The songs obviously pre exist. Not just the performance but my life time. Have pre existed for a century or two in some cases. And hopefully, the good ones will continue to exist, despite the often crude treatment they receive at my hands.
We are after all merely custodians, doing our best. In this and in so much else. Hopefully, leaving something worth passing on. Beyond fashion or style or commerce.
But the singer is erased in the song. There’s obviously an art involved but it’s the art of effacing self, allowing voice to becomes vehicle and letting the story unroll.
As soon as he or she starts to sing ”I had a first cousin called Arthur MacBride” that first pronoun swallows ego; the singer is leaning across a bar, or a table, or sitting in their rocking chair, telling some button holed wedding guest the story of that memorable encounter, not as an historian or a journalist, but as eyewitness and participant.
In payment for which the magical lift, and the chance to rise on the glorious defiance of that song’s conclusion.
In the traditional love songs, the singer once again disappears, becomes reconstituted as the space between the hand reaching out to the lover, and the lover who smiles in welcome: this most human of gestures endlessly repeated across time and space.
The details of the stories encode the feeling: specifics and universals inseparable: gesture, and thought, act and emotion polished and passed along.
Anyone who says the song is irrelevant because the maid laments for her Bonnie Light Horse man killed in the Napoleonic wars has missed the point. The roguish beggarman who rises after a night of enjoyable sex with the woman he’s tricked (who may not seem so admirable once the song has finished) finds his way into today’s papers: the young girl waiting for her lover to come home from the sea or from the wars becomes the man or woman whose partner has been posted to Afghanistan.
The song suspends judgement and leaves that to the audience.
It don’t need to be rewritten or updated. It don’t need to be “modernized or glamorized”. Just treated with respect and passed on.
Which raises the interesting question: how the hell to write poems that do that.