Songs have a remarkable capacity to speak into a range of specific contexts. In doing so, their meaning can be completely transfigured. Sometimes it’s a conscious re-application, someone uplifting the music or melody and applying it to a different purpose. Take the melody of the British National Anthem, for example. Originally it was probably a sixteenth century plainsong or chant. Later, Purcell and Handel borrowed the tune and Purcell used it in association with the words “God save the King”. We know the words and music were sung together at the Drury Lane Theatre in 1745 as a patriotic response to the Scottish Jacobite victory over George II’s soldiers at the Battle of Prestopans. On that occasion it included this verse:
May the sedition hush, and like a torrent rush,
Rebellious Scots to crush, God save the King!”
Strangely, it seems the Jacobites themselves used the tune as a drinking song at the same time. Beethoven also wrote piano variations on the tune in 1804, possibly free of political sentiment. Even today the melody provides the tune to other nations’ patriotic songs including the United States’ “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”.
Sometimes this transfiguration of melody or lyric can happen simply by accident or historical happenstance. In the days before Covid-19 took over our lives, when Corona meant a cold beer with a slice of lemon tucked in the top, we went to see Kate Tempest at the Festival of the Arts. To be honest, we knew practically nothing about her. She was billed as a spoken word and hip hop artist, a rapper, a poet, novelist and playwright. But that gave so much to go on we had no idea what to expect. It turned out her show was a dynamic and relentless waterfall of words that nailed a world of contemporary angst while still offering a glimpse of a positive future.