I’m always curious about songs speaking supposedly from a woman’s point of view, addressing dead or dying menfolk. Typically because it wasn’t women writing these songs. So I always want to know if this is the way the men writing the songs want to be remembered? Or is it how they remembered their dead friends, and culturally they aren’t allowed to mourn properly, so they had to frame the song from a mourning widow or girlfriend’s point of view?
“Bonny Light Horseman” is one of these. Dating back, indeed, to the Napoleonic Wars it sings of, the song was distributed on broadsheets (which itself begs the question — was the whole damn ballad propaganda? was there, even in the 1790s, an office devoted to inflaming the nationalistic fervor of the people via song? was there a Napoleonic Wag the Dog situation going on?) published in London, Birmingham and Prestons. (Source.)
This version, done as a collaboration between Natalie Merchant — yes, the Natalie Merchant that filled the radio stations in high school — and Lunasa, is very much not the mournful drinking ballad. (It also makes me wonder if enough time has passed since Titanic for the general public to accept hornpipes again. I like hornpipes.) It’s too slow, for one. For another, it’s…oh, I don’t know. Do people even sing sad songs together anymore, drunk or otherwise? Do you keep needing to stand us up as vehicles for your sorrow? Surely not.
The idea that loss just flows in you like syrup and you can tap into it purely and fill a bucket with it, just loss, without having to filter out anger or flecks of yourself or something is terribly anachronistic. These songs that just have women wondering the moors in mourning are silly. We don’t just cry. We rage. At the ones who went off and died. At the people who sent them there. At everyone who didn’t care, or care enough, or cared too late.
As a resurrection of a historial piece, though, it’s pretty enough. These lyrics are the ones modified by Tony Rose in 1982. Interestingly, he changes the eagle of the earlier lyrics to simply “small bird.” I kind of want to ask him why. A small bird’s nest won’t hold the dead horseman’s heart, man, let alone his long cold body. Did you take our wide wings and pinions from us because you thought it too dangerous? Too unladlylike? Or too nationalistic? Mourning women have already been written into the national narrative; don’t try to make us clean again.
You could have at least let us keep our claws.