March 13, 2019
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I’ll Tell Me Ma

Every year, the Malden Democrats have a St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast. It’s one of the two annual parties that, along with an annual caucus, are the only official activities of the Malden Democratic City Committee. The program isn’t very political and hasn’t changed in eons.

Every year, some sequined young women dance a pair of Irish dances. I finally looked up the lyrics to the second. They’re interesting. (As I understand it, this is a children’s game song; Americans might think of “All around the mulberry bush” or “Frere Jacque”.)

I’ll tell my ma, when I get home,

The boys won’t leave the girls alone,

They pulled my hair and stole my comb,

But that’s alright ’til I get home.

This is nicely observed and it’s not the usual topic for a song! I wonder, though, in precisely what sense it’s all right. My interpretation was that we’re saying, the boys will get away with this now but there will be hell to pay when I get home. Linda suggests a slightly different interpretation: when we go home and are discovered to be combless, we ourselves are going to be in big trouble, which we can only hope to evade by citing force majeure. Either way, it’s an interesting dynamic in the year of #MeToo.

She is handsome, she is pretty,

She’s the belle of Belfast City.

She is courting — one two three!

Pray, can you tell me who is she?

I love those twin bells. Again, there’s a little bit of ambiguity about the time progression. My first take was, this is dawning realization of an onlooker, and the last line is a request that he be properly introduced. My second view is less cheerful: it’s a progression: handsome kid, pretty nymphet, belle of the city who needs no introduction, and then — one two three! — an obscure married lady.

Later, we have

When she gets a lad of her own,

She won’t tell her ma when she gets home.

This is cute, but what is it? In suburban America, she might not tell her ma because they can quietly sneak up to her bedroom for some canoodling. I’m not seeing that for 19th century Ireland, not because they didn't canoodle, but because cottages and flats were too small. Perhaps what she’s not telling is that she’s got a lad; that’s certainly possible, but is it song worthy?

I bet there are a bunch of verses that people don’t put on their records but everyone knows....