The Rosetree Principle

I have said elsewhere (and often) that Finnegans Wake is far too dense and multi-layered a book to be understood through anything less than careful examination of its details, and that most if not all attempts at summarizing, condensing and paraphrasing it are doomed to bore most readers off at the outset. I stand by that statement – I’ll even reiterate it, but “dense and multi-layered” should not be misconstrued as tortuous and impenetrable. Details happen to be fun, and there are a number of simple and straightforward strategies a newbie reader can employ to facilitate understanding the book as a whole even while being forced to read at the obligatory snail’s pace Finnegans Wake requires.

For example, the book is absolutely saturated with musical references that 20 years ago would have basically required pitching a tent at the library of congress to fully absorb. With today’s technology, nearly all of the Wake‘s more than 2000 references to over 800 songs are a mere click away, and if you sit with this music a while (in the comfort of your own home no less) patterns emerge that help to illuminate not just what Finnegans Wake sounds like, but what it has to say about the inner workings of the human experience.

So of the many musical threads contained in Finnegans Wake to choose from, it makes sense to go with the thread that eventually leads to the titular song of the book. The audio file in the link below is excerpted (as are all of the recordings on this post for copyright purposes) from a tune entitled “The Rose Tree”:

The Rose Tree – Ryan Thomson

Chances are this tune sounds familiar: “Turkey in the Straw” or “Zip Coon” or perhaps “The Girl I Left Behind Me”. But no – this one is called “The Rose Tree”, and its melody can be clearly distinguished from the other three if you set them side by side:

Turkey in the Straw – Dick Kimmel
Old Zip Coon – Japher’s Original Sandy River Minstrels
The Girl I left Behind Me – The Princeton Trio

There is no question that all three songs stem from the same source. Uncovering the true identity of this source song (what it was called when it first emerged, what it exactly sounded like, etc) is pretty much impossible, but the mind’s ear can clearly hear the common undercurrent these songs share: With some minor melodic and tempo variation, they follow a very strict pattern: they start with an opening phrase (unresolved), followed by a 2nd refrain that echoes the opening phrase (but this time is resolved), then a bridge (unresolved), and then a final refrain (echoing the 2nd refrain and resolved). For the sake of shorthand as well as an uncannily useful metaphor, I’ll refer to this family of songs as “The Rose Tree” family.

The song itself has a fascinating and polymorphic history. According to The Fiddler’s Companion, “The Rose Tree” first appeared in sheet-music form with that title in 1782 (pre-dating the other versions by only a few years) as part of an opera entitled The Poor Soldier. The opera’s composer William Shield quite specifically did not claim authorship, listing the melody as “traditional”. Here’s the Shield version:

A Rose Tree in Full Bearing – David & Ginger Hildebrand

A few decades later, Thomas Moore wrote his own lyrics for it (fun fact: the musical arrangement for the recording below was composed by none other than Ludwig Van Beethoven):

I’d Mourn the Hopes That Leave Me – DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama

And somewhere along the line, a marching-band version was written:

The Rose Tree – The Trail Band

…and so on. Clearly, this tune was the 19th century equivalent of “#1 on the Billboard Charts,” and the anonymous authorship made it fair game to bastardize and distort at will, very often by other anonymous songsters. So eventually this happened:

Tim Finnegan’s Wake – Tom Kines

Give a song a hundred years of this kind of treatment – reworkings, distortions, colorings, augmentations, etc – and you’ll eventually have an entire family of song-branches so distinct from one another that a single musician could cover them all and not seem the least bit redundant. Ronnie Drew alone covered at least three recognizably separate “Rose Tree” branches (and yes, I do have something of a man-crush on Ronnie Drew – viz. my Thundervideo #8):

Turkey in the Straw/Zip Coon:

Phil the Fluter’s Ball – The Dubliners with Ronnie Drew

The Girl I Left Behind Me:

Rare Old Mountain Dew – The Dubliners with Ronnie Drew (and Shane McGowan)

The Rose Tree:

Finnegan’s Wake – The Dubliners with Ronnie Drew

A sentence on page 304 of Finnegans Wake is very much worth mentioning here – it can be found in the fourth footnote at the bottom of the page. Here it is:

If I’d more in the cups that peeves thee you could cracksmith your rows tureens.

Among other things, this sentence describes a shrewish domestic squabble somewhat similar to the events in “Tim Finnegan’s Wake”- kitchen utensils and pottery are thrown about. More to our purpose, however, it distorts Thomas Moore’s “I’d Mourn the Hopes That Leave Me” and its source “Rose Tree” into “I’d more in the cups that peeves thee” and “rows tureens”. This is a practice Joyce employs throughout the novel: nearly every time a Thomas Moore Irish Melody is mentioned, its source melody can be found nearby – even when its title is given by Moore as ‘unknown”, so that for example the song listed by Moore as “Sing, Sweet Harp, Oh Sing to Me (air unknown)” becomes “Sing, sweetharp, thing to me anone!” [p. 224, line 16 from the top].

Joyce here is clearly encouraging his reader to meditate on the genesis of popular music. He makes references in Finnegans Wake to every single one of the above songs.  For the record, here they are:

The Rose Tree: FW p. 304, footnote 4 (see above)

I’d Mourn the Hopes That Leave Me: 304 fn 4 (ibid), 439.34

Zip Coon/Turkey in the Straw: 176.14-15

The Girl I Left Behind Me: 9.33, 184.25, 234.7-8, 341.7, 469.1-2

The Mountain Dew: 372.28

Phil the Fluter’s Ball: 6.18-19,28, 12.34-35, 26.1-2, 58.11-14, 63.27, 76.28, 230.21, 240.23, 277.25-278.3, 297.18-19, 318.16-17, 319.13-14, 341.10, 351.14-15, 363.14-15, 444.9-10

Tim Finnegan’s Wake: book’s title, 4.26-34, 6.7-9,26-27, 15.24-26, 24.15, 70.12-13, 74.8, 93.35-36, 105.21, 176.16,20, 258.8-9, 276.21-22, 315.2, 317.3-4, 321.17,29, 350.2, 358.23, 375.16-17, 379.34, 382.25, 415.15, 453.4, 487.20, 496.36-497.1, 499.13,17-18, 511.15,23, 512.23, 531.25-26, 537.34, 565.14

That’s around 60 references to what amounts to a single song – or at least a single family of songs. And the Wake gives similar treatment to other root song families – “Rosin the Beau”, “Lillibulero”, “The Shan Van Voght”, and “The Wren Song” all come to immediate mind. Given the variety of genres Finnegans Wake makes reference to – music hall songs, classical art songs, arias, children’s songs, hymns, lullabies, anthems, jigs, reels, planxties, ballads, sea shanties, work songs – it’s surprising how many songs can be grouped together under a single folk rubric.

Songs in Finnegans Wake amalgamate and shift identities every bit as much as the book’s characters do, so much so that many of them start sounding like the same song. But this new amalgamated song is by its very definition nameless. The song we call “Rose Tree” probably doesn’t actually have an “original” name at all.

Or perhaps – and here’s the real point – it has more original names than can be counted.

So what’s to do? James Joyce’s answer: Call it “Tim Finnegan’s Wake”, take out the ‘Tim’ and the apostrophe so that it can contain more scenarios and linguistic possibilities than merely one man’s funeral, and use it for the title of your book.

 More on this topic to come…

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