Don't Laugh, Boys - (2010)
James Ephraim McGirt
for medium voice and piano
A colored, gray-haired, feeble man,
Came tottering down the street,
Was tackled by some happy youths
That he by chance did meet.
His hands were trembling on his cane,
He raised his hoary head;
With them he was not angry,
With trembling voice he said:
"Don't laugh, my boys, as this old form,
I think I'm doing well;
What I went through in slavery
No tongue can ever tell.
"I had no chance when I was young,
I was with master then;
But now my boys your minds are free,
Make out of yourselves men.
"And when you meet an aged man,
Struggling along as I,
Don't trouble him, for he loves you;
Politely pass him by."
[ 4 pages, circa 4' 15" ]
James Ephraim McGirt
The text is taken from Avenging the Maine, a Drunken A.B. and Other Poems, Philadelphia, Penn: George F. Lasher, 1901. With five short, simple quatrains, McGirt sets the scene, populates it with a small but nameless cast of unknowns, and then delivers a sermon of monumental proportion. While one might consider a time still fresh in people's lives of slavery and its effects when McGirt was working, this lesson is still worth noting today, that the purpose of free, young men's lives is to "make out of yourselves men." This individual responsibility has been sullied in a variety of ways personally and in terms of social and political programs, as various commentators have pointed out, but McGirt tells this lessons for today from over a century ago.
The light syncopation sets this as a bit of Americana musically, and the occasional "blue" colorations locate further within the America wherein this story is enacted. he song form indicates a verse and chorus style, as the "chorus" waits for the dialogue, with the verse setting the stage.
The lightly brittle accompaniment is sparse, until the darker remembrance of slavery is brought into focus. When one contemplates slavery of any age and land, or such horrors as the Holocaust in Europe, the mass starvations of Asia and the genocides of Cambodia and in the Sudan, McGirt's nameless wise man is correct in proclaiming, "no tongue can ever tell." We who have been blessed not to experience this can only imagine, and that image is likely less than the reality with which real men have lived and died.
The score for Don't Laugh, Boys is available as a free PDF download, though any major commercial performance or recording of the work is prohibited without prior arrangement with the composer. Click on the graphic below for this piano-vocal score.
Don't Laugh, Boys