“Old King Cole was a merry old soul, and a merry old soul was he.

He called for his pipe and he called for his glass,

And he called for his parsons three.

Now every parson had a book,

And a very thick book had he.

‘May the Lord have mercy on your soul,’ said the parson!”

In this final verse, it was always very quiet. Only Pop’s gravely voice turned out the words in a playful brogue, pinning down silence at the breaks. In this verse, a gravity seemed to descend upon the song and focus itself upon Pop, who, at the center of that gravity, hauled in those around him, binding them to him, terminating the space between so that many were also one. Nanny, his wife, bound to him. His many children, bound to him. So many countless grandchildren and great grandchildren, bound to him. Friends, bound to him.

“And he called for his fiddlers three…”

Poppy, the father of my father, passed away a couple of months ago. And, as it seems to go, revelations occur only after they can be shared with those who should hear them most. In thinking back on Pop’s life, I’m awed by the sense of joy that flowed from him. Though his life was not always harmonious, he seemed to ring out a harmony from within him, which flowed out into the world.

“And he called for his fluters three…”

This joy came through whenever he sang “Old King Cole,” the mythic tale of the king who would sit upon his throne and call for drink, pipe, and a plethora of musicians—fiddlers, fluters, drummers, harpers—and even some painters and parsons. And King Cole would call to them and they would fiddle-diddle-dee and fluttle-duttle-doo and drum-a-dumma-dum and schlop it up against the wall, and together, they formed the Sons of Harmony, a band of merry men which had no equal.

“And he called for his drummers three…”

Poppy would sing this song at every family gathering: wedding, anniversary, graduation, and even funeral. And as we would sing about these merry men, we would mime our fine fiddles and long flutes and round drums and tall harps and wide brushes and thick books: my aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, grandparents, cousins, and often times, friends and friends of friends—who, despite not knowing the song, would become a living part of it. And Pop was always there, right at the center of this human gravity. And we were drawn tightly toward him, the Court of Old King Cole come to life.

“And he called for his harpers three…”

After Pop passed, I came to a realization: I saw then that there was another call to the song, one that I had never taken note of before.  This call went out before the song actually began—before the parson blessed the souls, before the painter schlopped the paint, and the fluter fluted and the drummer drummed and the harper strung and the fiddler fiddled. It happened before the first words were sung. It still came from King Cole, but this King Cole wasn’t mythical. He had always been flesh and bone.

“And he called for his painters three…”

The call went forth from Pop to all his loved ones. He called to us to gather round, celebrate, laugh, love, pour ourselves out in joy. But at Poppy’s funeral, for the first time, King Cole wasn’t there. On a table behind us were pictures of him, his medals from the war, certificates honoring his service to the Hibernians and to the Knights of Columbus. But none of those things were him, nor was the body in the coffin.

Merry men are we, ‘Oh!’ And none were there that could compare with the Sons of Harmony.

Yet the call still came. It moved from inside out. It called to my beautiful Nan, it called to my aunts and uncles, and my cousins. And we rose, gathered, and sung together for the many friends who came to celebrate his life. And, for us, the Court of King Cole, very little was different, though all of it was. And we laughed, and played fine fiddles and long flutes, and we cried out in sadness while, at the same time, we lifted our hands and yelled for happiness.

And in the midst of us, as the parson spoke, a deep gravity was formed, and we were bound to it. And though we could not see him, most surely there was Old King Cole himself, full of love and pride for his Sons and Daughters of Harmony.

3 replies
  1. Mary Bastone
    Mary Bastone says:

    Beautifully said Chris!!!! I know he was so proud of you. So sad that I was not able to make his funeral, but
    will always remember him and “Old King Cole”, which became a part of our family as well. Love you, Aunt Mary

    Reply
  2. Aunt Joannie
    Aunt Joannie says:

    Wonderful tribute to Poppy and the “Clan”. Can’t you just picture Poppy leading all the relatives around the “table” of saints holding court. Thank you

    Reply
  3. Bernadette Connolly
    Bernadette Connolly says:

    Chris, that is so beautifully written. I too never looked at the Old King Cole that way, thank you.
    Love you, Aunt B

    Reply

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