Welcome to Letters From Quotidia, episode 129 – 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.
Strange how things leak through from post to post. Take line 430 of T. S. Eliot’s, The Waste Land, These fragments I have shored against my ruins, which we encountered only last week. It has continuing resonance in this post. In my battle against my nemesis, Writers Block, a fearsome foe, who first appeared as the swaggering bully he is in Letter number 123, I have resorted to a variety of stratagems to foil the brute. First, I went through my overstuffed desk drawer where I rifled through folders of yellowing pages to no avail. Nothing sparked. I skimmed a few books of poetry with nothing to show but a rising tide of envy as I was swamped by tsunamis of verse superior to anything I could fabricate. In desperation, I resorted to opening the front of my garage where I had deposited, many, many moons ago, my accumulated literary and musical ephemera.
Now, realising that my filing system leaves something to be desired (and by something, I mean, of course, everything), I spent one long, hot, September afternoon here in western Sydney rooting through an assortment of boxes, files, and manila folders full of material going back almost half a century, setting aside those pages that held even a meagre promise of something approaching nourishment for my starving muse. So, gathering an armful of discoloured, insect-stained papers, and to the horror of my wife who witnessed my ill-tempered traverse of the kitchen, I returned to my workroom to winnow further the results of my hopeful harvest.
I surveyed what was there- a sometimes forlorn testament to my attempts at songs and writing projects from the nineteen seventies, eighties and early nineties. The faint traces of some of the melodies were uncovered, slowly and patiently, as I deciphered the chords and musical jottings set down years before. I liken it to an archaeologist putting together a broken vase from an ancient site in Greece, where, perhaps, he inserts an educated guess as to the shape of fragments missing and those ornamental details abraded by time. I favour this analogy over that of the scientist in Mary Shelley’s’ masterpiece, Frankenstein, who labours to create a new but hideous life. You’ll hear the result of my first reclamation at the end of this post.
But first: I’m a man you don’t meet every day. A contested song as so many are. Is it Irish, Scottish, from Norfolk or Somerset or somewhere else? It has variants in 19th Century America and Australia. I use lyrics where the dog in the song does not get shot. In some variants, the pooch perishes. Barney McKenna, of revered memory, usually the non-singing tenor banjo maestro of The Dubliners, presented a compelling version of the song- as he did also for Fiddler’s Green, a song I have covered earlier in Postcards From Quotidia Edition 10. I trust his reading of the song, although I do take it a bit faster than he. [insert song]
The next song also finds us examining a young person, who does not possess any of the braggadocio of the former nor his self-possession, nor his assured place in society. Of course, in folk music, nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Jock Stewart, the hero of I’m A Man You Don’t Meet Every Day, emerges from an outsider tradition. One of last century’s best-known singers of the song just heard was Jeannie Robertson of Aberdeen, one of the Travellers, a marginalised group there, as in Ireland. She had a prodigious repertoire and, in an encounter in 1953 with Alan Lomax, the legendary American collector and folklorist, she sang a traditional song, Andrew Lammie, which lasted over 13 minutes. So, when she had finished singing, she spent some time telling Lomax about those parts of the story not covered in the song!
But now- to the unearthed and reconstructed song, I Belong. And here’s another example of serendipity-defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.” I had long resigned myself to having lost the song but my excavation in the front of my garage brought it to light. I remembered it particularly because I was pleased by the shape it took in Townsville in 1991 where I was experimenting with an elaborate electric guitar-and-pedal set-up at a friend’s place. I had been commissioned to write a musical play to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Burdekin Theatre and my protagonists were a couple of homeless teenagers from Sydney. The play also dealt with other outsiders, including aboriginal people and mental patients.
At this time, too, reports of hate crimes against transsexual people were in the news and I crafted a song about a young person (male or female is not specified within the song, and this, I think, is part of the point). However, neither the character nor the song ended up in the final draft for the production and I thought it was lost forever. There are a handful of songs- five to be precise- from that trove, that I will work with to fulfil my intentions of providing a folk song and corresponding original composition over the coming weeks. There were quite a few more but they were consigned to oblivion again as they did not meet the criteria for one reason or another, chief among them was the embarrassment they would cause to even such a thick-skinned individual as me were they ever to see the light of day.
So, here’s the first of that trove I completed: the song tries to explore the situation of someone not at home in their skin. The phrase from the first verse of the song, “sleeping with a stranger” encompasses sleeping with oneself as well as the more obvious reading. I Belong is not a typical composition of mine, but it offers a counterbalance to the first song. See what you think. [insert song]
Next week will feature a song written by that fine Irish songsmith Dominic Behan about the great 19th Century parliamentarian, Charles Stewart Parnell. This is followed by a peculiar song I wrote in Ireland in early 1980. More about this in episode 130.
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