By Daniel Karlin

Oxford University Press. 195 pages. Ł30. ISBN 978-0-19-879235-2

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Are there any street singers now? Some people will say “Yes”, and point to the young men in town centres who strum a guitar and try to imitate Bob Dylan and other popular entertainers. Others will dismiss this suggestion, and say that such people are hardly original in terms of them using mostly well-known songs, but how original were earlier street singers?   Still, the contemporary singers certainly seem a long way from the man I remember walking down the middle of a street in a working-class area of a Northern industrial town, singing loudly. That would have been in the mid-1940s and I can’t remember what song he was singing, though I doubt it was one he’d composed himself or even an old folk song. He clearly wasn’t a local drunk on his way home from the pub, and I can only assume that he was something of an elderly leftover from the 1930s and the dark days of the Depression. Around the same time, I also still heard the voice of the rag-and-bone man calling out as his horse-and-cart trundled along the street.

Daniel Karlin surveys how some writers incorporated references to, and sometimes quotes from songs and street cries of a (mostly) 19th century provenance, into their work. His study largely focuses on Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Wordsworth, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Walt Whitman, and Marcel Proust, with numerous additional acknowledgements to a wide range of novelists, essayists, and poets. There were no doubt plenty of other writers, including minor and now-forgotten figures, whose work could be usefully explored for traces of old songs and vanished street cries, even if they were used only for local colour. Clarence Rook’s 1898 detective story, “The Stir Outside the Café Royal”, contains the following line: “flower girls were selling ‘nice vi’lets, sweet vi’lets, penny a bunch’ ”.           

Writers, on the whole, appear to have delighted in the noises that could be encountered in the streets, to the extent that some thought that it wasn’t just the songs to be heard, and the voices of traders advertising their wares, but all the additional sounds (carriages, conversations, etc.), that added up to what might be called the symphony of the streets. But not everyone shared this view, and Karlin uses Hogarth’s illustration, “The Enrag’d Musician”, to demonstrate how a man practising with his violin has found it impossible to concentrate because of the noises from the street. A child beats a drum, a baby wails, a knife-grinder is busy at his trade, a milkmaid is passing by, and the musician despairs. What one person finds appealing another dislikes. There is often an assumption that everyone will enjoy the cacophony of contemporary life. Take a walk down Market Street in Manchester any Saturday afternoon but leave your sensitivities behind as guitarists, singers, saxophonists, religious speakers, and more, not to mention the crowds of shoppers, set up a constant barrage of noise.

Karlin, in fact, refers to people who complained about the noise from the street, and wanted street singers and traders shouting out what was on offer, actually banned. The mathematician Charles Babbage, who “waged a vigorous campaign against all forms of street music in the 1860s”, included ‘The human voice in its various forms’ in his pamphlet, A Chapter on Street Nuisances (1864)”. He was, of course, unsuccessful, it being a fact of life that urban living inevitably brings one into close contact with other people’s noise. And some people enjoy the familiarity and the noise of urban life.

It’s perhaps only marginally relevant, but there was a popular song , “Tenement Symphony”, sung by Tony Martin in an early-1940s Marx Brothers movie, The Big Store, which was built around the various sounds – a child crying, someone practising on a musical instrument,  a gramophone blaring out, kids running down the stairs, etc. – to be heard when living in a tenement. It had a romantic feeling to it, perhaps almost influenced by a Popular Front ideology, which may not have been shared by anyone experiencing on a daily basis the realities of life in a tenement.   

Karlin mentions a letter that Charles Lamb wrote to William Wordsworth in which he declined “to join the nature-worshipping choir”, giving a Whitmanesque catalogue on the sights and sounds of Fleet Street and Covent Garden, and declaring that he ‘often shed tears in the motley Strand from fullness of joy at so much life’ “. Karlin will perhaps forgive me if I say that this reminds me of the poet Frank O’Hara’s response when asked if he’d like to live in the country. He wouldn’t mind, he said, provided there were bookshops and bars, theatres and cinemas, galleries and other signs that people hadn’t given up on life.

I’ve talked a little about the general outline of Street Songs, but Karlin is, of course, concerned to deal with specifics in terms of pointing out where examples of a song or street cry can be discerned in a piece of literature. It should also be noted that his book “is about what street songs are doing in works of literature, not about the songs themselves……..I am not “a musicologist or a historian or a social geographer; street song has found its way into works of literature…….what interests me is something that goes beyond mere reference, or that adds local colour to a realist fiction: something that plays a specific part in an artistic design”.

A good idea of what Karlin is aiming for can be seen in his chapters on the work of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (EBB) and Robert Browning (RB). Living in Italy, they were sympathetic to efforts to bring about the unification of the country. Discussing EBB’s poem, “Casa Guidi Windows”, with its opening lines where the poet hears a child in the street singing “O bella libertŕ”. Karlin points out that no record of that phrase “has been found in any Italian song or poem of the period”. But, he adds, “It is plausible without being documented”.

Other questions occur. The Brownings were not living in Casa Guidi when she started writing the poem. Various versions of the poem have different titles, and so on. Does it matter? The test is whether or not the finished poem achieves the effect the poet was striving for? : “The child singer is a made-up figure; he is not there by accident”. The poem is a construct, meant to impart a message about liberty, and, as Karlin notes, it is something of a riposte to those poets and others who indulge in a “self-indulgent, lettered tradition of melancholy, of lamentations over Italy’s fallen greatness”. EBB had a more positive view of the potential for change, and understood that “It is necessary that the song of Italian freedom should come from a child, and from the street”.

I have to say that Karlin’s attention to the historical and political background in the work he discusses is extremely helpful. I don’t imagine that all that many people are familiar with the intricacies of nineteenth century Italian history before unification. They may know a little more about events in Ireland, as they crop up in references in James Joyce’s Ulysses, though I do wonder how many people have actually read it? It took me a long time to complete it in the 1960s, and I can’t honestly claim that I’ve done more than glance at it since.

In Ulysses a one-legged sailor wanders the streets and sings a few words from “The Death of Nelson”, a “well-known ballad”. Other songs and poems – around 400, according to Karlin, quoting Don Gifford’s Ulysses Annotated – are scattered around Joyce’s book, though not in an arbitrary fashion. They are mostly there to buttress the narrative by illustrating what is going in the minds of the characters, who, as Karlin says, remember occasions when they heard the song or poem in question. And there are songs that are performed on the streets in varying circumstances.

The one-legged sailor singing “The Death of Nelson” has already been mentioned. “The Boys of Wexford” is an Irish rebel song, with its roots in the failed 1798 uprising and the battle of Vinegar Hill. A prostitute sings a bawdy song about “the leg of the duck” that hasn’t been identified, though Karlin doubts it was something that Joyce made up.  A popular song, “My Girl’s a Yorkshire Girl”, is played on a pianola in a brothel. Is its use an indication of the presence of British soldiers in Dublin, and who might be expected to patronise the bars and brothels of the city?

 It’s fascinating to follow Karlin’s line of analysis as he places these songs in context and explains their relevance to the development of the novel. And instructive for those, like me, who love to read about the origins of fragments of songs that crop up in novels. When Molly whistles the tune of “there is a charming girl I love”, Karlin says that the correct title is “It is a charming girl I love”, and it derives from “The Lily of Killarney, a light opera based on Dion Boucicault’s high Victorian melodrama The Colleen Bawn (1860)”. Boucicault’s play is still occasionally performed, but it’s doubtful if The Lily of Killarney will see the light of day again.

What enhances Karlin’s close textual analysis of the poems and books he studies is his enthusiasm, something which is especially evident in his chapter on Walt Whitman. And what a pleasure it is to see someone paying attention to the American poet. Karlin looks at Whitman’s poem, “Sparkles from the Wheel”, in which the poet joins (not just observes) a group of children as they watch a knife-grinder at work. My own memories stretch back far enough to seeing what must have been one of the last of his kind at work in the street, and to being interested in what he was doing.

Karlin draws our attention to the fact that it was hard work. We talk about the “daily grind” and “keeping our noses to the grindstone”, a phrase that brings to mind the knife-grinder bent over his wheel. There is an amusing passage which deals with a satirical poem, “The Friends of Humanity, and the Knife-grinder”, in which a well-meaning liberal questions a down-at-heel knife-grinder because his impoverished appearance suggests exploitation “by the rich and powerful”. The man turns out to be fiercely independent, rejects any interest in politics, and indicates that the liberal’s concern and philanthropy ought to extend to giving him sixpence so he can buy a pot of beer.

In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, an old woman is seen near Regent’s Park underground station “singing” what seems to be a wordless and most probably tuneless song: “ee um fah um so/foo swee too eem so”, which puts me in mind of the Dada performances at the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich in 1916, and of children chanting nonsense rhymes. But Karlin, quoting an “incomprehensible song” that some children sing in another work by Virginia Woolf, asserts that it is “fundamentally different” to the old woman’s “song”, being well in the compositional tradition of “innumerable ballads, hymns, popular songs, and nursery rhymes”.

There is so much more packed into each page of Street Songs that it would be possible to carry on talking about it almost endlessly. Proust makes an appearance, and in Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel “may be thought of as a kind of aural flâneur, enjoying and consuming the sounds of the city as they are brought to his ears”. He “hears or mentions a score of cries relating to food”, and the cries of numerous other street traders, such as the old-clothes man, the knife-grinder, and many more. There is an “erotic energy of the great city” and street cries suggest this. Karlin brings in references to Charpentier’s opera, Louise, in which Paris and its temptations are highlighted. I remember seeing a performance of Louise in London some years ago and being intrigued by its musical portrayal of Paris street life.

Street Songs is clearly an academic work, thoroughly researched, with extensive notes, and intense analysis of its basic material. But it strikes me that it can be read to advantage by those who may not be involved in academic studies, but who have an interest in literature. It is clearly written, and even entertaining, which is not something that can always be said about academic texts.