The Minstrel Boy
Over on the discovered-BBC-recordings of a family’s Christmas thread, I’ve commented on the 7-year-old boy’s song, which as an astute commenter points out, is the song “The Minstrel Boy.” One of the reasons why I like that particular recording is that, more than a picture, I find the voice of a now-long-dead boy touching. I know little to nothing of his life and death, after he sung that song. I know that he sang it—and that, despite that voice, I am alive, listening to it in the 21st century, and he is not.
Because of The Minstrel Boy’s glorious tune, as well as the poignant lyrics of a conquered young soldier who will not allow his song to be used by his conquerors [and doesn’t every single human being who has fought life’s wars and been left bloody but hopefully unbowed recognize that determination and integrity, even if perhaps we have not been able to follow through with it?], the song has been a fairly popular theme song for key tragedies, most notably for the movie Black Hawk Down and in a Star Trek Next Generation episode called “The Wounded.”
It’s a song of valor, defeat, faithfulness, integrity, and loss—and I think everyone empathizes with those values and that sense of loss. It’s interesting that a seven-year-old boy was taught such a song; I’m glad he knew, at least in song, those values.
You can find out more about the lyrics over at the appropriately-named Minstrel Boy blog [discover why a father has named that his blog, if you want to dig further].
At any rate, you can google The Minstrel Boy and find the more “popular” renditions of the song, but I’ve chosen three to post here.
The first is by Paul Robeson—and I think you’ll hear why I selected it. I think one can best describe Robeson as An Artist—and a typically scattered, wild, and confused one philosophically. How I would have loved to see his version of Othello—my favorite Shakespearean play. What always fascinates me, particularly when confronted by people with whose ultimate philosophies I disagree, are their early years, and so I’ve copied this portion from a wikipedia article about Robeson:
Paul Robeson was born in Princeton in 1898, to Reverend William Drew Robeson and Maria Louisa Bustill. His mother was from a prominent Quaker family of mixed ancestry: African, Anglo-American, and Lenape. His father, William, escaped from a plantation in his teens and eventually became the minister of Princeton’s Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in 1881. Robeson had three brothers, William Drew, Jr. (born 1881), Reeve (born c. 1887), and Ben (born c. 1893), and one sister, Marian (born c. 1895).
In 1900, a disagreement between William and white financial supporters of Witherspoon arose with apparent racial undertones, which were prevalent in Princeton. William, who had the support of his entirely black congregation, resigned in 1901. The loss of his position forced him to work menial jobs. Three years later when Robeson was six, his mother, who was nearly blind, tragically died in a house fire. Eventually, William became financially incapable of providing a house for himself and his children still living at home, Ben and Robeson, so they moved into the attic of a store in Westfield, New Jersey.
The next singer is—at least in tone—precisely the opposite of Robeson’s, Limerick-county born tenor Christopher Lynch, with a voice as pure and silver as a crescent moon’s.
Finally, there is this rather lushly recorded modern version by John McDermott, Scottish Canadian tenor.
The Minstrel Boy to the war is gone
In the ranks of death you will find him;
His father’s sword he hath girded on,
And his wild harp slung behind him;”
Land of Song!” said the warrior bard,
“Tho’ all the world betrays thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!”
The Minstrel fell! But the foeman’s chain
Could not bring that proud soul under;
The harp he lov’d ne’er spoke again,
For he tore its chords asunder;
And said “No chains shall sully thee,
Thou soul of love and brav’ry!
Thy songs were made for the pure and free,
They shall never sound in slavery!”
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