My Gray Goose Chase

I will restrict my illustrations here to two songs, differing in as many aspects of provenance as any two folksongs in the language can differ, and almost certainly not related through diffusion, yet remarkably similar in their use of an indestructible and gigantic bird for symbolic expression of social protest.

~~ John Greenway, “The Flight of the Gray Goose: Literary Symbolism in the Traditional Ballad”

It’s funny what might get under my skin, leading me on a – dare I say it – wild goose chase. Even funnier, where that chase might lead me.

TNY published Lethem’s “The Gray Goose” a few weeks ago. It referenced the folk song of the same name, appearing in the story first as a children’s song by Burl Ives and a few pages later in a Greenwich Village club, as laden with significance for the main character: her mother, as a member of the American communist party, had taught her the goose represented the struggling middle class, a tidbit with which she later impressed her friends at the club.

I was curious at the time, so I began my wild – or rather, gray – goose chase. I discovered the Burl Ives 1959 version was a cover of a 1935 Leadbelly recording (the two knew each other and sometimes performed at the same folk concerts), back when white artists frequently “covered” black songs to bring them to wider audience rather than in the current sense of simply re-recording a song. I still wanted to know more about the origins of “The Gray Goose” folk tune: was it a spiritual? A children’s song? Something older? Was it American, European, or something entirely different?

The most promising source of information I could find, based on a footnote to a footnote, seemed to be an elusive article titled “The Flight of the Gray Goose: Literary Symbolism in the Traditional Ballad” by one John Greenway, published in a now-defunct journal, Southern Folklore Quarterly in 1954. How does one find a copy of such an article?

I called the Portland Public Library. I felt a little silly – it seemed like a mission that was doomed to fail – but they have this “Ask a Librarian” number, so I asked a librarian if they had some magical way to find a 60-year-old article from a Kentucky journal out of print for 30 years.

They did.

It would take a couple of weeks, I was told, since the University of Maine at Orono (about 135 miles away) was in summer session. Three days later, a PDF arrived by email. I love my library. I love all libraries. And I love librarians.

So what did folklorist Dr. Greenway have to say?

He starts with “The Cutty Wren,” an English folk song unrelated to “The Gray Goose” but similar in some ways as it served as a medieval protest song associated with the 1381 Peasant’s Revolt, protesting feudalism and the abuses of the landlords, and, like “The Gray Goose,” features an undistinguished bird elevated to great status. Greenway considered “The Cutty Wren” not in the American culture at the time of the article; today, it’s listed Mark Gregory’s worldwide database “Union Songs” and was included on the 1960s album “Songs of Protest” by the British folk group led by Ian Campbell. John Greenway didn’t know, in 1954, that the 60s were about to happen. And the internet, well, he would’ve laughed.

What does “The Cutty Wren” have to do with “The Gray Goose”? Not much, really, other than they both involve less-than-glorious birds as symbols of resistance to oppression:

A somewhat similar area of protest to that out of which the song came, however, existed in the South during slavery days, and still exists in rural prison camps. In both cases a defiant society or group, living in an environment of deprivation, restriction, and oppression was denied free channels of expression; such conditions inevitably produced songs in which protest is concealed from those outside the group by symbolism, allegory, and other devices. During ante-bellum times the slaves had a semi-religious song ultimately derived in form from the African “call and response” group singing, which may have begun something like this modern descendant:

George went a huntin,’
O Mount Zion
He kill a eagle,
O Mount Zion.

and went on to tell of the difficulty George’s mama had in cooking the bird; the last time the singer saw him, “he war flotin’ down de riber.”

This, then, seems to be the song that developed into “The Gray Goose.”

He further relates the symbol of the goose more generally to “Ol’ Sis Goose” – when the goose goes to court, she finds the judge, attorneys, and jury are all foxes – depicting an overt kind of racial injustice: “the Negro in a white man’s court is I pretty much the same predicament.” Greenway then traces the Goose through Leadbelly, who, having spent eleven years in Southern chain gangs, saw it as a way of honoring the prisoner who survived.

Greenway is uncertain about the reason the goose itself was selected as the bird of choice for this symbolism, however:

Just why the goose should be accepted by the Southern Negro as a symbol for his people is not easy to see (although the goose is a similar symbol in folklore from Finno-Ugric to Hindu mythology); perhaps because of its very homeliness, perhaps because he recognizes in the goose certain qualities that we city-dwellers do not see. I felt a hint of this two weeks ago when the papers reported the incident of two wild geese vainly attempting to help a broken-winged companion into the air. Perhaps the goose has a highly-developed sense of social consciousness.

Sentences like that final one make me very glad I called my library to obtain this article.

He further traces the evolution, or, in some cases, devolution, of folk songs: some lose their symbolism, and thus their meaning, and become children’s nonsense songs. He specifically points out the modification of “The Gray Goose” that replaces “Lawd, lawd, lawd” with “Ho holly Ho” and additional “repetitive nonsense;” it’s interesting I can’t find that lyric online, while the original version – the version Leadbelly and Burl Ives sang – is plentiful. That feels like a kind of small justice to me.

Now – what does any of this have to do with the Lethem story?

Miriam, the daughter in the story, is somewhat dismissive of the song when she hears it in the club, since she remembers it as a children’s song. She does remember, however, that her mother had a Marxist interpretation for it, and thus impresses her friends with that knowledge. Greenway acknowledges that “many songs of social and political significance have a disconcerting habit” of losing their meaning between the fields and the nursery, but here the meaning was significantly preserved, if lightened by Ives’ delivery. Miriam’s mother, furthermore, adds her interpretation to keep the meaning with the song – if a different meaning than it had when Leadbelly sang it, which was very different from the “George Went a Huntin'” that originated in slavery.

In the interview that accompanied the story, Lethem made some references to the song. He remembered the song with some mixed feelings, and so Miriam came to see it as “a sort of trapdoor into the mingled shame and pride of a family’s political past.” Thanks to Greenlaw, I have a better idea of the origins of the song, but Miriam, at 16, thinks her mother’s interpretation, Burl Ives’ version, is the original one. It’s possible, given that the novel follows her to other protests and revolutions and uprisings, that the song remains the same for her, a more general symbol. Or perhaps she, too, discovers more about it: Lethem mentions in passing “an Irish-American folksinger discovering he’s no Bob Dylan” but it’s not clear whether or not that is part of the novel.

Is it ok to co-opt a song? To change the symbolism for a different purpose, another oppressed group? What if we allow the goose to be more generous – to represent anyone who is downtrodden, oppressed, struggling, staying the course, resisting destruction, and believes that release, flight, freedom is possible? The origins of the song in slavery, America’s seminal injustice, merely provides the bass line. The harmonies and melodies of racial injustice, prison inequalities, socioeconomic disadvantage, discriminations based on gender, religion, sexual preference, can create a refreshed, not a new, song.

Is this co-option, or growth, a sign of life, of universality? It depends. I think it’s important for the co-opters to acknowledge the original origins, which is not something Miriam or her mother do in the story. Perhaps they (or the Irish-American Dylan wannabe) encounter it later. Or perhaps the song fades from the novel – titled Dissident Gardens – with this section.

But The Gray Goose will fly on, regardless.

2 responses to “My Gray Goose Chase

  1. Pingback: Jonathan Lethem: “The Gray Goose” from TNY, 5/6/13 | A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Ben Shattuck, “The History of Sound” from The Common #16 | A Just Recompense

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