Tuesday, 17 May 2011

One Singer, One Song

1970-1980 - In the world of social clubs in Northern Ireland there is an old tradition known as the ‘sing-song’. They are gatherings of people who get drunk together and when the booze kicks in people would begin singing songs. The music would be played by a local pub ‘act’ who would often be one guy with a guitar and a little drum machine. As the pub-singer was singing the punters would nominate someone to sing a song by writing the person’s name on a scrap of paper. They would give the paper to the pub-singer who would keep the names until the floor was thrown open to other singers.

I’d like to now call Dickie up to give us a wee song” he would announce over the PA. Dickie would falsely look surprised and would pretend to protest. “No, I can’t!” he would he would say. His friends would encourage him with shouts of “Go on Dickie! Give’s a wee number!” Dickie would shrug his shoulders and would declare “Oh, okay then”. Pretending to not want to sing was something he always did. If he was not nominated to sing he would be deeply offended. There were many others like Dickie who took the sing-song very seriously. Each of them had their own particular song which they always sang. The rule was that no-one would dare sing anyone else’s song. It could cause a row if someone stood up to the microphone and sang a song that had been already claimed by another. Angus always sang 'The Way We Were'. Dickie always sang 'Spanish Eyes'. Billy, 'Beautiful Sunday'. May, 'Slow Boat to China'. Milton, 'Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘round the Old Oak Tree'. That was the deal – don’t touch my song and I’ll leave yours alone.

Every Sunday afternoon in the middle lounge of ‘The Raven’ social club these same songs were sung by the same people to the same crowd. Each sing-song was a duplication of the previous one and that’s the way they liked it. The same people drinking the same drinks at the same tables in the same smoke-filled room and enjoying the same banter while listening to the same songs being sung by the same singers. It was a security thing. There were no surprises apart from the odd punter collapsing on the floor because they had that one drink too many tipping them over the edge.

There was a strict code of conduct that was upheld during sing-songs. The code was never written down yet was known and upheld by everyone;

1. Each person had their own song which no-one else could sing.
2. When someone was singing a lively song it was okay to join in.
3. If someone was singing a sentimental or sad song there should be absolute silence.

If someone was singing a sad ballad and another person was found to be singing along with them, they would be scolded by the other punters with shouts of “Hey! One singer - one song!” I heard this phrase shouted many times when the sing-song code of conduct was broken…and to be found to be having a conversation while someone was singing was seen as being disrespectful to the singer. You would be treated with contempt if you were discovered to be talking to your mate during someone’s ‘turn’.

Many times people would be in tears when someone sung a sad song. The drink was now in full grip of everyone in the room and as the singer was crying alcohol-driven tears of sentiment, he would be joined by some of the watchers who would also begin blubbing. This was the music of the lost, the music of what could have been, the music of sorrow and regret, music which cried out for better things. This Sunday afternoon music begged for the following Monday morning and the commencement of another working week to never arrive. The dream of the entire room would be to freeze time so they would be all lost in an eternal drunken sing-song with the same people drinking the same drinks at the same tables in the same smoke-filled room and enjoying the same banter while listening to the same songs being sung by the same singers.

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