Welcome to Letters From Quotidia, episode 128 – a podcast by Quentin Bega for lovers of music, poetry, and the Crack- that most Irish of nouns which may encompass, news, gossip, fun, entertainment, and enjoyable conversation. Quotidia is that space, that place, where ordinary people lead ordinary lives. But where, from time to time, they encounter the extraordinary.
For the Great Gaels of Ireland/Are the men that God made mad,/For all their wars are merry/ And all their songs are sad./ That’s all I’m going to quote from G. K. Chesterton’s great epic poem, The White Horse, in ballad form about the victory of King Alfred the Great over the Danes at the battle of Ethandun in 878 A.D. If you want the other 2,680 lines, you’ll have to look elsewhere. These four lines are well-worn, as accompaniments to song, poetry, articles about matters Irish and a host of other prefatory duties. You may ask: Am I, here and now, going to break with the stereotype, and strike out on usages original, novel or unanticipated? No, no I’m not.
The first song in this post is, Felix the Soldier. And here’s what Alan Lomax, that great and influential American folklorist has to say- and thanks to FolksongIndex.com for the info: “If soldier folk songs were the only evidence, it would seem that the armies that fought in early American wars were composed of Irishmen. The finest folk ballads of the Indian Wars, the American Revolution, the Mexican War, the Civil War, and the Plains Indian War, all had Irish tunes.” The site also gives an historical reference: 1754-1763, French and Indian War (the hottest phase of the colonial conflict between France and England). The Irish military diaspora has campaigned in both the Old World and the New, featuring such luminaries as Owen Roe O’Neill, born 1585-died 1649, a chieftain of the O’Neill dynasty of Ulster who fought with the Spanish forces against the Dutch during the 80 Years’ War or, infamously from an American point of view, Major-General Robert Ross who led the attack on Washington DC during the war of 1812 and who subsequently ordered the burning of quite a few public buildings including the White House and Capitol building on 24th August 1814.
I could enumerate many more illustrious military figures but let’s focus now on the many thousands of nameless men from all parts of Ireland who were driven to military service by poverty and privation. Felix the soldier is one such man. Whether a man called Felix wrote the song, who knows? I like to imagine that such is the case, that he summoned from memory a hornpipe that he knew and put a few words to the tune. And giving imagination free reign, I also imagine that he sustained his injury from the siege of Quebec in 1759. There are no additional parts to the song and I think deedly-dee mouth-music would have substituted for any fancy instrumentation as the soldier boys shivered around a campfire. [insert song]
T S Eliot hove into my mental view like an ocean liner bearing down upon a sailing dinghy. Typical school poetry anthologies of the 1960s were no preparation for the impact The Waste Land made on me as I slumped at the back of the room of the Eng-Lit lecture where I first encountered the work of the magisterial American titan in 1969: April is the cruellest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain./
Well, I certainly qualified then (and, perhaps, even now) as a dull root, waiting for revivifying spring rain. And recently, knowing I would be returning to Eliot’s masterpiece of 1922, and having reviewed some of the critical work of a century later, I roared with laughter to discover that the poet dissed his own achievement by commenting in a lecture at Harvard, “To me it was only the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life; it is just a piece of rhythmical grumbling” To borrow from Winston Churchill, whose 1941 riposte to the French collaborator Marshal Petain’s claim that Hitler would overrun England in three weeks and wring its neck like a chicken, still makes me chuckle- Some chicken, some neck! Yeah, T S, old chap! some rhythm, some grumble!
The title of the song at the end of this post, Fragments Piled Against My Ruin, borrows from line 430 of The Waste Land, These fragments I have shored against my ruins. The splintered milieu of post-war Europe which saw the collapse of several Empires and the ravages of a pandemic that claimed up to 50 million lives, finds an echo today in the aftermath of 9/11, Afghanistan, and our ongoing struggles with COVID. Of course, our lives count for little against the backdrop of huge events such as those referenced in the poem and are immeasurably less important- but they are all that we possess and, therefore, if we choose to shore up our ruins by gathering around us the fragments of our own creations, whatever they may be, then that is justification enough in my humble opinion.
Re-reading the Eliot poem raked out the ash choking my writer’s block or, to keep the metaphor consistent with the opening lines of The Waste Land, the spring rain percolated down to the dull roots and stirred memory and desire and, even if stimulating only a rhythmical grumble, it, nevertheless, produced the words and music of an original composition that was so earnestly promised in the previous post. Devotees of the poem will, no doubt, find correspondences between some the lyrics of the song and Eliot’s fine work. Such borrowings are entirely conscious and deliberate.[insert song]
I will be seeking spring rains (for such is the season now in Sydney) to replenish the unconscious reservoirs of creativity in order to fulfil my mission of crafting posts which feature a folk song on the one hand, and an original and apposite composition, on the other.
Credits: All written text, song lyrics andmusic (including background music) written and composed by Quentin Bega unless otherwise specified in the credits section after individual posts. Illustrative excerpts from other texts identified clearly within each podcast. I donate to and use Wikipedia frequently as one of the saner sources of information on the web.
Technical Stuff: Microphone- Shure SM58; (for the podcast spoken content) Audio Technica AT 2020 front-facing with pop filter); Apogee 76K also used for songs and spoken text
For recording and mixing down: 64-bit N-Track Studio 9 Extended used; Rubix 22 also used for mixing of microphone(s) and instruments
Music accompaniment and composition software: Band-in-a-Box and RealBand 2021