Saturday, 21 February 2004

Yes, it's from Tannhäuser

For most of my adult life I have had a tune on the brain. I don’t hum it incessantly, but it is always there, lurking behind my conscious thoughts, and often when I feel like a bit of a hum it is this tune that comes out.

It’s a nice tune, slowish and a little melancholy, and it goes: “Da dee da dum, da dada dee, dee da dee DUMM ….” That’s just the first bit, of course.

Now, there are three remarkable things about this tune. First, everybody knows it. Second, nobody knows what it is. Third, everybody thinks he knows what it is.

When I first asked someone the name of it, about 25 years ago, I thought I had found the answer straight away. “Ah, sure and I know it” he said (his name was O’Connell), “it’s a song about the Donegal Mountains. John McCormack used to sing it.”

“Oh, right,” I said. “Come to think of it, it does sound Irish.” But when I mentioned it to an Italian friend, he said, “Irish? Nonsense. It’s obviously Neapolitan.” He la-la’d a bit and, no doubt about it, it was Neapolitan. It positively reeked of garlic. And there you have the terrible thing about this tune. It is all things to all men; every language seems to fit it with equal felicity. It could be anything.

I tried it on a Russian friend ; he knew it, of course, and when he hummed it, balalaikas accompanied him, icy winds whistled across the steppes, and in the simple melody there was the sadness of a million dispossessed kulaks. Then again, my grandmother said it was one of Marie Lloyd’s biggest hits.

So it went on, for years and years. One day an erudite friend would say, “Well, it’s Hugo Wolf, of course. Try the Spanisches Liederbuch". The next, a less erudite friend would be convinced it was from a late-night revue he’d seen the previous week.

Then, at last, quite recently, I got it: a man told me that is definitely an old Basque cradle song. This sounded improbable enough to be true and, further, he knew some of the words (in Basque, if you please!).

So that’s that. But one problem remains: BBC radio hardly ever plays a Basque number, and nobody I know listens much to Radio Basque, so where did I and all my friends hear the wretched tune in the first place?

Personally, I still think it might be a 16th century English madrigal. Anyone happen to know the origin of a thing that goes “Da dee da dum, da dada dee ….”?

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