Folk and Traditional Songs About the Moon: Facts and Music
A Natural Satellite and a Symbol
The moon is the Earth's only permanent natural satellite, but for many people it means far more than this. Its changing yet familiar appearance as it orbits the planet and its often lustrous beauty make it an old and valued friend. This friend must be appreciated from a distance and on its own terms, however. The moon is often visible but is forever out of reach for the vast majority of us.
The moon is of interest to many people today and was to those in the past as well. It's not surprising that it's frequently referred to in songs. Despite the fact that scientists have studied it for some time, it's still somewhat mysterious. For some people, symbolic, spiritual, or magical beliefs associated with the moon are important.
Folk songs discuss the interests of the "common" people, a group that includes most of us. People in different countries and cultures have written songs about the moon and its meaning to them. I've included some of these songs in this article.
The Rising of the Moon
"The Rising of the Moon" is a traditional song about a 1798 Irish rebellion against the British army. The lyrics of the song and its lively rhythm suggest determination and optimism. When the moon rises, the "pikes must be together" to prepare for the battle. A pike is a weapon that resembles a long pole with a pointed or spear-like tip. The bearers of the pike were called pikemen. Unfortunately for the pikemen who participated in the rebellion, their opponents had muskets.
The phrase "the rising of the moon" is repeated many times in the song, almost like an incantation. The historical battle was lost, but the song doesn't mention this. It was meant to rally patriotic feelings for Ireland and its struggles. In fact, the last two lines say "And hurrah, me boys for freedom|'Tis the rising of the moon" as though the defeat had never happened.
The music of the song is the same tune used for "The Wearing of the Green" and was published in 1866. The tune may be older than this, however. The lyrics were written by John Keegan Casey (1846-1870), who was part of the Fenian movement. This group was dedicated to the establishment of an independent republic in Ireland
Murmurs rang along the valley
Like the banshee's lonely croon
And a thousand pikes were flashing
At the rising of the moon— John Keegan Casey
The group performing the song above is called Na Casaidigh (The Cassidys). The group sang traditional songs in the Irish language. They no longer perform, however.
The Moon Is Shining
The moon sets the scene in this cheerful Russian song about love. The moon is shining as the night begins and the singer's surroundings are lit by moonlight. The singer discovers that the natural light illuminates the entire route to Sasha's house.
When he reaches the house, the singer and Sasha communicate through an open window. They engage in apparently friendly banter about marriage. I say "apparently" because I had to interpret the lyrics that I obtained from a Russian Cyrillic to English translation program. The translation was useful but didn't make complete sense. It seems that Sasha is not yet ready to marry the singer, however.
The song is said to be popular in Russia. In North America, it appears to be more popular as an instrumental piece than a vocal one. The piece has a rapid pace that requires vigorous pizzicato or strumming from the string instruments. It's played by both orchestras and traditional Russian instrument ensembles.
The version below is played by the Russian String Orchestra (formerly known as Chamber Orchestra Kremlin), which often visits the United States. The orchestra's founder and musical director is Misha Rachlevsky.
The Full English
The Full English is the name of a band. The musical group is part of a project called The Full English Digital Archive, which is run by the English Folk Dance and Song Society. The abbreviated term "The Full English" is sometimes used to refer to the archive, so the term refers to two things—a band and a database.
People involved in the project have created a searchable database of some important historical folk song collections in England. As a result, an investigator can easily explore music, lyrics, dances, and customs of earlier times.
The video below shows The Full English performing an enjoyable song about the man in the moon. Many cultures have stories about this imaginary being and his significance. The dark and light patches of the moon's surface that can be seen in certain lighting conditions can sometimes resemble a person or another object in our imagination. The dark areas are actually the lowlands of the moon and are made predominately of basalt. The light areas are the highlands.
Man in the Moon
According to Mainly Norfolk (an informative website for lovers of folk songs), "Man in the Moon" was first published around 1858 to 1861 in London. Like other old songs, it may have been created at an earlier time. It was published in a book called Everybody's Song Book; or, The Saloon Visitor's Companion, Being a Choice Collection of New and Favourite Songs. The name of the composer or lyricist weren't stated in the publication.
Apart from the first verse, the whole song is about the man in the moon. It's set in a drinking establishment of some kind. In the introduction, the singer says that it's vexing to rise in order to sing a song and find that your glass is empty. He also says it's "equally unpleasant" to be asked to sing when you have no song in mind. Then he decides that he'll sing about the man in the moon.
"The Man in the Moon a new light on us throws;
He's a man we all talk of but nobody knows;
And though a high subject, I'm getting in tune—
I'll just have a turn at the Man in the Moon."
A longer version of the song than is currently sung is published in the Alfred Williams Manuscript Collection, which is undated. Both versions have some witty lines about the man in the moon.
But he's used to high life, for each all circles agree,
That none move in such a high circle as he,
And though nobles go up in their royal balloon,
They're not introduced to the Man in the Moon.— Main in the Moon lyrics from Mainly Norfolk
You Are the Moon, I'm Your Bright Star
"You Are the Moon, I'm Your Bright Star" is a Ukrainian love song in which a woman (the star) sings to the man she loves (the moon). The rendition above is a modern version sung by Tetiana Lubimenko, also known as Tanya Lubimenko and as Milana. She's a member of a group called Origen, which produces new age classical-crossover music. Unfortunately, I haven't discovered the lyrics of the song or learned about its history. I've included the song in this article because I think it's a lovely piece that is worth listening to.
The song is classified as a folk song and can be heard in a more traditional version in the video below, where it's called "Oh, You Are The Moon, I'm a Bright Star." The singers belong to the Mutyn Village Women Folk Choir. The group consists of older women who are aged sixty to over eighty. The women are amateur singers but are very interested in the folk songs of their region and want to preserve them. They sing the songs in the traditional manner of their community. The only information that I could find about the choir was quite old, as are their videos. I hope the group still exists.
Pierrot, Harlequin, and Columbine
"Au Clair de la Lune" (In the Moonlight) is a traditional French folk song that is often sung as a lullaby for babies or taught as an easy instrumental piece for students to play. The characters in at least some versions of the song's story are familiar ones involved in commedia dell'arte. This was a form of theatre that arose in Italy in the sixteenth century and spread through Europe.
A commedia dell'arte theatre troupe often travelled from place to place to give performances and contained some popular stock characters. Pierrot was a clown who dressed in white and had white makeup on his face. Harlequin was a man who wore a colourful checkered or patched costume. He was in love with Columbine, a clever servant or maid.
"All Clair de la Lune" appears to date from the eighteenth century. Both the French and the English lyrics vary slightly. All of the ones that I've seen name Pierrot as the man that is visited by a neighbour who wants to borrow a pen. In some versions of the lyrics, the visitor is named Harlequin. In others, he's named Lubin. The woman in the story never seems to be named, but she's often assumed to be Columbine.
The singers in the video above were both popular in France at one time. André Claveau died in 2003. Mathé Altéry is a soprano who was most active in the 1950s and 1960s.
The Story of Au Clair de la Lune
The events in the story take place in the light of the moon. In the first verse, a man knocks on the door of Pierrot's house to ask for a pen. He says that he can't write without a pen and he can't see either because his candle is dead.
In the second verse, Pierrot says that he's in bed and has no pens but suggests that his visitor goes to a neighbour's house with his request. Pierrot knows that the neighbour is awake because he can see a light in her window. In the third verse, the visitor knocks on the "brunette's" door.
At the start of the last verse, the man and woman can be seen through the open door as they look for a pen and a candle in the woman's home. The song ends with the lines "I don't know what they found but I know the door closed on them."
The composer of "Au Clair de la Lune" is unknown. It's interesting and often thought-provoking to discover how he or she and other composers have incorporated the moon into their songs. The satellite's multiple symbolic meanings in our lives have been put to good use in folk music.
References and Resources
- History of "The Rising of the Moon" from Irish Music Daily
- The Full English Digital Archive from the English Folk Dance and Song Society
- Man in the Moon information and lyrics from Mainly Norfolk
- History of the Mutyn Village Women Folk Choir from a website about the group
- Facts about commedia dell'arte from the Metropolitan Museum of Art
© 2019 Linda Crampton