Singing the Past

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Singing the Past is an event with Dr Freyja Cox Jensen, Lecturer in History at the University of Exeter, and her brother, Dr Oskar Cox Jensen, Research Fellow at King’s College London, running as part of the Being Human Festival 2015. In the post below, Dr Oskar Cox Jensen asks, Where has all the singing gone?

We may think that we are surrounded by song as never before – in shops, on television, at sporting events, and of course in the privacy of our headphones, commuting to work, exercising, or simply strolling down the street.

But it was in the age before recorded sound that song mattered most to people’s lives: before CDs were spun or Spotify streamed, music was something you had to make.

Dr. Freya Cox Jensen playing the mandolin.

Dr. Freya Cox Jensen playing the mandolin.

To take that list above: as the tradition of ‘London Cries’ makes clear, goods and services used to be sold with a song, the milkmaid using one tune, the dustman another. Popular entertainment was stuffed with songs, especially in the theatre, where this was normally demanded by law. Even a tragedy would end with the latest hit and a dance, to send people away with a smile on their face and a song on their lips. Work song, on farms or factories, was crucial to the existence of millions, whilst Victorian children’s exercise was organised by communal singing. It was in the street that you heard the most singing, from buskers, as time went on, but for centuries, by ballad-singers, the people who sold you the words and taught you the tune of a song: all-in-one human jukeboxes, record shops, and songbooks. And at home, in the pub, on the road, if you wanted to hear one of these songs, you sang it yourself.

It is perhaps only in sport – think of the crowd at a football match – that this age-old involvement with singing lives on, with rival crowds showing both their support and their enmity with crude or clever parodies. In the past, parody was the main source of new songs: fitting new words to existing tunes.

Dr. Oskar Cox Jensen

Dr. Oskar Cox Jensen

In modern times, parodies tend to be comic (Monty Python, Weird Al Yankovic, and, er, Chris Moyles), but they could also be serious. Because no specific musical skill was needed to adapt a song’s lyrics, this meant songwriting was something everyone could participate in, making it in a very real sense the art-form of the people.

Clearly, songs still matter to people. Look at the fuss over Jeremy Corbyn not singing ‘God save the Queen’; at the student nightclubs when whatever this year’s ‘Sex on Fire’ or ‘Mister Brightside’ comes on; at the frankly disconcerting love people show for Les Mis. And people really, really love karaoke. Even – especially – those who can’t sing. Song electrifies brain, body, and soul (whatever that is) in a way nothing else can, and has always done so.

Just as looking at the past connects us to song, so song connects us to the past. People used to sing about everything: the love, sex, and money that make up most hits today, but also murder, politics, shipwreck, death, ghosts, God, theft, war, adventure, work, race, justice, drink – the list goes on. All the stuff of life that mattered to children, men, women, the stuff that didn’t make the history books, went into songs. Anyone interested in the past of this country, in music, or in the lives of ordinary people, would do well to look at their songs. Except ‘look’ is the wrong word. There’s really only one way . . . and that’s to sing them.

Singing the Past is on three dates throughout the Being Human Festival: Thursday 12 November, Friday 13 November and Saturday 14 November.

Dr. Oskar Cox Jensen recently wrote an article that appeared in the New Statesman about Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to not sing the National Anthem and how this can be regarded within a political historical context.

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