Sheep are cute, but why are we ‘sheep’?

The Lord is my shepherd (again)

The twenty-third psalm is up again for next Sunday, another slightly different version. I’ve mentioned before how our idea of the Shepherd is different from Jesus’ (and from any Jewish reading of the psalm, and it was theirs long before it was also ours), but this time I want to look at the sheep.  In the Psalms, God is the shepherd and we are the sheep.

Illumination of sheep and shepherds
orderly sheep for once
Sheep are cute, sheep are beaut

My title is from a children’s song by the Australian musician Don Spencer.  We were given a cassette when the children were little and we were doing a lot of car journeys.  I think the whole family can still sing it word-perfect.  In fact, the real title of the song is Bob the Kelpie, because it’s actually about the sheepdog, and if we’d had YouTube in those days, I’m sure the children would have adored the film, although I find it slightly surreal with the singer lounging in a doorway with his guitar while the hard work of shearing goes on inside the shed.

We call it ‘Sheep are cute sheep are beaut’, not just because it’s the first line, has a catchy tune or because it’s an audacious rhyme (we love those).  Mainly  I think it sticks in the mind  because those aren’t the obvious adjectives anyone would use about sheep.  Lambs are cute and cuddly (in cartoons and at a distance).  I particularly like the way their tails rotate when they feed (babies can only grunt and knead with their fists in similar circumstances).  Adult sheep however are not the most attractive of animals.

Features of adult sheep

There are more human sheep than real mountain sheep in the psalms, by a small margin.  Why are we so often described as sheep?  In the rest of the Old Testament,  it’s the standard image to describe the relationship between God and his people.  Sheep aren’t stupid, by any means; you only have to look at a sheep to see the crafty intelligence in its eyes; but they are wilful and wayward.  They need a shepherd to give them any sort of higher purpose and to make them worthwhile.  They can’t even shed their own skin, as a snake can do.  A neglected sheep just gets woolier and woolier, not good for the sheep or for anyone else.  The parallels are easy to draw!

Music demonstrating sheep qualities

All we like sheep have gone astray is one of the best choruses to sing in the whole Messiah, with all the exciting dodging about; and in He shall feed his flock, the difference between unlimited careering around and the order brought by the shepherd is demonstrated clearly by the music in its peaceful linear progression.  As they say to aspiring film directors, show, don’t tell, and Handel is brilliant at this.

No poems about sheep

There are plenty of poems about horses (e.g. The Arab’s farewell to his steed), dogs (e.g. To Flush, my dog), and even cats (e.g. My cat Jeoffry).  There are poems about lambs (Blake springing immediately to mind), but though there are lots of poems where sheep figure as part of the landscape, I can’t think of any where they star, apart from nursery rhymes (Baa baa black sheep, incidentally the first song to be played on a computer) or joke poems.  Sentiment seems to be the usual driver for animal poems, apart from some rare exceptions, and sheep are not sentimental.  Chesterton could maybe have written one as a companion piece to his donkey poem, but he didn’t as far as I know.

When we talk about people being like sheep in a modern context, it is not usually complimentary.  But I think this is because we are no longer an agricultural society.  If you read about what shepherds or farmers think about sheep, a different picture emerges.  For them, sheep are important and precious, of worth not only monetary.

Sheep virtues

Sheep are patient, tenacious, vegetarian, pacifist and sociable.  They co-operate with each other.  They are so collective that the singular noun is the same as the plural, like fish.  They have some intelligence.  Welsh mountain sheep are bred to learn their own mountain area and do not stray even without walls or fences.  They are defenceless against predators.  They recognise their own shepherd, and they leave the job of fighting to him.  This is one reason why they figure in landscapes : because they demonstrate peace and tranquillity.  If there were a threat, they would all be running away, like the herbivorous dinosaurs in Jurassic Park when a carnivore arrives.

There is a famous and popular picture by Shishkin, entitled Morning in a Pine Forest.  When he painted it, his friend added young bears to it, and it instantly became one of the favourite pictures in the gallery.  The bears give scale and a sort of human touch  (they also make the picture more chocolate-boxy).  My point here is that sheep turn up in so many landscapes for similar reasons, even if they were painted from the beginning rather than added later, and even if they were real sheep that the artist was looking at. Sheep may safely graze and the scene is all set.  And it’s not just pictures.  The Staffordshire potters are using the same shorthand.

Spode Blue Italian dish
I don’t know what the people are doing, but the sheep are safely grazing
Sheep in the mists of time

Animals don’t alter as much and as fast as people do, so I think we can reckon that a flock of sheep in the days of Abel, Jacob, Moses, David and indeed in Jesus’ own time, would have operated in very similar ways.  Even nowadays, the sheep and the people are similar, even if the modern shepherd has access to new technology.

Doodled sheep
This sheep doodle is mediaeval, but could have been drawn yesterday

Sheepdogs vary only by breed around the world, and Welsh collies tend to be gentler than the Georgian shepherd’s dogs, but then the latter might have to cope with wolves and lynxes instead of foxes.  Some shepherds nowadays use quad bikes, but most will still be walking, and the dog is there to save their legs and keep the sheep together.

This gives a shepherd a lot of time to think and plenty of fresh air (I’m sure too much sometimes). He or she is usually working in beautiful surroundings, hills and mountains, because sheep flourish there where the grass is not rich enough for cattle.  (But there’s also a flock of sheep that grazes the perimeter at Heathrow, which I find unexpected but delightful.)  There’s one British Member of Parliament who is a part-time shepherd, and you can see the attraction of the contrast between herding sheep and the House of Commons.  More than one shepherd has been a poet.  And David of course, King and psalm writer and composer, was a shepherd in his youth.

Shepherd piping to his flock; angels in the sky
Playing to a captive audience and the dog joining in

The link between shepherds and music is very strong.  Many shepherd crib figures for Christmas will have a pipe of some kind.  Often they have two they can play at once (I’ve seen this in Georgia and Serbia, and it’s very impressive).

Shepherd playing double pipe, another dancing
the sheep aren’t paying much attention, but the shepherds are making music and dancing too

Sometimes it’s a version of bagpipes. The illustrations of shepherds in manuscripts often show them playing and dancing.  Much more unlikely, but great fun, are the pictures of sheep playing musical instruments, and the psalmist has singing sheep in Ps 99/100.

Sheep playing the bagpipes
What tunes would he be playing?
Jesus does it too

Why does Jesus talk about sheep?   Mostly because of the OT references, but also through observation, I think.  When he spends time alone in the desert, when he walks the mountains with the disciples, when he goes off on his own, he would often have come across flocks of sheep and their shepherds.

He uses sheep in parables because everyone would have known what he was talking about.  It is interesting that one psalm (118/119) contains in close proximity a reference to God’s word as a treasure  (‘I take delight in your promise like one who finds a treasure’) and  an appeal for help ‘I am lost like a sheep; seek your servant’.   In the New Testament, we have the parables of the pearl of great price, the treasure found in a field (Matthew 13) and later of the lost single sheep in the flock of ninety-nine (Mtt 18).

In the Old Testament, the great Shepherd is God.  This would have been Jesus’ understanding of Ps 22/23 too.  So when Jesus says, I am the Good Shepherd’, it is indeed a mindblowing claim  for the Jews who are listening to him. It means that he is leader, protector, defender….and God.  But in case we find this too intimidating, he says, ‘I know my own, and my own know me’.  Sheep don’t worry about, or argue with their shepherd.  They trust him, because they know him.  Sometimes they even run off and get themselves lost; but he will find them again, and bring them home.  It’s a very comforting image.

Shepherds with flock in fold
All are safely gathered in

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Love songs and lullabies (and some old films)

Different sorts of psalm

The psalm for Thirtieth Sunday in Year A is a love song; the psalm for Thirtyfirst Sunday Year A is a lullaby. I have been thinking about the similarities, and then I came across a reference by Sally Emerson to lullabies as ‘love songs to babies’, so it’s not just me, and I decided to explore the idea.  All lullabies are love songs, but not all love songs are lullabies.

I’ve said before that the Book of Psalms is a book of infinite riches, so it’s not surprising that we find both love songs and lullabies there. There are lots of different sorts of love songs: bellicose, triumphant, wistful, relieved, celebratory. Most of the Hurrah for God psalms are different sorts of love songs. Lullabies in the Psalms are rarer (mostly male poets, perhaps?).  Psalm 130/131 is perhaps the best example of psalm words clearly needing a lullaby setting, picking up the central image of the sleepy child, but there are others.  And now the Pope too has admitted that he sometimes drops off to sleep while in God’s arms, which I am delighted to hear.  The US version of Psalm 18 for 30 OTA gave me enough room to allow a lullaby setting, whereas the UK/OZ version (Ps 17) seems more wakeful, even fierce, runs the words into longer verses and does not have the restful feel, so I had to handle it differently.  But for 31 OTA, everybody needs a lullaby.

Characteristics of lullabies

So what makes a lullaby a lullaby?  Usually but not always in 3/4 time, sometimes 6/8, they mustn’t go too fast, and it’s clear when you sing them that this is because it gives a rocking movement, either just mentally or to the real baby in your arms. (The surprising thing about the Rocking Carol ‘Little Jesus, sweetly sleep’ (Hajej, nynej) is how jerky it is; it’s in 4/4, and I’m always reminded of small children trying to rock dollies and not quite getting it right! As a children’s carol, that’s probably a useful association.)  But you can get away with 4/4 if you sing it sufficiently fast and smoothly to be beating one in a bar (Sleep baby sleep, Coventry carol).

Some golden oldies

Most classic lullabies are 3/4; Golden slumbers (not the Beatles version, the lovely tune recycled by John Gay in the Beggar’s Opera), Sweet and Low, Brahms’ Cradle song, Feed the birds in Mary Poppins, Hushabye Mountain in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  It was very difficult to find acceptable versions of these to link to (you should have heard the ones I left out), but there’s vast amounts of stuff on YouTube, although the best lullabies are the ones you sing yourself.  To go back to films, the worst indictment of Mr Brown in Nanny McPhee is not just that he’s stopped reading stories to the children, they aren’t getting lullabies either (even if they are, oddly, pronouncing it loolaby).

Lost lullabies

But of course the ones we know about are only the tip of the iceberg as most lullabies in the world probably aren’t written down.  This tends to be (certainly traditionally has been) women’s words and music, and so, ephemeral and transmitted by oral tradition, rather than by book.  So any generalisations are tentative, but I think the 3/4 rocking movement is a fairly safe one (though having said that, I keep thinking of 4/4s.  Never mind.)

Purpose of lullabies

What are lullabies for?  They are to encourage your beloved child to go to sleep.  So they need to be steady, reassuring, comfortable and soothing; not exciting, not sudden, not musically athletic, not scary (don’t sing ‘I’m going on a bear hunt’ as a lullaby).  Your aim is a gentle boring to sleep.   (It took us a while to work this out, as it’s very engaging to have an awake baby even in the night, but once we had missed enough sleep, we went for boredom rather than entertainment, and it was a breakthrough.)

This is the feel you are aiming at, but it’s one of those musical paradoxes, like writing a tune for Chaos (Hadyn’s Creation), infinite space (Holst’s Planets), heaven and the Beatific Vision (Elgar’s Gerontius, Palestrina Sicut cervus).  You know you can’t do it, but you try.  I’m sure even geniuses as above quailed at the challenge, whereas for a simple tune writer……The music I’m offering is trying to express peace, and moving towards silence and stillness.

Lullaby or sea shanty

This is difficult, especially in a Responsorial Psalm format, with the chorus coming back in again repeatedly.  Lullabies don’t usually have choruses, for obvious reasons, but they do use repetition.  The tune matters, but it can’t be showy or too upbeat; a little bit fey, modal or folky seems to work.  Lullabies are by their nature unaccompanied, so again, not much on the instrument front.  You need to be able to sing them almost under your breath, let them tail away, fade to nothing as the eyelashes close…….but pick up again gently if needed.

Words for lullabies, good and bad

The tune is important, not so much the melody for once but the movement of it; the words are not so important (you have to be able to fade to a hum).  I have the psalm words as a given, so I don’t need to worry about the words, but it’s fun to read traditional lullaby words from different cultures.

So long as the tune is steady, an aggravated parent can let off steam with the words (and if you are really sleep-deprived, and garble or forget them, it doesn’t matter).  Rock a bye baby is a fine traditional example of this, with total catastrophe at the end tied to a serene tune, although there are modern bowdlerised versions.   There’s another one, Go to sleep you little baby, in O Brother, where art thou?   One I like is Icelandic, I think, and the letting off steam line is ‘Sleep, you black-eyed pig.  Fall into a pit full of ghosts.’  Now there’s a singer longing for oblivion and just marking time till she gets there.  Thomas Hood wrote his Serenade for a father in precisely this situation, and it contains the line, ‘The more I sing, the more you wake’,  which is precisely not what we want here.

Setting a lullaby psalm : practical considerations

We can’t have the congregation nodding off during the readings,  so I am not trying for a real lullaby here, just something suggestive of it.  Luckily it’s a clear and understood brand.  I was amazed to discover how many pop songs are based on lullabies, and that is one reason why it was so difficult to find clips for my earlier references.

Psalm 130/131 is short and irregular, with a final half-verse.  I couldn’t go for 3/4 in the UK version because of the rhythm of the Response words, so I was aiming more for a Tallis feel there, a simple metrical psalm with a stepping bass;  and the half-verse fitted smoothly into the second half of the verse tune, so that worked.  The OZ/CAN version had a gentle rock, with a long wait on the note for peace which I deliberately left as simple and calm as possible.  I could streamline the tune around the half-verse using all four lines but more simply, as though it was easing away.  The US version was tricky, because the words are a bit Yoda, except for the Response, which has the same beautiful words as the OZ/CAN version, but a different tune.  This time the half-verse fitted into the first and last lines, so I ended up doing it differently for each group, but each version keeps it clear for the congregation, which is my main concern.

Responsorial psalm as a lullaby

So if you don’t want the congregation to go to sleep, why set the psalm as a lullaby?  Especially for Psalm 130/131, the words are so strongly suggestive that it seems the only sort of tune to write.  Nobody sings you lullabies any more once you get big, but everyone remembers the feeling of being totally safe and close to the person you love most, and being able to let go.  I hope the congregation won’t go to sleep, but I hope they will feel calm, rested and peaceful; like a weaned child on its mother’s breast (or lap, for the US) indeed.  It is hard to think of a more peaceful image of us and God.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.