A wrong way to analyse a person’s life, on several different levels

Years ago I went with my parents to several trips arranged by the Society for Medicine and Law in Israel, of which my father (a medical doctor) was a member. At the time they had occasionally arranged nice long-weekend trips, including some guided sight seeing, and several lectures. The content was sometimes relevant to the issues the society dealt with, but often not so but just provided as entertainment, cultural enrichment, or whatever.

One such lecture/performance was done by a musician (whose name I don’t recall by now), who talked about the life of a certain mildly known Jazz singer (whose name I also don’t recall by now. Yes, I’m a fountain of information relevant to the post, ain’t I?).

The idea was to explore the life and character of this singer, but focusing on lyrics of the songs that he often performed. Not songs he wrote, mind you, he was just a performer, but rather songs he chose to sing. According to the lecturer there were close ties between those and his life. In my opinion this is nonsense, since often singers do not identify with the lyrics of songs they perform, especially not a hard working Jazz singer needing to perform a lot of the Jazz standards instead of getting songs written especially for him.

Given that people’s lives are complex, and that songs can be looked at from many angles, it is indeed possible to draw connections and similarities, I don’t deny that. It’s just that by the same way it is possible to draw connections which are just as compelling between a person and the words of a song a total stranger choose to sing. Which would be a far worse selling point, though, unless you want to go explore some tenuous supernatural angle.

Which is to say, while the lecture was interesting, and the musician performed some of the songs himself rather well, I was not too impressed by the claim that the two are connected.

And to help emphasise the point, one of the stronger connections he draw was based on a… mistranslation of a word in one of the song. Based on which the lecturer evolved an entire part about the, apparently bad, relationship the singer had with his wife.

The song in question was Gershwin’s A Woman is a Sometime Thing from Porgy and Bess. Which the lecturer, disregarding both basic English grammar and the rest of the context of this little “lullaby” song, decided to translate to Hebrew as meaning “A women is sometimes merely a thing”. And spent quite some time going on about how the fact that the singer performed this song a lot ties in to how he may have also treated his wife badly, like she’s not really a person.

Which is of course total nonsense. This sentence doesn’t say that, there is no grammatical way to read it which would say that. Even the rest of the words of the song don’t support that in the context they provide:

Listen to yo' daddy warn you
'Fore you start a-traveling
Woman may born you, love you and mourn you
But a woman is a sometime thing
Yes a woman is a sometime thing

Yo' mammy is the first to name you
Then she'll tie you to her apron string
Then she'll shame you and she'll blame you
Till yo' woman comes to claim you
'Cause a woman is a sometime thing
Yes a woman is a sometime thing

Don't you never let a woman grieve you
Jus' 'cause she got yo' weddin' ring
She'll love you and deceive you
Then she'll take yo' clothes and leave you
'cause a woman is a sometime thing
Yes a woman is a sometime thing

And yet all that didn’t prevent the guy from being very clear on this point. So based on this mistranslation he redefined his understanding of the song, and based on the resulting faulty understanding of the song he based a part of his understanding of a singer who sang it often.

The evening itself was very entertaining, but as you can tell I wasn’t very impressed with the exactness and methodology of the biographical details analysed and presented. Still, what do I know? I was just a small kid, and none of the highly educated doctors and lawyers around seemed too perturbed…

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