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Older songs

Following on from yesterday’s post, this video asks an interesting question:

What is the Oldest Song You Know?

I do sometimes find myself singing Sumer Is Icumen In (13th century), which does also get a mention in the video – note the ‘probably’ after Greensleeves. With a bit of checking on dates, I’d probably find that a few songs I know through church settings also go back that far and beyond.

If you allow a ‘song’ to count just on the basis of it’s lyrics, then I definitely know many, much older songs. For example, “The Lord’s My Shepherd” (some versions of which follow the original text of Psalm 23 closely) could be approaching 3,000 years old and is still in regular use. Generally, I’m singing those in translation although I can sometimes be heard rattling off “migdal-oz shem adonai” (‘the name of the LORD is a strong tower’), which is Proverbs 18:10 in the original Hebrew and approximately the same kind of vintage.

Tunes are more tricky to pin down. Audio recording is an art still too much in its infancy to help. Songs for which we have words and understandable musical notation and which are still in reasonably widespread use is a very fine-grained filter. I suspect simple tunes, like the one commonly known as ‘three blind mice’ have probably been made use of at least since ancient Greek musicians were dividing the octave into 12 equal subdivisions. Tunes are also quite mutable in performance and the same words can be set to many different tunes.

For all that fog, it is still a fascinating topic to ponder.

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