A song for Chesterton

And a little while afterwards, when my sea journey was over, the sight of men working in the English fields reminded me again that there are still songs for the harvest and for many agricultural routines. And I suddenly wondered why if this were so it should be quite unknown for any modern trade to have a ritual poetry. How did people come to chant rude poems while pulling certain ropes or gathering certain fruit, and why did nobody do anything of the kind while producing any of the modern things? Why is a modern newspaper never printed by people singing in chorus? Why do shopmen seldom, if ever, sing?

—G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Little Birds Who Won’t Sing’

Every man is a damn fool for at least five minutes every day; wisdom consists in not exceeding the limit.

—Elbert Hubbard

Chesterton was a man of many gifts, but presence of mind was not always among them. He was, in fact, so famously absent-minded that he is remembered (among his many other achievements) for sending a telegram to his wife: ‘Am at Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?’ And this absence of presence, if I may put it so, led him occasionally to behave as a damn fool, and sometimes, I am afraid, he exceeded Hubbard’s limit. His little excursus into the musical habits of shopmen and printers stands as a fair example.

At bottom, the trouble is that Chesterton had never himself worked at one of what may be called the singing trades. He had never been an agricultural labourer, a navvy, or a sailor; he had never indulged in the hobby of building railways by manual toil – a pernicious habit in itself, maybe, but very good for one’s physical fitness. Rail-laying gangs had a rich store of work-songs all their own, of which perhaps the best known is ‘Drill, Ye Tarriers, Drill’. Men were still working at that trade in 1909, when Chesterton wrote the passage above; they were definitely a modern trade, producing modern things. Nevertheless, they sang; and printers and shopmen did not sing.

At least Chesterton asks the right question first – Why do manual labourers sing? But evidently he meant the question to be rhetorical, for he did not stop for an answer. If he had, he would have seen at once that the second question is a foolish one. Men swinging hammers and scythes, and other such implements of destruction, sing for a simple reason: to keep time. The work has a natural rhythm, and singing to that rhythm keeps the men working in unison and at a measured and sustainable speed. It is the same with oars and paddles, which is why sailors have so many sea-shanties, and why the voyageurs of New France sang endless songs as they paddled their canoes up the wild rivers all the way to the Canadian Rockies.

A newspaper press, in Chesterton’s time, was a creature of steam and steel; it ran under its own power, and kept its own rhythm without singing. What it did instead was make a deafening noise, which echoed from the metal roofs and rafters of the printing plant; and to sing in such an environment would take the stamina of an ox and lungs of oxhide. The steam is gone, now, but the steel and the noise remain; I worked in a newspaper plant myself once, for part of a while, and I would not have undertaken to sing there for double my wages.

As for shopmen, they can’t sing, for the excellent reason that they are nearly always talking, or listening to other people talk. You cannot talk and sing at the same time, and if you sing whilst listening, your interlocutor is apt to take it as an impertinence. I am quite sure that Chesterton was aware of this; and it was all very well for him to pretend that he was not, for the sake of a joke. But he tried to make the joke into an earnest criticism of the Evils of Industrial Society; and the strain of it pushed him over a line into Hubbard’s category of damn fools.

For in the very next paragraph, Chesterton lets his fancy cut a pigeon-wing:

If reapers sing while reaping, why should not auditors sing while auditing and bankers while banking? If there are songs for all the separate things that have to be done in a boat, why are there not songs for all the separate things that have to be done in a bank? … I tried to write a few songs suitable for commercial gentlemen. Thus, the work of bank clerks when casting up columns might begin with a thundering chorus in praise of Simple Addition.

‘Up my lads and lift the ledgers,
sleep and ease are o’er.
Hear the Stars of Morning shouting:
“Two and Two are Four.”
Though the creeds and realms are reeling,
though the sophists roar,
Though we weep and pawn our watches,
Two and Two are Four.’

This is all very fine and silly; but Mr. Chesterton will not ask me to believe, I hope, that it is any condemnation of the banking industry that clerks do not carry on in this way. The fact is, like shopmen, bank clerks can’t sing whilst they work. When you are adding up a string of numbers in your head (or keying them into a machine), your attention is on the numbers; you cannot simultaneously attend to the words of a song. And since there is no particular rhythm to the numbers, some being short and some long, some round and some pernickety and precise, you cannot attend to the music either.

I have never been a bank clerk, but I have done my Income Tax, which is, I trust, a similar enough task to serve the purposes of Science. I therefore got out my last year’s return and tried to sing to it. Work-songs always have a good strong bouncing rhythm to them, and a good deal of repetition in the lyrics. I therefore chose the tune of the old voyageur song, ‘En roulant ma boule,’ and made up words to match. But somehow the task at hand seemed to get mixed with the song, and I felt, upon reflection, that the result was rather unsatisfactory:—

Eleven thrice is thirty-three,
En roulant ma boule.
Eleven thrice is thirty-three,
En roulant ma boule.
Add Line 16 from Schedule D,
Rouli, roulant, ma boule roulant,
En roulant, ma boule roulant,
En roulant ma boule.

Subtract it from line 309,
En roulant ma boule.
Subtract it from line 309,
En roulant ma boule.
The taxman is a greedy swine,
Rouli, roulant, ma boule roulant,
En roulant, ma boule roulant,
En roulant ma boule.

Deduct the cost of light and heat,
En roulant ma boule.
And movie tickets, there’s a cheat,
En roulant ma boule.
Where did I put the damned receipt?
Rouli, roulant, ma boule roulant,
En roulant, ma boule roulant,
En roulant ma boule.

Take Box 15 from Form T-5,
En roulant ma boule.
I can’t come up with a decent rhyme,
En roulant ma boule.
The name of my investment broker is too long to fit in the space provided,
Rouli, roulant, ma boule roulant,
En roulant, ma boule roulant,
En roulant, tabernac’!

I thereupon gave up and chucked it in the fire.

No, there are no working songs for bank clerks, and I fear there never will be. Any task that requires close attention to numbers is a poor candidate to be set to music. The same goes for words. I listen to music when I write, sometimes, but I never sing, because the words I am trying to type will come out of my mouth instead and spoil the metre.

Not even songwriters can sing while they compose; for the excellent reason that you can’t write a song down in real time. The melody in your head goes:

Rumpty tiddly umpty-pum,

and you can’t jot down the notes on the staff as fast as they come. The problem is far worse for arrangers; I have dabbled at it just enough to know. For once you have that bit down, you have to go back and fill in the strings, which are playing a rhythm line a fifth apart, and the horns are filling the intervals in between to complete the chords, all going at the same time:

Hoom, hum, zoom, zum,
Wah, wah, wah, waah,
Hoom, hum, zoom, zum,
Wah, wah, wah, waah,

while the percussionist is going

Rat-a-ta-tat-a-ta-tump-de-pish!

and all that has got to be written down as well, on separate staves, and you can’t do it with one pair of hands, any more than you can play the whole orchestra by yourself. No, a composer has got to stay grimly mute while he works, and let the music in his head play silently until he gets it all scribbled down. Then he plays it back on the piano and discovers where the chords are discords and when the counterpoint doesn’t point, and crosses out and re-scribbles until it all comes together.

But Chesterton need not have looked to a bank clerk, or a tax accountant, or a composer, or an arranger. He knew very well from his own experience why people don’t sing while they work at a desk: he was a journalist. So when he came to his marvellously illogical conclusion—

Bank-clerks are without songs, not because they are poor, but because they are sad.

—he should have known better at once; and would have known, if presence of mind had been among his many gifts. For Chesterton himself did not sing while he worked, and he was neither poor nor sad.

Comments

  1. Garth says:

    It saddens me to think of Chesterton as a fool, but I am cheered to think he would have agreed with the assessment.

  2. I think he may have been further cheered to know that, of all things.
    “getting fresh air” is now set to music.

    I’ve walked too many blocks attempting to sing this:
    https://youtu.be/l9PxOanFjxQ

    and most of the songs from the Maccabeats, and others.

  3. Carbonel says:

    Nor had he, apparently enjoyed any of the humble tasks that women do: cooking, laundry, dusting, scrubbing, nursing babies and changing diapers. Yes. I have changing diapers songs. The nursing song goes to the tune of “Oh Mistress Mine.” And my happiness or unhappiness at the time (I’m rarely thrilled while doing anything-toilet related) is moot as I know why I sing why I work. I’m a Lutheran, I was raised to it. And you sing when you’re sad, too.

    So there’s a good question for you: why are some people raised to sing, and others not? And why does it “stick” with some people? It’s not down to talent: I have tin ear.

    That said, your song for the tax preparer had me in stitches.

    Thank you!

  4. Bravo! If you’re ever doing live literary busking, such rhymes as yours above–even if spoken and not sung–will fill your coffers.

  5. Many “spells” recited over bubbling pots may have been nothing more or less than timing devices. Hard to measure it otherwise without clocks.

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