Welcome to Letters from Quotidia Postscripts Episode 12– 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.
Ah! It’s a great number. The last year before you transmogrify into a zitty, hormonal nightmare- also known to parents worldwide as their sons and/or daughters becoming teenagers; it’s the number of jurors, months in a year, daylight hours, apostles, principal gods in the pantheon, labours of Heracles, and number of cream buns I pray my darling wife will bring home from the patisserie- to name just a few attributes of this sublime number. Additionally, the number of songs I will present in this post is the superfactorial of this number.
May I also give a shout out to one of my favourite Shakespearian comedies, Twelfth Night, the title of which derives from the feast celebrated on the last of the twelve days of Christmas: the eve of the Epiphany on 6 January. In the winter chill of pre-industrial Europe, many traditions connected with the return of fertility to the earth were carried out at or around this time. One that caught my fancy is the practice once common in the southwest counties of England of wassailing an ancient Yuletide drinking ritual and salutation either involving door-to-door charity-giving or used to ensure a good cider apple harvest the following year.
There is a legend associated with this called the Apple Tree Man. This is the name given to the spirit of the oldest tree in the orchard. In one story a man offers his last mug of mulled cider to the trees in his orchard. He is rewarded by the Apple Tree Man who reveals to him the location of buried gold, more than enough to pay his rent for the coming year. Singing is always part of these rituals: the final verse of one of the songs goes: Old Apple tree, old apple tree;/We’ve come to wassail thee;/To bear and to bow apples enow;/Hats full, caps full, three bushel bags full;/Barn floors full and a little heap under the stairs// And singing is on the agenda right now and it is the something old of the trio of songs in this post. It’s from the southwest of England and this song I first learned back in the 1990s: Drink Up the Cider. [insert song]
The wonderful site, Mainly Norfolk tells us: Step It Out Mary is based on a children’s skipping-song written by Irish songwriter Sean McCarthy around 1955. He writes, “The rules of the skipping game were fairly simple. Each skipper took it in turn to use the skipping rope, while the others chanted the ditty given below. When it came to the last line, the skipper stopped with the left leg cocked as high as he or she could manage and stayed still until the next skipper took his or her place. If the skipper failed to keep their left leg cocked or it if touched the ground, then with many jeers and catcalls they were banished from the game.
I started my search that night but could find no man or woman who had ever heard extra verses to the children’s skipping song which goes: Step it out Mary, my fine daughter/Step it out Mary, if you can/Step it out Mary, my fine daughter/Cock your legs for the country man.// Indeed, my own Kerry, home of strange songs and poems, failed to supply any more than the four lines. In desperation then, in a London building site, when again times were hard on folksingers, I composed the story of the soldier and Mary, and added it to the Kanturk children’s skipping ditty.
I did it while I was hiding from the foreman under a concrete stairway, and I used the inside of a cement bag for note paper. I took it home to my modest flat, stuck it in a drawer and forgot about it. Eighteen months later, when fortune was again smiling in my direction, I found myself, along with two others, running a folk singing club in the Clapham area of London. The folk club was called The Crubeen, and I suppose if you are a folk buff, you will remember that it started a lot of the present-day trend. If you were a folk singer, then The Crubeen was the place to sing. Most of your present-day singers, Irish, English, and American, dropped in there to try out their material.
A young Dublin ex-army rifleman named Danny Doyle wandered in there one night, I sung Step It Out Mary and later gave him the words, no longer written on the cement bag, but neatly typed on shop paper.The rest is folk history.” Indeed, it is. Danny Doyle made this a hit in 1967 and the song, like all good folksongs, has spawned variants in England and America, some of these you will find on the website, Mainly Norfolk. I’ve long known of and admired the song- but find I’m only getting around to recording it, now, for this post. Here is Step It Up, Mary. [insert song]
The opposition of mirth and melancholy, merrymaking and misery get a thorough workout in that Shakespeare play I referenced earlier, Twelfth Night. If you have yet to experience this comic masterpiece, I do recommend it. In Act Two, scene 3, Sir Toby Belch is living it up with a gormless knight he is trying to swindle while being entertained by the court clown, Feste. They prevail upon Feste to sing them a song. However, hardly has the roistering begun than the court steward, Malvolio, interrupts with a wrathful admonition for them to desist immediately. And this generates the sub-plot where they plan their revenge on the puritanical Malvolio. I have used the lyrics of Feste’s song as bookends to Malvolio’s vituperative spray which I have set to music in a somewhat jarring middle section: [insert song]
Let’s finish off this postscript with some more of the transcendent language of Twelfth Night. Here, Orsino the Duke, speaks with Viola, who is disguised as a man and who secretly loves the Duke, about love between men and women. As usual in Shakespeare, dramatic irony abounds: ORSINO: Make no compare/Between that love a woman can bear me/And that I owe Olivia./VIOLA Ay, but I know—/ORSINO What dost thou know?/VIOLA Too well what love women to men may owe./In faith, they are as true of heart as we./My father had a daughter loved a man/As it might be, perhaps, were I a woman,/I should your Lordship./ORSINO And what’s her history?/VIOLA blank, my lord. She never told her love,/But let concealment, like a worm i’ th’ bud,/ Feed on her damask cheek. She pined in thought,/And with a green and yellow melancholy/She sat like Patience on a monument,/Smiling at grief. Was not this love indeed?/We men may say more, swear more, but indeed/Our shows are more than will; for still we prove/Much in our vows but little in our love./ ORSINO But died thy sister of her love, my boy?/VIOLA I am all the daughters of my father’s house,/And all the brothers, too—and yet I know not.//
Want more? I’ll continue with the opening lines of this much-loved play. Many who can quote the opening line, don’t know where it comes from: If music be the food of love, play on./Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,/The appetite may sicken and so die./That strain again! It had a dying fall./O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound/That breathes upon a bank of violets,/Stealing and giving odor/Another line, widely known but rarely the source or context is Some are born great; some achieve greatness; and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em.
I crave your indulgence, if you are among those who hate Shakespeare- and you are not Robinson Crusoe there, either! With legions of unwilling students forced to ingest the Bard, you may count Tolstoy, Voltaire, and George Bernard Shaw as fellow loathers of the Swan of Avon. I’ll freely confess that I’m closer to those who are termed Bardolitrists- defined as those who display an exceedingly excessive admiration for this particular poet and playwright. My next Postscript, the 13th in the series, will deal, in some measure, with the term triskaidekaphobia. I’ll end by agreeing with the final lines of Twelfth Night, sung by Feste, one of Shakespeare’s memorable fools or clowns: A great while ago the world begun,/With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,/But that’s all one, our play is done,/And we’ll strive to please you every day.
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.