26. Nonsense in songs

Posted on 07/02/2017


26. Nonsense in songs

Nonsense does not mean non-sense, since all songs make some sense to someone. Nonsense songs are ones that say ‘I don’t care what the lyric says’ but at some level they do, so the song does make a sort of sense.

What are often called nonsense songs are nursery rhymes. Many of these are in fact historically accurate but transmogrified versions of history so that nobody could accuse the singers of insulting the monarch or other important people. I don’t know if ‘Old Macdonald’ is of this form, but I spent a good deal of middle age singing it to sleepless children to try to relax them (the child having to say ‘and old Macdonald had a’ and then some farm animal’s name.

The most famous (to me) nonsense is not a song but a sort of poem:

So, she went into the garden to cut a cabbage leaf, to make an apple pie; and at the same time a great she-bear coming up the street, pops its head into the shop. ‘What! no soap?’ So he died, and she very imprudently married the barber; and there were present the Picninnies, and the Joblillies, and the Garyulies, and the grand Panjandrum himself, with the little round button at top; and they all fell to playing the game of catch as catch can, till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boot

This story was designed to fool the prodigy Macaulay, who went on to be Lord MacAulay, famous historian and Governor General of India. As child he could repeat any song, poem or other lyric that he read or heard. So someone came up with this. It is completely illogical in structure:

  • It starts with ‘so’ but that does not follow logically from anything
  • cabbage cannot be used to make apple pie
  • the ‘she bear’ exclaims that there is no soap and ‘so he [she actually] died
  • the now dead she bear ‘very imprudently’ married the barber
  • [they played] catch as catch fan, ’till the gunpower rand of the heels of their boot’

None of the elements of this follows logically from anything. As a result, the child prodigy Macaulay could not repeat the poem! As a child, I always loved the Grand Panjandrum!

Turning to more formal songs ‘Feel like I’m fixing to die’ is a black comedy song about the Vietnam War and everyone is going to die. One of the lines is:

[to mothers] ‘be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box’

Not romantic but an effective polemic against the Vietnam War of the 1970’s. The non-sense lay in the tone of jolly endeavour when the purpose was to attack the war mongers.

More directly nonsense were the songs of Slim Gaillard in the 1940’s and 50’s. He invented an early version of beat language called ‘vout”.Vouttie’ meant good while ‘macvouttie’ meant the ‘exact opposite’. The song features the straight guy Frank Sinatra trying to sing along with the ‘mad’ Gaillard. It’s worth listening to as a piece of inspired nonsense.

These songs can be compared with the more straightforward ones  Flanders and Swan specialised in Nonsense of the logical kind (as compared with the Macaulay kind illustrated above). So they wrote songs about Gnus and other unlikely things that were nonsense in relation to the received understanding of a song as a romantic ballad for example. They were nonsense of a logical kind. The Macaulay poem was uniquely nonsensical at every level!


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