Josna Rege

18. Songlines

In 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, Inter/Transnational, Music, Stories on March 12, 2010 at 12:36 pm

I have learned many of my favorite songs elsewhere—somewhere other than their place of origin. Songlines—an evocative concept from the indigenous people of Australia that came to me via Bruce Chatwin’s book of the same name (thank you, Stephen Clingman)—map not only local spaces, but criss-cross the planet, remapping it as they go. When I was a wakeful infant, my father would walk up and down with me, singing, Poppa Piccolino, an American version of an Italian pop song that was a hit in England at the time, and that he in turn adapted into a lullaby specially for me. (All over India they love our little Jojo, Papa Piccolino, naughty little Jojo…). In doing so,  he sang me not only to sleep but also, almost literally, into existence. As my mother sang Loch Lomond in Kharagpur while doing the housework, her love and longing for home infused itself into the song and into my soul. In Greece in the 1960s I learned Greek versions of the Hindi film songs that were wildly popular at the time (my father moonlighting by translating Hindi films into English to be further translated into Greek for subtitles). During our sojourn in England while I was a teenager, my mother gave me a book of American folk songs collected by Alan Lomax and introduced by Pete Seeger, so that I came to America already familiar with some of its folk traditions and in tune with the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s.

Early in 1971, while I was new to America and we were still in high school, Andrew took me out to The Boston Tea Party (not to be confused with the revolutionary movement—we’re not that old—or the current reactionary one). The Tea Party was a hole-in-the-wall music venue on Lansdowne Street near the Fenway, and it was there that I first had the opportunity to see and hear Doc Watson, still playing with his son Merle. Over the nearly forty years since that evening, Doc’s songs, along with John Prine’s, have sung America deep into me, perhaps more than anything else has done.


Both my maternal uncles Ted and Len loved folk music, and so on trips back to England I would often bring recordings of American folk artists for them, to each according to his tastes. On one visit, I brought Uncle Ted a Doc & Merle Watson LP (Ballads from Deep Gap, 1971), but I didn’t have a chance to listen to it with him or to learn how he liked it because I spend so little time in England. Years later he told me this story.

Uncle Ted is married to Aunt Mary, who emigrated to England from Ireland as a young woman, and for many years, Ted and Mary would travel across to Ireland to visit her family near the town of Clonmel in Tipperary County. In Ireland as in England, the pubs are the community centers, and in Ireland as recently as the 1980s and 1990s, people entertained themselves and each other not by hiring a performer or by playing the juke box, but by singing, each in turn round the tables. Uncle Ted loved the warmth of Mary’s multi-generational Irish family and community, and readily joined in the singing when his turn came. On one particular visit to Clonmel in the mid-1980s, he sang Roll in my Sweet Baby’s Arms, a Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs number from the Doc Watson album I had given him, and it was well received.

Several years later, Ted and Mary returned to the same pub in Clonmel to find a young man singing a tune that sounded strangely familiar. Ted soon realized that it was that song from the Doc Watson record, in a slightly different rendition. He asked the publican about the song and where it had come from, and received this reply:

“Funny you should ask: that song is new to these parts. No one knows where it’s from, but people started singing it about five years back, and now it’s quite popular round here.”

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  1. Lovely musings on a fave subject. I also saw Doc and Merle at the Tea Party – I think my sis and I went with Paul Mason.

    • Hah! I wonder if we were there on the same night? Did Mimi Farina open for them, or am I confusing that with another time? x Jo

  2. and I remember you, Jo, making up songs for nikhil on car journeys..

  3. hi josna, so lovely to read your take on songlines. my mother too sang while she worked, and her repertoire, in south africa, included loch lomond.

  4. I wonder where your mother in turn learned it? It’s fascinating to hear of these shared, traveling songs. I think singing (and dancing) while you work is a key to happiness. x Jo

  5. I’m reading several days’ worth of your blogs in a row, and things keep hitting memories. I spent a few weeks in Ireland in the summer of 1970, mostly on the west coast in County Kerry. They were filming “Ryan’s Daughter” at the time, although we never did run into the crew. I was traveling with an American man and a Danish (male) and German (female) couple. Gisela sometimes had trouble being accepted if people found out she was German. Anyway, at the pub one night, we were invited to sing. I don’t sing well, and all I could think of was Leonard Cohen’s version of “Sisters of Mercy.” Everyone looked baffled but clapped politely and didn’t urge me to sing another.

  6. You were probably ahead of your time, Sarah. I bet that song would be well-received if you sang it there today.

  7. And now my six-year-old son is a diehard Doc fan! He lays around the shack listening to recordings and then singing them while accompanying himself on guitar, uke, and a bootlegged dobro. Love this story, Jojo!

    • Ah, Eveline, would love to hang round the shack with you both and sing along. Nikhil was a fan too, at the same age, in fact, went to his first Doc Watson concert in Wilmington, VT at four. We sent up a list of three of his requests to the stage, and Doc sang them all! I know one of them was “Mama don’t ‘low no music played around here.” Hah! As if.

  8. Have only just discovered Doc Watson, thanks to a recent NPR interview. Lovely post.

    • Ah, Mary, you lucky duck! All those beautiful songs still to be heard. I’m sure Daniel and Julia will love them too. I think Nikhil’s first concert was a Doc Watson concert, and there were certain songs of his that were favorites when he was about the age Daniel is now. “Freight Train Boogie” was one, and of course, “Mama Don’t ‘Low No Music Played Around Here”!

  9. To your lovely lines on songs….they’re like rolling stones (no bad puns I promise). My mother used to sing “Glory, Glory Allelujah” to John Brown’s body….and… the redone “Hush Little Baby don’t say a word”… a rollicking jazz standard that went “Hush Little Baby, don’t say a word, Mama’s going to buy you a mocking bird/If that Mocking bird still makes you fret/ Daddy’s gonna buy you a string quartet”…..etc “If that String quartet lack pizzazz/Daddy’s gonna buy you some Dixie Land Jazz” and so on…..:) I don’t think she even realized how she was blurring boundaries of all sorts, ethnographic, national, musical……but, oh she was!

    • And she taught her daughter to do the same! Our earliest and most powerful memories are bound up with music, I’m sure of it. In the simplest act of singing a song, your mother must have conveyed to you an open and fluid view of the world.

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