John Johanna's Telescope
Sundogs and Sweet Angles

Orphan Songs
Part 1: Poor Orphan Child



The Carter Family's 1927 "Poor Orphan Child" is a jaunty jingle about how Death kills everybody. The sound of the recording — its melody, tempo, harmonies — are as friendly and memorable as any advertising jingle. But the lyrics build a morbid argument:

Think of the many children, now
poor little boys and girls
who once had mother's loving hands
to smooth their golden curls

The verses of the song obsess over the lonesomeness and poverty that result when dead parents leave orphans behind. And its chorus prays for those orphans to muddle along until they themselves "all reach that glittering strand" — that is, until the orphans too are dead.

It's hard to think of a more pessimistic sentiment. It lays everyone to waste. But then, come to think of it, so does Death. Doesn't Death turn almost everyone into orphans eventually? And don't most of us wind up orphaning children of our own, in turn? Remember: the Carters sing it with an irresistible jauntiness.

It's amazingly common for the old folk/blues records of the 1920's to have some kind of startling friction between their "sound" and their meaning. So often, the performances seem to have a kind of public face at odds with an interior life, revealed only when you take the time to really think about them. That is, what you notice on first listening (the arrangement, the key, the affect of the singers, etc.) begins to seem alien to the song once you've paused to "get" the lyrics.

I'd like more of this in contemporary music, please. I'll write more about it on another day.

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