It is easily 25 years since I read J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, but I still remember the pivotal scene vividly. Holden Caulfield is speaking to his sister Phoebe, who is pretty much the only person he trusts.
“You know that song ‘If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye’? … I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”
It is an odd vision. Holden is a city boy, who probably doesn’t know much about rye fields, and as Pheobe points out, he has misheard the lyrics. There is no “catching” of bodies. But there is something in Holden’s strange image – and reading the passage alone can’t quite convey it, the whole book has been leading up to this – something which burns with the beauty and the sadness of the world.
The song “Coming Thro’ the Rye” is ancient. It is often attributed to the Scots poet Robert Burns, but he was merely the first person to write down (in 1782) a song that was already well known and already old. It is, as ancient songs often are, puzzling. It is about a girl, Jenny, who meets a boy coming across a wet rye field, and there is a sexual encounter but how loving and consensual it is – well, it’s hard to tell. A lot of questions are asked, and not answered.
Gin a body meet a body
Comin thro’ the rye,
Gin a body kiss a body,
Need a body cry?
Need a body cry? That means cry out for help. Maybe not, but maybe yes.
It is beautiful, but dark and ambiguous. Much like Catcher in the Rye.
This version is just the tune, performed as a waltz by Jimmy Shand, a prolific Scots dance band leader whose accordion fired up a million dance parties in the 1950s. As a dance, it is a bit happier than that ballad is, or Holden Caulfield was, but a lovely tune still.
- Artist: Jimmy Shand And His Band
- LP Title: Comin’ Thro’ The Rye
- Side 1, Track 1: “Comin’ Thro’ The Rye”
- Format: 10” LP 33⅓ rpm
- Label: Parlophone PMDO 1047
- Manufactured in: Australia
- Year: 1950