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December 30, 2012


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.[2] His mother was from a prominent Quaker family of mixed ancestry: African, Anglo-American, and Lenape.[3] His father, William, escaped from a plantation in his teens[4] and eventually became the minister of Princeton’s Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church in 1881.[5] 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).[6]

In 1900, a disagreement between William and white financial supporters of Witherspoon arose with apparent racial undertones,[7] which were prevalent in Princeton.[8] William, who had the support of his entirely black congregation, resigned in 1901.[9] The loss of his position forced him to work menial jobs.[10] Three years later when Robeson was six, his mother, who was nearly blind, tragically died in a house fire.[11] 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.[12]

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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14 comments

Thank you, Sarah, for reminding us of our folly and ignorance!  Happy New Year.

[1] Posted by Fr. Chip, SF on 12-30-2012 at 04:34 PM · [top]

Hmmm . . . I’m not certain that having integrity and honor in the midst of defeat is demonstrative of “folly and ignorance.”

Happy New Year to you too!

[2] Posted by Sarah on 12-30-2012 at 06:21 PM · [top]

Another wonderful version of the Minstrel Boy is sung by a young girl in the beginning of The Undefeated, a movie about Sarah Palin that also features Andrew Breitbart and Mark Levin. 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ZXRRlDRITI

[3] Posted by St. Nikao on 12-30-2012 at 09:27 PM · [top]

Bagpipes also capture the pathos and defiance of the Minstrel Boy. 
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QMPBE0zc0Ww
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VuNwOcywr7Y

I love this song.  It’s full of Biblical analogy.  Psalm 137 comes to mind.

[4] Posted by St. Nikao on 12-30-2012 at 10:00 PM · [top]

Here’s a version sung and played by the 97th Regimental string band:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lW9pv8gaGGM

[5] Posted by St. Nikao on 12-30-2012 at 10:16 PM · [top]

On topic - thank you for this, Sarah.

Off topic - Curious why Othello is your favorite Shakespeare play.  In my experience, either the performance grabs you and drags you in and -that’s- why we like a particular play, or the play itself is just that powerful. 

I tend to like plays like Othello (Hamlet & King Lear), where half the time the main character is in their right mind, the other half, they’ve lost their marbles.  For some reason, the story itself never quite ‘jelled’ for me.

[6] Posted by J Eppinga on 12-31-2012 at 05:48 AM · [top]

I think it’s not an easy play to perform *believably*—both leads have to be absolutely on-target. We are supposed to think of Othello as noble, and then he ups and kills his wife in a frenzy of jealousy. That’s a very hard transition to make—and we tend to decide that those who kill their wives have no redeeming qualities, and are certainly not noble.  Of course, if one looks at things from Othello’s point of view, not only is it obvious that his new wife is cheating on him with his friend [remember the conversation that Iago engineers with Cassio about Cassio’s affair with *Bianca*], but it is obvious that she is engaged in an unbelievably cold and calculating and brazen pretence with Othello.  It’s not simply the adultery, it’s her excellent acting as if she loves Othello that is so shameless [again, from Othello’s eyes]. I think such a situation would task any man’s discipline, although of course, hopefully Episcopalians and Anglicans would not behave in so *uncivilized* a manner.

But of the five major Shakespearean tragedies, and the other Roman tragedies, the two that deal with one of my favorite lines of tragedy are Lear and Othello, and that is the inverse of this famous line from Camus: “Believe me, for certain men at least, not taking what one doesn’t desire is the hardest thing in the world.” We take what we don’t even truly desire.

But by inverse I mean that one of the great flaws of mankind is that we pursue, desire, and then ultimately destroy what is most good and precious. We kill what we love.  That is our nature, post-Fall, and I’ve seen it time and again in others and myself.

Obviously we did that in the greatest sense with Jesus.  The thing that was the most precious, the person who truly and honorably loves us as we were and are, we destroyed, and we could not help doing that, due to who we are [though we did have the free use of our wills].

This nature of innate destruction of the valuable and worthy, usually based on various terrible sins and flaws, is deeply tragic in all of us.

So in Lear, the king’s pride—his arrogance and ego—leads him to banish the one person who is the most faithful and valuable, and he believes that he has killed her.  In Othello, Shakespeare takes it one step further—the hero actually *does* kill the thing that he loves and which loves him.

All of those plays are “ridiculous” of course.  They depend on both catastrophic sequences of events, and the horrible weaknesses in the protagonists.  If there had been no such person as Iago, who is brilliant at discovering and using the weaknesses of others, then one might imagine that Othello and Desdemona would have had a happy and long marriage.

But there was an Iago.  There is an Iago. And there is an Othello. 

And there we are.  Tragedy ensues.

[7] Posted by Sarah on 12-31-2012 at 08:45 AM · [top]

{ ClicK ! }

{:-]

[8] Posted by J Eppinga on 12-31-2012 at 01:13 PM · [top]

Thanks for all of the video links!  These and others linked by YouTube have made my new years eve music enjoyment…we have little diversion here in the southern Black Hills, you see.

Happy New Years and keep on Standing Firm in the Faith once delivered.

Fr. Chip in Hot Springs

[9] Posted by Fr. Chip, SF on 12-31-2012 at 09:12 PM · [top]

PS, I have just read John Hart’s blog…powerful!

Should be required reading at the Pentagon and in the situation room at the White House…and there will be a test!

[10] Posted by Fr. Chip, SF on 12-31-2012 at 09:32 PM · [top]

Paul Robeson’s voice is magnificent - his is now my favorite version of Minstrel Boy.

However, the Alma Arkansas High School also does a beautiful job on this wonderful song: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DxXuPgehX4U

Then there is a great men’s chorale doing a tribute to our armed forces:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FLT2ozSokTQ

And two young ladies sweet voices singing a combination of Minstrel Boy and The Son of God Goes Forth to War.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nYjmfx0ubNU

[11] Posted by St. Nikao on 1-1-2013 at 09:56 AM · [top]

Another verse was added during the last intra-American:

The Minstrel Boy will return we pray
When we hear the news we all will cheer it,
The minstrel boy will return one day,
Torn perhaps in body, not in spirit.
Then may he play on his harp in peace,
In a world such as Heaven intended,
For all the bitterness of man must cease,
And ev’ry battle must be ended.

Here are the lyrics of The Son of God Goes Forth To War:
http://www.lutheran-hymnal.com/lyrics/tlh452.htm

Scripture says we do not war against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, spiritual wickedness in the heavenlies…but that we weild spiritual weapons, wear spiritual armor, and that our weapons are more than able to defend against and destroy these wicked spiritual entities.

Isaiah 31:8-9 says the Sword (Word) of God, not the sword of man will defeat Assyria (Babylon, Egypt, Caananite) evil entities that rise up as the rod of God when His people fall into sin (Isaiah 10:5).

Repentance is the first order of business for the Western Church and Western nations who have rebelled against God’s Word, Law, Commandments.  II Chronicles 7:14

[12] Posted by St. Nikao on 1-1-2013 at 11:04 AM · [top]

Sarah,

One of my favorite songs as well, but you neglected to mention its most stirring use in a movie, in “The Man Who Would be King,” in which Sean Connery as Danny sings it as the Kaffiristanis cut the ropes to the bridge on which he is standing, sending him plunging into the abyss.  Michael Caine as Peachy, being held by the Kaffiristanis and watching his friend Danny’s death, finishes the song for him.  Not a dry eye in the house.  Wonderful stuff.

[13] Posted by evan miller on 1-2-2013 at 01:47 PM · [top]

Actually, Sean Connery sings are the hymn, “The Son of God Goes Forth to War”  which has the same tune as the Minstrel Boy.

Two young girls on Youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nYjmfx0ubNU) sing both lyrics.

[14] Posted by St. Nikao on 1-2-2013 at 05:27 PM · [top]

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