Carrying Culture

We sing weird songs to children. And we do it without even thinking about it. In the process, though, I wonder how much we’re carrying culture without even knowing it.

Old MacDonald had a farm: E-I-E-I-O

What do those letters stand for?!? What does that refrain mean?

When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall — and down will come baby, cradle and all.

Why would those be the lyrics to a lullaby?!? That’s pretty messed up! I’ve also heard that “Ring Around the Rosie” is a song about the Black Death. Other “nursery rhymes,” too, (whether set to music or not) can be pretty disturbing if you just listen to the words. The “nonsense lyrics,” though, are an even deeper level of intrigue.

Apparently, there’s a song like this in the northernmost reaches of the United Kingdom, on the island of Unst. It’s called Orfeo. The refrain of the song sounds like gibberish — even to the people of Unst (who already speak an intriguing dialect of English). A Shetlander named John Stickle once brought up this song to a friend from London named Patrick Shuldham-Shaw, saying “Have you ever heard anything as nonsensical as this?”

Skoven arle grön. Hvor hjorten han gar arlig.

But here’s the crazy thing. Shaw knew what Stickle didn’t: it wasn’t gibberish! It was Middle Danish! Viking invaders brought the language to Unst 500-600 years earlier. And it somehow survived all those years in musical form — even though no one knew that the “gibberish” was actual lyrics about deer in the springtime.

Early greens the wood. Where the hart goes yearly.

To me, this speaks to the way that we often carry elements of culture without even knowing it. It’s an example of enduring — albeit unconscious — legacy. And it brings me both discouragement and hope.

I’m discouraged by the way that we can never truly escape human sin and dysfunction. Even when we think we’ve moved past some errant way of thinking, we find that we’re carrying culture without even thinking about it. It seeps out, when we least expect it. Like with Racism. There are so many ways that racist thought patterns have been passed down through generations. Voting systems… Economic systems… Stereotypes about athletics and academics… And yes: even our songs. If a Viking song about deer in the springtime can survive for centuries under the guise of gibberish, how can we ever hope to overcome Racism in the United States?!? And that’s just one example of many!

I find hope, however, when I think through the lens of the “Roland Hayes“es of the world. He may not be a household name, but he helped to start singing a new song. About love and surrender and Jesus. The way of Jesus depends heavily upon us continually carrying culture — in both conscious and unconscious ways. I often think of the phrase that discipleship is far more effective when it’s “caught, not taught.” So maybe all I can do is sing. Or maybe just hum. But in so doing, I can pass these songs to my children, or the people in my church, or my neighbors… With a simple rhythm, repetition, and melody, culture is internalized and extended.

And who doesn’t like to learn a new song every now and then? Especially when it’s a good one. Let’s find good songs and sing them regularly — and then see what happens.

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