Wednesday, 25 May 2011

A Dildo For A Song


Last night I went to see All's Well That Ends Well at the Globe. A line in the play made me think of the Beatles and Our Mutual Friend.


Clown: By my troth, I take my young lord to be a very melancholy man.


Countess: By what observance, I pray you?


Clown: Why, he will look upon his boot and sing; mend the ruff and sing; ask questions and sing; pick his teeth and sing. I know a man that had this trick of melancholy sold a goodly manor for a song.

What is the connection to the Beatles? Well, it's an obscure aspect of the song Your Mother Should Know (video beneath), the lyrics of which run:

Let's all get up and dance to a song
That was a hit before your mother was born
And though she was born a long, long time ago,
Your mother should know,
Your mother should know.

You see, Paul McCartney's mother was born in 1909, which means that the song was probably a hit in 1908 or earlier, in which case its hittiness would not have been measured in record sales, but in sales of sheet music.

Do you remember Silas Wegg in Our Mutual Friend? No? Oh well. He's a poor street vendor who develops a rather weird obsession with the occupants of the house outside of which he sells ballads and sheet music.

Sheet music used to be everywhere. Before the gramophone existed it was the only way of obtaining a song for keeps. Hearing a song was no more than hearing a recitation of a poem. If you liked it, you bought it on paper. So selling music was an essential part of everyday life, and the salesmen were (often) the lowest of the low.

The same character, essentially, pops up in A Winter's Tale. Autolycus, who describes himself as "a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles", is an itinerant ballad-seller who:

...hath songs for man or woman, of all sizes; no
milliner can so fit his customers with gloves: he
has the prettiest love-songs for maids; so without
bawdry, which is strange; with such delicate
burthens of dildos and fadings...

I fear an aside on dildoes is required. The word is first recorded in 1598 meaning exactly what it does today, but it also appeared in lots of ballads as a meaningless refrain. Just as our songs have sha-la-las and yeah-yeah-yeahs, so Elizabethan ballads had fa-la-las, hey-nonny-noes, and dildoes.

All of which brings us full circle to that line from All's Well That Ends Well which is the very first recorded example of selling something for a song. When the melancholy man of whom the clown speaks sold a goodly manor for a song, he was exchanging his real estate for a piece of sheet music because he needed something new to sing.

Perhaps, for the price of his land he got hold of the Roxburghe Ballads, which contain the beautiful lines:

She prov'd herself a Duke's daughter, and he but a Squire's son.
Sing trang dildo lee

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm off to sing trang dildo lee all over London until I get arrested.

1 comment:

  1. What, no mention of the Earl of Rochester?

    ReplyDelete