Saturday, September 29, 2007

D(r)iver Boy

For many years I've loved listening to Old Time music and marveled at the myriad names and lyrics used for the "same" song. The oral composition and performance of these songs virtually guarantees variation like this, as happens in the children's game Telephone (a.k.a. Chinese Whispers).

A few years ago I bought an album by Natalie Merchant containing the song "Diver Boy", a classic Appalachian murder ballad whose lyrics describe a girl's family trying to get rich quick by killing her suitor – a diver boy / Who sailed upon the ocean to gather up some gold. (It's close to this recording.) While listening to the incredible Hober internet radio broadcast recently, I heard one of the many variants this song, in which the suitor is a driver boy / Who ploughed the lowlands low. In another version, he drives a stagecoach. In some versions, he ends up buried at sea or "floating down the stream", regardless of whether he's a diver or a driver; in another, it's his blood that "appeared in streams".

So, the point is, not only are the names and lyrics of these songs changed by misperception; the entire premise of the song gets a new back-story based on the changing of one word:
the Kiss this Guy and Eggcorn phenomena run wild. In general, one wonders how much form really does follow function, as opposed to the other way around, in songs, poetry, and other cultural artifacts. Scholarship on non-literate poets like Homer often runs into such questions: was a phrase used because it conveyed the poet's intended meaning, or because it was the first thing that came into the poet's mind that fit the meter? In light of Simon Kirby's Chinese-Whispers-like iterated learning model of language evolution, one wonders how much of grammar might come from this sort of re-analysis, too.

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