Letters from Quotidia 2023 Podcast 9

Welcome to the ninth podcast of 2023 in the Letters from Quotidia series. I continue my tribute to my former student, friend, and collaborator, Mark Dougherty, who died much too young in a Belfast hospital on Christmas Day, 2020.   I present here two songs separated by the overture reprise of the Paper Suite we wrote and produced back in the mid-1980s for BBC Radio in Belfast. The first song is called Chance and focuses on the horoscope section of the newspaper. The second is called BMD which stands for the Births, Marriages, and Deaths section of a newspaper.  

Here’s how it came to be written- taken from Letters from Quotidia Episode 112- Mark and I met over the summer months in the pleasant coastal village of Cushendall and hammered out a draft- I handled the lyrics and he composed the music. All went well until, in the autumn term, I received an urgent telephone call one Friday evening: the suite was not long enough as drafted and the deadline for submission was looming. So that night, I stayed up until about 2:00 a.m. working on the lyrics and music. The next day, I drove to Belfast with my guitar and lyrics, and we worked in the Whitla Hall at Queen’s as he sat at the grand piano and composed a jazz score of the song I had written. It sufficed, and we later recorded the suite at BBC Northern Ireland for radio broadcast with the Desmond Harlan Quartet and Candy Devine as singer. Candy Devine was a fine jazz singer then and I was not surprised to learn that Mark had enlisted her to sing the song he and I were working on when he died.

Here’s a poem by performance artist and poet, Jayne Cortez, 1934-2012, called Jazz Fan Looks Back It is followed by our compositions, Chance and BMD: I crisscrossed with Monk/Wailed with Bud/Counted every star with Stitt/Sang “Don’t Blame Me” with Sarah/Wore a flower like Billie/Screamed in the range of Dinah/scatted “How High the Moon” with Ella Fitzgerald/as she blew roof off the Shrine Auditorium…//I cut my hair into a permanent tam/Made my feet rebellious metronomes/Embedded record needles in paint on paper/Talked bopology talk/Laughed in high-pitched saxophone phrases/Became keeper of every Bird riff/every Lester lick/as Hawk melodicized my ear of infatuated tongues/…Blakey drummed militant messages in/soul of my applauding teeth/…Ray hit bass notes to the last love seat in my bones/I moved in triple time with Max/Grooved high with Diz/Perdidoed with Pettiford/Flew home with Hamp/Shuffled in Dexter’s Deck/Squatty-rooed with Peterson/Dreamed a “52nd Street Theme” with Fats/…scatted “Lady Be Good” with Ella Fitzgerald/as she blew roof off the Shrine Aud. Here is the third instalment of the Paper Suite: [insert songs] 

I earlier referred to the pleasant coastal village of Cushendall: I have mentioned in previous posts the close links between Scotland and my birthplace in the Glens of Antrim, Northern Ireland. In the 14th Century a Scottish clan, the MacDonnells settled in County Antrim and became the dominant family there but not without opposition from prominent families there including the O’Neills and O’Donnells. Long a threat to British interests, James I began the plantation of Ulster in the early 17th Century by settling colonists from southern Scotland and northern England and this process was fully accomplished later in the century by Oliver Cromwell’s harsh military campaigns which put paid to these local squabbles in his harsh subjugation of the whole of Ireland and ruthless confiscations of Catholic land.  

But that was then, in the “now” of my teenage years I looked forward to the invasion of Scottish visitors to the Glens in the mid-1960s. They brought energy and excitement to relieve the torpor of autumn and winter in the sleepy village of Cushendall. But the seeds of conflict, planted centuries before, erupted again in the late 1960s and our visiting Scottish friends did not return, alas.  

I, too, departed for more peaceful vistas and in Australia in 1973 I was involved in establishing the folk group, Seannachie, in Wollongong, New South Wales. One of the songs we performed arose from a fragment Scottish poet, Robert Burns, wrote in 1796. This fragment has morphed into a number of versions over the years, but it concerns a certain Lord Ronald MacDonald- who has nothing at all to do with the mega burger franchise! This laird is in search of a wife and comes to Edinburgh for the quest. According to one telling of the story, he had to obtain permission from his mother-who consented only if he went dressed as a pauper. The verse lyrics of this version are rather sparse, and the chorus gets more than its fair share of the song- which is why there are other versions which redress the imbalance. But, for what it’s worth, here is the version of Leezie Lindsay I learned fifty years ago in Australia: [insert song]

In 2021, The Guardian in Britain reported on an  attempt to get AI write a poem: Now an artificial intelligence trained by experts on more than half a million lines of poetry has had a stab, coming up with the almost-comprehensible image of a “box of light that had been a tree”. The algorithm…was fed lines from more than 100 British contemporary poets as inspiration. Here is that attempt- and soon I am staring out again,/begin to practise my words, expecting my word/will come. it will not. the wind is calling./my friend is near, I hear his breath. his breath/is not the air. he touches me again with his hands/and tells me I am growing old, he says, far old./we travel across an empty field in my heart./there is nothing in the dark, I think, but he./I close my eyes and try to remember what I was./he says it was an important and interesting day,/ because I put in his hands one night/the box of light that had been a tree. Huh?

In the time since this attempt, I would be surprised if more convincing examples have not emerged. I’m sure they will, and so what? For years now computer programs have been able to thrash even world champions at chess- does this mean people no longer play chess for pleasure? As, inevitably, AI proves superior across all fields of human endeavour, does that mean that there will be no more poets, novelists, painters, and musicians? I don’t think so. For decades I have been slaving away in the groves of poetry and music in the full knowledge that I can’t compare to my betters: those made merely of flesh, bone, and blood.

And had I access to an AI accomplice of artistic expertise; would I cheat and pass off its effusions as my own? No, I wouldn’t! I mean, what would be the point? And that there are those out there who will eagerly participate in such subterfuge, I can contemplate with equanimity. After all, the world has always had its wheat and its tares. If you remember the parable, an enemy goes out under cover of darkness and sows tares among the farmer’s wheat. According to the Jewish Virtual Dictionary, tares or darnel is the species Lolium temulentum which grows among grain, particularly wheat. Its grains resemble those of wheat so that it is very difficult to separate them by sifting, and as a result they are sown together with the wheat and grow with it in the field. Darnel flour is poisonous and gives a bitter taste to bread in which it has been mixed.

The New King James Version takes up the tale The servants said, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’ But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them but gather the wheat into my barn. In this consoling, if severe, Biblical telling, we are assured that true worth, if you like, will be discerned in the end. But should an AI superintelligence develop godlike powers would any human be gathered into the hospitable barn? That is the question. May I present, Along the Shore, a song inspired, I admit, by a parable or two. [insert song] I’ll keep walking along the shores of Quotidia and invite you to keep walking along the consoling shores, whichever form they take and wherever you abide until we meet again a mere two weeks from now- DV.

Chance (music Mark Dougherty words Quentin Bega)

Today is not a day for taking chances

The spell you weave in your glances

Might be broken and romance is

Stale and crumpled as the news

Blowing down the empty street

In yesterday’s papers

It’s written in the stars shining up above

Message from afar warning you of love

The crazy wheel goes spinning round

The cards are stacked against you now

You find the dice are loaded

When you’re down and out

Today is not a day for new advances

Prepare yourself for dull expanses

Waiting don’t you rush the fences of love

Though you might feel he fits you like a hand in a glove

It’s written in the stars shining up above

Message from afar warning you of love

The crazy wheel goes spinning round

The cards are stacked against you now

You find the dice are loaded

When you’re down and out

Today is not the day, today is not the day

Today is not the day for taking chances

BMD: Births Marriages Deaths

(Words and Music Quentin Bega arr. Mark Dougherty)

When first I saw the light of day

 I featured on a page of the local paper

My parents proudly told the town

A daughter born they said to the local paper

For eighteen years I had to wait

Before I was again in the local paper

I married such a handsome man

We posted up the banns in the local paper

But large events outside the town

Required our young men said the local paper

My husband marched to death and fame

Which lasted for a day in the local paper

For fifty years I’ve lived along

No mention of my name in the local paper

But with the legend rest in peace

I’ll feature once again in the local paper

Yes, with the legend rest in peace

I’ll feature one last time in the local paper

Leezie Lindsay (Traditional, verse fragment by Robert Burns)

Will ye gang to the Highlands, Leezy Lindsay,
Will ye gang to the Highlands with me?
Will ye gang to the Highlands, Leezy Lindsay,
Me bride and me darling to be?

If I gang to the Highlands with you, Sir?
I don’t think that ever could be
For I know not the land that you live in
Nor knowing the name you go with.

Will ye gang to the Highlands, Leezy Lindsay,
Will ye gang to the Highlands with me?
Will ye gang to the Highlands, Leezy Lindsay,
Me bride and me darling to be?

Oh, lass, I think you know little,
If you say that you don’t know me
For me name is Lord Ronald MacDonald
A chieftain of highest degree.

Will ye gang to the Highlands, Leezy Lindsay,
Will ye gang to the Highlands with me?
Will ye gang to the Highlands, Leezy Lindsay,
Me bride and me darling to be?

So she’s kilted her skirts of green satin
And she’s killted  them up round her knee
And she’s gone with Lord Ronald MacDonald
hHs bride and his Darling to be.

Will ye gang to the Highlands, Leezy Lindsay,
Will ye gang to the Highlands with me?
Will ye gang to the Highlands, Leezy Lindsay,
my bride and my darling to be?

Along the Shore (words and music by Quentin Bega)

Where are all the people who were with me

When I started on this trek so many years ago

Some are scattered where the four winds blow

Some are held in death’s fierce grip: when will they be free?

So I go along the shore that darkens over time

I haven’t found an answer to these questions in my head

You’re looking in the wrong place you should try instead

Searching in your heart where lies the answer sublime

Watch the child who throws the starfish to the waves

One in a hundred is all that the child saves

Why persist, I turn and say, in such a futile task

If you were this starfish, I wonder would you ask

Oh, you have been at my side on this trek with me

In the cold and in the heat, through rain and sleet and snow

Ever faithful when I wanted to give up you know

When to help me walk and when to carry me

Watch again the child who throws the starfish to the waves

One in a hundred is all that the child saves

You would not say that this is such a futile task

If you were that starfish, so why do you ask

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 2023 combo for music composition.


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