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Letter to America: Contrafacta to Expectations On:2022-07-18 08:28:01

My Dear Americans,
    consider, if you will, the following comment upon the inadequacies of Amtrak:
You leave the Pennsylvania station
'Bout a quarter to four,
You read War and Peace
And then you're in Baltimore.
Dinner in the diner,
Nothing could be finer,
Than to have your next four meals in Carolina.
When you hear the whistle blowin' eight to the bar
Then you know the goods ahead has derailed a car.
Perhaps if they shovelled coal in
They could get the bloody thin' rollin'.
Boo! Hoo! I think we're staying right where we are..."1
Badly sung, no doubt, but strangely, I'm sure, familiar (at least to the older among you).

Now, I don't know if you have noticed, but there is an interesting tendency in the human mind to say "What if: what would it be like were things different?" Now this (in spite of the varied claims of laughter, bi-pedalism without feathers, and all those other things that recent animal studies show that we merely do too!) this may well turn out to be the one defining characteristic of humanity.
It happens especially in the area of communication (where we again definitely perform along with, and not necessarily better than, some other species).
And it seems to happen even especially-er when it comes to familiar songs and the like.
We do it inadvertently, as in the eponymous Mondegreen, named for a line from an old song about the murder of the Bonnie Earl o' Murray when the perps, having perpetrated, promptly "laid him on the green" which was misconstrued as "Lady Mondegreen" thus simultaneously creating and destroying the poor lady.
And then again we do it quite advertently in what's known among the cognoscenti as contrafacta as in my opening number.
And people have been doing this sort of thing possibly since the beginning of time, certainly for a very long while, indeed one of the oldest surviving songs in English, the famous paean to spring "Sumer is i-cumen in" has a religious contrafactum, or else the almost unknown "Perspice Xristicola" has a secular one. At least they are found in the same manuscript set to the same music one above the other (and, for what it's worth, the secular one is above the religious one, but the religious one's written in red)2.
Then again during the C16 there were loads of so-called (and indeed inaccurately called) Parody Masses where a secular tune was pinched for a polyphonic mass. for example "L'homme armé" a song about the advisability of wearing armour, of which at least 40 mass settings are known
L'homme, l'homme, l'homme armé, l'homme armé, l'homme armé doibt on doubter, doibt on doubter,
which, if it seems a bit too militaristic, at least isn't as suggestive as "Westron Wynde" which luckily only made it into three settings (that I know of) but that contains the lines.
Cryst yf my love were in my Armys
And I yn my bed Agayne,
which seems to be tending far too raunchy .
And so we do it either on purpose or by accident, in fact to end with a confession even I have found myself inadvertently guilty of being a bit mondegreenish about the gills. David Bowie’s "Rebel, Rebel" contains the line
Rebel, Rebel you’ve torn your dress
which, until I started research for this essay, I firmly believed was
Rebel, Rebel put on your dress
and you know my version makes a lot more sense than the official one, since earlier in that song it is claimed that she, the rebel, has her mother in a whirl not sure if she’s a boy or a girl, and if at that moment she’s actually wearing her dress then someone in that family has more problems to deal with than mere teenage rebellion.
Kindest regards,
Richard Howland-Bolton
and, of course,
Cheerio for now
from me!


1 This contrafactum was confected many years ago after a particularly wearisome rail journey from Rochester, NY to somewhere forgettable in New Joisey.

2  Sumer Canon
The Sumer Canon also has a modern (at least by it's own standards) winterized version done by Ezra Pound.

I thought it would be fun to put the contrafacta together! I've lined up the syllables for easy substitution. They are:
     1 The Middle English,
     2 The Latin (note that I use u as in the ms for both 1 and 2)
     3 A modernization of the ME
     4 A translation of the Latin
     5 Ezra Pound's winterized version.

        1 Su- mer is      i   -  cu -  men in-, *Lhu -de  sing cuc- cu.
2 Per-spi-ce      Xri  - sti - co- la-, *que  di- gna- ci - o
3 Sum-mer is      a   -  com - ing in-, *loud-ly  sing cuck-oo
4 Pay at- tention Christ-i  -  a -  n-, *what hon-our  it   is
5 Win-ter is      i  -   cu -  men in-, *Lhu- de  sing God- damm
*subsequent voices enter

1 Grow- eth sed  and blow - eth med   and sprignth the w -   de   nu.
2 Cae - li- cus  ag- ri  -  co- la    pro ui   -   tis ui-   ci - o.
3 Grows the seed and blooms the mead  and sprouts  the green wood now.
4 The   Hus-band-man of Hea-ven for   a   blem  -  ish in    the  vine
5 Rain- eth drop and stain- eth slop. And how      the wind  doth ramm!

1 Sing cuc- cu.
2 Fi - li - o
3 Sing cuck-oo
4 Hi - s    Son
5 Sing God- damm!

1 Aw-  e    ble - teth af - ter  lomb, lhouth af  -   ter cal- ue  cu
2 Non  par- cens  ex - po - su - it,   mor -  tis     ex- i -  ci- o
3 Ewe  she  bleat-eth  for  her  lamb, lows   for     her calf the cow
4 Did  not  spare but  did  ex - pose  to     death's des-truc-ti- on
5 Skid-deth bus   and  slop-peth us,   An     a   -   gue hath my  ham

1 Bul - luc  stert-eth buc- ke  uer- teth, mu - rie  sing cuc- cu
2 Qui   cap- ti -  uos se - mi- ui - uos   a    sup- pli- ci - o
3 Young bull start-eth buck he  fart- eth  pret-t'ly sing cuck-oo
4 Who   the  half  liv-ing  cap-tives did  from tor- ment of   Hell
5 Free- zeth ri -  ver turn-eth li - ver   Damn you, sing God- damm!

1 Cuc  -  cu!   Cuc -cu!    Wel  sing-est thu  Cuc -  cu!
2 Vi  -   tae   do - nat    Et   se - cum co - ro -   nat
3 Cuck -  oo!   Cuck-oo!    Well do   you sing Cuck-  oo!
4 Restore to    li - fe!    And  with Him-self crowns them
5 God  -  damm! God- damm! 'Tis  why  I   am,  God -  damm!

1 Ne  swik   thu    na- uer  nu.
2 In  cae -  li     so- li - o.
3 Nor stop   you    ne- ver  now.
4 On  the    throne of  hea- ven.
5 So 'gainst the    win-ters balm.
Various Pedes:
            1 Sing  cuc - cu   nu    sing    cuc - cu
I seem to remember that someone (Dobson?) thought the Lat. pes was
            2 Resur-rexit Domi-nus!  Dominus Resur-rexit! but I can't remember why.
3 Sing  cuck- oo   now   sing    cuck- oo
4 Risen has   the  Lord! Lord    has   risen
5 Sing  God-  damm damm  sing    God - damm

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