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Saturday, October 19, 2013

(Dirty) Maggie May

I was a bit secretive some time ago about my new research project. I'll be more open now: it's the phenomenon of the shanty choir. A phenomenon hugely popular in the Netherlands and Germany, as this little map of the membership of the International  Shanty and Seasong Association shows:


Basically the phenomenon consists of male singers gathering once a week, singing shanties and seasongs, and occasionally performing, mostly in some kind of uniform. The main question in my research is, as usual, Clifford Geertz' question: "What the hell is going on here?" I want to figure out why shanty choirs are so abundant, what it brings their members, their audiences, and eventually what this might learn me, the conservatoire where I work, and the professional musicians trained there, about what music does with people.

I was listening to a shanty CD, and heard a German shanty choir perform the famous song 'Maggie May'. No no, not Rod Stewart's song, but this one. For some explanation I of course first consulted Wikipedia; then realizing that the story of the song reminds me of many other songs, including New York Girls.

But on hearing the song I was of course also reminded of the Beatles' version of the song, beginning with Lennon singing in his most Liverpudlian voice "Oh, Dirty Maggie Mae, they have taken her away...".

Which reminded me of the tendency of songs to become less and less explicit as they become more known - the 'dirty' is dropped when a German shantychoir sings "Maggie May". Or was it an addition by the Beatles? Something to find out. Let's call sir Paul one of these days.

Which reminded me of the Dutch song "Daar was laatst een meisje loos..." (loads of versions on YouTube, but also check out lots of recordings of people singing this song at the Dutch folksong database "De Nederlandse Liederenbank"), a song which - as so many Dutch folk songs - ended up as a children's song; an innocent school song about a girl who dresses up as a boy to go to sea.  Most school teachers teaching the song to our kids probably don't realise that this actually was rather an explicit song - the girl had to 'climb into the mast' (nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more, know what I mean?) and ends up coming home pregnant and marrying the captain of the boat.

Just that you know how much fun I am having with this new research topic of mine...

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