Wednesday, January 10, 2018

`A Person Who Sings, a Singer'

I thought songster was a cheesy, journalistic way of saying “singer,” and probably dated from the era when reporters hadn’t yet figured out how to write about Elvis Presley without condescension, but it’s a lot older than that. In Vol. VI, Chap. 70 of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon writes: “In the apprehension of modern times, Petrarch is the Italian songster of Laura and love.” Read a little further and you’ll see that Gibbon treats Petrarch as though he were Elvis, hoping that “the Italians do not compare the tedious uniformity of [Petrarch’s] sonnets and elegies with the sublime compositions of their epic muse, the original wildness of Dante, the regular beauties of Tasso, and the boundless variety of the incomparable Ariosto.”

Back to songster. The word has roots in Old English, according to the OED, and originally meant, simply, “a person who sings, a singer.” Citations date from the thirteenth to the twenty-first centuries. The 2005 entry, from the Brisbane Courier-Mail, manages to compress at least three clichés into five words: “Iconic counterculture songster Bob Dylan.” The second definition came as a surprise: “An itinerant African-American singer and musician performing a wide variety of music on guitar or banjo.” The accompanying note is helpful: “Songsters were most prevalent during the post-Reconstruction period and are often credited with influencing blues music, which originated around the same time.”

Next comes the meaning intended by Gibbon: “a poet; a writer of songs or verse.” The most recent usage, from Gendered Lyric (1999) by Gretchen Schultz, is particularly silly: “Literary history has tended to relegate Verlaine to the position of a melodic, melancholic songster.” I’ve never thought of Verlaine in those terms. Next, beginning in the seventeenth century, songster mutates into meaning “a songbird, spec. one with a particularly melodious song.” Dryden uses the word in his adaptation of “The Flower and the Leaf,” once attributed to Chaucer (Fables, Ancient and Modern, 1700):

“The goldfinch, who, to shun the scalding heat,
Had changed the medlar for a safer seat,
And hid in bushes ’scaped the bitter shower,
Now perch’d upon the Lady of the Flower;
And either songster holding out their throats,
And folding up their wings, renew’d their notes;
As if all day, precluding to the fight,
They only had rehearsed, to sing by night.”

Finally, starting in the eighteenth century, songster meant, especially in the United States, “a songbook; esp. a pocket-sized, relatively inexpensive book containing the lyrics (and occasionally melody lines) of popular songs.” The first citation is the title of a 1742 songbook that could double as a synonym for a well-loved poet: The Merry Companion: Or, Universal Songster.

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