A Musical Embarrassment

The town of Bergen is a couple of days by train from Texorami. It is a much older and more traditional city than Texorami, and when I was about ten, the oldest cathedral in Bergen celebrated its 750th birthday. The Earl of Bergen decided to mark the occasion with a big festival and a concert series featuring young performers from all over the country. Because my piano teacher, Bastien, is a pretty famous pianist and youth symphony conductor, he was one of the people invited to help select the talent for the shows.

He immediately knew he wanted to include my friend Haven on the program. Not only was she his best student, she's also extremely well-mannered and well-behaved. Very professional. I, on the other hand.... But Bastien likes me, and he'd come up with this great idea for a concert where Haven would play piano and I would switch to a different instrument for each piece, starting with a sacred piece from the era in which the cathedral was built and progressing forward through history, ending with a modern piece.... It was a really good idea, we had the chops to pull it off, and we were both so little and cute that he figured we'd be big crowd-pleasers. And I guess he figured that Haven would be enough of a good influence on me that I could be trusted to behave myself, at least during the concert.

A couple of weeks before the festival, Bastien comes to us, looking really sheepish, and says, 'I've got another piece for you. We won't put it in the regular program, but you might get an encore request.' He hands us some sheet music for a song called 'Edenderry Air'. Apparently, at the time this cathedral was built, Bergen was still called Edenderry, and this music Bastien gave us was one of the area's most popular traditional songs. Well, let me tell you, it was awful. A thousand years of local history as seen through the crow-picked eyes of dead soldiers and their suicidal former lovers. Sixteen verses of this crap. I did not believe in Hell until I heard this song. But, I was trying to prove to Bastien that I could behave myself, so that he would know that he could take me on trips like this in the future. I practiced it, and I memorized the whole thing, taking as some small consolation that if we did perform it, I would at least get a chance to sing for the crowd -- everything else on the bill was instrumental.

Unfortunately, that wasn't my only consolation. To amuse myself, I also wrote alternate lyrics -- for all sixteen verses. I called my version 'Eating Derriere,' which gives you an idea of the appropriateness of what I wrote. I sang it for Haven, who scolded me, but she also laughed a lot. I knew better than to share it with Bastien.

So, the big day finally arrives. We were scheduled as the last concert of the evening, and we had a pretty big crowd -- a few thousand people, I'd guess -- in this huge old cathedral, with the front part of the audience roped off for all these formally dressed dignitaries, most of whom look like they're as old as the building.

Haven and I start our program, and it goes really, really well. Haven is poised and perfect, as always, and I'm really having a great time -- the acoustics in that place are really fantastic. I'm kind of flirting with the audience a little, really trying to draw them in, because I'm having so much fun that I just want to share it. Well, sure enough, we finish our last piece and take our bow, and the Earl of Bergen, who is maybe about eighty, stands up and says, 'Thank you, girls, for a fantastic concert. If you don't mind indulging a sentimental old fool, I was wondering if you might know "Edenderry Air"....' Haven makes this perfect little speech about the importance of tradition, and away we go. It's going really well -- I'm milking it for all it's worth, and I can tell that a lot of people are getting really misty-eyed -- and then I get distracted: this huge ginger cat is sauntering down the center aisle like he owns the place. He comes about two-thirds of the way to the stage and suddenly leaps into the lap of a very plump woman, who jumps up and makes this funny little stifled scream.... Then I hear a gasp from much nearer to me, and a ripple of murmuring passes through the audience. I'm still trying to figure out whether they're just talking about the cat or whether something else has happened, when Haven does something she has never done before: she deviates from the music that is written on the page. As we're looping around for the next verse, she inserts a very jazzy little bridge, which snaps my mind back to the music. I realize I've been running on autopilot, and I'm not exactly sure what verse I'm up to. So I pull the most recent words I've sung out of my short-term memory.

I'd accidentally sung one of the bawdy verses I'd written.

Now, I don't mind being shocking, and I can be extremely vulgar without batting an eyelash, but I hate disappointing my friends, and I really, REALLY hate being wrong. I got so flustered that not only could I no longer remember the real words, I couldn't even improvise a decent approximation. I totally froze -- that's the only time that has happened to me on stage. I glanced at Haven, figuring she could give me the next words -- she always knows everybody's part -- but she's got her eyes shut tight. Her face is almost as red as her hair, and tears are streaming down her face. I thought, Oh, god, she's never going to speak to me again -- and then I realize she's laughing. Or, at least, she's trying really hard not to laugh. She keeps on with this little jazzy bridge while she gets herself under control, and then she sings the next verse herself. A couple of verses later, I'd recovered enough to sing harmony with her, and on the last verse we dropped the piano out and sang this great little a cappella duet.

By the time we got to the end, most of the audience had convinced themselves that they hadn't really heard what they thought they'd heard on that one verse -- as a challenge to myself, I'd made all the bawdy verses very phonetically similar to the real verses, and anyhow a lot of the audience had also been distracted by the business with the cat -- and the rest of the song had gone over so well that we got quite an ovation. Of course, Bastien knew exactly what I had done. He would't speak to me for the rest of the night, and he didn't let me do another big concert for almost three years.

But, here's the punchline: About six months later, Bastien gets a letter from the Earl, thanking him again and asking whether those 'delightful girls' would be available and willing to perform at a small private party, for which he would pay all of our travel expenses and let us stay in the guest house at his estate, in addition to making a donation to the Texorami Youth Symphony. We accept, and the party turns out to be a reunion of the twelve surviving members of the Earl's university fraternity. We play background music for a while, and then the Earl comes over with this devilish look in his eyes and asks, 'Would I be correct in assuming that you have satirized our beloved song more fully than the single verse you shared at your last concert?' He gathers up his cronies to listen, and I sing the whole thing, beginning to end. Let me just say that you haven't known the meaning of the word 'creepy' 'til you've been an eleven- year-old girl singing a bawdy song to a roomful of octogenerian perverts. Gentlemanly perverts, mind you, but still.... Oh, they ate it up. They made us honorary little sisters of the fraternity -- I know the secret handshake and everything -- and afterwards the Earl and I started exchanging occasional correspondence, which lasted right up until he died a few years ago. He would write the sweetest letters and end each one with a dirty limerick, which I found rather charming....

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Last modified: 18 Jul 2001