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changing genders in lyrics

I need some advice.  I have an SSA Community Choir and they are getting ready to work on the folksong "Scarborough Fair" to be performed in what could be a large audience setting.  They want very much to change all of the "gender lyrics" such as "Once she was..." to "Once he was..." .
Could you help me find out what is really "proper" here?
Thanks, Kathy
Replies (36): Threaded | Chronological
on January 24, 2011 6:09pm
Dear Ms. Allen:
In addition to working in community chorus
leadership for many years, I have also been
a church musician for over three decades.
I have encountered parallel situations in my
church work--where singers/congregants/
ministers have wanted to change the text
of hymns.
I have always countered by saying that those
texts are a snapshot of a particular time/era
in church history--and therefore should be
left unaltered to preserve their veracity.
I have gone on to say that if those people
don't like the hymn text, they should write
new ones to reflect current standards of
belief, political correctness, etc--which
would then document current values/trends
of belief and culture.
May I suggest that you tell your singers
that the text of any art work should not
be altered to suit a moment in time--but
should be presented in an authentic
manner--and let the audience make up
their own minds about its meaning and
Best wishes for your performances.
Thomas Sheets, D.M.A.
on January 24, 2011 6:16pm
"Proper" in terms of copyright?
on January 24, 2011 6:19pm
Hi Kathy.
I think you have two choices:
1. Take this moment to teach the choir that they are relating the text as a third party, not as the actual character.  In effect, they as the choir are gender-neutral, thus any gender references do not matter.  This phenomenon occurs often enough that all singers, choral or not, need to be able to adopt this point of view from time to time.
2. It is a folk song, and any folksinger would likely alter the lyrics to suit themselves, meaning s/he would take the point of view they felt like taking at any time.  But you as conductor have to make this decision for the group, considering but not bound by their feelings.  You would change not out of obligation, but out of a considered choice.  Tell them that.
Regarding what is "proper:" it's what you as conductor believe serves the musical/textual expression best, and also what serves your group best.  Will they benefit more by growing into option 1 above, or would it empower them to "get their way," in light of 2 above?  The choice is yours, as the conductor.
best, Paul
on January 26, 2011 5:28am
There are a lot of verses, of which many versions only include a few.  Ages ago I heard one interesting version that had a long list of impossible tasks for the woman, and almost as long a list back in her reply, ending with "When he has done and finished his work, / Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, / Tell him to come back for his cambric shirt, / For then he'll be a true love of mine."
on January 24, 2011 7:17pm
on January 24, 2011 9:32pm
Thanks to each of you for your insightful replies.  To answer how I meant my term "proper", I suppose I meant accepted in the academic and professional music world as it is where I spent much of my life.  There are some names I recognize here and I know you each know how very unkind our own music colleagues can be at times.  I suppose having been away from things for a while, I just didn't want to perform an obvious "faux pas" and really couldn't find much research. 
I sure have no problem making up my mind and telling the choir my decision.  I was proud of them in some ways but this is not a "musical sense".  Many are of an older age and yet were very fierce about it becoming their song (SSA), hence "he once was a true love of mine" .
You have all given me much "food for thought" and of course...confidence.  Thanks. Kathy
on January 25, 2011 1:56am
Kathy:  The key was suggested by Paul above, but let me make it more explicit.  IS your choir approaching this music as a story, with them as story-tellers?  In that case they are "an actor" (in the sense of a Greek Chorus telling the story and commenting on it), and they should simply tell the story as it happened and as it was written.
Or are they BECOMING the character in the song?  In that case they certainly may and probably should change the gender of the lyrics.  This is done all the time by a great many singers, including folk singers.  Of course the change has to be logical and make sense, or it will be seen as a PC distortion of the lyric.
So the question to settle is, WHO is your chorus as they sing this song.  (I have always maintained that all singers need to study more acting, and of course all actors need to study more singing!)  This is the kind of thing that actors are trained to think about.
All the best,
on January 25, 2011 8:22am
All great perspectives, but on the other hand... it's changing "she" to "he." If that were all, it's not a big deal, but don't forget there's also, "Tell her to make me a (something) shirt." which would have to change to "Tell HIM." If changing the gender means altering several lines of text, then it should be weighed strongly. But if it's just one little "he" instead of "she," I don't think it's that big a deal.
To Nick - Did they want the song dropped because of girls saying they had a wife, or was it because of the notion of BUYING a wife. In the latter case, changing it to "I bought a man" isn't an improvement.
on January 25, 2011 9:00am
Once when I was music director in a Protestant church, the associate pastor wanted to use the hymn "On Eagle's Wings" for a special occasion, but he wanted to use inclusive language, instead of the all-male pronouns in the piece as written. I did not feel right doing this, so I tracked down the composer Fr. Michael Joncas in Chicago and asked him his opinion. He replied to me: "If I had written that today, I would have used inclusive language. By all means change the pronouns at your pleasure." I took that to be legal permission to use inclusive language in "On Eagle's Wings."
But if I can't reach the author, then I have two choices: consider this a "period piece" and sing as written, or find something else to sing. I do know churches that won't use the hymn "This Is My Father's World" because it is too male-oriented, and as one pastor once said to me: "This is a power trip for men."
Once when he was much younger, my son William was looking around the church where I was working. I saw him reading something he found in the pews so asked him what it was--it was the Nicene Creed. "You can't read this," he said, "because it was written for men."
I use this anecdote to explain to people the importance of using inclusive language.
Another pastor once said to me "People will remember the theology they learned in hymns that they sang much more than anything that was said during the service."
So do we want the congregation to sing only about men? This can be tough when using traditional hymns, but we can always explain what we are doing and why. And I will admit that many of the new hymns written with inclusive language are not as singable as the old standards.  "This Is My Father's World" has a very singable tune, despite the words.
This is an ongoing discussion topic for all of us. The last word has not been spoken, but I try to stay legal.
Susan Raccoli
on January 25, 2011 8:08pm
Agreed, Kathy: many different viewpoints discussed here, and a good cross section of opinions.  But I have to question your question, "so do we want the congregation to sing only about men?"
That strikes me as a very one-sided view, and one that unfortunately has been carried to rather ridiculous extremes in the service of political correctness.  Please allow me to explain.
The English language, as it has developed over the past thousand years (roughly), is not a gendered language.  We don't have to remember whether tables or door knobs or pencils are masculine or feminine, because in English they are neither.  Similarly, we do not have naturally-developed words that are gender-neutral for human beings or lower animals that DO have gender.  Therefore, for many centuries, masculine pronouns have had to do double duty, representing masculine persons in some contexts but representing all of humanity in others.  AND IT'S NO BIG DEAL!
It seems to me overly sensitive to deny that simple fact, and to insist that EVERY use of a masuline pronoun or other reference does and must refer only to masculine persons.  That simply isn't true, historically or linguistically.  Only from a very limited and narrow viewpoint can it even be claimed to be true, when for most people it is not.
In other words, we already have "inclusive" language and have had for centuries.  It's just that a few people don't happen to like it.  So my attitude must be that if you want to change language which you happen to think is non-inclusive, you'd better be just as good a poet and just as facile with language as the original writer, and not just make a ham-handed effort to be politically correct for its own sake.
And then, of course, there's that OTHER modern problem, since a number of people seem to think that having only two genders is not nearly enough and we need at least 5 or 6, but there's no hope of bending the language to represent that viewpoint without breaking it!
Your mileage, as they say, may differ, and that's fine, too.
All the best,
on January 25, 2011 10:13pm
John Howell wrote:
"The English language, as it has developed over the past thousand years (roughly), is not a gendered language.  We don't have to remember whether tables or door knobs or pencils are masculine or feminine, because in English they are neither.  Similarly, we do not have naturally-developed words that are gender-neutral for human beings or lower animals that DO have gender.  Therefore, for many centuries, masculine pronouns have had to do double duty, representing masculine persons in some contexts but representing all of humanity in others.  AND IT'S NO BIG DEAL!
"It seems to me overly sensitive to deny that simple fact, and to insist that EVERY use of a masculine pronoun or other reference does and must refer only to masculine persons.  That simply isn't true, historically or linguistically.  Only from a very limited and narrow viewpoint can it even be claimed to be true, when for most people it is not."
You are right: the language has developed, and it is still developing and masculine pronouns have done double duty (although a child could be an it!).  You are right: it is not true to claim that "man" and "men" always refer to adult male humans _exclusively_, but they do always refer to them.  It might not be a _big_ deal. but it _is_ a deal,  particularly for those of us who have had to do a quick mental analysis from childhood to determine whether the "man", "men" , "he" and "him" apply to us or not.
In my experience, and I have some. it is not always clear from the context (literary or socio-cultural) whether a writer had the human race in general, all adults or only adult males in mind.  The desirability of "inclusive language" varies according to the context in which the language is used.  There are situations, such as Christian worship in some places, in which the purpose for which a text is sung may be better served by the slight tweaking of the language, even if this has an arguably slightly negative effect on the artistic integrity of the work as a whole.
Helen Duggan
NB PC also stands for public courtesy.
on January 26, 2011 11:59pm
Well said, Helen. In my experience, those who are quickest to dismiss the benefits of inclusive language generally belong to demographic groups that haven't traditionally been excluded.
on February 15, 2011 8:21pm
You have my appreciate too for this well-stated response. :-) Thank you.
on January 25, 2011 10:21am
These are marvelous for is illegal.  The music nor the text belongs to you (us), nor the singers.
There is case law on this... (if you are really interested, drop me a note).  But the above answers are MARVELOUS!!
on January 25, 2011 5:59pm
This is not correct in this particular case. The song is in public domain, so anyone may change it to their heart's content. Even if you're performing a copyrighted arrangement, the copyright does not extend to any of the pre-existing material incorporated into the arrangement (copyright law section 103(b) )
on January 27, 2011 10:59am
Yes, Allen is right.  If it is in the public domain, we are allowed to "rip away".  However, if it is, let's say, er, Lady Gaga, it would be well as changing Mr. Hammerstein's, "There Is Nothing Like a Dame" to, let us say, "There is nothing like a Dane," except for satire.
on January 25, 2011 12:49pm
Great responses.
A folk singer can change the words to a folk-song but we cannot change the words to someone's arrangement of a folksong.
Related story:
A high school choral director outside of Boston had an angry parent threatening to sue if Aaron Copland's arrangement of I BOUGHT ME A CAT wasn't removed from the program (because of the line "I bought me a wife").   There was no way such a suit would hold up in court, but the school did not want to go through the expense of defending itself, so the song was dropped.
A folk singer would simply have sung, "I got me a wife" and everything would have been fine.
Nick Page
on January 25, 2011 1:54pm
A colleague had this complaint about "I bought me a wife." He changed it to "I bought me a man" and that was fine; everyone was happy....
on January 27, 2011 11:00am
Yes, they seem to be bought at a cheaper price. <G>
on January 25, 2011 12:56pm
Jay, sounds like this could be even more of a teaching experience than I thought.  The answers here are marvelous and it all definitely comes down to what I want to teach this choir to tell a story that they know or to portray something that has happened to them.  Interesting.   
on January 25, 2011 2:37pm
I'm enjoying reading these thoughtful responses! Allow me to toss one more thought into the mix: Let's not assume that the change of pronoun would bring the song text into line with the reality of every member of this women's chorus. It's entirely possible---probable, in fact---that at least one singer in the ensemble would indeed sing a love song to a "she" given the opportunity; reflexively rewriting the lyrics (without a careful conversation on the subject) just reflects the all-too-common assumption that everyone in the room is straight.
Of course, you could just split the difference and use the all-purpose, gender-neutral, interchangeably-nominative-and-objective personal pronoun that a friend's Harvard professor coined for tricky situations just like this one: "Once sherm was a true love of mine....."
on February 3, 2011 3:31pm
Thanks for this comment, Eliza!
on January 25, 2011 5:09pm
You do have many great answers.  My experience with this concern comes from my church choir director experience.  My former pastor and I had many thoughtful and careful discussions about this and we came to the conclusion that the gender words do reflect a time in history and shouldn't be altered based on the notion of any of us that doesn't take into account all that we can learn about the hymn or anthem text.  When hymns are translated, there are times when the original text didn't use a gender specific word and therefore, we felt that we could use our own translation, if it made sense to do that by all other properties of the work.
But it should be taken into account that I work in a Lutheran Church with a relatively traditional worship style.  I can certainly imagine that many pastors and music directors in other churches would not come to the same conclusion as we did. 
Nan beth Walton
on January 25, 2011 5:41pm
Our women's chorus is singing an arrangement of Yesterday in which "man" was changed to "girl" and all "she" were changed to "he". I am asking the chorus to put the original words back. We are singing a "Standard" and that's how the audience expects to hear it -- the chorus is not telling its life story <grin>. This probably violates copyright, but for me common sense and audience understanding trumps that.
on January 26, 2011 11:10am
Speaking of Political Correctness and Public Courtesy (I like that), here is a glimpse into the crystal ball.
Being sensitive to insensitive words is a serious subject, one we should all take to heart.   There are some who have striven to remove anything offensive to anyone.   So they can't sing "Keep on walking forward," because they feel it is offensive to people in wheelchairs.   They can't sing "Twas blind but now I see," because they believe it to be insensitive to the Blind.   They can't sing "I saw the light" because they consider it racist (light is good, therefore, by implication, dark is bad).
I just hope that someone who has lost their ability to sing doesn't complain or else they'll have to stop singing altogether.
Most of the complainers are not people in wheelchairs or our blind friends or people of color, all of whom gladly sing whatever music I present them in my community chorus.   The people I'm referring to are called the PRE-OFFENDED.   They will be offended before you open your mouth.   When you think about it, just about anything can be offensive.  To a progressive person, the phrase "stop sign" can be offensive because it represses moving forward.  In many places stop signs have become "halt suggestions."
In case I should offend, let me add one more note.  I am not suggesting being insensitive to the overly sensitive.   
The word "educate" has been a part of this dialogue.  To educate is to listen, to learn, to teach, and to maintain the highest standards possible.
on February 13, 2011 12:16pm
And to carry to the outside that which is within.
Hopefully we have been taught to respect ourselves!
on February 2, 2011 7:25pm
Hi Kathy,
I've changed a few words to songs.
I don't see that it matters either way really!
If they want to sing "Once He Was A True Love Of Mine". No problem, as they are all ladies. I suppose some may want to sing He though.
I've even had songs where I've told the choir to sing which one they want, so you could get both at once!
Everyone's happy!
on February 12, 2011 2:56pm
This has been so interesting.  I think every situation can exist that we have seen mentioned (except the possible fact that a man should not sew and a woman can only do such things).  I did a VERY good job keeping my mouth shut about that.  Anyway all things being equal so to speak, let's get back to my original concern for a moment, the music...I wanted to make sure that I did not do one of two things:  1.  insult the intent of the composer or arranger and   2. portray the music to the audience in a way it was not originally intended.    
The above means we could now begin a discussion on whether what I as the director feel is most important OR whether I follow the composers markings in music.  I sure don't want to get into that in this discussion!
P.S. the way...I changed the lyrics throughout this piece in my SSA choir.  The whole piece flowed very beautifully after I got them to sing the correct "he's" and "him's". 
What flows right, well...will stay that way.  Thanks to each of you.
on February 12, 2011 11:11am
And thanks for this thread, which  has indeed been interesting.  I can't imagine any harm is done to to piece changing the pronouns to fit the choir, as long as that's the reason.  There's a Gershwin Man I Love AND a Girl I love, and how odd to hear only MAN I Love from both genders, and how awful to allow only one gender to sing isuch a fabulous song.  No jazz great woul ever hesitate to change the gender in a song, as long as the purpose is to make the song flow more naturally.  (Changing the gender for political reasons is a whole different thing.)  If it makes your singers relate better and therefore sing better, why not?
on February 18, 2011 1:58am
Hello - I would like to join this interesting discussion about a topic that is close to my heart (and mind!)
I, too, have struggled about language and the use of male or female pronouns in various songs in English.  
Kathy's question really dealt with the issue on the level of the storyteller or the actor: changing the
pronouns so that the singer could sing the selection on a more personal level.  I don't see any
problem with changing "he" to "she" in a folk song.  I have heard singers change the pronouns
in the beautiful folk song, "Black is the color of my true love's hair," very successfully.
But this discussion has entered the realm of inclusive language and its use in the church
or in certain historical pieces which raise serious issues regarding the power of language.  Yes, language
does teach and influence thought, and it evolves with time.  Read a newspaper written 200 years ago
and one can see how language evolves.   And it does reflect the culture of the time.
John, I must take issue with your statements regarding the English language not being "a gendered
language," and that there is no historical evidence to prove otherwise.  The use of "man" to include men and women is a big deal.  
I have a dear friend who teaches theology and uses the following quotes in her classes about this very topic.
"According to Marianne Ferguson (Women and Religion [New York: Prentice-Hall, 1989] 157) who quotes Thomas Groome, "the historical
evidence is that gender exclusive language originated and was intended to maintain the connection that men are superior to women and are the natural
norms of humanity."  She also quotes Thomas Wilson, an English grammarian, who in the year 1503 indicated "that male superiority should be
demonstrated by always naming men before women, as in "man and wife."  A century later Joshua Poole, another English grammarian, said the male
terminology has "pride of place" in language because the male gender is the worthier one.  The English Parliament recognized the use of language to
reinforce male power by passing a law in 1850 decreeing that "he" legally stands for "he and she."  
Many denominations have produced hymnals with much improved texts in my opinion.   Who can argue that to sing "Good Christian Friends, Rejoice"
sends a more powerful message than "Good Christian Men, Rejoice?"  And I have changed the texts in songs - when I can find a good poetic
substitute.  "One" or "all" sings as well as "man" or men" in my opinion.  If I don't change the text, at the very least, we have a discussion in the
choir about the text and when it was written. It can lead to very valuable learning opportunities.
Peggy Dettwiler
on February 17, 2011 9:42pm
Hi, Peggy, and thanks for your thoughts on my previous comment.
There is absolutely no argument that not only English but probably every other language grew up in cultures in which males WERE considered superior and sexism was so rampant that it could hardly be avoided.  More than just a few statements from previous centuries can be found to "prove" that, and more than a few from the 20th century as well, I would guess.  I can only breathe a sigh of relief that ours is not a language in which we have to remember whether door knobs and pencils are masculine or feminine.
But what people believed and said in the 16the century (or even the 1950s, for that matter) can't change the fact that English as she is spoke today, at least in the U.S. where we've had our consciousness raised quite nicely, thank you very much, since the 1960s, there is still no neutral pronoun and the male pronoun still represents all of humanity WHEN THAT IS THE CONTEXT.  But language does evolve, and maybe some genius will come up with a neutral pronoun that is indeed inclusive.  It just hasn't happened yet.  It is changes in attitude that matter, not just superficial changes in pronouns, or at least that's how I see it, having lived through the absolutely HUGE changes from the 40s and 50s to our present society.  But you certainly don't need to agree.
All the best,
on February 21, 2011 1:04pm
Transgender activist Kate Bornstein recommends the pronouns 'ze' (in place of she/he) and 'hir' (in place of her/his/him)
on February 18, 2011 5:55am
According to fair use of the copyright law for educators, it is OK to re-arrange a piece for one's group as long as it doesn't alter the basic character of the piece.  One would assume that this would apply to lyrics as well, even though the law does say that lyrics cannot be changed.  However, I still interpret the change of "he" to "she" and vice versa as a minor change and  allowable.
on February 18, 2011 3:56pm
Patrice:  Actually fair use does not say anything about "re-arranging."  The specific wording is that a legally-purchased piece may be "edited or simplified."  I agree that that can be a wedge toward permitting rewriting, but I don't believe it's been tested in court and I would not want to be the test case in determining the legal difference between editing and rearranging.
But in a way this discussion sort of misses the mark anyway.  SINGERS--and in particular folk or traditional singers--do change lyrics from time to time, including genders, on a rather regular basis.  It has nothing to do with copyright law, and everything to do with communication between the singer and the audience, NOT necessarily between the songwriter or poet and the audience.  After all, a great many gendered lyrics were originally written not because the lyrics were great poetry, but because they were intended to be sung by particular characters in specific shows.  And of course anyone who has been involved in musical theater knows perfectly well that not only lyrics and arrangements but entire characters and scenes are routinely changed by "creative" stage directors, despite specific wording in the contracts that say it's a no-no.  Same thing for operas, if anyone wants to raise the "art music" banner.
All the best,
on February 18, 2011 6:43pm
This is a most interesting thread, enlightening and a testament to the strong sense of responsibility and mutual support in the Choral Net community.  I learned a lot reading it and found my thinking altered.  Thanks.
One additional consideration I feel compelled to add, however.  Some of the writers suggest that the core question is whether female performers may sing about their love for men and male performers their love for women.  Of course there are also women who love women and men who love men too.  So I would caution teachers of teenagers especially to be careful how they present these issues.  Although I'm hardly a "pre-offended" type, I worry about sexual minorities struggling with their identities in their formative years.  
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