Letters From Quotidia Postscripts Episode 8

PS Ep. 8 Standing on the Moon, The Shoals of Herring, I’m a Man You don’t Meet Every Day, Joe Hill, The Parting Glass

Welcome to Letters from Quotidia Postscripts Episode 8 – a podcast by Quentin Bega for listeners who enjoyed that Irish phenomenon- the crack! In the Letters, Postcards and Postscripts from Quotidia published since the beginning of 2021. Quotidia remains that space, that place, where ordinary people lead ordinary lives. But where, from time to time, they encounter the extraordinary.

Sometimes the future reaches back and re-arranges the present. Such is the case now where the usual template of these postscripts is broken. Instead of three songs- one old, one new and one borrowed- there will be five of them linked to a theme of sorts. Next week- well, I’ll not pre-empt that postscript other than to say it is a commemoration of a  portentous event. For this podcast, what passes for my creative prowess, took a bit of a beating. Shakespeare, of course, articulates so well what we go through as individuals.

In Hamlet we find the line, When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions. In the past year I have lost to the grim reaper both my younger sisters and now news of another death, that of my nephew, dropped in my inbox. In Hamlet, we find the eponymous prince frozen by the loss of his father and hasty remarriage of his mother to his uncle. And, in like manner, this latest grim news has frozen my ability to create anything new. If past experience is anything to go by, a thaw will come, but not just yet. Instead, I want to celebrate aspects of humanity I admire in five songs.  

In 1965, a 24-year-old  Robert Hunter was writing lyrics for a San Francisco band called The Grateful Dead. His worked mainly with Jerry Garcia over a forty-year period until Garcia’s death in 1995. His lyrics underpinned some of the Dead’s best-known songs. To prepare for the song at the start of this podcast, here is a lovely short poem about the moon by imagist poet T.E. Hulme, who was killed in action during World War One on 28th September 1917:

Above the quiet dock in mid night/Tangled in the tall mast’s corded height/Hangs the moon/What seemed so far away/Is but a child’s balloon forgotten after play.

Most men and women who have been to outer space attest to the perspective distance gives and how fragile yet magnificent our blue earth appears from afar. Standing on the Moon, then, gives a wide perspective on life that the songs following will fill out in their own, unique fashion. [insert song]

I’ll continue with an account of hard yakka as Australians term it- demanding physical work. The late, great Ewan McColl wrote this song. I was privileged to hear him sing in the Wollongong Town Hall in the mid-1970s with his wife, Peggy Seeger. He wrote lots of fine songs about workers and the alienated. In 1971 Philip Donnellan adapted the Radio Ballad ‘Singing the Fishing’ into a TV documentary called ‘Shoals of Herring’ which was televised on BBC 2 in 1972.

Donnellan wanted to show the fishermen’s struggle and how they were being exploited, he felt the original Radio Ballad lacked political edge…something Ewan MacColl would never have taken kindly to. Whilst many Scots families owned their fishing boats Donnellan saw the English fishermen as wage slaves to the big fishing industrial groups (source, folkradio.co.uk) Perhaps the greatest exponent of this song was Luke Kelly of the Dubliners. This is my version. [Insert song].

Continuing the trend of the individual as hero of his own story is the following fine ballad, 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, you see, 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. I trust his reading of the song, although I do take it a bit faster than he does. 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. Here’s my rendition of the song. [insert song]  

Joe Hill (born, October 7, 1879 –executed, November 19,  1915),  was a songwriter, and member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, familiarly called the “Wobblies”). Hill, an immigrant worker frequently facing unemployment and underemployment, became a popular songwriter and cartoonist for the union. His most famous songs include “The Preacher and the Slave” (in which he coined the phrase “pie in the sky”), You will eat, bye and bye/In that glorious land above the sky;/Work and pray, live on hay,/You’ll get pie in the sky when you die.

In 1914, John G. Morrison, a Salt Lake City area grocer and former policeman, and his son were shot and killed by two men. Hill was convicted of the murders in a controversial trial. Joe Hill was executed by firing squad on November 19, 1915 at Utah’s Sugar House Prison. Just prior to his execution, Hill wrote to Bill Haywood, an IWW leader, saying, “Goodbye Bill. I die like a true-blue rebel. Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize … 

Could you arrange to have my body hauled to the state line to be buried? I don’t want to be found dead in Utah.” His last will requested a cremation and reads: My will is easy to decide/For there is nothing to divide/My kin don’t need to fuss and moan/”Moss does not cling to rolling stone”//My body? Oh, if I could choose/I would to ashes it reduce/And let the merry breezes blow/My dust to where some flowers grow//Perhaps some fading flower then/Would come to life and bloom again./This is my Last and final Will./Good Luck to All of you/Joe Hill. I first heard the song, from a record by Joan Baez in 1970 and it’s been one of my favourites ever since. [insert song]

The Parting Glass is a traditional song, often sung at the end of a gathering of friends. It has long been sung in Ireland, enjoying considerable popularity to this day. The earliest known printed version was as a Scottish broadside in the 1770s. However, it was known at least as early as 1605 as a poem- Armstrong’s Goodnight, by one of the Border Reivers  executed that year for the murder in 1600 of Sir John Carmichael, Warden of the Scottish West March.

In 1757 Oliver Goldsmith wrote in a letter : “If I go for the opera where Signora Columba [Mattei] pours out all mazes of melody, I sit and sigh for Johnny Armstrong’s Last Good Night. In 1759 in his essay Happiness in a Great Measure Dependent on Constitution he remarked that the “music of Mattei is dissonance to what I felt when our old dairy-maid sung me into tears with Johnny Armstrong’s Last Good Night

The overlay of mortal sadness, of one facing execution, has seeped into the melody. and I am reminded of that amazing poem by the 24-year-old Chidiock Tichbourne who was executed by being hung, drawn and quartered for his role in the Catholic Babington plot to assassinate Elizabeth I in 1586. He sent this moving examination of life and death to his wife on the night before his execution:  

My prime of youth is but a froste of cares,/My feaste of joy, is but a dishe of payne,/My cropp of corne, is but a field of tares:/And all my good is but vaine hope of gaine:/The daye is gone, and yet I sawe no sonn:/And nowe I live, and nowe my life is donn.//The springe is past, and yet it hath not sprong/The frute is deade, and yet the leaves are greene/My youth is gone, and yet I am but Yonge/I sawe the woorld, and yet I was not seene/My threed is cutt, and yet it was not sponn/And nowe I lyve, and nowe my life is donn.//I saught my death, and founde it in my wombe/I lookte for life, and sawe it was a shade./I trode the earth and knewe it was my Tombe/And nowe I die, and nowe I am but made/The glasse is full, and nowe the glass is run/And nowe I live, and nowe my life is donn. [insert song]

As I contemplate my own mortality and start to think about what music I would wish to usher me out of this world, The Parting Glass remains a contender for inclusion in that stygian playlist. Next week I will present another special five-song postscript from Quotidia, before, God willing, I revert to the more usual three-song template.

Credits: All written text, song lyrics and music (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.

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