“Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”
—From T.S. Eliot’s “The Sacred Wood” (1920)
When writers and critics cite T.S. Eliot’s maxim above, they often stop with the deadpan funniest/cheeky part: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” It’s a great line, suggesting a mirthful larceny far at odds with the preternatural sobriety and moral seriousness of Eliot’s best-known works—“Four Quartets” and “The Wasteland” perhaps premier among them.
But the maxim’s second part elaborates a valuable guidepost for how all writers and artists should approach and pay homage to the history of their craft.
What Eliot suggests at a much deeper level is that no artist creates in isolation, without standing on the shoulders of all who have struggled in the same way through human history to give voice to what lies inside them.
And not only should you not ignore or pretend you are not influenced by those voices, but it is also perfectly permissible, even encouraged, to out and out steal their words and ideas—with one huge proviso: that you make something “better, or at least something different” of them.
And therein lies a huge and challenging rub, made all the more so when one steals song lyrics that enjoy a nearly universal cultural currency, passed on from parents to children over generations.
How to make that better or different without alienating those who have sung it aloud themselves and think they know perfectly well what it should sound like?
Well, you sing it like Laura Smith did, in her remarkably fresh remake of what many music historians say is an old Scottish folk tune, “My Bonny Lies Over the Ocean.” (See here for an interesting and fun discussion of one possible source of the original lyrics.)
Smith has been plying her trade since her 1989 debut album as a bluesy, emotionally raw-but-literate singer-songwriter based in Nova Scotia, Canada. Her eponymously named album that year was followed by “B’Tween the Earth and My Soul” in 1995, “It’s a Personal Thing” in 1997, and then, an involuntary 16-year break after a grievous injury led to various other health complications that eventually included opioid dependence.
She finally made a welcome return in 2013 with “Everything Is Moving” (both an artistic and happily anatomical statement, that…).
“My Bonny” is a prominent cut from “B’Tween the Earth and My Soul,” which also includes the devastating “Four Letter Word (for Lonesome)” and the urgent opening cut, “Shade of Your Love,” which went on to become Smith’s best-selling single. (“I won’t be wearing shoes today, cuz my heels are on fire/I need the shade of your love.”
But it was “My Bonny,” which she recorded with the famed Irish group The Chieftains, that leaped out from the album for many listeners, including this one.
My younger sister being named Bonnie, I remember singing the original lyrics to her incessantly at times, hypnotically hummable as the main melody line is. (Though I can’t quite remember whether it was more for purposes of entertainment or torment—“Hey, I don’t want to be lost out over the ocean!”)
Hoary as the song is, Smith gives it a completely new and compelling life in two ways.
First, she adds a couple of stanzas that stand as pure poetry of longing, loaded with imagery of emptiness, vacancy, cold.
And then with her voice, a singular instrument that seems to well up from the very root of her being, raw and visceral as can be, thus transforming the childish little ditty of a song into a desperate plea for being granted the blessed relief of a loved one loving her in return.
Let’s have a listen here and you will hear what I’m talking about before we return with some concluding appreciations.
Smith is not entertaining nor tormenting her sister or anyone other than herself when she reaches down for those two stanzas she has summoned forth from the creative wilderness to make this song into something it has never dared to be in anyone else’s hands. It’s a complete surprise when it comes, too, though she does perhaps give a hint, via the sheer power of her full-throated contralto from the earliest notes, that this is not your normal “My Bonny” we will be listening to.
When the lines come, we are taken to a very different place than tradition has previously taken us with our lost Bonny:
The leaves haven’t even started fallin’,
Already there’s such a chill in the air,
Someone’s got a kite on the wind, a maiden calling.
I’ve got a tramp’s whisker that tells me you still care,
So bring back, bring back, bring back my Bonny to me, to me…
So: she’s feeling fall chill without the object of her longing close by, even before the leaves have started falling. Brrr…
We have a kite with a maiden calling (against the wind, unheard), and then the singer’s sense of having no more than a “tramp’s whisker’s” knowledge that the object of her love still cares. Had to scurry around some wondering what a “tramp’s whisker” could mean, though I sure liked the sound of it without even knowing.
Turns out it’s a somewhat common term in parts of the UK, often substituting for “close” in a potentially tragic situation. (“I came within a tramp’s whisker of smashing into that car.”)
Odds aren’t good, in other words, as our lonesome shivering lover looks out to the roiling desolate sea of her beloved’s absence.
And then this lovely description of raw nature taking its turn for the yet more punishing chill of winter, even as it opens the possibility of traversing over the ice in ever deeper search:
Soon there’ll be no difference between the land and the water,
I can walk on the ice to places I’ve never been
When I get as far as I can go oh I’m gonna turn
And throw my cares over my shoulder
Along with your memory
I’ll just let it all float down the Gulf Stream
And I’ll walk on singing
My Bonny lies over the ocean…
And so on to traditional ditty’s end, our heroine bereft over her loss, her failure to find her bonny despite going to the literal end of the earth available to her, even right atop the hardened ice. Newly resolute, she sets her intention to finally throw her sorrow over her shoulder and let it float down toward warmer waters, allowing her to walk and sing again.
It turns out Smith’s health troubles are not over. Have had her “My Bonny” on my “Brilliant Songs” list for quite some time now, and in getting to it now, I returned to further research her life and current status only to discover that in December, barely two months ago, she was diagnosed with a cancer serious enough to curtail all her appearances and compel her friends to launch a Go Fund Me campaign to help her meet her medical bills.
You can find more discussion of that grave matter here as we wish her another return to health, singing and songwriting.
Something of more recent vintage here, from her latest album in 2014, making her own music quite unlike anyone else, leaving the door open for others to come along and try to make it “better, or at least different…”
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Elizabeth Haslam, whose photos (except for the books) grace the rotating banner at top of page.
Library books photo by Larry Rose, all rights reserved, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Ocean by Matt Hardy via Unsplash https://unsplash.com/@matthardy
Kite by Andrew Hidas https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrewhidas/