Who writes the first version of rude lines?

Writing of Roger Luxton’s “rude songs” yesterday, I pondered where the Bratton Clovelly farmer might have heard the songs that he passed on to Sabine Baring Gould and which were revised because they were considered unsuitable for publication. Did Roger Luxton learn the songs from someone local? Did he add lyrics of his own?

Who starts traditions? Who adapts tunes? Who assembles words?.

Among the songs with various sets of words is Cock o’ the North, some versions of which would certainly not have been considered unsuitable for publication.

The tune was the regimental march of the Gordon Highlanders. It was suggested that the Duke of Gordon was such a powerful man that he was known as the “cock o’ the north.” The earlier title of the tune, it seems, was Jumping Joan. Prior to it assuming that title some three hundred years ago, if it came from the Scottish highlands, it probably had a Gaelic name.  If one turned to oral tradition, stories of the origins of the tune would probably be as plentiful as the different renditions of it.

There are numerous sets of words to the tune, some less polite than others, many of them beginning with the line Auntie Mary had a canary up the leg of her drawers. (The version I encountered in Ulster in the 1980s substituted De Valera for Auntie Mary and had the canary emerging from the leg of the drawers while whistling the Protestant Boys).

The tune may have evolved over centuries, and have been an amalgam of various predecessors, to the extent that no-one can claim to have been the composer.

Unlike the music, words tend to have a more distinctive authorship. However much the lines concerning Auntie Mary or Eamon de Valera may be lacking in merit, someone, somewhere, at some time, must have taken a conscious decision to devise those lyrics and to set them to those notes.

Bawdy lines concerning Auntie Mary, or lines concerning the man who was Irish Taoiseach and then president, were the product of an individual putting the words in those forms. Someone sitting in a pub, or walking down a street, or lying awake in bed, or wherever they were, must have had the tune running through their head and thought, “what about singing those words?” Not only that, they must have shared their thoughts with others and those thoughts must have been widely shared, yet there seems no record of such a process.

Perhaps the Internet will mean that future generations will be clear about the origins of who started traditions, (although, human nature being what it is, there will probably be as many claimants as versions of Auntie Mary). Not only will the source of traditions be clearer, but people like Sabine Baring Gould will not be able to excise lines not to their liking.

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