Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Nursery tale - Nick Green

With my son being of nursery school age, I often find myself listening to CDs that I wouldn’t normally choose to play. While this can sometimes be a rare form of torture, it does occasionally turn up delights. The other day I happened to hear a very pleasant arrangement of an old nursery rhyme. And it struck me: what a great little piece of storytelling.
Oh, dear! What can the matter be?
Oh, dear! What can the matter be?
Oh, dear! What can the matter be?
Johnny's so long at the fair.

Promising start. Begin with a question. Something is wrong, but we don’t know what. We want to know what’s the matter. Already we’re wondering: who’s this Johnny character, why is he gone so long, and who is this person missing him?
He promised to buy me
A trinket to please me
And then for a smile,
Oh, he vowed he would tease me
He promised to buy me
A bunch of blue ribbons
To tie up my bonnie brown hair.

Ah! It grows clear. It’s his sweetheart, left behind. There’s some reason why she can’t go to the fair too. In my head she’s a servant. I’m seeing milk urns, laundry laid on stones. Is Johnny another servant, or a local lad from the village? At any rate, he’s got the day off. I get the impression that he’s a bit of a charmer.

Oh, dear! What can the matter be? (x3)
Johnny's so long at the fair.

He promised to bring me
A basket of posies
A garland of lilies,
A wreath of red rosies –

More promises! Really, that’s quite a shopping list. Now I’m picturing a long exchange between this couple, on the back doorstep, before Johnny set off. Doesn’t it sound like he had to do some persuading, before she was happy to let him go to the fair? No doubt she hoped to go with him, but her mistress made her work. Still, why was she reluctant to let her handsome boyfriend go alone? What is she worried about?
But wait, she’s not finished:
A little straw hat to
Set off the blue ribbons
That tie up my bonnie brown hair.
Ooh. See what she did there? She’s getting a hat to complement something (the ribbons) that she doesn’t even have yet. She’s building one fantasy upon another. Our heroine is on shaky ground.

Oh, dear! What can the matter be? (x3)
Johnny's so long at the fair.

He promised he'd buy me
A beautiful fairing,
A gay bit of lace that
the lassies are wearing –
(Johnny is remarkably well informed about female fashions, isn’t he?)
To set off the hat that
Sets off the blue ribbons,
That tie up my bonnie brown hair.
Now she’s going a bit far. Yet another fantasised accessory to add to her imaginary outfit. And now the story is poignant. She’s not just singing about clothes and trinkets here. She’s thinking of all Johnny’s promises, one piled upon another. The heroine’s dreams are reaching upwards, surely towards the idea that one day she and Johnny will marry – but it’s all castles in the air, because her boyfriend’s not even back yet.

Oh, dear! What can the matter be?
Johnny's so long at the fair.
What Johnny is actually doing at the fair, history does not record. But I have a sneaky suspicion that she’s blonde.
See? Great storytelling.


Asakiyume said...

Lovely post! (Nice accompanying illustration, as well.)

I loved that song when little, but never thought about it until just now, reading your telling of it--beautiful :-)

Charlotte said...


Anne Rooney said...

Excellent :-) It's not very child-friendly, is it? The child brought up on this will take a very suspicious view of the daddy who works so late at the office...

Brian Keaney said...

Johnny is a young farmer. He's gone to the fair to sell some animals. It's taking a long time because business is slow. There's a recession on. But he has every intention of fulfilling his promises to his sweetheart if he can just sell one more beast. He certainly hasn't got eyes for any other woman there because he's a decent, hard-working well-brought up young man who understands the meaning of commitment. Shame on you, Nick, for spreading such slander.

Nick Green said...

I'll come to you next time I need an excuse, Brian.

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

Enough with the blonde comments. That's horribly outdated (says the natural blond who never keeps up with trends).

With this same scenario I think more about her repeated worry than her shopping list.

That much worry can come out of two big things (besides character defect): expected danger at the fair, including, but not limited to the appeal of other young maids who can be bought with a bit of ribbon.
Actually, I didn't take the list as anything indicating how familiar Johnny is with female fashion; I just lumped it with her list piling in on itself.

If she was like many inexperienced young girls she could have asked her sweetheart to bring home something special (creating the need for him to think of her while he's away), without bothering to clarify with him the expectation about what that special "something" should be.

I predict a major (hopefully relationship-clarifying) argument upon his return; not only later than expected, but impossibly behind her expectations in the gift category.

(I listen to this age of lyrics--read them aloud, mostly-- And you really ought to analyze "Lavender-Blue, dilly dilly," what with it's sly nod about putting everyone to work outside so that "you and I [can] keep ourselves warm.")

Katherine Langrish said...

I've always loved the melancholy tune of 'Lavenders Blue'; but I'm not allowed to sing it if my daughter's around because apparently it was used in the film version of 'The Turn of the Screw' and now it creeps her out!