Welcome to Letters From Quotidia Postscripts Episode 4 – a podcast by Quentin Bega for listeners who enjoyed that Irish phenomenon- the crack! in the 200+ Letters and Postcards From Quotidia over the past 17 months. Quotidia remains that space, that place, where ordinary people lead ordinary lives. But where, from time to time, they encounter the extraordinary.
One of the sites I frequent when hoping a passing poem might solicit me is allpoetry.com. And so it was when I sought out an appropriate verse to accompany a song I had written from the depths of memory. Like most guitarists (and I use this term very loosely in regard to myself!) I have a large store of riffs and chord sequences built up over the years. One sequence from, oh! Good Lord! it must be… forty years ago, popped into my head the other week trailing remnants of text behind it.
This was the chorus, of the song, A Brief Encounter, you are shortly going to hear. I was able to stitch together the words with a modicum of mental exertion and invention. The image of an old man with a suitcase, waiting in the rain on the side of the road surfaced- and that was me off and running- or should I say, driving. [insert song]
That was the something new of the triad that defines these postscripts. The poem that was passing by on the allpoetry site was The Latest Decalogue by Arthur Hugh Clough [pronounced ‘cluff’] who was born in 1819, the same year as Queen Victoria and who died in 1861 at age 42, when she had been on the throne a mere 24 of the 61 years of her reign. Like so many Victorians of his ilk, he led a life jam-packed with travel, incident, and endeavour.
He was a fine poet whose experiments in extending the range of literary language and subject were ahead of his time. This poem remains one of my favourite pieces of verse because it exposes the hypocrisy of those who cloak their venality in pious platitudes. Here is The Latest Decalogue by Arthur Hugh Clough
Thou shalt have one God only; who/Would be at the expense of two?/No graven images may be/Worshipp’d, except the currency:/Swear not at all; for, for thy curse/Thine enemy is none the worse:/At church on Sunday to attend/Will serve to keep the world thy friend:/Honour thy parents; that is, all/From whom advancement may befall:/Thou shalt not kill; but need’st not strive/Officiously to keep alive:/Do not adultery commit;/Advantage rarely comes of it:/Thou shalt not steal; an empty feat,/When it’s so lucrative to cheat:/Bear not false witness; let the lie/Have time on its own wings to fly:/Thou shalt not covet; but tradition/Approves all forms of competition.
Some things never get old- the sentiments expressed here apply with as much force now as back in the high Victorian era in which they were written! An American near contemporary of Clough was Ambrose Bierce. Wikipedia informs me: He was the tenth of thirteen children, all of whom were given names by their father beginning with the letter “A”: in order of birth, the Bierce siblings were Abigail, Amelia, Ann, Addison, Aurelius, Augustus, Almeda, Andrew, Albert, Ambrose, Arthur, Adelia, and Aurelia.
Now, I don’t know if that shaped who he turned out to be, but he left us his version of Clough’s poem. However, he is best known for the acerbity of definitions in his masterpiece, The Devil’s Dictionary. Here are a few of them for us to ponder: Christian- noun, one who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbour. Fidelity- noun, a virtue peculiar to those who are about to be betrayed. Love- noun, a temporary insanity curable by marriage.
Bierce, like his English counterpart lived a full and adventurous life. And he lived a lot longer. He served with distinction in the Union Army during the Civil War, receiving newspaper accolades for his daring rescue under fire of a gravely wounded comrade at the battle of Rich Mountain. He sustained a traumatic brain injury at the battle of Kennesaw Mountain in 1864, but he survived and thrived, to an admirable extent. Wikipedia tells us, Bierce wrote realistically of the terrible things he had seen in the war in such stories as “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”, “A Horseman in the Sky”, “One of the Missing”, and “Chickamauga”. His grimly realistic cycle of 25 war stories has been called “the greatest anti-war document in American literature”.
In October 1913, Bierce, then age 71, departed for a tour of his old Civil War battlefields. According to some reports [ he made his way to Mexico and] joined Pancho Villa’s army as an observer…Bierce’s ultimate fate remains a mystery. He wrote in one of his final letters: Good-bye. If you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags, please know that I think it is a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico–ah, that is euthanasia! A remarkable man, I think you’ll agree.
Now for the something old component of the postscript: since I’ve spent a bit of time in America in the Civil War era already, what about a song that captured the milieu of all sides of the conflict- Dixie. A contested song, in lots of regards, I suppose the song prefigures the popularity of Lili Marlene composed as a German love song during World War One which became popular among Allied and Axis troops in the Second World War.
Dixie was written by Daniel Decatur Emmett (October 29, 1815 – June 28, 1904) an American songwriter, entertainer, and founder of the first troupe of the blackface minstrel tradition, the Virginia Minstrels. He is most remembered as the composer of the song “Dixie”, probably written in 1859. Much to the chagrin of Emmett, who was anything but a Southern sympathiser, the song became identified as a Southern anthem and was used as a campaign song against Abraham Lincoln’s run for President and was played by General Pickett during the Confederate charge at Gettysburg.
Both Union and Confederate composers produced war versions of the song during the American Civil War. These variants standardised the spelling and made the song more militant, replacing the slave scenario with specific references to the conflict or to Northern or Southern pride. After the South surrendered to the Union, President Lincoln had the song played by the White House band in an effort to support the reunification of the United States.
Indeed, Emmett’s song was a favourite of Lincoln’s, who said after the war ended in 1865, “I have always thought that ‘Dixie’ was one of the best tunes I ever heard… I insisted yesterday that we had fairly captured it.” Its popularity is enduring and a testament to the power of music to move people and I offer it here in the spirit of Lincoln- one of the best tunes. And thanks to Wikipedia and the Songwriters Hall of Fame for most of the material on this fine song. [insert song]
Which leaves only the something borrowed bit to do. And this is borrowed from the repertoire of Jim, who as well as sea songs, sang many of the ballads in our folk group, Banter. This song concerns a bunch of young soldiers discussing their sweethearts- long a favourite in Irish pubs and clubs. Not sure of its provenance or whether it has much of a life outside Ireland and the diaspora, but when Jim sang it in the clubs here in western Sydney it had some of the older women in tears. Here’s a couple of versions- I couldn’t decide which was better so I give you both- first a swung version with full band, the second is more subdued in even eights: [insert songs]
No point in my trying to predict, at this stage, where the next postscript may go in search of attachment. Instead, here are lines on the waste of war by American poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox, born in 1850, her first poem published when she was just 13. Here are lines from Woman and War. We women teach our little sons/ how ignoble blows are, school and church/ support our precepts and inoculate/ the growing minds with thoughts of love and peace…Oh men, wise men, superior beings say,/ Is there no substitute for war?/.If you answer “No”/Then let us rear our children to be wolves. And teach them from the cradle how to kill.
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. I use the Band in a Box/RealBand 2022 combo for music composition.