Singing Lessons

Many Irish folk songs lead to delicate father-daughter talks about when to obey the law, respect the Church, believe the authorities, and avoid violence. My daughter understands that the protagonist of “Whiskey in the Jar” is an unreliable narrator, a bandit who bemoans yet deserves his fate. She gets that “John Barleycorn” is a symbol of grain, so a gruesome song about his slow death becomes a story of where our food comes from.

Other songs lead to more difficult territory, but I’m glad to see her wrestle with her small understanding, in the hopes it will strengthen her moral immune system. She often asks for the “Digger Song,” that rousing cry of Evangelical farmers in the 1600s, and knows most of the words by heart. Each verse deals with a different group that tries to evict the farmers from their land: the Cavaliers, the gentry, the lawyers, and the clergy.

The club is all their law, stand up now, stand up now.
The club is all their law, to keep all men in awe,
That they no vision saw, to maintain such a law, 
Stand up now, Diggers all . . .

“What was the club?” she asked. The king’s men tried to force the farmers off their land by hitting them, I explained. The farmers said that only men with clubs have a right to rule. That’s all most leaders are.

“Did they fight back?” she asked. No, I said, they didn’t want to become like the king’s men. They were better.

“You don’t always have to fight,” she said, and I agreed—I had just shown her Destry Rides Again, in which Jimmy Stewart’s pacifist deputy tamed a violent town. At some point, though, I will have to explain why there are no more Diggers.

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