There was an old man and he had an old cow,
But he had no fodder to give her,
So he took up his fiddle and played her the tune:
“Consider, good cow, consider,
This isn’t the time for the grass to grow,
Consider, good cow, consider.”
Several weeks ago, Theresa and I did something that we rarely ever do: we went to a
concert in Ithaca. It’s been about 20-plus years since we’ve done something like this. Yes, I know: In a community like Trumansburg, where nearly everyone is a musician, this may sound like blasphemy! But people who know me know that I’m not all that crazy about crowds and noise and the frequent dissonance associated with live music. But a dear friend/client was singing at the concert, and since I’ve always been a fan of her genre (Negro Spirituals)—and we were able to get out of the office at exactly at 4:00 on a Saturday—we went. We enjoyed ourselves immensely.
A few nights later during evening office hours, Ms. “E”, another dear neighbor/friend/client brought in her old cat for me to see, and—because I like to keep up on local gossip—I found out that her daughter was in the concert as well and that she, too, was
there. Ms. E then asked us what we thought of the show. I told he we loved it; all except one scene where this soprano? did a bit of an exaggerated solo that seemed a bit out of place for the type of soul-stirring, spiritual music that was being sung.
Ms. E told me that there were some people she spoke with who agreed with me. (I was told later that such an exaggerated performance by a soloist is not uncommon. These acts of virtuosity are called by people who know this stuff more than I do, coloratura.) To me it sounded like she dropped a hammer on her big toe. She ultimately received a healthy applause for her virtuosity, but I think the Federal government was glad there was a ceiling in the auditorium because her voice would have knocked communication satellites out of their orbit.
I can hear it out there now: Doc! “Quit you’re ramblin’ and tell us about the cow!” Ms. E,
sensing my negative opinion of the lead singer’s discordant singing said, “As my old
grandmother in Ireland would say: ‘It was the tune the old cow died on!’” Wow! Because I’m different in this way (some would say I’m a bit touched!) I was so fascinated by that profound statement that I instantly wrote it down. I researched the phrase on the internet the next morning and was amazed at the hundreds of pages of genuine scholarly interpretations there are in cyberspace of this simple phrase! Everything from Mrs. E’s grandmother, to Mark Twain, and to the New Testament’s Book of James!
After reading all of the many commentaries, I believe there are three main ways of
understanding the phrase. The first is a minor tradition among banjo players in our Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia that has the cow being so captivated by the singing, that she dances (some researchers say “singed”) herself to death.
A second explanation (and what was most likely Ms. E’s dear grandmother’s true intention), says that in Scotland and Northern Ireland, when any grotesque or melancholy tune is being played and/or sung insufferably bad, people say, “That is the tune the old cow died on.” James Joyce used the phase in this context in his novel
Ulysses in reference to two of his characters having to listen to an intolerable temperance song condemning the evils of alcohol. Mark Twain used the phrase in his story Life on the Mississippi with regards to deck-hands on a steamship singing out-of-tune, sailor ditties one right after another. The English poet, A. E. Housman, in his poem, A Shropshire Lad, takes this meaning of the phrase to a deeper level, as a warning to young adults that it will soon be their time to endure life’s repeated hardships and soul-sucking moments.
But there is a third, more profound and spiritual way to interpret Ms. E’s grandmother’s
saying that people who study this material say goes back to the 11th century. The lesson of the words is that it was not the tune that killed the old cow, but rather the lack of food! Rather than having the farmer self-righteously serenading the old cow with stories of grassy pastures, she needed instead, actual grass to eat. In other words (and I quote the article directly) she died from starvation coupled with an overdose of advice. This notion of the spiritual value of the saying takes its precedence from the New Testament Book of James: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” James 2:15-16. NIV.
And the whole thing goes further back to the Book of Genesis!!!, but I’m out of room