Friday, 16 May 2008

hats on

The black hole of insomnia sends your brain in funny directions. At about the beginning of sleepless hour number two last night, the song “On Ilkley Moor Baht ’at” popped into my head. It may have been because I was onto singing random songs to lull myself to sleep, having already gone through the usual repertoire of times tables, thinking of countries for each letter of the alphabet, and sighing.

On Ilkley Moor Baht ’at is a song that hasn’t invaded my mind for many years, but I couldn’t shift it last night. The thing you need to know for the whole thing to make sense (as far as any folk song ever does, as they are mostly utter nonsense), is that “baht ’at” means “without a hat”. That is, the character in the song has been walking on Ilkley Moor without his hat.

Well, you can imagine!!!


Okay, well, it’s like this. The song begins with a friendly question, of the sort that might arise from a chance meeting on the village street: “Where has tha been since I saw thee?” The response: “On Ilkley Moor baht’at”. The friend, with a nudge and a wink, suggests “Thou’ve been a-courting Mary-Jane”, but by the third verse has taken something of a left-turn at the traffic lights, prophesying: “Then thou shalt catch tha death of cold!” However, in verse four, he has reconciled himself in the way of a true pragmatist to the outcome: “Then we shall have to bury thee.”

The hatless one may be wondering, by verse five, exactly what goes on behind the eyes of his so-called friend, who muses: “then worms’ll come and eat thee up.” After which it’s a natural progression to “then ducks’ll come and eat up worms”, and to follow (post-shooting expedition we must presume), “then, we shall come and eat up ducks.”

The final, chilling indictment of the walker’s cavalier attitude to headwear is an event in the musical canon that, I realised with sudden clarity last night, can be likened in import to nothing less than the Tristan Chord. “Then,” sings the passing-concerned-friend-turned-crazy-person, “we shall all have eaten thee.”

So much is encapsulated in this seemingly simple, bouncy and repetitive song! (Repetitive such that, in the time it’s taken you to read this, the song would just about be coming to the end of the first verse.) It manages to imply everything from a basic understanding of the nitrogen cycle, to existential questions of the very circle of life, connotations of cannibalism, the fragility that must surely ensue in a society built on such foundations; indeed, the very existence of God and divine wisdom.

Who wrote this work of genius? Where does it come from? Have we all missed a trick, shutting our ears to drunken folk singers yawling through its tedious verses, when we should have recognised the unique opportunity for theosophy it presents?

Of course, you might say I just need to get some sleep.


Allison Fairbairn said...

This goes to back up my theory that folk songs are the Grimm's Fairy Tales of the English.

Your people had a vair strong preoccupation with death, morbidity, and hats. I'm sure the paper's been written on it.

Amber said...

We should write the book. I've got the first-hand experience, you've got the academic clout. It can't fail. And you know, ethnofolklorists always rake in the big bucks.