Weekend Music Break/What’s in a Song: Various Artists, “The Skye Boat Song”

[Video: opening title sequence from the Outlander television series]

The Missus and I have been watching, with pleasure, the Starz TV adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels. The pleasure is personal, since we both know Ms. Gabaldon. (As we have since her first drafts of individual paragraphs in what would become the first of the book series, twenty-five years ago.)

And the pleasure is also aesthetic, I guess you could say — of particular interest, today, the music.

When I first heard the Outlander theme song, I was dazzled — the lyrics, melody, arrangement, and accompanying visuals during the open credits: all seemed of a piece. Mysterious, mystical, wistful… all those adjectives that I thought to apply as well to (say) the closing title theme in The Return of the King.

Here are the lyrics:

Sing me a song of a lass that is gone,
Say, could that lass be I?
Merry of soul she sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye.

Billow and breeze, islands and seas,
Mountains of rain and sun,
All that was good, all that was fair,
All that was me is gone.

Sing me a song of a lass that is gone,
Say, could that lass be I?
Merry of soul she sailed on a day
Over the sea to Skye…

It fits the story, sorta-kinda, and features a disappearing lass, and lots of rich imagery. (Outlander‘s protagonist is a 1940s-era British nurse who falls through a sort of temporal discontinuity into the Scotland of the 1740s.) From the start, I — grammar nerd alert! — liked about the theme that the lyricist used the first-person singular pronoun for those end-rhymes… exactly as s/he should have.

But then during the season finale episode, one thing suddenly grated on me. They hadn’t used “I” consistently perfectly. Last line of the middle stanza: see it? a subjective me. ARGH. You lazy bastards, I thought. And you were doing so well

As one does, over the next day or two I looked to the Internets for support from others outraged by such minutiae.

…and, um, well… I was wrong. (Sorta-kinda.)

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Of Scotland, and Towers of Strength

[Lyrics]

As you likely know, whether you’re in the United Kingdom or not, tomorrow Scottish voters will determine their independence from the rest of the UK. I have no personal stake in the outcome, other than having a Facebook friend who’s been very active in the “Independence YES” movement.

But I do have a philosophical/political stake in it.

As an American lefty of long standing, I’m accustomed to what might be termed Political Bipolar Disorder (PBD). Horror (at the enthusiastic handiwork of those on the right) alternates with disillusion (when my political heroes, inevitably, turn out rather wobbly-kneed once they actually get into office). Elections — even midterm ones, even primaries — can be exhausting affairs.

But what seems to be happening in Scotland — oh my. Which is to say, Go, YES!

On September 7, New York Times columnist (and Nobel Prize-winning economist) Paul Krugman contributed his own view on the debate. (With a title like “Scots, What the Heck?” it was bound to trigger inflamed opinion on both sides.) His central point: a YES vote makes no sense on economic grounds. (Scotland may or may not end up with a national currency called “the pound,” or possibly “the Euro,” and whatever it’s called, it may have little or nothing to do with any other such currency of the same name.)

Krugman is right, or at least not flat-out wrong, about one thing: the Scots need to be clear-eyed about the election, no matter the outcome. If (as seems about to happen) YES succeeds, disentangling themselves from a “partner” of centuries’ standing will likely bring many, many pains.

I sincerely hope the American experience will not be any guide. If it is, Alex Salmond — who heads the Scottish National Party, or SNP, and would likely become an independent Scotland’s first leader — may turn out to be something quite other than what he has seemed all along.

But the normally perceptive Krugman strikes me as wrong, wrong, wrong on the overall case for or against independence. So wrong, in fact, that his column (on which comments were closed by the time I read it) induced me to write a letter to the editor.

The Times‘s policy is to notify you if your letter will be printed, and they claim a seven-day response time. Given then that I have not heard from them, I think it’s safe to share my letter with you:

Re: Paul Krugman’s “Scots, What the Heck?” (2014-09-07)… I don’t live in Scotland, or anywhere in the UK, but I’ve been following the news about the upcoming independence vote. And I believe Krugman’s got it wrong, for one of those very rare occasions.

He writes eloquently and persuasively of the economic risks for an independent Scotland. But the Yes movement seems not to be about the economy (although they do talk of economic issues, wisely or not). It reminds me instead of the old Gene McDaniel song, “Tower of Strength,” which begins: “If I were a tower of strength, I’d walk away / I’d look in your eyes and here’s what I’d say / ‘I don’t want you, I don’t need you / I don’t love you any more’ / And I’d walk out that door.”

Scolding Scottish Yes supporters for not using their heads in this vote — especially over the economics — strikes me as rather like scolding a woman in an abusive relationship with her otherwise “respectable” husband: at some point, you’ve just gotta walk out that door.

For at least thirty years, official Britain has seemed (from a distance) determined to ape the worst practices and policies of its American counterparts. Yes, yes, the country still does what it needs to stay “quaint,” “historic,” “charming,” and so on. It’s getting harder and harder to believe that’s more than a two-dimensional façade, though. Driving on the left, half-timbered houses, and royal ritual just don’t carry the same weight as they used to for me. You can’t revere Margaret Thatcher, place a surveillance camera every fifty or hundred yards along every street, snuggle up to the American right, and somehow still convince me that you — no, really! no kidding! — remain, y’know, jolly old England.

On the other hand, Scotland’s got a history of leaning left. It’s just been held relatively powerless by the UK political system and constitutional constraints. Specifically, in the case of this vote, the YES party seeks to dispense with British nukes and British control over North Sea oil, overturn British immigration policies, shore up social resources like education and the National Health Service… It’s like a laundry list of things that American lefties wish would happen on this side of the pond.

So maybe it’s projection — maybe even nothing more than projection — but I really, really hope that Scots go the tower-of-strength route tomorrow.

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