Friday, October 31, 2008

Is Sex Important?

In spite of the enticing heading and stereotypical images, I now propose to bore you with some thoughts about gender-specific pronoun substitution.

This questionable activity has come up a few times within this club’s 'tween-performance banter.

Purists, regarding traditional song, would regard gender-pronoun substitution as unforgivable. These people would opine that the performance demonstrates the song and, only secondarily, the performer. To some extent I agree with that stance. There is ample evidence in the standard folksong collections that a man would commonly sing a song that patently has the supposed raconteur as a woman (and vice-versa.) I take as one example ‘All Things are Quite Silent’. Essentially, this is a woman’s lament. It was collected by RVW in 1904 from one Mr. Ted Baines. In reverse, Mrs. Russell of Upwey sang ‘One Night as I Lay on my Bed’ to Mr. Hammond in 1907. That song has to do with dreaming about a pretty maid. Neither of these songs would tolerate gender reorientation without becoming nonsensical. Both occupy my repertoire and, as a male (that's the body on the left without the bumps,) I have no embarrassment about singing what might be perceived as a ‘girlie’ song.

There are a few songs where pronoun substitution might work. Recently I played around with ‘I Live Not Where I Love’. Fine, substituting ‘her’ or ‘you’ for ‘him’ suffices until you reach the final verse. Then, damn it, it becomes clear that we have a woman addressing a man called Thomas. Actually, it can be done, but poor Thomas has to undergo extensive surgery to become Molly. Before being totally satisfied with the new scansion, you consult your dictionary and find that ‘swain’ is defined as ‘a young MALE lover’. Sort that out if you can! Finally, you go back to your source (Marrowbones, EFDS, 1965) and discover that Mr. Hammond collected the song from one Robert Barratt of Piddletown, Dorset in 1905. Then you wonder why you bothered in the first place. If it was OK for Mr. Barratt then, it has to be fine for me now.

Fortunately, there are those many folksongs that begin ‘As I walked out …' That’s brilliant! It is a device that places the gender-indeterminate singer in the position of observer. He/she can then continue reportage irrespective of any gender orientation of the context. It means that I CAN get away with singing Geordie. I often wonder whether this so-called floating verse really belonged to the song at inception, or was it later introduced by a politically-correct, gender-sensitive performer?

Most recently, we experienced this conundrum when one of our lady participants sang a Beatles’ song containing the repeated phrase ‘And I love her'. ‘Her’ became ‘him’. It was a charming performance. When it works (and, without any other manipulation, this did) pronoun-substitution complements the notion of ephemeral ownership by the singer for the duration of that performance. (You’ve heard me on that subject before.) Well done, Lynda and Paul.

Conclusion? If it works for the singer, and the song retains its original flavour and makes sense, well, OK. BUT – beware! Are we verging on parody here? My vitriolic opinion on parody has been hidden in a blog comment in an earlier post.

"But what about 'God Save the Reigning Monarch'?" you may well ask.

So, is sex important? What's your answer?
How was it for you, darling?!

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