As an art form, the song lends itself to re-interpretation. When Katryna and I first heard “Yellow Submarine,” we immediately changed the lyrics to “We all live in the pink submarine, the purple submarine, the orange submarine.” Lila changes the animals in “Organic Farm” every time she sings it. Last spring, we had a mosquito on the farm. Yesterday it was a cherry picker. Modifying existing songs is a perfectly respectable way to introduce kids to the art of songwriting.
Both of our parents wrote new lyrics to pre-existing songs. My mother sang “Sur Le Pont D’Avignon” with the words “Run run run” as the only lyric, holding our baby legs one in each hand as we lay on our backs. We loved this game, and it had the added benefit of keeping us from rolling over during diaper changes. Our father still writes new lyrics to old folk songs to mark various social occasions.
The first time he did this was a revelation to me. Katryna and I were about eleven and nine, and his first tennis teacher was retiring from the club where he had taught for something like thirty years. To the tune of “Torra Lei Orra Lei Ay” he wrote:
Hit your forehand and your backhand with topspin
And always remember the loop
It was Fred J. Eisler’s instruction
To the Friday nine o’clock group.
Since I hadn’t known the song “Sur Le Pont D’Avignon,” this was the first time I was aware that one was allowed to piggyback songs with one’s own lyrics. I loved watching my father play and be creative through songwriting, and I understood in a new way that making music was essentially play. And that songwriting could be playful.
This moment in our family’s history was significant for our father, too. I think he was pleasantly surprised at how well his song for his tennis instructor went over, and from that day on, he was often called upon (usually by his mother or his wife) to write songs for birthdays, graduations, weddings, etc. For his cousin Bob Hadden’s wedding to Elizabeth Shea, he rewrote “Old Gray Bonnet” to read: “Put on your old grey bonnet with the blue ribbons on it and we’ll hitch old Hadden to the Shea…” For his daughters’ weddings, he rewrote “The Unicorn Song” and “You’ve Got To Walk That Lonesome Valley.”
When I was fourteen, my grandmother Lila instructed me to write a song for our friend Amanda Schaffer who was turning ten. I was thrilled to be called upon this way, and I had the feeling of a mantle being passed. I was also terrified; I’d never done this kind of thing before. But my grandmother not only believed in me, she needed me–she could not carry a tune, and while I am a big believer that anyone can sing if they just try hard enough, trust me when I say my grandmother could not sing. It was the first time I could do something she couldn’t do, and so I rose to the challenge. A year later, when my other grandmother, Midge, turned seventy-five, I re-wrote “Let It Be” partly in French) to reflect my grandmother’s origins:
Nous allons une grandmaman qui parle bien le Francais depuis
Elle etait une enfant, Grandmummy.
Now, as parents, Katryna and I do this all the time. For our HooteNanny class, we have made up new lyrics to countless songs Here are some alternate lyrics to the old English song “Hal An Tow” (the chorus is from the original song) which we are singing in this springtime session:
Hal an tow Jolly rumble O
We were up long before the day o
To welcome in the summer
To welcome in the May o
For summer is a coming in and winter’s gone away-o
Take a step off to the left
And take one to the right o
Turn around and touch your toes
For winter’s gone away-o
Jump up in the air so high
And crouch upon the ground o
Wave your hands like willow trees
For winter’s gone away o
Pretend to be a crocus:
Who shoots up from the ground o
And makes a charming flower
So we should feel so glad-o
To be clear, we are not advocating a full throttle rip-off of songwriters everywhere. But in these days of paranoia and lawsuits over intellectual property and copyright issues, we would like to point out that for millennia, songs have been passed down via the oral tradition, changing subtly and not so subtly from town to town, and from culture to culture as wandering troubadours brought songs over mountains and oceans. Try this yourself! Find a straightforward tune from a song you love and make up some words to go with it. Be silly; be serious; write some deep poetry or some clever rhymes.