Tavern Music

In Cottington Woods, we have a bunch of people playing bards, and few more who aren’t bards but still like to perform. There’s a songbird, a singing cat, a scarecrow, and a couple of guys who also perform at Ren Faires and SCA events. Most people sing unaccompanied by instruments, but a guitar gets brought into the mix now and then.

I love it.

This is the most I’ve seen music incorporated into LARP, and I find it really contributes to the atmosphere and makes hanging out in our tavern, the Cotting House, a lot of fun during downtime and meals. Fingers crossed someday we have this sort of thing while sitting around a campfire. That would a LARPing dream for me. (Which may not come true, depending on how restrictive our campsites’ regulations are, but who knows.)

I suspect all of these performing players are into folk music, sea shanties, medieval and Renaissance tunes, and the like outside of this LARP and have been for awhile. So there’s a fairly large list of songs that I hear performed in the tavern (and on modules that require bardic abilities to distract and enchant.) I’ve been trying to look up the various songs online so I can listen to them between events, but I can’t always guess the titles or remember enough lyrics to find them online.

So I posted online, asking people for lists of songs they’ve performed. If I’d been a little smarter, I might have asked in-character during an event and written them down in my in-game journal. Oh, well. Next time.

Meanwhile, my online request inadvertently kicked off a discussion about songs that have real world names in them and whether or not they break immersion, and whether or not it’s to the extent that makes them not worth it to perform in-game.

I should mention here that this all applies to any proper noun that’s specifically real-world, not just places (people, institutions, etc.) but since the conversation online was mostly about places (since that’s the most common real world type of noun that has come up) I’ll refer to places in this post.

In particular, the two songs that got mentioned were “(Bound for) South Australia” and “The Scotsman.” (They’re really worth listening to, though odds are, if you’re a geek, you’ve heard “The Scotsman” at some event or another.) The former has the word “Australia” in every verse and the chorus (and three times in the first chorus) so it’s admittedly hard to gloss over, mentally. And “The Scotsman,” naturally, repeatedly references Scotland.

My personal take on it is that, in all honesty, hearing the name of real world places does jar me slightly out of character- I’m aware that they’re real places and not a places in-game when I hear it. (On a side note, I felt the same effect when I heard the name “Amelia Earheart,” and she apparently exists in the fairy tale world of Cottington Woods?) However, it’s very minor, and the effect is mostly overshadowed by the value of the atmosphere created by period music.

I suppose that may not be universal.

Specifically, in the case of “South Australia,” the music makes me want to acquire a tankard so I’d have something to bang heartily on the table. In the absence of a tankard, I’d kinda like to get up on stomp in time on the table. Or at least the bench. I just love the effect this tune has, and I’d be pretty disappointed if I thought I was never going to hear it in-game again.

One suggestion put forth as a compromise was the rewrite the lyrics a bit, or “filk” them as some people call it. For example, replacing the word “Scotsman” with “Clubman,” as there’s a place in-game called the Clublands, which is possibly the most analogous to Scotland, if anything is. (There actually is a place that’s analogous to Australia, too- how often do you see that in a LARP?- but unfortunately “Lakupaparoo” doesn’t have the right phonetic structure to replace “South Australia” in a song.)

This seems like a reasonable compromise to me, especially if one doesn’t feel as though all the names of places in the song need to be replaced with established places in game. In other words, if there’s nothing phonetically similar to South Australia in the LARP, one could easily make up a random name that, for all we know, is part of the LARP’s setting. South Eulalia, for example.

I don’t know if this is a perfect solution. If it sounds too similar to the original, will it still call the original real-world place to mind? What about other words that reference those places’ cultures, like “kilt”? Are bards more likely to slip and mix in the real-world name in some verses? I’m not certain. One bard did seem resistant to the idea, because changing the lyrics means performing in a way that’s not true to the original song (and he picked “The Scotsman” as his line in the sand.) Perhaps the effort needed to remember to use the wrong place name drags the bard out of the moment of performing. It’s hard to say. I don’t sing. And I always thought that if someone did manage to coax a song out of my character, I’d pick one in a different language that no one else was likely to recognize, so even if it contains real world names, people most likely won’t be able to pick them out and have their immersion affected.

Other LARPers posting online seemed to be mostly agreeing that hearing real-world names of places was too anti-immersive. And there seems to be a consensus that real place names fall on a spectrum, and a name could be generic enough or not famous enough to warrant avoiding the song or altering the lyrics. To wit, while the name “Australia” may feel anti-immersive to some, “Cape Horn” probably won’t negatively effect immersion at all. So it might make sense to just cut all songs that have very noticeable real world place names, and leave songs that only have obscure or generic sounding place names. While that might be overkill for someone like me, maybe we should be erring on the side of immersion for as many people as possible.

But like I said, as much as I want to the LARP to be as immersive as possible for everyone, I just like the tune of “South Australia” enough to not want to give it up. Some people suggested only playing songs with obvious real-world place names quietly off the side, and not performing them with the intention of as many people hearing it as possible. (Some bardic abilities are more beneficial when more people hear them, so there’s incentive to gather a large crowd and make sure all can hear.) That’s not terrible,  but the tavern isn’t big enough and the acoustics aren’t so poor as to make this a great solution.

At any rate, the discussions seems to have been tabled for now. I guess I’ll see what happens at the next event. In the meantime, I’m curious to hear other people’s thoughts. So feel free to post- do you find hearing real world names of places (and people and institutions and… whatever else) to be anti-immersive? Does it jar you out of character? Or do you find your brain can gloss over it, especially when music is involved? And if it does jar you out of character, is it ever worth it for the atmosphere the music creates? Anyone tried any solutions, like filking (re-writing the lyrics to fit in-game)?


About Fair Escape

I've been LARPing for years in all different styles, including both boffer and theater. I love classic LARP but I'm always happy to try something new. I have a sort of "gotta catch 'em all" attitude towards experiencing LARPs. I'm currently serve as a board member of NEIL, a member of proposal com for Intercon, the largest all LARP convention in the US, and as en editor for Game Wrap, a publication about the art and craft of LARP. I was also con chair of Festival of the LARPs 2017, and I'm on staff for NELCO, the first all LARP conference in the US. I'm
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7 Responses to Tavern Music

  1. Chad Bergeron says:

    Heave away, hove away! That’s a classic folk song. Good stuff. Clearly, someone should take that great tune, and filk it to have another set of lyrics more specific to the genre/game. That would solve the issue.

  2. Echo says:

    I’ve never found it to be much of an issue.
    I do however understand baulking at rewriting a piece if it’s to only to bow to an immersion standard.
    Especially since most bards I know are also IRL performers and to be forced to recall 2, 5, 10 versions of a song with a simple word change for each game you might be taking part? Meh. I’d rather hear/stick with the original.
    (Unless of course you’re a low scruples/standards bard and someone IC is paying for you to spread their ‘deserved’ legend, and you cheap out by rewriting the more famous or catchy tunes to simply include their name.)

    Singing in a mostly un-spoken language of your larp group seems to be the most commen solution. That or if a real world Provence/island/nation/hero/saint are mention in the lyrics perhaps one could simply stick to just the instrumentation.
    My favorite though with always be the, “This is a diddy my Dear Ol’d Mudder taught me, when I was just a wee one sitting at her knee.” “Something from the ‘old’ country, for the more heart-sick among us.” variations
    These excuses don’t seem so far fetched when you really think about it. Especially when you consider when new nations/factions/towns are cutting their teeth, end up repeating the same names.

    Just look at America, did you know how many cities share names?

    • Fair Escape says:

      Thank you for sharing your comments!

      I agree it would be entirely unreasonable to expect a bard to remember up to 10 different versions of a song, but I think in our case, no singer would be remembering more than two versions- the real one and one filk version. I have yet to see anyone commission a bard for a song, (maybe I should try in game!) though rewriting lyrics to an existing song would be ok with me, especially if the bard isn’t actually a song writer in real life.

      Sticking to the instrumentation is a good idea. Pity it only works if the bard has an instrument (as far as I know, only one bard brings an instrument to the game) and if the songs they want to perform have tunes that could stand on their own. (I think “The Scotsman” would lose all its charm without the funny lyrics!)

      I’m not sure I quite understand your favorite solution, or maybe it just wouldn’t work in a setting that isn’t historical or some alternate version of earth. Australia doesn’t exist in the setting of Cottington Woods, so nothing can really be named after it (or be claimed as the source of the name.) Apologies if I misunderstood you.

      Huh, apparently Greenville is the most common town name in the U.S. Who knew?

      • Echo says:

        You understood me just fine. No worries there.
        I just feel making up lies as to where exactly this country/land/nation is/was…
        Is the easiest solution.
        So yeah, OUR world’s Australia doesn’t exist in game. But perhaps there are tales of ‘another’ Australia that once did, even though it’s now lost to time like our ‘Atlantis’… and then you can make up whatever.

        More then true. “The Scotsman” needs its words.
        Alternatively if bawdy, tavern songs are mostly what you’re after here.
        Most continued their lives in Music Hall recreations.
        Several make no mention of specific locations or lands of origin.
        While others are more about the humor and/or lyrical nonsense then any care for the sense of place.


  3. So, as you might guess, this hits me pretty directly. Within the SCA, I have learned and studied a lot of period music, which is to say pre-1600 stuff. As I learned, I also discovered that many SCA music standards were pseudo-period consisting of a lot of 17th-19th century stuff, and some straight-out sixties folk.

    Now, I learned the difference, and focused more on the historically accurate stuff because I like that and wanted to present historically accurate material. I did a lot of Shakespeare plays and Elizabethan music became my focus. I also wrote a lot of filk, including parodies of very modern tunes, because those are a blast and a way I contribute to the modern culture of the group.

    Within the performing community in the SCA there is heated debate about authenticity versus modern/funnish. Scalding heated debate. Despite my education and performances, I tend to side with the funnish.

    The main reason is the authenticity camp tends to stick by the “Don’t do this” side of the line while the fun-modern crowd is more inclusive. I have never heard a filker say, “I can’t believe he chose something so stale and authentic.” I rather hear people suggest, “This way is better” than “Don’t do this.”

    Which is a preamble (pre-ramble?) to music in LARPs. In a fantasy LARP, the field is wider. If nothing else, there is a range within history moving well into Victorian fashions, and suitably, Victorian songs. Further, it is a fictional world, so there is no absolute texts. Doctor Seuss poetry holds as much sway as Spenser – maybe more as it is stronger in common resonance.

    I love the free range I get in LARP to sing the period-oid classics, drinking songs and renfaire fare without concern. I do get and feel a bit off with real world place names inserted into the mix, and as a singer (and SCA survivor) I tailor my material to the game and, heck, write for it. But I would rather hear the singing, and be slightly jarred than not hear it at all.

    Ultimately, as I suggested with the SCA mention, I think the best route is to encourage performance, really encourage performance that is immersive, and avoid active discouragement. I realize this gets trickier with the accellerant rule/goal of 100% in-game all the time, but dowsing best efforts is disheartening. Often it is hard enough to get up the nerve to sing.

    Performing can be a big part of some folks LARP experience. It is a huge aspect of what I look to do in a game. I love the community of singers and performers in Cottington Woods and hope it continues to thrive.

    • Fair Escape says:

      I suspect part of the reason people don’t feel too hesitant to request avoiding real names is because as far as I’ve seen, the problematic ones are pretty rare. Asking people to drop two songs out of fourteen (that number comes from a player, and that was just for one weekend) doesn’t seem like a big deal, I guess. Except it is a big deal if its one of their favorites to perform. (And in my case, one of my favorites to hear.) But I like your notion of encouraging performance is generally better than discouragement.

      Also, you make an excellent point about Cottington Woods and the ill-defined borders of what is within its “range”- I mean, the works of Edgar Allen Poe and Lewis Carroll have clearly made their way into the LARP. I hesitated to include references to Norton Juster and a Victorian ballet, then thought… well, why not? The world is built by references to all kinds of stories. Though I haven’t given much thought as to how this applies to music yet.

      • I might further add, I have filked Cottleston Pie for the game, which is a vaudeville era tune. No one should know if is early 20th Century, unless you know because you are deeply steeped in music history and theory, and then you do… …but it is a staff favorite, and a inherently game-building tune.

        I believe the reference and range makes more sense in this game in the manner it is framed. The Wizard of Oz is more recent than 19th century maritime songs, but holds more of a place in mythic, magical storytelling and is acceptable as such. This may be why Australia is more upsetting than Cape Horn as place names. Passing round Cape Horn has near-mythic significance. Bound for Australia sounds like you might be headed on vacation.

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