Welcome to Letters from Quotidia, the footnotes, Episode 8! Regular listeners to the posts know that the Letters just refuse to lie down and die. First, they were plain old letters, then postcards, and afterwards, postscripts. Now they have become footnotes! This is the final in the Castaway quartet.
It is a stormy evening on the enchanted island off the coast of Quotidia in the bullseye of the swirling gyre, and a man stripped to the waist and howling at his fate, is seen. He turns to shake his fist at the sea and reveals a back criss-crossed with the scars of frequent floggings. Hello, I shout as I approach- have you just arrived? He eyes me suspiciously, and in a thick Irish brogue demands to know why that is any of my business. I recognise the recalcitrance of the oft imprisoned and simply extend a welcome to him.
Lots of castaways who find themselves washed up here are a bit discombobulated, I explain, but this island is a place of refuge with sustenance and shelter. He smiled and introduced himself as Frank and as he talks about himself, the penny drops: You’re not Frank the Poet, by any chance, I venture. I read your Convicts Tour to Hell with interest but admit to preferring your song about the convicts at Moreton Bay. He looked at me strangely and said that his name for the song was The Convict’s Lament on the Death of Captain Logan.
I knew that from my research into the matter that Logan was a relentless flogger, the records showing that from February to October in 1828 Logan ordered 200 floggings with over 11,000 lashes.When Logan’s body was brought back to Moreton Bay, after being speared to death by Aboriginal warriors in 1830, the convicts manifested insane joy at the news of his murder, and sang and hoorayed all night, in defiance of the warders. You’ll be glad to know that your song is known far and wide- it’s even a part of school students’ curriculum in Australia. In Ireland, P. J. McCall, a songwriter like yourself, borrowed the tune of it for his well-known song Boolavogue which was composed in 1898, to mark the centenary of the 1798 Rebellion. A man after me own heart, said Frank.
But Frank was cagey about his life and wouldn’t be pinned down as to where he was from or what religion he was or how many times he’d been flogged or in which convict stations he’d been penned. By the look of his back, the reported tally of 610 lashes between 1832 and 1840 seemed “reasonable?”- not really the word for it. But before I could quiz him further, he drew himself up to his full height and declaimed, My name is Frank McNamara/ A native of Cashell Co Tipperary/ Sworn to be a tyrant’s foe/ And while I’ve life I’ll crow!//He turned and walked away from me- clearly not wishing further converse, and, as the storm abated, I heard floating on the air… [insert song]
As the notes of the song faded, I heard another note rising dully over the wind blowing in from the sea and recognised it as the faltering engines of a propellor-driven airplane which flew yawing from side to side in over the reef, rising at the last minute to clear the palms lining the shore and then- well, every cliché in the genre, really, silence, then a loud crash and a rising column of smoke.
And even though I hate cliches, I became one myself in the scenario as I rushed in through the trees to see…to see- in a clearing, three men exiting the split fuselage of a dual engine 1940s vintage aircraft, a DC-3, dusting themselves off, dragging instrument cases behind them. They seemed puzzled, even though they seemed to know one another. I approached and introduced myself: I seem to be something like the concierge of this enchanted island.
After ascertaining that there was no one else on board, I assured the men standing there looking at on another in amazement, that the island was more than a bit strange, and people just turned up in a variety of weird circumstances for reasons I could not fathom, but that they would be OK- no problems about food or shelter. I led them to a grove where I had a fire going and invited them to sit down and relax. Can I look at your guitar? I asked one guy with a case. He opened the case and I saw a Martin acoustic with a sticker on it proclaiming, This Machine Kills Fascists.
Honoured to meet you Mr Guthrie, I thought I recognised you? I turned to the lanky guy next to him and told Pete Seeger that he had long been a hero of mine. The other member of the trio, I did not recognise. Peter Seeger introduced him as Martin Hoffman and informed me that he was a California schoolteacher and he had written the melody in 1958 that made the song famous. I didn’t know that, thank you so much for giving the world such a great piece of music. Well, I was a fan, and I gushed as fans tend to do. I told them about the time when I first performed this song in public:
it was 1969 and a group of long-haired students from the college I was attending carted their guitars from Andersonstown in Belfast to the beach at Bangor, County Down. We had been asked to provide the “entertainment” for the occasion. This song, Deportees, was my contribution. I knew the chords and remembered almost all of the lyrics- which I made up for by repeating the chorus more times than strictly necessary. Shall we sing it? Pete Seeger suggested. There’s still the need to use music to strike a blow for justice in the world- even though we are out of it! They laughed and lifted their instruments and on this enchanted island where sounds and sweet melodies abound, we raised out voices in harmony as we sang this great song. [insert song]
To be singing in such company made me feel so elated. But I hadn’t time to dwell on the feeling, for a man rushed up from the tree line and demanded: Am I, by any chance, in Utah? I assured him, no, and he replied, that’s good, for I wouldn’t want to be found dead in it! Then he lifted his head and sang, You will eat, by and by/In that glorious land above the sky;/Work and pray, live on hay,/You’ll get pie in the sky when you die. (that’s a lie!)Pete Seeger added as he laughed and slapped his thigh, Well, what do you know, if this isn’t Joe Hill! He got up and embraced the newcomer and led him to our little circle around the campfire saying, I’ve sung that song for years- a big favourite for audiences all over.
We all looked in awe at this union martyr, executed by firing squad on November 19, 1915, at Utah’s Sugar House Prison for the murder of John G. Morrison, a Salt Lake City area grocer. When the Deputy, who led the firing squad, called out the sequence of commands preparatory to firing (“Ready, aim,”) Hill shouted, Fire — go on and fire! Some speculate that he had come to see himself as worth more to the labour movement as a dead martyr than he was alive. This understanding may have influenced his decisions not to testify at the trial and subsequently to spurn all chances of a pardon. Joe then pulled a paper out of his dungarees pocket and read, 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.
Pete Seeger, eyes gleaming, then recounted how the song commemorating Joe Hill’s life came to be written. Alfred Hayes wrote a poem back in 1930 which Earl Robinson, camp staffer at Camp Unity in New York State turned into the song Joe Hill in 1936. Paul Robeson and I began singing it and progressive folksingers around the world took it up. I piped up, I’ve been in groups since the 1970s who have sung the song, too. The titans of song just smiled, looking at me indulgently. What might have been an uncomfortable hiatus was broken by Frank the Poet who now swaggered into the fire-lit circle and demanded to know when the singsong was going to start. [insert song]
The singsong continued long into the night as songs were swapped, and bragging rights asserted as a variety of potable liquors also circulated. And so, we leave the Castaways to their songs.
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.