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So at one point, in my misspent youth, I was misspending some youth at a party, when I overheard a conversation about Tom Lehrer’s “Vatican Rag”. A fellow was saying something about how brilliant and subtle it was, and how in the line everybody say his own/kyrie eleison, you couldn’t get the joke unless you know about the petitioning portion of the Mass and where it was in relation to the Ave Maria, or something like that. I don’t remember. It’s perfectly plausible that the fellow was Your Humble Blogger; other than my utter lack of knowledge of the Catholic liturgy either before or after the second Vatican Council, it sounds like something I would say. Actually, particularly keeping in mind the utter lack of knowledge, it sounds like something I would say.

And, like so much Your Humble Blogger says, it is utter bullshit. Obviously, you can get the joke and enjoy the song without detailed knowledge of the Catholic liturgy, because as a matter of observable phenomena, people in fact do. There are perhaps different levels of enjoyment, sure. But there’s also a tendency to say that anybody who is enjoying a thing on a different level than I am is in fact enjoying it wrong, which is to say they aren’t really enjoying it at all.

Which brings me to the Music Hall. Every now and then, I think to myself Lad (I call meself lad ’cos I’ve known meself since I was that ’igh), Lad, I say, How can anyone possibly enjoy [Sgt. Pepper/My Fair Lady/Beyond the Fringe/Topper/Alfred Hitchcock/David Bowie/Prime Minister’s Question Time/Morecambe and Wise/Douglas Adams/Flanders and Swann/P.G. Wodehouse/Bare Naked Ladies/SCTV/life itself] without having an intense and pleasurable familiarity with the great tradition of the music hall? The answer of course is that people enjoy it the way they do enjoy it. My own familiarity with the Music Hall tradition is pretty weak, actually. I can sing part of “Burlington Bertie” and “A Couple of Swells”, all of “Has Anybody Seen My Ship” and the chorus to “My Old Man Said Follow the Van”. That’s about it.

Besides, a familiarity with the Music Hall is like a familiarity with jazz. There’s an awful lot of it. It isn’t all the same. It’s different every time, so you had to be there, and you weren’t. Even if you were there, you weren’t there all the time. And besides, what is it, anyway? How do you know whether something is, or it isn’t?

So. Music Hall, to me, is a certain style of music, a certain style of comedy, a certain style of dance, and a certain style of performance. Or rather a set of those styles. I can hear it or see it, when I hear it and see it. It’s about a particular set of rhythms, a penchant for particular kinds of puns and rhymes, and most of all a particular relationship with the audience. And, like jazz, its influence pops up in all kinds of things, and you really don’t need to be aware of that influence to enjoy the things, but if you are, like I am, well then you win, don’t you?

And in the absence of a point of any kind, a joke that I consider to be very Music Hall, courtesy of Noel Coward:

BERTIE: ’ello, ’ello, ’ello, where was you last night?
ALGIE: Where was I?
BERTIE: I say, where was you last night?
ALGIE: At the cemetery.
BERTIE: At the cemetery?
ALGIE: At the cemetery.
BERTIE: Anyone dead?
ALGIE: All of ’em.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Is the Music Hall one of those things that is referred to so much that we can pick up a moderate knowledge of it through reference rather than through direct experience? Like Saturday Night Live tropes? Maybe reference is the wrong word there; maybe it's more like seeing only the 40 grandkids and knowing from them a fair bit about the patriarch.

Well, and I hope so. But I think (at least for me), it's like ... oh, like learning about Roman architecture and then walking through a city, and suddenly seeing all the references to it, all the stuff that was borrowed from or influenced by it, not everything, true, but much more than you had ever realized, and then coming home and seeing something about your own house, the detailing over the door or the color of the dining room wall, and thinking oh, right, the Romans.


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