What was your party piece when you were little? Most of the people I’ve asked can’t answer this question. They are familiar with the concept of the party piece, but it’s nothing personal, nothing to bring on their own temps perdu. Further interrogation suggests that they were never equipped with a party piece, as such, because they were born in the age of mass television, by which time home entertainment had gone electric and the party piece had joined curtseying and snuff-sniffing in the attic of human behaviour.
Nowadays it’s only at weddings and funerals that we are called upon to speak or recite something, but in the days of parlour pianos and fossil fuel fires, everyone had to come to the aid of any sort of social gathering with some sort of “turn”: songs, poems, tricks, anecdotes, riddles, vignettes, jokes, headstands and all manner of dance displays. I used to hear of a tenor uncle who was good for “My Lagan Love” at weddings, of a gravel-voiced grand uncle whose forte was J. Milton Hayes’ dramatic monologue, “The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God”. I never witnessed these performances because, by the time I was walking and talking (c.1956), the groan-ups were no longer required to make a show of themselves.
For children, a party piece was once as indispensable as a clean hanky. To start with there were rhymes featuring numbers, animal sounds and “actions”: “Three Blind Mice”, “Baa Black Sheep” and “I am a Little Teapot” come to mind. At this stage in the business there was no shame in a bit of audience participation, or prompting. It was all praise and applause, no matter what the performer or the audience had endured, and children whose demonstrable talents were not verbal, or tuneful, were accommodated, literally. I can remember the floors of “good rooms” being cleared for demonstrations of handstands, somersaults, cartwheels, ballet positions, tap dances and jigs. I say good rooms plural because, in suburban Dublin in the mid 1960s, party pieces were on the agenda for birthday teas as well as the visitations of venerable kith and kin. And even if you didn’t cover yourself in glory, you could expect material rewards in the shape of sweets, party favours and small change “tips”.
Most of the songs that worked as party pieces derived from popular stage and film musicals, having percolated into the collective sound track via sales of sheet music as well as the “pop” numbers played on the wireless. (Even the aforementioned “Green Eye of the Little Yellow God” had a popular entertainment history as a staple of the early 20th-century music hall.) Indeed the songs and poems that best pleased fond and aged relations were songs and poems that pre-dated their juvenile interpreters. Several 70-something English friends of mine recall holding the floor with “Did You Not Hear My Lady”. This 1928 sheet music number, formally entitled “Silent Worship”, is an adaptation by Arthur Somervell of a song from Tolomeo, a Handel opera of 1728. For her turn, another friend of similar vintage used to sing “My Sweet Little Alice Blue Gown”. (Not uncoincidentally her mother’s name was Alice.) Again, this song has a lineage that reaches back, in terms of its lyrics, to the American presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, whose daughter Alice’s signature colour was ice blue. The song was first performed in a Broadway hit musical, Irene, of 1919, which enjoyed further success as a film in 1940, and so on.
I should confess that my own best-remembered party piece was a hearty rendition of “Will Ye Go Lassie Go!” Nothing to do with the omniscient sheepdog but a hit song of the late 1950s written by Francis McPeake of the eponymous and illustrious Ulster family of musicians. It was inspired by a tune heard on holiday in Scotland, and this traditional provenance is perhaps one reason why it was such immediately easy listening, as well as learning. That’s the magical thing about songs: it’s often the case that the tune is already in the common ether, available for a new life with new words, in new languages. Before I heard Burl Ives (or Harry Belafonte and Loretta) singing the hole in the bucket song on the radio – and it started to serve as a party piece – it was a German folk song, which probably arrived in the USA in the cultural baggage of the Pennsylvania Dutch community. All over time and space, singers and musicians have been – and still are – oblivious to geo-political boundaries. Consciously or unconsciously, they operate on the principle that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
As poems that can be sung, the works of Burns exemplify the ancient overlap between music and verse, and they will live forever in the “by heart” repertoire of the Scots. Many of the traditional Irish poems I learned at school also have great “airs”. The same goes for the psalms we learned to sing as hymns, and unforgettable poems of Leonard Cohen. But most of the time, for party piece purposes, the poems that we learned off by heart were recited, and this verb raises the genteel spectre of the elocution teacher.
Elocution lessons may well have been as therapeutic as they were liberating for some kids, but for my parents they were synonymous with a pathetic self-hatred. Elocution as we understood it was all about the acquisition of a peculiarly inauthentic English accent, a matter of strangled vowels, muted “rs” and hot potato “hs”. In Pygmalion (and its musical derivative My Fair Lady), George Bernard Shaw sent up the class basis of the how-now-brown-cow business. His glorious achievement makes it all the more curious that his wife, a seemingly uncomprehending grande dame by the name of Charlotte Payne-Townshend, left money in her will for the education of common Irish folk in elocution and deportment.
Anecdotal evidence (i.e. my random poll) suggests that Hilaire Belloc’s “Tarantella” did sterling service as a party piece. For this sort of poem you would use your most sonorous accent, but if your piece was something funny like “Albert and the Lion”, or “My Old Man’s a Dustman”, there would be scope for a Lancashire burr, or a bit of mockney-cockney. Recently, I heard a recording of Hilaire Belloc reading his own “Tarantella” and his pompous reedy voice doesn’t seem to “go” with it at all. By contrast, once you have heard Larkin reading his own poems no one else will do. I was surprised to learn, from Matthew Hollis’s book about the English poet Edward Thomas (All Roads Lead to France, 2011), that it’s a comparatively new thing for poets to read their own work at poetry readings. Until the early twentieth century, it was conventional for poets to read poems they rated, not their own stuff.
My career as a performer of party pieces ended around the same time as I became oblivious to cracks in the pavement, and climbable trees. Until then, like Miss Mary Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, I enjoyed doing my thing, and so I always feel for Miss Elizabeth Bennet when she has the “mortification” of seeing Mary “after very little entreaty, preparing to oblige the company”. Mindful of the sneering Mr Darcy, Elizabeth has to endure it until, at last, her father tells Mary: “That will do extremely well, child. You have delighted us long enough. Let the other young ladies have time to exhibit.”
For all the people who shudder at the memory of their party pieces, there will be others who found a way of sustaining the performance impulse. In 1946, at a Mother’s Day celebration in a local hall, the four-year-old boy who became Bob Dylan got up on the stage, stamped his foot and demanded the crowd’s attention: ‘If everybody in this room will keep quiet, I will sing for my grandmother. I’m going to sing “Some Sunday Morning”.’ The audience clapped so hard that he sang his other big number: “Accentuate the Positive”. Within two weeks, he had another gig, his aunt’s wedding. The fact that this particular four-year-old was wowing the kith and kin with “Accentuate the Positive” when other kids his age were offering “Mary Had a Little Lamb” did not strike his father as anything special: “People said he was brilliant. I didn’t pay much attention to this, frankly. I figured any kid could learn a song like that from the radio – if he heard it often enough.” (Quoted in Robert Shelton’s No Direction Home: the Life and Music of Bob Dylan, London 1986)