Sing a song of home

10th July 1998 at 01:00
Somewhere in Prince William County, Virginia, a nine-year-old boy called Ryan was due in April to sing at a family gathering. I haven't heard how his song was received by his audience but I suspect their first reaction was to ask him where he had learnt it. The song was "Ally Bally Bee" and he learnt it from me.

Before we left for our first visit to the States I had asked my son, who has been there since last October, if I could visit his girlfriend's school. Rita teaches a fourth-grade class in Rockedge Elementary School in Occuquan, Prince William County, about 40 miles south of Washington. She was only too keen to oblige, and after negotiating the madness of the Beltway, the freeway which circles DC and on which the rush hour seems to last all day, we found ourselves at Rockedge.

It was situated in a very pleasant residential area which was more Merrylee than Maryhill, though I was to learn later that the bulk of the parents were what the Americans call "blue-collar workers", rather than from the professions as I assumed. It was brick built, on one level, in clean, green, well landscaped surroundings with, of course, the ubiquitous Stars and Stripes fluttering from a flagpole outside.

One of the large tank-like bright yellow school buses was parked at the gate, altogether a very American scene. Inside, however, apart from the administration area which was on the scale of a large secondary school here, I felt that I could have been in any number of Glasgow open-plan primaries, and I've been in a few.

Rita had prepared her class for my visit by introducing them to a "Scottish folk-tale" that I had never heard of (sorry Rita) and had told them that I would tell them another Scottish story, but I had other ideas. After the introductions, during which I was conscious of trying to speak more slowly to get the kids used to my accent, I produced a specially printed T-shirt I had brought with me to wear in a half-marathon I was due to run in New York a few weeks later. It was a useful visual aid and there was no problem with the words Scotland, Glasgow, the St Andrew's Cross or my name, though pronouncing Shettleston as in Harriers threw a few of the kids.

When I showed them the tartan running shorts I intended to wear in New York the kids went into fits. They thought they were boxer shorts. I was surprised by how poorly dressed some of the class were and when I mentioned this later I was told about the blue-collar background and was even more surprised to learn that some families were on welfare.

I had decided that rather than tell a story, as Rita had suggested, I would teach the class a Scottish children's song and opted for Ally Bally, so while she wrote the words of the chorus on the background I translated some key words like greeting, bawbee, muckle. Conscious of the extent of political correctness in the US in general and of the geography, and more important, the history of the state I was visiting, I hesitated over mammy,but Rita assured me that it was acceptable.

The song went down a bomb and by the time we got to the chorus for the last time the kids were belting it out. I would pause when we got to the line "greetin for a wee bawbee" because I got a real kick out of hearing it sung in their accent.

At the end of the "lesson" it was informal chat time and during my autographing of the pieces of paper on which most of the class had written down the words, I learnt of Ryan's intention to sing the song to his family at a function to be held soon after my visit.

I sent him a postcard after we got to New York expressing the hope that it had gone well and it was then that it occurred to me that unless he had powers of musical recall of Mozartian proportions he wouldn't have remembered the tune.

Maybe, I thought, he didn't bother with a tune and recited it? Either way I would love to find out. Now where's that British Airways timetable?

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