Filth, Foulness, and Fornication in Folk Song
Artist Statement: The grand and noble human tradition of folk song is full of examples of songs on a nearly ubiquitous human experience, that of sex. ‘Bawdy’ is the adjective most commonly used to describe such songs, a word rarely encountered in other contexts, possibly a bit archaic, and implying a certain amount of humor. But sometimes such songs are described as ‘filthy’ or ‘dirty’, as are poems, jokes, etc. about sex. In fact, when a song is described as ‘dirty’, the implication is specifically that the song is about sex. This is despite the fact that numerous songs exist about, for example, whaling; an activity far filthier in every way imaginable than sex. But whaling songs or sea shanties aren’t called ‘dirty’. In music, poetry, and humor, ‘dirty’ is synonymous with ‘about sex’. Sex is indeed dirty, as anyone who has had it knows. It results in little messes which have to be cleaned up, lest risks to health and well-being be incurred. But many other human activities also result in messes, so why is sex in particular singled out in this way? Why isn’t Fine Gardening a ‘dirty magazine’? I think the root lies in another grand and noble human tradition (speaking facetiously this time): confusing what is dirty with what is immoral.
This may be why most songs that are about sex are about sex that is viewed as forbidden in some way. There are few songs about happily married people enjoying a healthy fulfilling sex life. Folk songs about sex might employ double-entendre, such as the entertaining mental imagery from Some Say the Devil is Dead of “my wife she’s got a hairy thing and she showed it to me Sunday” that turns out to be a garment made of fur. There are also many songs, such as Blow the Candles Out, which are about young people avoiding the watchful eyes of parents or other authority figures. That song further provides its own argument for why the sex between the two consenting young people shouldn’t be considered any more forbidden than that between older married folk. “Father and mother in yonder room do lie/a-huggin’ and a-kissin’, so why not you and I?” Lastly, the repertory is full of ‘bawdy songs’ that have as their topic adultery. Adultery is undeniably promise-breaking, and society has typically been unforgiving of it. That women have historically been punished far more severely for adultery than men have cannot be denied. But songs that are about adultery are almost always about a woman who is being unfaithful, and her husband almost always presented as the butt of ridicule. Such songs, such as Seven Drunken Nights with which I conclude my presentation, turn upside-down the expected social order and put women in the position of power.