gospel folk songs are all well and good, but some of us have shacks to newspaper before the first cold snap, otherwise our water pump will seize like a Johnson Bar on a steam locomotive (which is how I wished “she” was traveling). I both loathe and abhor repairing this stitch in the fabric of the early American songbook when all I really want to do is take the jitney into town for a Dilly Bar at the DQ. I should be attending to coal mining and not fretting over who, when or how our mythic dame might be coming ‘round the mountain. All I’m asking for is some clarity as to when she might arrive – even a 4 hour window like we give those nice cable TV boys. 

 

This 1830’s lyricist is brushing us off with his careless “She’ll get there when she gets there.” However this lyrical insouciance can be easily analogized to the popular present day American idiom “It is what it is.” Both are pithy yet vacuous. A crescendo of superlatives indicative of nothing and so characteristic of early 21st century America. All this avoidable imprecision leaves me forlorn – maybe even five or six lorn. Perhaps even Lorne Michaels (which is how I wished “she” was traveling – as in “Can’t talk now, I’ve got a Lorne Michaels to catch.”).

 

Swanne River by Stephen Foster – A Spatially Imprecise Minstrel Song

 

Way down upon de Swanee Ribber,
Far, far away,
Dere’s wha my heart is turning ebber,
Dere’s wha de old folks stay.

 

Stephen Foster, the Father of American Music, but no friend of distance specificity.

And now I’m off the rails once again. It’s OK though. I’ll fortify myself with those soaring words Stephen Foster spoke so eloquently at a Johnson Bar manufacturing plant ribbon-cutting ceremony in 1853: Ask not what your lyrics can do for you, but what you can do for your lyrics. Mr. Foster (1826-1864) is widely regarded as the father of American music. His canon includes the classic Swanee River. It was the best-selling sheet music for decades and although I celebrate the song’s wistfully poignant sentiments, I do have a quibble with its geographic inexactitude. For example Mr. Foster laments, “Way down upon the Swanee River, far, far away.” It’s just so non-specific or even evasive in its indication of distance. Way down upon the Swanee River” – how “way down” is he referring to. And then Mr. Foster seems to qualify his lazy calculation of distance with an equally vague, “far, far away.” So obfuscating are his circumlocuting references that one would be more likely to end up in a swamp than a river. Please Mr. Foster, may the heirs to your estate amend your gross approximations   and provide us with some GPS coordinates in traversing the river so that our quixotic idyll of punting on the Swanee doesn’t turn into a scene from Deliverance.

 

An Open Letter to the Executrix of Stephen Foster’s Estate

Dear Susanna Foster,

Although I’m saddened by your great5-grandfather’s crude estimates of distance, Oh Susanna, oh don’t you cry for me.

In Mr. Foster’s vague lyrics: Way down upon the Swannee river does beg the question how far down and from what point do we begin the calculation? And please Susanna don’t respond with any of that far, far away stuff. I want lat/longs and I want them to rhyme.

Help us all to heal,

David Hardiman

PS: If you can get me Hamilton tickets I’ll be healed

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