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Holiday Guide

Jingle Bells, Batman Smells

From fartlore to ancient carols, celebrating the one time of year regular people sing together

Photo: Emily C-D, License: N/A, Created: 2011:11:16 15:25:48

Emily C-D

Technology has stolen something beautiful from human beings. This thing has little to do with declining internet-abused attention spans, shrinking real-world emotional support networks, or the general reinterfacing of humans’ relationships with the tactile world vis-à-vis small, stone-like electronic devices kept in front pockets, purses, or perhaps one day implanted within the brain circuitry. This particular loss happened well before the ones we panic about today, before even television or the widespread availability of recorded music. Humans, particularly Western humans, have lost singing.

People still perform singing, of course. Even that, though, is arguably less true as technology allows artists to modulate voices via Auto-Tune—or produce them via Yamaha’s voice-synthesis marvel VOCALOID—or a wide variety of other far more subtle studio tricks. The University of Tokyo right now is working on a new strain of artificial voice by way of a technique called Interactive Evolutionary Computation that should allow robot singing to shed nearly all of its synthetic markers. So human voices get more artificial-sounding, while artificial voices get more human-sounding. This is the arena into which singing has entered in the 21st century.

Oddly enough, however, the loss, the defining battle, may have occurred a century ago, as a human history’s worth of folk-song tradition succumbed to literacy and, eventually, the conversion of culture into something for sale. People used to sing together, regular people not so much performing music for others, but people just singing together because that’s what people did as a means of communication (conveying history) or celebration—or just because they were bored.

“[Singing]’s social aspects appear wherever a group are gathered together, conserving the elements of the primitive ‘folk’—congeniality, freedom from care, and light-hearted-ness—hunters and trappers around a camp-fire, it may be, or railway laborers in a box-car on a wet night.” So goes a passage in “The Transmissions of Folk-Song,” a 1914 article by Phillips Barry in The Journal of Folklore.

We have but shreds of folk-song culture left in the year 2011. Define folk song simply as songs that are learned, remembered, and shared within a certain group of people: Wobblies, church members, laborers, just people living in a certain area together. A surprisingly good modern example of surviving folk-song tradition is simply kids jumping rope. You know, “Cinderella, dressed in yellow/ went upstairs to kiss a ’fella/ made a mistake/ and kissed a snake.” Kids don’t learn these from Facebook or television; they learn them from other kids. “Cinderella” isn’t something sold or downloaded; rather it’s something that appears through repetition. That’s a folk song.

Another folk song: “Jingle Bells.” Surely someone will quickly correct me with an anecdote about reading the lyrics to “Jingle Bells” off a red or green slip of paper in elementary school, but consider the particular version that this writer, at least, defaults to when singing the carol—the “Jingle bells, Batman smells” version. (That would be the “fartlore” version of the song, to use a term coined by WW Newell prize-winning Penn State researcher Trevor Blank.) In any case, how is the fartlore version of “Jingle Bells” relayed through culture if not as a folk song? Via repetition and memory. In fact, this is how cultural memory was transmitted through most of human history and throughout all cultures: repetition through song.

But, much more generally than the playground version of “Jingle Bells,” Christmas carols persist as an artifact of folk song, a dim reminder of when singing belonged to everyone. The roots of carols are not, in fact, with Christmas. They’re actually secular in origin, a celebratory version of folk song that appeared around holidays or changing seasons. Folklore revivalist Cecil Sharp writes in his 1911 English Folk-Carols pamphlet: “The term ‘Carol’ is not an easy one to define. The Rev. H. R. Bramley’s definition—a kind of popular song appropriated to some special season of the ecclesiastical or natural year—is, perhaps, the best that has been devised.”

In the 1914 article, Barry recounts a spring festival:

In the spring, the Literary Society held its annual exhibition. A large crowd would then be in attendance, and people would come twenty miles or more to take part. “The schoolhouse,” to quote the exact words of an eye-witness, “would be jammed so full, that, looking from the stage, you could see only a sea of heads. People stood in the seats, on the backs of the seats, in the windows, on chairs, and on every available bit of floor-space.” The programme, which was quite long and elaborate, included organ and violin solos, speeches, recitations, dialogues, and songs.

It’s an idyllic image of community, a bunch of people gathered around to sing because it’s warm out. Maybe that doesn’t happen a whole lot anymore outside of a church, or outside of what caroling there is. Based on a little bit of anecdotal data from parents and friends’ parents, at some of the softer-core American Christian churches, you’ll likely find a good number of congregants there primarily for the sense of community provided by a church.

And where there’s a Christian church, there are carols. Christmas is such a rough time for a lot of people, and that’s kinda the genesis of this idea of tying modern carols to traditional folk song and the warm, fuzzy idea-myth of tight-knit groups of people sharing folk histories. People singing is a decent enough reason to not loathe Christmas entirely as it’s a last bastion of regular people singing carols.

All these thoughts are in extreme retrospect now that I’m some 20 years post-church and have no plans of returning. And caroling itself in my mind-bank was always a pretty awful, forced activity that probably helped hard-wire the social anxiety I’ll probably die with. Consider that awfulness, however, as more a signifier of that larger thing that Western humans don’t really do anymore. It’s awful precisely because it happens just once a year. Not just that, but maybe you’re caroling in front of people that never do it or, even worse, that have never sung with others.

Techno-optimists tend to frame things in terms of change and not loss. For example, the internet didn’t destroy our relationships, it only changed them into something different by offering new ways of interactions. There’s a sort of transcendentalism to this way of thinking about fundamental urges: What is expressed through folk songs can be expressed in a different way, adapted to new modes of communication and history-keeping.

Phillips Barry agrees with the idea of fundamental urges or needs, albeit in a different way. “Acting in response to the universal instinct of man to sing,” he writes, “he takes [folk songs] as he finds them, and makes them his own, shaping them according to the subconscious dictates of his own fancy. The lone fisherman in his rocking dory, the rustic at the plough, the cowboy with his never-ending plaint, as expressed in the accompanying strain—‘Bury me in some quiet spot, Where these bones of mine won’t be forgot.’” ■

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