A miniature, a concise meditation on the precarious and impermanent nature of human existence.
There is not a lot to say about this song. Man’s Life a Vapor is fittingly brief, as are my comments.
I learned this jaunty little canon at Blue Rock School, and have the impression that it was already a part of the school’s shared song culture when I arrived there in 1991. I taught it to most of my elementary school students over the years – it’s a breeze to teach to young children when you are first helping them become accustomed to learning songs on solfège syllables (before learning the words of a song). The song’s brevity and pitch set (Major scale, exactly one octave from sol to sol) set you up to teach the entire process in one lesson (or less).
I remember Peggy Flinsch singing this song, sitting with a red plaid wool blanket laid across her lap on “her chair” – an old, tall wooden chair with a straight back and no arms – as part of a circle of singers composed mostly of young children sitting on the floor of their classroom. Man’s Life’s a Vapor was often sung at Morning Openings at Blue Rock – it was one of the songs that everyone knew, down to the very youngest children – there aren’t many words to remember, after all.
Man’s Life’s a Vapor PDF free to download, print, copy
I’ve seen this notated in cut time, but we always sang it in 6/8, with the gentler “swung” division of the beat into three parts. So that’s how I notated it here.
I found a reference to this song (a character sings it) in the story The Touch of Spring by D. Storrar Meldrum, printed in Volume 61 (April, 1895) of The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, a sort of nineteenth century Reader’s Digest that reprinted selections from British magazines for an American audience. The story had originally been printed in Blackwood’s Magazine, a British miscellany published from 1817-1980.
It often amused me to observe the vigor and delight with which young children would sing this song, whose words they doubtless did not understand. I never taught any movements to go with it formally but I observed children make a “downward spiral” hand motion when singing the third strain of this song at every school where I taught it. I almost never accompanied this one, but I would sometimes push the key a step or two higher depending on who I was singing it with, the time of day or how long we had been singing (what point we were in class or rehearsal).
Cut a caper no longer seems to be part of common parlance, but it used to mean to “take a leap” and in fact a caper is a morris dance step (a leap from one foot to the other). I brought morris dancing to several of the elementary schools I taught at (including Blue Rock), so I was able to describe and even demonstrate the act in a practical way that children could understand.
Of course, cut a caper has a broader, centuries-old meaning that refers metaphorically to a frolic, a prank or activity whose moral or legal status is questionable, or which might be perceived as wild, foolish, or unconventional.
Dancing aside, the deeper philosophical dilemma faced by all humans is only remarked upon by the song’s lyric, which like life itself, is fleeting. At only twelve bars, the song is over almost as soon as its begun. The tune itself is cheerful and light-hearted, which in contrast to the lyric, lays down a pithy yet brave and hopeful ontological premise.
One night in the early 1990s, we were having dinner with friends – a Blue Rock colleague and her family, whose children attended the school. Zack, the youngest, called to me from the kitchen while dinner preparations were underway. He was a third or fourth grader at Blue Rock at the time.
I went over to the kitchen where he stood behind the counter. A jar of capers was out and open, and Zack held one between thumb and forefinger. He held a pair of scissors in his other hand. “Look, Walter,” he said, “I’m cutting a caper!” And he did.
Little did Zack know that Shakespeare got to that pun first.
Sir Toby Belch: What is thy excellence in a galliard, knight?
Sir Andrew: Faith, I can cut a caper.
Sir Toby Belch: And I can cut the mutton to’t.
~ William Shakespeare
Twelfth Night, 1.3.106-108.
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