I don’t smoke. So far as I know, nothing is wrong with my breath, and I am fastidiously clean. Often, my worst anti-social tendency is the occasional outburst of self-righteousness. But I have to admit to one personal habit that is so socially unacceptable that it can send even close friends screaming from my vicinity. Without pre-meditation or warning, I have been known to produce parodies.
This is not a habit under my control – the lines just bubble up from the tar pits of my unconscious like the skeleton of a mammoth or a smilodon, and before I stop to think, I recite them.
As a child, I showed what I now recognize as early symptoms. In the last few years of high school, I developed a taste for lyrics-oriented music, often scribbling down the words to my favorite songs. In my final year, I taught myself poetry and meter, and sold my first poems.
However, the urge to parody did not emerge until I started attending Society for Creative Anachronism events during my second year at university. Shortly before Christmas, tired of the endless parodies of carols like “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” I started writing what I called pagan carols – songs whose humor was based partly on their lack of Christianity, but chiefly on the fact that they were full of an exaggeratedly violent references completely alien to the spirit of the originals:
A long time ago in Jotunheim,
So the Elder Edda say,
Loki’s girl-child, little Hel,
Was born to rule the day.
From Norroway and Danemark,
And places further west,
To seize your lands and dwell in them,
Oh, this is now our quest.
And if you won’t let us have them,
Your destiny’s manifest.
So much for Harry Belafonte’s “Mary’s Boy Child” and for “God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,” and much the same for “Away in a Long Ship,” “Deck the Halls with Bowels of Christians,” and a dozen other equally forgettable tidbits. Once the basic idea was in my head, I could write one of these carols in about fifteen minutes, and I frequently did. I wince at many of these now, finding the cheery violence less funny that I did then – although remembering how Americans objected to the reference to Manifest Destiny, and produced an alternative verse still irks me.
However, by this point, the rot had set in. Stan Roger’s “Barrett’s Privateers” became “Stoat Coyle’s Privateers,” after the persona of a friend. Humorous songs from The Corries became the template for poking mild fun at local medievalists. When the White Tower Medieval Society defeated the SCA, I commemorated the event with “The Twenty Second War,” set to the “Wyndham Fight,” an account of the famous boxing match in 1811 between Tom Cribb and Tom Molineaux. My version began:
Come you mercenary swords,
All hungry for a meal,
When you’re quite drunk, come gather round,
And hear Lord Ettrick’s spiel:
For glory and for spoils of war
The White Tower’s to be fought,
And bring what ransom is at hand,
Just in case we’re caught.
Shy of my own accomplishments (as I saw them then), I usually urged my partner to sing them for me in public – in order, I said, to give myself a head start.
I committed my share of filking at science fiction conventions, too, although my sources were often obscure by most people’s standards, since I ignored with a sniff most of the popular music of the 1980s and 1990s.
But then parrots came into our lives – creatures who are fascinated by singing, especially when it is directed at them. None of the birds who shared our lives escaped. “England Swings” became a summary of the flock, while “The Popular Wobbly,” which I heard on a Utah Phillips recording, became the life history of our only hand-fed bird. Others were more generic:
The moment that you waddled through the room,
I could see you were a bird of distinction,
A real class parrot
Hey big squawker,
Preen a little while with me.
Birdy you’re a boy, make a big noise
Screaming on your cage gonna be head bird one day,
You got gunk on your face,
A big disgrace,
Regurgitating all over the place,
Singing we will, we will flock you.
I even managed six or seven verses of “The Parrot of Shallott,” ending with:
But what is this? And what is here?
What screaming phantom flappeth near?
Beneath the sounds of royal cheer,
They stick a finger in each ear,
All the knights of Camelot;
But Lancelot preened there a space,
Said, “Get your claws out of my face,”
So she sat and chewed on his collar of lace,
The parrot of Shallot.
Fortunately for those around me, imitating Tennyson is too much like hard work, and I doubt I will ever finish that effort. Fans of Tennyson and Loreena McKennitt can rest easy.
I do fewer parodies these days, having a blog and paid writing to do. But I doubt I’ll ever abandon parodies altogether. Just the other day, I found myself extending a version of “Chantilly Lace” called “Genteelly Bored” that described my last office job, and transforming “Mr. Tambourine Man” into a celebration of my parrot Beaudin. They come to me without effort, often when I wake in the morning, and then all that’s left to do is to call for mass evaculation and bring in the rescue workers.