Edwin Muir was born and raised in the Orkneys at the end of the 19th century, and in his Autobiography (1954) recalls the songs he and his family sang — some of which were old ballads in Scottish English; but a few, in standard English and featuring references to such exotic locales as Paddington Green, had somehow been acquired from books and magazines: 

There was a great difference between the earlier and the later songs. The ballads about James V and Sir James the Rose had probably been handed down orally for hundreds of years; they were consequently sure of themselves and were sung with your full voice, as if you had always been entitled to sing them; but the later ones were chanted in a sort of literary way, in honour of the print in which they had originally come, every syllable of the English text carefully pronounced, as if it were an exercise. These old songs, rooted for so long in the life of the people, are now almost dead. 

I wonder what it would be like to sings songs “as if you had always been entitled to sing them” — entitled because they were the songs of your people, your world — and songs neither bought nor sold but rather inherited and passed along.

(When my late father-in-law was a child in Columbiana, Alabama, his family was very poor, and could afford no musical instruments; so evening after evening, they just sat on the front porch and sang in four-part harmony. All of them experienced music in a way I never have and never will. Eventually they did a little better, financially, and Daddy C — as I would call him, decades later — got a cheap guitar from Sears as a Christmas present. But he had no one to teach him to play until a friend of his sister’s, a fellow his own age but from Montgomery, came by one day and taught him a few chords. That friend was named Hank Williams — and yep, it was that Hank Williams.)  

I think often of something Muir wrote, in his diary, about himself: 

I was born before the Industrial Revolution, and am now about two hundred years old. But I have skipped about a hundred and fifty of them. I was really born in 1737, and till I was fourteen no time-accidents happened to me. Then in 1751 I set out from Orkney for Glasgow. When I arrived I found that it was not 1751, but 1901, and that a hundred and fifty years had been burned up in my two days’ journey. But I myself was still in 1751, and remained there for a long time. All my life since I have been trying to overhaul that invisible leeway. 

He grew up in a world technologically and socially little different than that of his distant ancestors: the family had a few books and a couple of fiddles, but their culture was largely shared and maintained by voice. Can anyone today born into the Western world say the same? Some, perhaps; but few.

A book I admire tremendously is Iona and Peter Opie’s The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren, and in her Introduction to a recent edition of the book Marina Warner raises an inevitable question: 

How perennial is the lore and language that the Opies chronicled? Much of the material is ancient, reported in the first printed records of children’s sayings and doings, with echoes reverberating much further back; certain themes and attitudes, certain rhythms and prosody, especially the humor and the daring, are eternal and inextinguishable. The Opies themselves invoke the bugbear of the mass media, which was already, even in the 1950s, accused of extinguishing children’s spontaneity in play and expressiveness. The sociologist David Holbrook, in his book Children’s Games [1957], lamented the disappearance of traditional play, citing as causes “recent developments in television, in the mass-production of toys, in family life, and the tone of our ways of living,” but for their own time at least the Opies confidently refuted this. 

Could they “confidently refute” such a lament today? While Warner insists that “children haven’t forgotten how to play,” she also says this: “We are in danger of cultural illiteracy, of losing the past. If nestlings are deprived of their parents’ song during a certain ‘window’ at the beginning, they will not learn to sing. This sounds uncomfortably recognizable.” 

Children will always play, when allowed to, and people will always sing. But will they play or sing anything that can’t be bought and sold? Will playing and singing, in the Western world anyway, ever again be anything other than a set of commercial transactions? I’m glad that I can listen to almost any music in the world that I want to listen to; but I can’t help wondering sometimes whether music would mean something more to me, and certainly something different, if most of the songs I knew were the ones that, in that imagined life, I’d be entitled to sing.