(I Wasn’t With The Diggers) Marching Home From That War

John Joseph Mitchell
Aeschylus
Claus von Clausewitz

Much is made of statements such as, the first casualty of war is the truth which some claim dates back to the ancient Athenian playwright Aeschylus – a proud veteran of Marathon and Salamis –in the fifth century BC, or the metaphor the fog of war which some have attributed to the 19th Century Prussian general and military theorist, Carl von Clausewitz. So, when I began to write a song about my great-uncle, John Joseph Mitchell, who was killed in action at Passchendaele on the 18th of September, 1917, I came to realise the sad truth of these aphorisms. 

Courtyard of the Australian War Memorial, Canberra

There is a wealth of information to be gleaned on websites, such as those connected to the Australian War Memorial, and, also, from family members, which is helpful in trying to piece together what transpired more than 100 years ago. But so much was still tantalisingly out of my grasp. I was confronted with a sprawling puzzle, the pieces from which I could not form a coherent picture, no matter how I tried.

I was on the verge of giving up on the idea of writing a song to commemorate the sacrifice made by J. J. Mitchell, when a thought… (I think that’s what it was)… flashed into my mind: Remember way back when you attended Eng Lit lectures in Belfast 50 years ago, and the sad old bloke at the front of the room burbled on about the concept of the unreliable narrator? You know, that time before you walked out, intent on sinking a few pints of Harp at The Hunting Lodge in Andersonstown before dinner? Yeah, so what? Well, sunshine, why not apply this to your predicament now? Better late than never, right?

And so it clicked! Of course, we live now in the era of fake news and post-truth. Who cares any more about what is real? Ah, sorry, I do. 

Polygon Wood
Captured German Blockhouse

But still, still, something lodged in my brain. Why not have John Joseph Mitchell, my great uncle (or JJ as I shall refer to him henceforth) narrate a portion of his life, after a brief mention of his birth in Belfast, from his meeting with his wife, Hannah in 1903 to his death next to a captured German blockhouse near Hell Fire Corner and Polygon Wood in Belgium in 1917?

And this was the key that provided me with the audacity to write a song about his life and death. JJ was one of more than 62,000 Australian men killed in that awful conflict- and those numbers from population of less than five million people! Is it any wonder that there are memorials in just about every Aussie city, suburb, town, and hamlet to mark the sacrifice?

https://i0.wp.com/penrithhistory.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/000610.jpg?ssl=1
St Marys War Memorial, New South Wales, Australia: over one hundred men enlisted from this small settlement in 1914. Twenty-two of those who enlisted did not return.

I usually don’t include lyrics; but here, because of the need (IMHO) for explanatory footnotes, I set them out- with thanks to my nephew in Glenariffe, Joe Mitchell, who, apart from supplying me with a wealth of information about JJ, ran a professional sub-editor’s eye over my drafts and steered me away from errors of one kind or another (that is, both egregious and just plain dumb). Any remaining lacunae, anachronisms, or solecisms, of course, are not down to Joe Mitchell- but me, your honour!

View looking down Glenariffe glen over Red Bay towards Scotland in the distance
Rising Sun insignia

(I Wasn’t With The Diggers) Marching Home From That War (dedicated to the memory of Pte J.J. Mitchell, K.I.A. 18th September 1917)

HMAS Ayrshire transported JJ from Port Melbourne to Plymouth

They gave me a number: 5-1-4-1; on my slouch hat pinned the Rising Sun1 From Port Melbourne to Plymouth Sound with the 22nd we were Europe bound2 Belfast born but I didn’t stay long; these itchy feet keep moving me along In Liverpool I met fiery Hannah, fell for her although she had a child

Skibbereen by James Mahony, 1847.JPG
Irish famine scene

Hitched up after I agreed to take the soup3,  we set up shop in Melbourne town She’s a nurse, I’m an engine-fitter, there is nothing here will ever get me down! But four kids on, completely worn through, life has given this for free

Codford 1 - C01288.JPG
Rollestone Camp in Wiltshire, England
Black and white photo of six men wearing military uniform seated on a muddy slope in France, December 1916. Unidentified members of the Australian 5th Division, enjoying a "smoko" near Mametz, on the Somme. Some are wearing slouch hats, steel helmets, sheepskin jackets and woollen gloves, demonstrating both the variety of official battledress, and how it was modified and augmented, for local conditions.
A.I.F. infantry World War I

22 Church Street feels like a coffin, A. I. F.4 enlistment now for me

Billeted in Rollestone5 Camp in Wiltshire, bleak and under canvas – what care I? Went walkabout against the regs6 as Aussies often do- six days docked I paid, all told

NAA: B2455, MITCHELL JOHN JOSEPH
JJ’s charge sheet detailing 2 days AWL

Bed-ridden for two weeks with rheumatism, isn’t it a bugger getting old? Off to France tomorrow, will I return upon another tide?

Statue of an Australian Digger at Bullecourt
Passchendaele scene

I don’t take it well when told what I should do – a problem I’ve had all my life It’s why I call myself a Digger7 now: instead of bullshit, we would rather fight A good bloke would write on my conduct sheet: ‘This man served at Bullecourt’8 That’s a boast it’s true but what came next was the hell you know as Passchendaele9

Scapulars worn around the neck

It ended thus: a midnight blitz on a German blockhouse- then the fatal shell Hannah got her Dead Man’s Penny10 and the scapulars11 that hung around my neck Now with my pals Twist, Kunin, Kelly, Carey, Bragg, Baker, Kennedy, Northcott and Ray12 Side by side in Hooge Crater Cemetery13 as we await the judgement day

Dead Man’s Penny
JJs gravestone at Hooge Crater Cemetery, Belgium
The Bay Chapel now
The Bay Chapel- JJs boyhood

Old Father White said a Requiem for me one hundred years after I was killed14 The chapel in Glenariffe overlooks the beach15 where I paddled when I was a boy Place a poppy by my name16 on the bronze tablets they set up in Canberra for all Those, for any reason, who served, who fought, who sacrificed and fell

Drawing of Westhoek Ridge where JJ was killed

And I’m still marching through your mind as you try to work out just who I am There’s nothing I can share that will help you write this song But one thing I can tell you that is true: I wasn’t with the Diggers Marching home from that war…

Hooge Crater Cemetery
  1. The Rising Sun badge, also known as the General Service Badge or the Australian Army Badge, is the official insignia of the Australian Army and is mostly worn on the brim of a slouch hat. Here is the badge JJ would have worn, in use from 1904 to 1949.
  2. we were Europe bound The HMAS Ayrshire transported JJ along with thousands of Australian soldiers from Port Melbourne to the war zones of Europe and the Middle East. The men of the 22nd Battalion of the A.I.F. were involved in major conflicts from Gallipoli to the Western Front.
  3. To take the soup sounds rather quaint- but harmless. However, in the Irish Catholic oral tradition it has a sinister meaning. Souperism was a phenomenon of the Irish Famine. Protestant Bible societies set up schools in which starving children were fed, on the condition of receiving Protestant religious instruction at the same time. Its practitioners were reviled by the Catholic families who had to choose between Protestantism and starvation. By extension, even into the 20th Century, Catholics who converted to Protestantism, for any reason, were said to have taken the soup.
  4. The Australian Imperial Force (A.I.F.) By the end of the war the A.I.F. had gained a reputation as being a well-trained and highly effective military force, playing a significant role in the final Allied victory. However, this reputation came at a heavy cost with a casualty rate among the highest of any belligerent for the war.
  5. Rollestone Camp: Situated in an upland area of Wiltshire, it was described by one soldier stationed there as a bit bleak, especially for Australians used to a warmer climate. The water froze around Christmas time, and one night the troops’ corrugated iron cinema was blown away.
  6. walkabout against the regs The Australian soldiers were not much inclined to obey what they would have seen as onerous and restrictive regulations. JJ, like many others, had his pay docked. In his case it was for being AWL for two days. The term walkabout is properly associated with the initiation ceremonies of Australian first nations’ young boys who prove their capacity for the transition to manhood by foraging in the Australian bush. As the estimable Wikipedia puts it Walkabout is a rite of passage in Australian Aboriginal society, during which males undergo a journey during adolescence, typically ages 10 to 16, and live in the wilderness for a period as long as six months to make the spiritual and traditional transition into manhood. I would hope I am not disrespecting our aboriginal traditions and lore by using this term to characterise the ways in which our Diggers struck out, in the ghastly reality that was the battlegrounds of the First World War, to assert their Australian manhood and identity. I know that there is a long and honourable tradition of Aboriginal service in conflicts in which Australia has been involved, yet to be fully acknowledged.
  7. Digger as a usage has been traced back to early 19th Century but its current usage in a military context did not become prominent until World War I, when Australian and New Zealand troops began using it on the Western Front around 1916–17. Evolving out of its usage during the war, the term has been linked to the concept of the Anzac legend, but within a wider social context, it is linked to the concept of egalitarian mateship. I imagine that JJ would have latched on to the term Digger as a matter of pride!
  8. Bullecourt more than any other battle, shook the confidence of Australian soldiers in the capacity of the British command; the errors, especially on April 10th and 11th, were obvious to almost everyone. Charles Bean, Official Historian.
  9. Passchendaele. The battle took place on the Western Front, from July to November 1917, for control of the ridges south and east of the Belgian city of Ypres in West Flanders. In his Memoirs of 1938, Lloyd George wrote, Passchendaele was indeed one of the greatest disasters of the war … No soldier of any intelligence now defends this senseless campaign. 
  10. Dead Man’s Penny. This was a round bronze Memorial Plaque, 120 mm in diameter. It shows Britannia and a lion on the front and bears the inscription: He died for freedom and honour. The full name of the dead soldier is engraved on the right hand side of the plaque. No rank, unit or decorations are shown, befitting the equality of the sacrifice made by all casualties. The shape and appearance of the plaque earned it nicknames such as the Dead Man’s Penny, the Death Penny, and the Widow’s Penny.
  11. Scapulars. A small necklace of sorts constructed from two wool patches of cloth. The most common scapular in Ireland in JJ’s time was the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel upon which the words, Whosoever dies wearing this scapular shall not suffer eternal fire are stitched. I can remember wearing one like it when I was a boy, and, I think, it was the brown scapular…
  12. Twist, Kunin, Kelly, Carey, Bragg, Baker, Kennedy, Northcott and Ray. These are some of the men killed in the H.E. blast that took JJ’s life. They are included in the lyric line as a litany to stand for the multitudes who perished in the conflict. May they rest in peace.
  13. Hooge Crater Cemetery was begun by the 7th Division Burial Officer early in October 1917. [ shortly after JJ was killed] It contained originally 76 graves, in Rows A to D of Plot I, but was greatly increased after the Armistice. There are now 5,916 Commonwealth servicemen of the First World War buried or commemorated in this cemetery. 3,563 of the burials are unidentified, but special memorials record the names of a number of casualties either known or believed to be buried among them, or whose graves in other cemeteries were destroyed by shell fire.
  14. one hundred years after I was killed My nephew, Joe Mitchell, arranged with the parish priest of Glenariffe, Father White, to have a Requiem Mass said on the centenary of JJ’s death. This was streamed online and I was honoured and deeply moved to be able to watch this event in real time from my home in Sydney, Australia.
  15. The chapel in Glenariffe overlooks the beach The chapel JJ would have known as a boy was burned down in 1915. Red Bay beach which stretches from the chapel site to the river at Waterfoot a mile or so away has been popular with holiday crowds for a long, long time.
  16. Place a poppy by my name A quarter of a century ago, when Joe Mitchell wrote to me about JJ, I made a point of travelling to the War Memorial in Canberra where I placed a poppy next to his name, which I found on the rows of bronze tablets where, listed in alphabetical order, are the names of the fallen. On every visit since, I have placed a poppy next to his name, and, COVID restrictions allowing, our family will soon re-visit the site and continue the tradition of honouring his memory.

I wasn’t with the diggers marching home from that war. Some might think this is an incredibly stupid and self-evident statement as an ending for the song.

But I think (to set aside, for one moment, the traditional and eschatological Christian view) that any fallen warrior would regret the descent into Hades rather than returning to the sunlit meadows of our own fair Earth.

JJ’s anguished final cry in the song, is the one I would feel in his position, as I sank Lethe-wards and, reluctantly, crossed the Styx.

As I look at the grainy photograph of that handsome, mustachioed, face of my relative from over a century ago (of a man who is much younger than I am now) I hope that JJ will forgive me for any inadvertent misrepresentation that is embedded in the lyrics and accept that all I was trying to do was to honour his memory.

I felt a similar twinge about a quarter of a century ago when I wrote a song about my paternal grandmother, Rose, which can be accessed at https://quentinbega.com/2016/08/13/sq-41-rose/. My nephew, Joe Mitchell, was instrumental in my writing this song, too! Rose was another casualty of that war- not that she was a combatant. She was interned in Germany and returned to Ireland where she perished in an asylum, her mind broken by the trauma of imprisonment and separation from her husband- another Mitchell, who was captain of a ship en route to Hamburg as the clouds of war gathered.

[The author’s grandmother, Rose Henry Mitchell, was an officially unacknowledged casualty of WWI (at least her name is not inscribed on a monument) for reasons set out above but she is still remembered by her kin. Rose has a simple marker in the Bay cemetery, Glenariffe, and flowers are still being placed on her grave. Rose, married to John Joseph’s brother James, died of pulmonary phthisis in Antrim Area Asylum on November 19, 1915 nearly two years before JJ’s death in action . The site of the old Mitchell farm in the townland of Foriffe in Glenariffe – which would have been known well by both JJ and Rose – is still in the family.] additional notes by Joe Mitchell

Take This Frame Away

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

In my first journal entry for the sequence The Summa Quotidian way back in 2015, I mentioned the fact that it had been fifty years since I had written my first song. For this concluding entry to the sequence, A Bit of Banter, I wish to record the fact that the song included here took me fifty years to complete!

I wrote the first part as a 17-year-old, pimply, schoolboy on the inside cover of a Clancy Brothers songbook that I had been working my way through. I added to it over the years, putting a final touch to it three years ago, when I was 67. A couple of other examples from the 120 songs in The Summa Quotidian, also underwent a similarly, leisurely (some might aver, slothfully) compositional process. By comparison, the 56 songs recorded over the past two months (61 days,) in lockdown, for the sequence, A Bit of Banter, achieved warp-speed! Of course, they are all, with the exception of the song at the end of this entry, covers, and not original compositions. So, what was happening just two days before I began recording for this project? Read on-

Just before dawn on Anzac day, April 25th, I stood in my driveway and listened to the broadcast from the Australian War Memorial. I set a candle on my letterbox and, glancing up and down the street saw men and women, at the end of their driveways, paying silent tribute to the fallen. A 70-something veteran with a chest full of medals walked slowly past and we nodded a greeting. After the ceremony, I returned to my home, where we are in lockdown, and thought, this was good– nothing like it before or, perhaps, after, the usual gatherings at war memorials throughout Australia cancelled because of the threat the virus posed, particularly to the aged. The thousands of Australians, like me, who shared in this experience will remember it, I would think, for the rest of their lives- long or short. 

Some Millennial commentators have welcomed the advent of SARS-CoV-2 as an efficient Boomer Remover. Unfortunately for them, it does not so finely discriminate. While those of retirement age are more heavily afflicted, the virus does strike down many of those in other demographics as well. Careful what you wish for, eh?

Have you noticed that the crisis engendered by the pandemic has brought people of real worth to the fore? Not the vain-glorious bloviating buffoons who, hitherto, pranced across the (inter)national stage. I’m thinking about media-hungry politicians and the gross (and grossly overpaid) shock jocks.

But now, quietly spoken experts in epidemiology, nurses, doctors, check-out operators and shelf-stackers in supermarkets, paramedics, truck drivers and public transport employees-to name but a few- have engaged the respect of the public by their willingness to step forward in these strange times and do their duty, fully mindful of the potential consequences for themselves and their families. Meanwhile, the self-absorbed, those self-serving politicians and god-alone-knows how many vacuous celebrities infesting the media (social and mainstream) all continue to flout the regulations as if they don’t apply. Dante would have found a special circle of hell to accommodate them…

I’m now north of seventy years old with a handful of co-morbidities. My wife’s sister-in-law has died from coronavirus (on April 6, 2020, in Northern Ireland) and will be buried next to her mother in a small country graveyard in Rasharkin, County Antrim. She is the first person in our family circle to have been taken from us by the pandemic (May she rest in peace). Because her husband had pre-arranged their funeral-and-burial details some years previously, there have been no problems with the internment. Hitherto, some had felt that he was just too…what? Fastidious? Careful? Over-scrupulous?

What about, perspicacious! How many in the world today will follow her to a grave that will not be marked by the usual obsequies because of the overwhelming wave of deaths that will accompany the savagery of SARS-CoV-2 as it sweeps across the planet. When I viewed the mass graves in New York City on April 10, it was with horror I asked, Are we living in the 21st Century? And then I reflected: this has been happening in all too many countries, without respite, for every year of this century (and the one before) while most of us were looking away, or at fatuous reality shows on TV… 

I do not know if I will survive this event. I may hope. I certainly will pray. I intend to persevere and, Deo Volente, endure. I had intended to update the posts to The Summa Quotidian which occupied 14 months from 27 April 2015 to the following 14 June 2016. Or 414 days. But I got side-tracked on the A Bit of Banter, sequence. Consequently, instead of Take This Frame Away being the start of something, I have decided that it might, more appropriately, put a full stop to the A Bit of Banter sequence.

Take This Frame Away

The Old House

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

The Old House had always brought to my mind the ruins of Irish cottages you can find scattered throughout the island, redolent of failed lives and suffused with emigrant longing. And then I started to research (online, of course, especially but not only during the exigencies of the present pandemic). What did I find? Not what I expected! I envisioned a humble schoolmaster, perhaps, setting down these lines to an old half-remembered Irish air as he dwelt on his impoverished beginnings. The truth was diametrically opposed to my former imaginings! The writer of the song was a scion of an ancient Irish family: read on.

For many years, Baltrasna House was the ancestral home of the O’Reilly family…Baltrasna House and Estate were in the control of the O’Reilly family and later through marriage the O’Connor’s until the early 20th century … In the early 19th century the O’Reilly’s of Baltrasna House fell into financial difficulties… When the O’Reilly’s failed to keep up with the repayments they were dispossessed… However, the new owners were despised by their tenants and were terrorised by the Ribbon Men, a secret society that was active in pre-Famine times, that specialised in making life difficult for notorious landlords. The upshot of all this was that Anthony O’Reilly was reinstated at Baltrasna and continued to reside there until his death aged 62 in 1874…Anthony planted a tree for each of his seven daughters along the main avenue to the house. With the death of his only son, James, the family name at Baltrasna died with him. Anthony’s eldest daughter, Harriet Georgina (born 1841) married Matthew Richard Weld O’Connor in 1865 (source, irishidentity.com)

 Lieutenant-Colonel Sir William Frederick Travers O’Connor  (30 July 1870 – 14 December 1943) was an Irish diplomat and officer in the British and British Indian armies. He is remembered for his travels in Asia, cartography, study and publication of local cultures and language, his actions on the Younghusband expedition to Tibet, Royal Geographic Society council member,  member of the Royal Automobile Club and for his work negotiating and signing the Nepal–Britain Treaty of 1923. O’Connor was born in 1870, Longford, Ireland, son of land agent Matthew Weld O’Connor, and Harriet Georgina, daughter of Anthony O’Reilly, of Baltrasna, County Meath. (source, Wikipedia)

O’Connor noted in his book, Things Mortal, that the famous Irish tenor, John McCormack, sang The Old House at The Royal Albert Hall in London on November 27, 1938. He was an exemplar of the British Imperial administrative elite- resourceful, multi-talented, showered with medals and widely travelled. Educated at Charterhouse, he attended the Royal Military Academy and was gazetted into the Royal Artillery. After a long, distinguished military career, ending in 1925, he travelled to the Americas where, in 1931 he was reported as inviting five men, with deep pockets, to accompany him on a tiger hunt to India for $100,00 apiece! Whether this transpired or not is problematical because two days later a bankruptcy petition was filed against him. Will I sing the song, anyway? Hell yes!

I use an orchestral ¾ time Band-in-a-Box setting and, as this is such a short song, I play mandolin over a penultimate instrumental verse. The song has no chorus, just three verses, so I follow some other artists in rising a semitone in the final verse. Compared to John MCormack and my favourite rendition by John McDermott- and I know I don’t compare-this version fairly lopes along at 100 bpm.

The Old House

Nancy Spain

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

In 1969, Christy Moore played a gig at a club in St Helier on the island of Jersey. The resident singer at the club was a man… called Barney Rushe, and that night he played some songs that he had written, two of which in particular caught Christy’s attention – The Crack Was Ninety and Nancy Spain…”We hooked up after the gig and we swapped songs late into the night,” Christy recalls. “When I heard him sing Nancy Spain, I was instantly smitten by this beautiful song. People are not aware that Nancy Spain was the name of a real woman, of a very different kind to the one that we might have in mind when we hear the ballad.”

“Barney explained it to me,” Christy recalls. “When he was writing this love song, he needed a name to tie it all together. Nancy Spain was a famous English journalist back in the 1960s, and Barney really liked the sound of her name. That was the name he chose for the subject of his song.”

Nancy Spain was no ordinary journalist, but one promoted as a free-roaming controversialist by the Daily Express which declared proudly, if somewhat feverishly: “They call her vulgar. . . they call her the worst dressed woman in Britain. . .”And the reason “they” found her badly dressed may have had more to do with the repressions of the 1950s than with Nancy Spain’s own sense of style. In her public appearances on TV shows such as What’s My Line? she tended to favour “natty gents sportswear” and what they called “mannish” clothes. Nancy Spain was, in fact, a lesbian. 

And it is said that she had many affairs with other women, including Marlene Dietrich. All of which was apparently accepted in good spirit by her soulmate Laurie. The two women even died together when the light aircraft in which they were travelling to the 1964 Grand National crashed into a cabbage field near Aintree racecourse. Noel Coward wrote that “it is cruel that all that gaiety, intelligence and vitality should be snuffed out, when so many bores and horrors are left living.”

Barney Rushe, who loved that name, had an interesting life too. His friend Mick Curry, himself a fine musician whose song Lawless has also been covered by Christy Moore, describes Barney as essentially a troubadour. Born in 1946, he played in bands – mainly blues bands – in the early 1960s. On a holiday in Jersey he found that he could make a living there, playing at the Royal Hotel, a period during which he had that crucial encounter with Christy Moore.

From Jersey he had moved to Ibiza, then Germany, where he ran a pub near Nuremburg… He moved to Spain, where he played in bars in Malaga…On a recent visit back to Dun Laoghaire, Barney Rush suffered an aneurysm, and died. At his funeral Christy Moore sang Nancy Spain – whoever she may be. (abridged from an article by Declan Lynch writing in The Irish Independent, October 4, 2014) 

Read the whole article for a fuller account and, of course, her Wikipedia entry, which goes into detail about a marvellously talented woman who lived life to the full. I think she would have been mightily amused to think that her name is used as the title of this love song.

Another lockdown special: we’ve never performed this in public; however, we were planning to- the singer yet to be determined. I’ll throw my hat in the ring with this: although, with acoustic-electric guitar, bodhran, mandolin and fiddle only as backing,  it won’t be very much like this version which has Nashville drums, electric bass, acoustic fingerpicked guitar, acoustic strummed guitar, electric guitar and organ/harmonica filling out the choruses. The vocal is just a straight-through solo.

Nancy Spain

The Mountains of Mourne

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

Like so many high places, the Mournes have a mystical aura when you ascend one of the peaks. I did this, in the mid-1980s, with a group of students from The Ballymena Academy, in the company of Roger, a gentle but very fit R.E. teacher from the school. Before we were half-way up, I was struggling, regretting a lifetime of being unfit and rather fat. As the group ascended out of sight, I rested on a stone wall to recuperate. Then, vaulting over the wall came a trio of British soldiers who asked if I was part of their training team! Breathless, I assured them that I was not- and they loped away across the side of the mountain. I did finally get to the summit, and yes, as the cliché goes- it was worth it. At about the same time, I was involved as in a cabaret-style,  A night with Percy French, involving songs, stories, and skits at Cushendall Golf Club- a social and sometime performance venue for our local drama group.  Thirty-five years later, I hope that such activities still exist and haven’t been entirely submerged by the world of Tik Tok etc. The estimable Wikipedia now takes up the account:

William Percy French (1 May 1854 – 24 January 1920) became known as one of Ireland’s foremost songwriters and entertainers. Thanks to the late Oliver Nulty, French has become recognised for his watercolour paintings as well. William Percy French was a gifted polymath who had a number of artistic talents at his command. He could work very quickly, and his output is prodigious across many genres.

The lyrics to the song The Mountains of Mourne (originally spelt The Mountains o’ Mourne) were written by Irish musician Percy French (1854–1920), the music was composed by Houston Collisson (1865–1920)… The song is representative of French’s many works concerning the Irish diaspora. The Mourne Mountains of the title are located in County Down in Northern Ireland.

The song is a whimsical look at the styles, attitudes and fashions of late nineteenth-century London as seen from the point of view of an emigrant labourer from a village near the Mourne Mountains… It contrasts the artificial attractions of the city with the more natural beauty of his homeland. [An example of French’s satirical wit is set out below]

Are Ye Right There Michael, a song ridiculing the state of the rail system in rural County Clare caused such embarrassment to the rail company that – according to a persistent local legend – it led to a libel action against French. According to the story, French arrived late at the court, and when questioned by the judge he responded, “Your honour, I travelled by the West Clare Railway”, resulting in the case being thrown out…[source, Wikipediadonate if you can]  

French is also known as the author of a famous poem called, Abdul Abulbul Amir (1877) which  in the century and a half following its composition, has spawned quite a few risqué parodies- beloved by students with a sophomoric sense of humour and countless rugby teams. Here is a verse extracted from the original followed by an extract of one of the tamer parodies:

There are heroes in plenty, and well known to fame/In the ranks that were led by the Czar,/But the bravest of all was a man by the name/Of Ivan Potschjinski Skidar. /He could imitate Toole, play Euchre and Pool/And perform on the Spanish guitar./In fact quite the cream of the Muscovite team/Was Ivan Potschjinski Skidar. [Toole was a famous contemporary actor and entrepreneur]

The harems of Egypt are fine to behold/And the harlots are lovely and fair/But the fairest, a Greek, was wed to a sheikh/Called Abdul Abulbul Amir./A travelling brothel came into the town/
‘Twas run privately by the Tsar/Who wagered a hundred that no-one could out-shag/Count Ivan Skavinsky Skavar.

Banter started to perform this song a couple of years ago as we were expanding the group’s repertoire. As we are still in lockdown, I use the virus, shamelessly, to purloin yet another of Sam the Man’s songs. I use Band-in-a-Box’s Medium Waltz setting featuring acclaimed session musos- Byron House on acoustic bass, Jeff Taylor on acoustic piano, Jason Roller on  strummed acoustic guitar and Brent Mason on finger-picked guitar. What more do you need? The solo vocal (with a touch of chorus on the last line of each verse) relates the artfully crafted story.

The Mountains of Mourne

Little Old Wine Drinker, Me

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

I can remember visiting my brother, who was a Vet in West Cork, Ireland, where we always made sure we had an adequate supply of Sherry from the Wood. (Does anyone remember that concoction?) A group of us would play cards, chat, drink wine and listen to records into the early hours of the morning. As was exceedingly common for that era (late 60s-early 70s) the room was wreathed also, in tobacco smoke from the cigarettes, pipes and cheroots on the go. One of our favourite 45s (the single vinyl discs rather than those heavy handguns) was Dean Martin singing this song. Now for some info courtesy of my favourite site for research, Wikipedia:

Little Old Wine Drinker Me” is a song that was first released by Charlie Walker in 1966, on the album Wine, Woman & Walker. The song became a hit when it was released by Robert Mitchum in early 1967, and by Dean Martin later the same year on his album Welcome to My World. The Dean Martin version is a hit with Scottish football club Clydebank and can often be heard being chanted on the terraces with ‘Tennessee’ being replaced with ‘Kilbowie’ in homage to the club’s former ground in the town…The song’s title parodies a catchphrase used in contemporary TV advertising by the Italian Swiss Colony wine company: “The little old winemaker, me!”…  In 2015 the descendant of the company, now operating under the name Asti Winery and selling wine under the Souverain brand, and owning America’s sixth-largest wine production facility, was purchased by E & J Gallo Winery from its owner, Australia-based Treasury Wine Estates. (source, Wikipedia)

So, there’s an Aussie connection, too! Like many others, I misunderstood part of section B because I mis-heard it. I rendered I matched the man behind the bar…as I asked the man behind the bar… which makes no sense when you think about it. Jukeboxes are kept out in the general bar area with lights flashing to entice punters- not behind the bar with the bar-tender! I guess I misheard it because I was not familiar with the verb matched in this context. I imagine the scene: early evening, the heart-broken narrator is having a few in a bar near where he is staying. Nothing much is going on- certainly, no-one is putting coins into the jukebox, and the barman holds up two bits and offers to match the guy. This involves each person holding a 25-cent coin and slamming it down on the counter. The punter gets to call match or no match. If he wins the match, he gets to put the won coin into the jukebox and play three songs (or, if he’s heart-broken he might want to double the number of sad song and put his two bits in, too…) Today, in Oz you would play with a two-dollar coin, I suppose. Of course, the house always wins- that sly ol’ bar-tender was going to put a coin into the jukebox, anyway, to liven up the joint!

I’ve loved the song from the moment I heard Dino’s suave delivery. This country-blues gem (clocking in at two and a half minutes) references those part of the US that are part of the country tradition: it also has a broken heart, a train, a bar, rain and a jukebox. What more could you ask for, apart from a dog and a pick-up truck? (And who’s to say the narrator didn’t drive his beat up old truck from Nashville to Chicago with his best friend hanging his muzzle out of the passenger window?)

I’ve sung this song for gigs during the past couple of years. The lockdown is still preventing live music gigs, so, here I use a basic Band-in-a-Box country ballad setting with Nashville drums, strummed and finger-picked guitars and bass. I bring up the fiddle in the second sections and add the vocal. With songs like this- less is more, IMHO.

Little Old Wine Drinker, Me

The Irish Rover

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

The Irish Rover is an Irish folk song about a magnificent though improbable sailing ship that reaches an unfortunate end. It has been recorded by numerous artists, some of whom have made changes to the lyrics over time.

The song describes a gigantic ship with “twenty-seven masts”, a colourful crew and varied types of cargo in enormous amounts. The verses grow successively more extravagant about the wonders of the great ship. The seven-year voyage comes to a disastrous end when the ship sinks. The narrator becomes the only survivor, the last of the Irish Rover, leaving no one else alive to contradict the tale.

According to the 1966 publication Walton’s New Treasury of Irish Songs and Ballads 2, the song is attributed to songwriter/arranger J. M. Crofts. (source, Wikipedia)

However, I have not been able to verify this after an internet search where this song is most often said to be traditional. I know if I had written it, I wouldn’t be hiding my light under a bushel- everyone would know about it!

Burl Ives is the earliest artist I can find who sang the song- his 1959 version, where he accompanies himself on nylon guitar, holds up rather well, over 60 years later. Of course, he was a noted singer with a great voice as well as actor and entertainer. He cruelled his place in history, IMHO, by recanting his socialist links during the McCarthyite blacklist period by appearing before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1952 and by naming names to preserve his income from various projects in the entertainment industry. This precipitated a bitter rift between Ives and folk singers such as Pete Seeger, which lasted for decades.

The first time I heard the song, though, was from a 1962 Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem vinyl disc recorded live in a Chicago night-club. It was the first song on the first side. This group is arguably the catalyst for the explosion of Irish folk music in Ireland and across the world in the decades since this great recording. When The Dubliners teamed with The Pogues in 1987 the song gained a new lease on life.

Now, while the three oldest members of the band had been singing the song since the 1960s, when Banter formed in the mid-1990s, the fiddler, Mark, son of mandolinist Jim, was hesitant of playing the song with just guitar, fiddle, and bodhran as it couldn’t compete, sonically, with the racy and raucous rendition of the Dubs/Pogues!

So, here in lockdown, with the assistance of the Band-in-a-Box/RealBand combo and n-Track 9 mastering, I present something that approaches the density of that 1987 recording. The rhythm section is labelled Factory Industrial Rock comprising RockHard LA drums, metal electric guitar, and three House-Techno Trance loops. To keep within a light-year or two of the Irish influence, I use bluegrass mandolin, fiddle, banjo and accordion successively as acoustic embellishment of the verses. In the instrumental verse, I introduce the accordion and bring up the rest of the instruments which saw, blow and pick up a storm through the final verse. I sing the verses without doubling- there isn’t a chorus, alas, to use as a pretext…

The Irish Rover

Three Rivers Hotel

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

Three Rivers Hotel was written by Stan Coster. We, the band Banter, have performed the song for twenty-five years. Stan is another one of those larger than life Aussies that this land seems to produce in prodigious numbers. Below I give a potted biography of his life that demonstrates this. I also wish to pay tribute to a performer and songwriter that didn’t make it to the biblical span of three score and ten- but didn’t he cram a lot of living and a lot of songs into the time he had!

Stan Coster was born at Casino on the north coast of New South Wales, Australia in 1930. He left school at the age of 14 and worked for a local butcher in Woolgoolga, NSW. By the age of 16, he was cutting sleepers for train tracks and at 18 years of age he went to work as a station hand before moving to Sydney and in 1948 moved to Cooma, New South Wales, to work on the Snowy Mountains Scheme. While on the land Coster worked as a ringer, fencer, slaughterman, horse-breaker, kangaroo shooter, and shed hand and was able to draw these experiences into his bush ballads. In 1950, at age 20, Coster joined a travelling rodeo as a rough rider.

In 1956, Coster began writing songs and met Slim Dusty in 1960 at Longreach, Queensland. Dusty recorded his first Coster song, “Return of the Stockman” in 1962. Dusty went on to record another 70 of Stan Coster tracks. Popular compositions such as his “Three Rivers Hotel”, which tells the story of building a train line into a remote nickel mine, were based on his own life experiences and brought to popular attention through performances and recordings by Slim Dusty and other artists. In 1977, Coster won the Golden Guitar for APRA Song of the Year with his composition “Three Rivers Hotel”, recorded by Slim Dusty.

In the 1980s Coster started his Stan Coster Show at the Tenthill Hotel in Tenthill, Queensland in the 1980s to crowds too large to be accommodated in the hotel.  In 1987, Coster won another Golden Guitar for APRA Song of the Year for “He’s a Good Bloke When He’s Sober”. In 1989 he was awarded an OAM for “Services to Country Music” and was in 1990 inducted into the Australian Roll of Renown at Tamworth. He won the 1995 Golden Guitar (Heritage Award) for Bush Ballad Song of the Year with “Lawson’s Loaded Dog” and in 1996 released his last album Come Back to the Bush. (adapted from source, Wikipedia)

Sam the Man sings John Williamson’s take on the song on this site: Banter IV  Song 45. For the lockdown redux version I have added three verses that are in Slim Dusty’s version. I also slowed it down a bit to 165 bpm in waltz time using the Band-in-a-Box/RealBand combo comprising acoustic bass, fingerpicked and strummed guitars with Nashville waltz drums for the rhythm section. I use vintage electric piano, pedal steel guitar and gritty electric guitar variously in the verses and use a B3 organ in the chorus with doubled voices.

Three Rivers Hotel (Slim’s version)

Will Ye Go Lassie Go?

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

Will Ye Go Lassie Go? is an Irish/Scottish folk song. The lyrics and melody are a variant of the song “The Braes of Balquhither” by Scottish poet Robert Tannahill (1774–1810) and Scottish composer Robert Archibald Smith (1780–1829), but were adapted by Belfast musician Francis McPeake (1885–1971) into “Wild Mountain Thyme” and first recorded by his family in the 1950s.

McPeake is said to have dedicated the song to his first wife, but his son wrote an additional verse in order to celebrate his father’s remarriage. “Wild Mountain Thyme” was first recorded by McPeake’s nephew, also named Francis McPeake, in 1957 for the BBC series As I Roved Out

While Francis McPeake holds the copyright to the song, it is generally believed that rather than writing the song, he arranged an existing travelling folk version and popularised the song as his father’s.(source, Wikipedia)

And there it is! Again! Once more! The perennial tug-of-war about authorship among a varying number of contenders. Something similar goes on with Ewan McColl’s songs which are derivative also of sources that did not originate solely within his brain. Another folk colossus who used various sources for his songs is Dominic Behan. My nephew, Joe, pointed out that songs such as McAlpine’s Fusiliers would not exist were it not for Behan’s genius at putting together words and melody. To say nothing of his constant touring and promulgating of his oeuvre.

The same may be said for the song posted here- were it not for Francie McPeake sitting down at his kitchen table at 5 Springfield Road, Belfast sometime in the mid-1950s, and writing the song out- it would not exist. Care for a little thought experiment? Suppose that McPeake had never set this song down. It’s conceivable that someone else may have been able to put together the pieces and come up with something analogous- but would it have been this song? The what-might-have-been industry, churns out a substantial range of poems, novels, plays and songs to satisfy the appetite for such things among its various niche audiences.

And what about me? (Could this work as part of a song-lyric?) I do take an interest in identifying sources and I do take pains to acknowledge anything I use that is the product of someone else’s industry. But the final determinant of whether I spend any time on a song and its sources is simple- does it appeal? If it does, then I care not a jot whether it is purebred or mongrel- or even if it is neither fish nor fowl…

This lockdown version uses the Band-in-a-Box/RealBand combo with mastering by n-Track 9 featuring as a 160 bpm waltz-time rhythm section comprising Nashville drums, acoustic bass, a brace of guitars: fingerpicked and strummed, fiddle and harp (cliché, I know, but still…) with an organ added on choruses, with doubled vocal. We were, as the band Banter, developing this song with Sam the Man as main vocal, but SARS-CoV-2, shuttered him in at his place and ushered in an opportunity for… moi!

Will Ye Go Lassie Go?

The Shoals of Herring

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

The Shoals of Herring was written for the third of the eight BBC radio ballads by Ewan MacColl, Charles Parker and Peggy Seeger, Singing the Fishing (first broadcast on 16 August 1960, released on an Argo LP in 1966 and now available on a Topic CD). It was about the herring fishery and fishermen, and the song was designed specifically to highlight the life-story of Sam Larner, who had spent a long life as a herring fisherman, but was retired at the time of the recording. He first went to sea, he said, in 1892, when he was just a boy. (source, mainlynorfolk.info)

 The Radio Ballads…was put together by folk singers Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger and ex-submarine commander turned recording pioneer Charles Parker. The first ballad ‘The Ballad of John Axon’ was aired on radio in 1958. It was the first musical documentary of its kind, it was revolutionary in that it combined music with the speech of working people. Whilst this may sound strange today documentaries were usually scripted and read by actors…you’d be lucky to hear any regional accent. This was all just before radio made way for television.

Peter Cox’s brilliant book ‘Set into Song’ which tells the story the Radio Ballads explained how those ballads had a huge impact upon documentary makers in the 60’s in both radio and television and were even used in BBC training courses. 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 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)

When I finished writing [this], we sang it to Sam Larner on our next trip up. He was delighted that I knew it for, as he declared, ‘I known that song all my life’. […] A song about fishermen must please fishermen, a song about miners must be convincing to miners, or there is something wrong with it. (MacColl, Journeyman 323) For The Shoals of Herring I tried out and rejected more than a score of tune models and, in the course of a fortnight, sang hundreds of first-line variants before I found one that pleased me. After that, it was a matter of seeing whether the rest of the tune soared naturally out of that first line or whether it had to be coaxed into the open. (MacColl, Journeyman 365) (source, mudcat.org)

If you have an hour or two to spare, you might want to visit Mudcat and follow the various threads that detail the nit-picking that surrounds the authorship of the song. I’m content to go along with the McColl hypothesis (Spoiler alert for conspiracy theorists– I also think that Shakespeare, rather than the Earl of Somethingorother, wrote the plays and sonnets.)

The song has a special place in my pantheon of folk songs because my father, like Sam Larner, first went to sea as a cabin boy, aged 14. He followed his father and grandfather in this choice of occupation, finally reaching the status of captain of a shallow-bottomed oil-tanker running oil from Lake Maracaibo to Aruba, dodging German U-boats, during the Second World War.

This song is another from Banter’s repertoire featuring Sam the Man on vocals. And yet again I substitute on vocals. For this lockdown version, I use the Outlaw Country rhythm section from Band-in-a-Box featuring acoustic piano, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, electric bass and Nashville outlaw drums. Apart from doubling vocals on the final line of each verse, I don’t bother with any other embellishments.

The Shoals of Herring

The Shores of Botany Bay

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

Botany Bay, discovered on 29 April 1770 by Captain Cook, who first named it Stingray Bay, later Botanists’ (Harbour and Bay), and finally Botany Bay in his journal, probably to honour the botanists aboard HMS Endeavour led by Sir Joseph Banks as well as to mark its floral novelties. Banks later (1786) advocated Botany Bay as an ideal place for a penal colony on account of its supposed fertility. The first fleet under Captain Arthur Phillip landed there on 20 January 1788 and, finding Banks’s account much exaggerated, moved on to Port Jackson, landing there at Sydney Cove. Nevertheless, the name Botany Bay became synonymous with Australia… as a convict settlement. Botany Bay is also the site of Sydney’s (Kingsford-Smith) international airport. (source, Martyn Webb in encyclopedia.com)

The Gweagal Aborigines made first visual contact with Cook and other Europeans on the 29 April 1770 in the area which is now known as “Captain Cook’s Landing Place”,…It was the first attempt made, on Cook’s first voyage, in the Endeavour, to make contact with the Aboriginal people of Australia… In sailing into the bay they had noted two Gweagal men posted on the rocks, brandishing spears and fighting sticks…After an hour and a half, Cook…with 30 of the crew, made for the beach, only to be threatened by two warriors. They threw some gifts on shore, trying to get over the idea they had come to seek fresh water, but the Gweagal men reacted with hostile diffidence. Cook felt it necessary to encourage a change of attitude [!!] by shooting one of the men in the leg with light shot. … The sailors then proceeded to walk onto the beach and up to an encampment. Both Cook and Banks tried, with great difficulty, to make contact with the local people but without success due to the Aborigines avoiding contact after the first encounter. [Do you have to wonder why, really?] (source, Wikipedia)

[The song, The Shores of Botany Bay, was] collected from Duke Tritton by John Meredith. Tritton learned the song while busking in Sydney early this [20th] century. He also wrote the last verse. Second verse is from Therese Radic’s Songs of Australian Working Life. (source, folkstream.com)

Note: listen to Duke Tritton’s The Sandy Hollow Line, on A Bit of Banter: Banter X, song 110, a true classic of life in the Great Depression for Aussie battlers.

The French king, Louis XVI, who was inspired by Captain James Cook’s Pacific voyages…ordered the French expedition[ led by La Perouse ] to show the world that France could also dominate in ocean exploration…On 20 January 1788, the First Fleet arrived in Botany Bay. The British believed they were completely isloated from any other European presence. Just four days later however, Philip Gidley King recorded in his journal: ‘…two Strange Ships were seen standing in the Bay … we judged them to be the two Ships under the orders of Monsieur de la perouse.’…La Perouse’s ships sailed out of Botany Bay in March 1788. The British lookout on South Head saw them leave. This was probably the last time the French expedition was seen by Europeans…It was not until 1964 that the wreck of La Boussole was finally discovered on Vanikoro’s reefs. At last the fate of La Perouse and his crew was known. (source, State Library of New South Wales)

The song has long been a favourite in Aussie bush music circles and Banter regularly features it with Sam the Man taking the vocals. This, though, is a lockdown special where I usurp Sam’s role, ably assisted by the Band-in-a-Box/RealBand combo featuring acoustic bass, Nashville drums, nylon guitar, fiddle, electric pickin’ and clean guitars as well as solo bluegrass mandolin and accordion. I have read somewhere that the song originated in 19th Century English music-hall. But what cares I when it has such up-beat energy- not all immigrant songs have to be doleful, after all.

The Shores of Botany Bay

The Sandy Hollow Line

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

I thought I had put up a post about this song, earlier in the year. But I can’t find it so I’ll put this one up. I first heard the song in the mid-1970s from the a capella singing of Kevin Baker, the composer of The Snowy River Men. As a document of what so many people had to endure in the Great Depression, this has few equals. Duke Tritton wrote this from first hand experience as he was one of the blasters on the Sandy Hollow Line, an initiative of the Australian government to give work to men who had no means to support their families. It began as an unemployment relief scheme of the NSW Government, achieving infamy for having no modern mechanical devices used on it, other than trucks carrying concrete for the 5 tunnels and bridge piers, all other work being done with picks, shovels, hand drills, horses and carts. Construction continued through World War 2 at a desultory pace, held up by money, labour and especially steel shortages, only to be abandoned unfinished, approximately 92% complete, a few years later in 1951. (source, Wikipedia).Well, well, isn’t it good to see that the stupidity of government initiatives have survived the 20th century and are still alive and kicking in modern Australia? I wonder, are there echoes of this in the present pandemic? I give the lyrics below because it is a primary document of the suffering of those who worked on this scheme. It is also a primer on how to write long-form lyrics that punch through from beginning to end. It comprises 10 quatrains rhyming aabb with a concluding couplet. I know I had indicated in an earlier post that, as a rule, I did not publish lyrics on the grounds that if they were not comprehensible on listening, then they were not worth setting down. Here, though, is another exception that proves the rule.

The sun was blazing in the sky and waves of shimmering heat/Glared down on the railway cutting, we were half dead on our feet,/And the ganger stood on the bank of the cut and snarled at the men below,/’You’d better keep them shovels full or all of you cows will go.”// I never saw such a useless mob, You’d make a feller sick./As shovel men you’re hopeless and you’re no good with the pick.’/There were men in the gang who could belt him with a hand tied at their back/But he had the power behind him and we daren’t risk the sack.// So we took his insults in silence, for this was the period when/We lived in the great depression and nothing was cheaper than men,/And we drove the shovels and swung the picks and cursed the choking dust;/We’d wives and hungry kids to feed, so toil in the heat we must,//And as the sun rose higher the heat grew more intense,/The flies were in their millions, the air was thick and dense./We found it very hard to breathe, our lungs were hot and tight/With the stink of sweating horses and the fumes of gelignite.//But still the ganger drove us on, we couldn’t take much more,/We prayed for the day we’d get a chance to even up the score./A man collapsed in the heat and dust, he was carried away to the side;/It didn’t seem to matter a damn if the poor chap lived or died.// ‘He’s only a loafer’, the ganger said, ‘A lazy useless cow./I was going to sack him anyway, he’s saved me the trouble now.’/He had no thoughts of the hungry kids, no thought of a woman’s tears/As she struggled and fought to feed her brood all down the weary years.//But one of the Government horses fell down and died in the dray;/They hitched two horses to him and dragged his corpse away./The ganger was a worried man and he said with a heavy sigh,/’It’s a bloody terrible thing to see a good horse die.’//You chaps get back to your work, don’t stand loafing there./Get in and trim the batter down, I’ll get the engineer.’/The engineer came and looked around and said as he scratched his head,/’No horse could work in this dreadful heat or all of them will be dead.’//’They’re much too valuable to lose, they cost us quite a lot,/And I think it’s a wicked shame to work then while it’s hot./So we will take them to the creek and spell then in the shade./You men must all knock off at once. Of course you’ll not be paid.’//And so we plodded to our camps and it seemed to our weary brains/We were no better than convicts, though we didn’t wear the chains./And in those drear depression days we were unwanted men,/But we knew that when a war broke out we’d all be heroes then.//And we’d be handed a rifle and forced to fight for the swine/Who tortured us and starved us on the Sandy Hollow Line.///

Another Aussie folk legend, John Dengate, set Duke Tritton’s words to music (I think, derived from an Irish air). Both men typify, for me, several admirable Australian character traits- fairness, humour, grit and determination under duress, summed up by these lines from John Dengate: We won’t surrender, won’t give in, although our hair is graying;/We come from tough rebellious kin…/Sometimes we lose, sometimes we win…We go on disobeying.

I have only sung this song once at The Penrith Gaels, about nine months ago. At that time, the feedback I got from most of the punters was along the lines of- It was a bit dirgy- stick to the faster stuff. I wonder, after we emerge, blinking into the new normal of the post-pandemic era, if there will be as much feedback along the “dirgy” line? Or if there will be such a thing as an audience?

This lockdown version features the Band-in-a-Box/RealBand combo of acoustic piano, strummed and fingerpicked guitars featuring Jason Roller, bass and Nashville drums as the rhythm section and fiddle, harmonica and synth electro flutes as embellishment, with n-Track 9 mastering.

The Sandy Hollow Line (backing track)
The Sandy Hollow Line (with vocals)

Scarlet Ribbons (for her hair)

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

LOS ANGELES — Jack Segal, lyricist for such standards as “Scarlet Ribbons,” “When Sunny Gets Blue,” and “When Joanna Loved Me,” died Thursday in Tarzana. He was 86.

The songwriter’s hits, which have sold an estimated 65 million records, have been recorded by such artists as Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, and Perry Como.

The ballad that was perhaps Mr. Segal’s greatest hit, “Scarlet Ribbons,” flowed, he said, onto paper in a mere 15 minutes in 1949. It happened when he was invited to the Port Washington, N.Y., home of concert pianist Evelyn Danzig Levine to hear some of her formal compositions. (Source, Myrna Oliver, Los Angeles Times  |  February 18, 2005)

Evelyn Danzig born Waco, Texas 16 January 1902; died Los Angeles 26 July 1996.: “Scarlet Ribbons” was written in only 15 minutes in 1949 at Danzig’s home in Port Washington, New York after she invited lyricist Jack Segal to hear her music (Source, Wikipedia)

In the annals of Tin Pan Alley, there are many examples of “One- Hit Wonders” – songwriters who only ever managed a single enduring success… Evelyn Danzig’s was the affecting folk-style ballad “Scarlet Ribbons (For Her Hair)”.

In 1949 Danzig co-wrote “Scarlet Ribbons” with Jack Segal, the future lyricist of “When Sunny Gets Blue”. Their ballad was first recorded by Juanita Hall, who was then appearing on Broadway as the original “Bloody Mary” in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific

Although her [many other songs] failed to achieve popularity, more than 40 years of royalties from “Scarlet Ribbons” were sufficient to keep Evelyn Danzig comfortably until the age of 94.

(source, Dick Vosburgh writing in the Independent)

Both she and Jack lived long lives. Maybe not so rare in today’s world, but for people born back early in the 20th Century, this was exceptional. The moral may be: write a smash hit early in your career and live long off the proceeds…

The first person I remember hearing sing this song was Jim Reeves. Known as gentleman Jim and, with Chet Atkins, his producer, one of the originators of the Nashville Sound which is characterised by lush sounds. He toured Ireland in 1963 and was immediately taken up by Irish audiences. Reeves returned the compliment, although he did not rate, at all,  the quality of the pianos in those many draughty country halls in which he and his band performed. He charted many times in Ireland both before and after his tragic death in July, 1964 at the controls of his own single-engine aircraft at age 40. His silky, trademark, baritone voice is still popular 56 year later. Head on over to YouTube and listen to him sing this gem accompanied only by acoustic guitar.

A couple of years ago, with Banter, I gathered up the courage to subject myself to unflattering comparisons with Reeves, Belafonte, et. al. and sang Scarlet Ribbons in the Penrith Gaels Club. It’s long been a favourite of mine, even though, in my rebellious, rock-infused, teenage years, I hid this almost blasphemous affection. It is amazing how many people of all ages and conditions love this product of Tin Pan Alley, cobbled together in a quarter of an hour over 70 years ago.

For this lockdown version, I follow the less-is-more ideal (although not quite so pared back as YouTube’s Jim Reeves and solo guitar). The 80 bpm slow ballad Band-in-a-Box combo with acoustic piano, guitars, bass and drums is used throughout the song with no added embellishments from fiddles, flutes etc. I did experiment, briefly, with a more embellished version, but decided to junk it.

Scarlet Ribbons

The Snowy River Men

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

I do not, as a rule, post the lyrics of songs I have recorded. If they are not comprehensible on listening then there is no point in printing them. It’s a bit like having to explain a joke after the punch-line. But I will make an exception in this case- and here are the reasons why: first, this is one of the finest songs ever written about the Great War and Australia’s involvement in it from the point of view of the soldiers actually doing the fighting. Second, my great-uncle, Private John Joseph Mitchell (5141) of the 22nd Battalion, Australian Infantry, A.I.F., died on 18 September, 1917, near Polygon Wood. This was the day before Hal Archer, the subject of the song, was killed (also by an artillery round). This killing ground was where one of the Snowy River Men, Private Ernest Albert Corey, a decorated Military Medal and three bars recipient, was a stretcher bearer during that horrific period of time.Third, Kevin Baker, the writer of this fine song has been a long-time friend of mine. And, finally, it is a much longer song than those I generally present in these posts. It is AAB in form, with ten separate verse quatrains and five identical chorus quatrains ( / = line divisions; // = verse divisions )

Dear Mrs Allen, I write to you today, / To say that I was with your son just before he passed away / I trained with him at Goulburn and we travelled on to France / And I was there when he got hit in the German advance.// It seems so long ago now since we marched into your town / and all the young men heard the call and signed their names straight down / and the girls and the children proudly cheered us all along / Ah, Bibbenluke that day was a feast of speech and song.

Chorus But The Snowy River Men just couldn’t march today / There’s far too many of them dead for the rest to feel that way / The cold ground of Europe has been watered with their blood /There’s a strange new crop of crosses rising in this foreign mud

From Goulburn to Sydney then a ship from Circular Quay, / A spirit of adventure stood and filled both Les and me / It was great to be with comrades true and travelling abroad / For a while the war seemed far away, and the world was to be toured // In Durban, the natives took us travelling in style / In rickshaws that they pulled along at a shilling a mile / In Cape Town we watch the black boys diving in the bay / The Snowies had a good time there and would have liked to stay Chorus

When we landed at Plymouth, we’d spent eight weeks at sea / And entrained straight way for Wilton where our camp turned out to be / They treated us well there so we really can’t complain / That the sky was grey the weather bleak and it always seemed to rain // When we set sail for France the weather had turned fine / And it wasn’t long before the call to reinforce the line / Then a shell whined above us and we were raked with stones and mud / And I turned and saw Les sitting there in a pool of his own blood  Chorus

He stared as the blood poured out of his legless thigh / And I carried him back to the aid post close nearby / His blood soaked my uniform, but he never breathed a sigh / And I had no idea then that he was going to die // When I left him he spoke of a pain inside his chest / I suppose that’s what killed him I just don’t know the rest / But I know that we all miss him and can’t help but wonder why / So many Snowy men so quickly had to die Chorus

We hear the king’s grateful for all the men who’ve died / And is sending home a photo of the graves in which they lie / Well I still think the cause is right but it’s not clear anymore / Why so many Australian men should die in Europe’s war / We hope with our hearts that time will ease the pain / Of never once to see his face or hear his voice again / But I’ve seen so much death now since that day on which he died / That I can’t now be the Snowy Man that once I was inside. Chorus

Have you ever heard of the “SNOWY RIVER MEN” Recruitment march? This was one of many recruitment drives which took place around Australia circa 1916 to boost the number of enlistments into the AIF during World War One. The march was organised by a Captain by the name of F.R. WEDD and started on the 6th of January, 1916. A small group of 14 men proceeded to walk from the small country town of Delegate in southern New South Wales. Their route would take them through many other localities within the Monaro District – to conclude at the AIF Training Depot in Goulburn. A distance of roughly 350 kilometres. It was hoped that at least 200 men would join up as a result, but to the dismay of Captain WEDD, this number fell well short.

The route took the marchers through many small towns and localities:- from Delegate through to Craigie, Mila, Bombala, Bibbenluke, Holt’s Flat, Nimmitabel, Summer Hill, Rock’s Flat, Cooma, Bunyan, Numerella, Billylingera, Bredbo, Colinton, Michelago, Williamsdale, Queanbeyan, Bungendore, Deep Creek, Tarago, Inveralochy, Tiranna and finally through to Goulburn after 23 days of marching.

They marched under a banner, made by the women of Delegate. By the time they reached Goulburn on the 29th of January, 1916 – one hundred and forty-four (144) men had joined the procession. The majority were then enlisted into the 55th Infantry Battalion, Australian Imperial Forces and sadly – many would later lose their lives in the bloody battles which occurred between 1916 to 1918.

Perhaps the most famous of the marchers, was Private Ernest Albert COREY who, as a stretcher bearer – was to be awarded the Military Medal a total of 4 times. He was born and bred in the small town of Numerella but he is said to have enlisted from Nimmitabel. It was from this town, that the war would take him to the other side of the world. His first award of the M.M. was for his actions in rescuing wounded comrades at Queant near Bullecourt during the horrific fighting on the 15th of May of 1917. He would be awarded his first ‘bar’ to the Military Medal for similar actions on the 26th of September, 1917 at Polygon Wood. The second ‘bar’ would be won at Peronne roughly twelve months later, for his work as a stretcher bearer on the 1st & 2nd of September, 1918. His third ‘bar’ being awarded for his actions at the Hindenburg Line north of Bellicourt on the 30th of September 1918. One may consider it unique – that all of his awards were given as a result of “saving life” and not “taking life”.

The song by Kevin BAKER is in my opinion – one of the most moving songs to be composed with regards to the First World War. His voice is very ‘Australian’ and lends itself to the subject matter. It is hard not to feel the emotion that would have been behind the letter written by Private Hal ARCHER (2121 Private Halloran ‘Hal’ ARCHER from Tarcutta). His mate, 2124 Private Samuel Leslie ‘Les’ ALLEN of Bibbenluke had been fatally wounded by artillery fire on the 19th of May 1917. Les had been a school teacher and was 27 years of age. During the actual march; when the volunteers approached the town of Bibbenluke, Les and the school children had travelled out to meet them. When the two groups met, the children “fell in” behind the marchers and joined the procession into the village. Les later accompanied the group when he joined them at Holt’s Flat. So after his mate’s death, Hal Archer takes it upon himself to write the letter to Mrs Elizabeth ALLEN – the mother of Les. I believe that Kevin BAKER was inspired to write this song, so many years later after reading this letter – which would lead one to believe that this letter still survives. I have made numerous attempts to contact Kevin, with a negative result. If any reader may be able to assist – I would like to ascertain from Kevin his motivation and sentiment in composing this song which I believe, is exceptional. (source, from medalsgonemissing.com administrator, Gary Traynor)

Yes, Gary, Kevin did have the letter. (I have tried to contact Gary through the site above) Kevin had gone on a song-collecting journey to the Snowy Mountain area. It must have been after he returned to Australia from Germany and Ireland (where he stayed with us for several weeks in 1981 during the Republican Prisoners Hunger Strikes).

I first met Kevin in 1973 or 1974- I was sent to Warrawong High School by the NSW Department of Education after being recruited from Northern Ireland where I had graduated the year before from Queen’s University, Belfast. Kevin transferred to Warrawong High from Berkeley High School in the adjacent suburb in 1974, as I recall. We generally played music together on Friday nights where Kevin played a fine mouth organ, flute or piccolo (accompanied by a goblet or three of wine…) We also played in various groups until I left Wollongong to return to Northern Ireland at the end of 1978.

When I returned to Australia in 1988, I re-established contact with Kevin in Wollongong where he told me of his song- collecting in the Snowy Mountain area and the letter written to Mrs Allen by Hal Archer. In the early 1990s he toured up the east coast of Australia to play at folk venues and I met him again in Ayr, N. Queensland when he was passing through to Townsville and Cairns. We met several more times in the late 1990s and early ‘noughties at festivals such as Gulgong, a 19th-century gold rush town in the Central Tablelands and folk clubs, such as the temperance venue in the western Sydney suburb of Toongabbie (we had a drink afterwards!)

My lockdown version features Band-in-a-Box/RealBand with n-Track 9. The slow ballad combo of drums, bass, acoustic piano and dual guitars drives the song along with verse/chorus roles respectively for mandolin, accordion, fiddle and organ. The vocals are doubled in the choruses. But, search out and listen to Kevin’s classic 1982 original for the authentic take.

The Snowy River Men

One of the Has-beens

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

Notes to One of the Has-beens (tune, “Pretty Polly Perkins of Paddington Green”)

…Polly Perkins…is the title of a famous English song, composed by the London music hall and broadside songwriter Harry Clifton (1832-1872), and first published in 1864. It was almost universally known in England until around the mid-1980s and was commonly taught to school children. The title refers to the district of Paddington in London. The song gained a place in the canonical Oxford Book of Comic Verse, and the original manuscript of “Polly” is now held in the Bodleian Library.


It was adapted for the USA by Clifton during the American Civil War, re-titled “Polly Perkins of Abington Green”. Presumably the new title referred to Abington Green, Georgia, in the USA.
Most of Clifton’s songs adapted their tunes from old folk songs, and it is possible that a folk tune is also the origin of the tune for Polly. A folk song in the English county of Northumberland, called Cushie Butterfield, is sung to the same tune as “Polly” – although the “Cushie” tune was always claimed by one Geordie Ridley (1834-1864), a Tyneside comedian and miner. Ridley and Clifton’s death dates mean that both the song and its tune are now firmly in the public domain.

[Below are three verses from Polly Perkins to give a sense of the comic song from the 19th Century]


POLLY PERKINS OF ABINGTON GREEN written by Harry Clifton, 1864.
1. I am a broken-hearted milkman; in grief I’m arrayed/Through keeping of the company of a young servant maid/Who lived on board wages, the house to keep clean,/In a gentleman’s family near Abington Green.

CHORUS: Oh! She was as beautiful as a butterfly and as proud as a queen,/Was pretty little Polly Perkins of Abington Green.

4. When I asked her to marry me, she said, “Oh what stuff!”/And told me to drop it, for she’d had quite enough/Of my nonsense. At the same time, I’d been very kind/But to marry a milkman she didn’t feel inclined. CHORUS

7. In six months, she married, this hard-hearted girl,/But it was not a ‘Wicount’ and it was not a ‘Nearl’./It was not a ‘Baronite’, but a shade or two wuss./’Twas a bow-legged conductor of a twopenny ‘bus. CHORUS

The tune, with new lyrics, found its way into the Australian bush culture, among outback farmers and sheep shearers, in the song “One of the Has-beens”

A.L. Lloyd sang One of the Has-Beens in 1958 on his Wattle album, Across the Western Plains. He commented in the album’s sleeve notes:

I first heard this one New Year’s Day, in the late 1920’s, in hospital in Cowra, N.S.W. The matron was away, and the patients had a party in the ward. A teamster from Grenfell sang the song, and one or two of the old bushwhackers took umbrage, because they thought the stranger was getting at them. I now learn from [Douglas] Stewart and [Nancy] Keesing’s Old Bush Songs [Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1957] that One of the Has-Beens is the work of a former horse-breaker, shearer and gold-digger named Robert Stewart, born 1833 in N.S.W. The tune is that of the familiar early nineteenth century stage song, Pretty Polly Perkins [of Paddington Green]. (source, mainlynorfolk.info)

Parody below composed by Don Henderson, folk-singer, composer, poet, and musical-instrument maker. [Aficionados of Aussie folk music will be able to relate to the lines below.]

I’m one of the has-beens/A folksong I mean. In oral tradition/I once was serene.
Illiterate agrarians my worth would avow, but you may not believe me/ ’cause they don’t do it now./Chorus
I’m as awkward as a new one,/much more cap and gown/than a blithe air of arcadia;/I’ve been written down

Eluding the Banjo,/Vance Palmer, Bert Lloyd,/Jones, Durst and O’Connor/I did likewise avoid./Manifold, Meredith, Tate, de Hugard,/both Scotts, all found/ finding me was too hard./ Chorus (Source, Mudcat.org)

I reckon that the Australian lyrics that you hear on this post are superior: they perfectly capture the loss of vitality, strength and skill that even the gun shearers would suffer should they live long enough to experience the inevitable effects of ageing. Of course, as a septuagenarian, conscious of my own decline, the verses may reflect where I’m at in- (What is that cliché, again?)- my journey.

I first heard this song in Wollongong in the 1970s, sung a capella by Kevin Baker, a noted Illawarra poet and songwriter with whom I had a long association.

This lockdown version uses the Band-in-a-Box/RealBand combo and N-Track 9 mixing software.

Again, the backing uses the virtuoso finger-picked guitars of Brett Mason and Jason Roller, and rhythm section of acoustic piano, and acoustic bass: with accordion and fiddle alternating verse accompaniment roles. I use a solo voice for the verse and doubled voices chorus. The arrangement is one of my lock-down preferences- not too simplistic nor overly produced.

One of the Has-beens

The Old Bog Road

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

Teresa Brayton was born in Kilbrook, County, Kildare, in 1868 and also died there in 1943 having returned from New York, Her father was Hugh Boylan and her republican family were associated with the rising of 1798. She knew most of the leaders of the 1916 rising and around her neck she wore a chain, a piece of the flagstaff which flew the flag of the Irish Republic from the G.P.O. in Dublin on Easter Monday 1916. The chain was given to her by Countess Markievicz. The air of the song is an original air by Madeline O’Farrelly. Thanks to Johnny McEvoy for keeping the song alive. (from irish-folk-songs.com)

Teresa Brayton was born on the 29th of June 1868 as Teresa Cora Boylan at Kilbrook, County Kildare. Teresa attended Newtown National School where, by all accounts, she excelled in her studies. 

In 1895 Teresa followed the emigrants trail across the broad Atlantic where she ended up becoming a vital cog in the workings of Irish nationalist organizations in New York and Boston. 

Teresa was renowned in Irish American circles for her organizations of fund raisers to aid the war effort against British rule in her native land. Nationalism ran through Teresa’s blood; her great grandfather had taken part in the Battle of Prosperous  in 1798 and she wrote a number of pieces to celebrate the centenary of the United Irishmen rebellion in 1898.

In 1932 Teresa returned to Ireland after the death of her husband and first lived in Bray with her sister before finally settling back in her beloved Kildare where she would live out the rest of her days. 

Among those who held Teresa in high regard were Arthur Griffith, Eammon de Valera and Michael Collins. Among the many fundraisers  Teresa organized in the United States was one to keep St Enda’s school open after the executions of Padraig and Willie Pearse in 1916. Teresa organized a big ceilidh in New York to aid Mrs Pearse who was trying to maintain the school after her sons’ deaths. 

Teresa died, where she was born, at Kilbrook on the 19th of August 1943. She was buried in Cloncurry cemetery and Enfield Muintir na Tire erected a fine stone Celtic cross over her resting place which was then officially unveiled by [Irish President] Eammon de Valera in 1959.  (source, irishcentral.com)

Many Irish people, of a certain age, identify with this song. Just about all of them, urban or rural, know of an old bog road from their own youth or that of their parents. Just a few yards up the road from where I lived in Cushendall was the start of The Old Road which led from the Barrack Brae across the foot of Lurigethan onto the Ballyeamon Road which connected the village to Ballymena. It was unpaved and passable only on foot or by tractor and I quite often used it as a short-cut to my cousin John’s farm. It made for an idyllic wandering in Spring or Summer.

Teresa Brayton 1913

The above extracts extol Teresa Brayton and her song. But there is another view; one that sees such compositions as sentimental sludge. The following extract from an Irish Times article will stand in for all the nay-sayers:

The Old Bog Road is still a very popular song in midland lounges, where three-piece bands, usually consisting of drums, keyboards and accordion, play genteel ballads discreetly, so as not to disturb elderly couples drinking lemonade…

When I got home I lit the fire and sat there all morning, dozing, as if I too was an elderly doddering man, like the ones that in my youth always sat in the corner of every kitchen. Back then old people wore black, and passed their days rolling up newspapers into firelighters, or dangling string in front of cats, or minding grandchildren from falling into the fire…

…Nor do I know what’s in store for anyone who gets the airport bus from Rochfortbridge. Maybe they too will make fortunes, or just end up carrying sandwich boards, on the sidewalks of the world, advertising exotic boutiques, with earplugs shielding them from some city’s din. And I don’t know what they’ll be listening to, on their iPods, but it certainly won’t be The Old Bog Road. (From The Irish Times article, God be with you Ireland and the Old Bog Road by Michael Harding,18th February, 2011)

And where do I stand in this minor skirmish in one of the battlefronts of the culture wars that engulf the planet in the 21st Century? Somewhere in between, initially. But, then, about a year ago, my wife suggested the song to me for our band, Banter, as it was the favourite song of her father’s and one he used to sing many years ago. Jim, her brother, sang it once or twice before the virus closed Banter’s performances  down.The song grew on me as I started to research its origins and as I worked on the music. So, I guess I’m now on the side of the song’s protagonists.

We are still in lockdown and I present my Band-in-a-Box version. It features the twin fingerpicking guitar wizardry of Brent Mason and Jason Rolling. With Nashville drums, acoustic bass, and piano, it provides a suitable accompaniment, IMHO, for this emigrant song of longing.

The Old Bog Road

McAlpine’s Fusiliers (expanded)

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

 McAlpine’s Fusilier’s/Instrumental– Over the years this has proved to be one of the most popular items in our repertoire. Obviously, we enjoy playing whatever song or instrumental we happen to be performing. We play for enjoyment and not for pay. All we ask is a reasonable sound system. While we won’t make money doing this, we will make craic- and isn’t that all that matters. Dominic Behan wrote this song [see notes below for an update on this assertion.] (among many other fine examples from the genre) and it captures the essence of the Irish navvies who, in their thousands and tens of thousands built the rail, the roads the tunnels and canals and a lot more of the infrastructure in Britain and farther afield. (Listen to our version, from which these notes are taken, at Song 57- a field recording of almost a decade past) For a deep dive into the origins of the song, read on. If this is not to your taste, just go to the song itself, which you will discover has an extra verse. The reason? Ah, if you really want to know that, then you’ll just have to read on!

McAlpine’s Fusiliers is an Irish ballad set to a traditional air, popularised in the early 1960s by Dominic Behan.

The song relates to the migration of Irish labourers from Ireland to Britain during the 20th century. The ballad’s title refers to the eponymous construction company of Sir Robert McAlpine, a major employer of Irish workmen at the time. John Laing and Wimpey (also referred to in the opening monologue; an integral part of the ballad although not included in some cover versions of the song) were other major construction companies employing Irish ‘navvies’ (a British term referring to building labourers and originally coined for the labourers who built the British canals or ‘navigations’)

The colloquial and local terms in the song’s monologue and lyrics include references to a ‘spike’ (a hostel or ‘reception centre’ sometimes used by Irish navvies who could not find or afford lodgings) and to ‘shuttering’ (a rapidly constructed wooden casing made to hold concrete while it sets). Holyhead, also referred to in the monologue, is a port on Anglesey (Ynys Môn) in Wales where the main ferry service across the Irish Sea from Dún Laoghaire used to dock. 

Cricklewood is a district of North West London which had a relatively large Irish population. The Isle of Grain is an area in Kent where the River Medway joins the Thames Estuary east of London which was a large construction site for several years while a large power station was built there The song offers a satirical view of the life and work of the Irish labourers of the times and as such proved popular.

While some sources suggest that the words of the song were derived from an earlier poem or poems, the song’s arrangement was attributed to Dominic Behan. Along with a number of other songs, Behan provided the song to The Dubliners for use in a new set-structure In its original form, the song was performed in two parts, a spoken monologue (originally spoken by Ronnie Drew of The Dubliners self-accompanied by his flamenco guitar) followed by the sung verses supported by the full band. [Below is the spoken monologue]

Twas in the year of 39 and the sky was filled with lead
Hitler was heading for Poland and Paddy for Holyhead.
Come all you Pincher Laddies and you long distance men
Never work for McAlpine, or Wimpey or John Laing
For he’ll stick you behind the mixer ‘til your skin is turned to tan
And shout come on you Paddy with your passport in your hand.
The craic was good in Cricklewood but they wouldn’t leave The Crown
There was bottles flying and Biddy’s crying, sure, Paddy was going to town.
Oh mother dear I’m over here and I’m never going back
What keeps me here is the rake of beer the women and the craic.

[Source above, adapted from Wikipedia]

For many years it has been an open secret among Irishmen who toiled in the construction trade in England that Dominic Behan did not write the words to McAlpine’s Fusiliers.

When the song was released by the Dubliners in 1965, Dominic was given credit for writing the words, and Essex Music International got the copyright.

But the reality according to many people who were around that environment in that era is that what Dominic did was to use his undoubted writing skills to tidy up and make presentable the rhymes that had been passed around construction sites all over Britain since the start of the second World War.

Even his own brother Brian accused him on a national television talk show of stealing the words and then went on to say that the nearest that Dominic had ever came to working on a building site was when he posed as a hod-carrier with a straw hat on his head.

So, who did write McAlpine’s Fusiliers? Well according to numerous sources the originator of most of the words was a labourer by the name of Martin Henry from Rooskey, on the East Mayo/ South Sligo border.

He was the youngest member of the well-known Henry family who were famed for their fiddle playing.

As often happens, Henry’s words would have been passed around from job to job on scraps of paper, where aspiring site poets would add a line here and there and pub laureates would recite verses of it when sufficient ale was taken on a Saturday night. It seems likely that by the mid-1950’s the words were fairly well known among Irish navvies.

There’s other evidence that back up the case for Martin Henry. He wrote a poem, The Men of 39, which is like the monologue that Ronnie Drew of the Dubliners uses to introduce McAlpine’s Fusiliers. Also, Martin Henry was a near neighbour and good friend of the legendary ‘Darkie Finn’ who was from Cloonlarin, just inside the Mayo border and they worked together in Kent, England, on the massive Isle of Grain, Power Station that was being built by McAlpine’s in the 1950s.

This project hired thousands of Irish workers and was also the scene of some violent incidents between Connemara men and Dublin men that stemmed from a card game and carried on sporadically for years.

The second verse of the song attributed to Behan starts, “I stripped to the skin with the Darkie Finn down by the Isle of Grain.”Pat ‘the Darkie’ Finn’, was regarded as a highly skilled and sought-after shuttering carpenter who is also mentioned in a verse of a different song.

“I watched the frame take the strain, but the concrete all caved in
And George Wimpey searched all Manchester ‘til he found the Darkie Finn.”

Now here are the words of the poem The Men O’ 39 which many people credit with being the penmanship and poetry of Martin Henry. It was quite a lengthy poem so I’ll just show [lines below from it] but I think you will be able to see the similarities.

Come all you Pincher Kiddies and all long distance men,
You may be over in this land, nine years or maybe ten,
You may have tramped this country o’er from Plymouth to the Tyne,
But there’s not a word about the boys sir came in ‘39.
There’s not a word about the lads from old Kinsale,
And took the road to Dublin; from Dun Laoghaire they did sail.
The man up in the Globe Hotel, he gave them the ‘o’grand’,
Saying, good luck upon you Paddy, with the passport in your hand.
Some of those Pincher Kiddies came when England needed men,
His catchword was to catch for the famous Darky Finn.
To slave behind a mixer until your skin turned tanned,
And to say, good on you Paddy, with the passport in your hand.
Now all of you who stayed at home and never crossed the pond,
And didn’t work for Wimpey, McAlpine or John Laing,
Or slave behind a mixer until your skin is tanned,
And to say goodbye to you Paddy, with your passport in your hand.

[We’ll let the jury decide that one…]

There was also another verse in the McAlpine’s Fusiliers song that wasn’t used as part of the release. Old-timers have said that they often used this verse as the second one to last. It refers to the common practice on big jobs of bringing in a Catholic priest on a Sunday to say mass for the men who had to work. As this verse shows the foremen and ganger men were not always too pleased with this practice.

And it came to pass, we should go to mass
On the Immaculate Conception
The foreman met us at the gate
And gave us a terrible reception
“Get down the sewers, ye Kerry hoors
And never mind your prayers
For the only God is a well filled hod
With McAlpine’s Fusiliers

So, it seems that Dominic Behan had a huge amount of material to work with and in fairness to him he was a prolific songwriter and he did rearrange the words, tidy things up and compose a very good, rousing song. The melody he used was a speeded-up version of the haunting tune that accompanied the song The Foggy Dew.

Ronnie Drew, Dominic Behan, Martin Henry and very few of those men who worked on those huge construction projects are still alive, so the question will probably always remain a mystery regarding who wrote the words to ‘McAlpine’s Fusiliers?’ But does it really matter? It’s a great song. My wife, Bridie, (a traditionalist if ever there was one!) is opposed to the extended version I have cobbled together (that is, the inclusion of the extra verse) saying that it is not in keeping with the rest of the song

But if any of you readers ever venture around the south Sligo-east Mayo border and pop into towns with names like Rooskey, Cloontia or Sheskeen and ask the locals who wrote the words to McAlpine’s Fusiliers the answer will be a resounding – Martin Henry. If you mention the name Dominic Behan, they will say, “The man from Dublin popularised it, but our own Martin Henry wrote it!” (source above, irelandsown.ie)

So, now that we have explored the disputed origins of McAlpine’s Fusiliers, where does that leave this  version of the song? I will forego the spoken intro to the song, but, I’m going to adapt and incorporate the old-timers’ penultimate verse which is italicised and underlined above-  I guess because, now, as a septuagenarian, I’m an old-timer, too.

And, because I have incorporated the penultimate verse that, almost undeniably, Martin Henry wrote, which expands the song from four to five verses, I will be so bold as to credit the song lyrics jointly to Martin Henry and Dominic Behan. It seems only fair, after reviewing the evidence above. After all, it’s been fifty-five years since The Dubliners record credited Dominic Behan alone…

McAlpine’s Fusiliers (expanded)
McAlpine’s Fusiliers (Expanded version)

Whiskey in the Jar (redux)

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

“Whiskey in a Jar,” one of the best known traditional Irish vocal ballads, probably originated in the mid-17th century, according to folklorist Alan Lomax, and it has been found in dozens of forms on both sides of the Atlantic. It tells the story of a highwayman (robber) who robs a military officer and who is subsequently betrayed by his woman. “Whiskey in a Jar” has been recorded by dozens upon dozens of traditional artists, but has also been taken in a rock and roll direction, first by Thin Lizzy (who recorded a version learned from Irish trad sources), and then by the Grateful Dead (who recorded a version learned from American trad sources), and then most successfully by Metallica, who won a 2000 Grammy Award for Best Hard Rock Performance for their version, which was likely learned directly from Thin Lizzy, rather than a traditional source. The song is, as one might guess from the title, a favourite drinking and pub song among fans of Irish music all over the world. “Whiskey in a Jar,” like “Danny Boy,” is a favourite on St. Patrick’s Day. (source Megan Romer, liveabout.com)

The song’s exact origins are unknown. Several of its lines and the general plot resemble those of a contemporary broadside ballad “Patrick Fleming” (also called “Patrick Flemmen he was a Valiant Soldier”) about Irish highwayman Patrick Fleming, who was executed in 1650.

In the book The Folk Songs of North America, folk music historian Alan Lomax suggests that the song originated in the 17th century, and (based on plot similarities) that John Gay’s 1728 The Beggar’s Opera was inspired by Gay hearing an Irish ballad-monger singing “Whiskey in the Jar”. In regard to the history of the song, Lomax states, “The folk of seventeenth century Britain liked and admired their local highwaymen; and in Ireland (or Scotland) where the gentlemen of the roads robbed English landlords, they were regarded as national patriots. Such feelings inspired this rollicking ballad.”

At some point, the song came to the United States and was a favourite in Colonial America because of its irreverent attitude toward British officials. The American versions are sometimes set in America and deal with American characters. One such version, from Massachusetts, is about Alan McCollister, an Irish-American soldier who is sentenced to death by hanging for robbing British officials.

The song appeared in a form close to its modern version in a precursor called “The Sporting Hero, or, Whiskey in the Bar” in a mid-1850s broadsheet.

The song collector Colm Ó Lochlainn, in his book Irish Street Ballads, described how his mother learnt “Whiskey in the Jar” in Limerick in 1870 from a man called Buckley who came from Cork. When Ó Lochlainn included the song in Irish Street Ballads, he wrote down the lyrics from memory as he had learnt them from his mother. He called the song “There’s Whiskey in the Jar”, and the lyrics are virtually identical to the version that was used by Irish bands in the 1960s such as the Dubliners. The O Lochlainn version refers to the “far fam’d Kerry mountain” rather than the Cork and Kerry mountains, as appears in some versions.

The song also appears under the title “There’s Whiskey in the Jar” in the Joyce collection, but that only includes the melody line without any lyrics. Versions of the song were collected in the 1920s in Northern Ireland by song collector Sam Henry. (Source above, the excellent Wikipedia- do donate)

I learned the song early in 1972 from one of the booklets from the series, Irish Folk Songs. With Seannachie in Wollongong, Tony Fitzgerald sang it and later, with Banter in Sydney in the 1990s, Sam the Man sang it. However, down the years, when I was singing on my own in pubs or clubs or as a duo with my wife, I would regularly wheel out the old warhorse. The virus allows this virtual version.

The version here is a Band-in-a-Box/Real Band folk-rock rendition featuring bass guitar, drums, organ, finger-picked 12-string guitar and strummed guitar. Bluegrass fiddle and bluegrass mandolin share alternating verse accompaniment roles until the final chorus when everything is firing. I like to think that this arrangement celebrates the transatlantic aspects of the song.

Whiskey in the Jar (redux)

Spancil Hill (redux)

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

In Song 44: Spancil Hill, I wrote: “Another much loved and requested song from the 70s onwards, in my experience. It was originally a poem written by Michael Considine, who left for America in the wake of the Great Famine. He hoped to make enough money to return home and marry his sweetheart. He died at age 23 in 1873, without ever having fulfilled his dreams. But he sent a poem to his nephew on which the song is based. The punch and power of the ballad, even in its popular, abbreviated form is a testament to his feeling for “my first and only love”.” Now, almost a decade on, I’ll put a bit more info around this.

Spancil Hill is in County Clare…its fair is one of the oldest horse fairs in Ireland…held annually on 23 June. Spancil refers to the practice of “spancilling,” which was to use a short rope to tie an animal’s left fore-leg to its right hind leg, thereby hobbling the animal and stopping it from wandering too far.

Michael Considine… emigrated to the United States of America around 1870. He left intending to make enough money to send for his sweetheart so they could be married. Her name was Mary MacNamara, and she is mentioned in the original song as ‘Mack the Ranger’s daughter’.

Considine worked in Boston for two years or so before moving to California. In failing health, he wrote the poem in memory of the hometown he would not live to see again and posted it to his young nephew in Ireland. Michael Considine died in California in 1873 at the age of twenty-three.

The rendition of the late singer/songwriter Robbie McMahon, who died in 2012 at the age of eighty-six, is widely regarded as the definitive version of Spancil Hill. [There is an external link in the Wikipedia article, from which the information above is taken, on Spancil Hill of Robbie singing the song in Dublin in 1993- it’s worth checking out.]

A lilter, he was renowned for his performance of the Mason’s Apron, in which he simulated the sound of both the fiddle and accompanying banjo.

Possessed of a store of jokes, ranging from the hilarious to the unprintable, he was as much a character as a singer and was more comfortable with the craic and banter of casual sessions than with formal concerts.

He was the subject of a film documentary Last Night As I Lay Dreaming. Clare County Council hosted a civic reception in his honour in 2010, and he was the recipient of the Fleadh Nua Gradam Ceoil in 2011.

The best known version of the song is that sung by the Dubliners and Christy Moore, which is highly abbreviated and makes a number of changes to the lyrics – for example renaming the protagonist “Johnny” instead of “Mike”, and describing his love as daughter of a farmer instead of the local ranger. (Notes above from The Irish Times obituary of 29 December 2012.)

I first learned the song from a Johnny McEvoy record in 1972 and I sang it around Wollongong when we moved there. At present, Sam the Man sings it with our group Banter (now in suspended animation thanks to the virus).

Here I use Band-in-a-Box/Real Band and n-Track 9 to present a folk-pop version with drums, bass, piano, two guitars, mandolin, fiddle and harmonica (not all playing at once!) If you want to check out the version that is closer to the Banter sound go to Song 44 and compare.

If I ever get around to re-recording the song, I will sing the Robbie McMahon version as truer to the original poem.

Spancil Hill (redux)

The Old Maid in the Garret

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

The Old Maid In The Garrett was recorded by The Clancys , The Flying Column , Steeleye Span, The Dublin City Ramblers. This song dates to the 17th century but the lyrics here are 19th century[sic?] by Martin Parker from London- Not a song you would hear a lot of women sing. A garret is a habitable attic ( loft) or small and often dismal or cramped living space at the top of a house. This was the least prestigious position in a building, and often had sloping ceilings.(notes above by Martin Dardis from his great site, irish-folk-songs.com)

However, when I went looking for Martin Parker, songwriter of 19th Century London I was thrown back a couple of hundred years to:

Parker, Martin (fl. 1624–1647), ballad writer, is an obscure figure. He was probably a Londoner, as his writings were most closely associated with metropolitan culture, though his stories are populated by northern lasses, and were read throughout England. (The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.)

Martin Parker (c. 1600 – c. 1656) was an English ballad writer, and probably a London tavern-keeper. About 1625 he seems to have begun publishing ballads… John Dryden considered him the best ballad writer of his time. His sympathies were with the Royalist cause during the Civil War, and it was in support of the declining fortunes of Charles I of England that he wrote the best known of his ballads, When the king enjoys his own again, which he first published in 1643, and which, after enjoying great popularity at the Restoration, became a favourite Jacobite song in the 18th century. Parker also wrote a nautical ballad, Sailors for my Money, which in a revised version survives as When the stormy winds do blow. It is not known when he died, but the appearance in 1656 of a funeral elegy, in which the ballad writer was satirically celebrated is perhaps a correct indication of the date of his death. A couple of quotations attributed to Martin Parker are given below:

Ye gentlemen of England/That live at home at ease,/Ah! little do you think upon/The dangers of the seas. This taken from Ye Gentlemen of England, (c. 1630), reported in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. Also: In ancient times all things were cheape/’Tis good to look before you leape/When come is ripe ’tis time to reape. From The Roxburghe Ballads (c. 1630), reported in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. 

(Notes above from the wonderful Wikipedia and Wikiquotes. If you use this resource, as I frequently do, donate something, when you can, to keep this free resource available to all)

This was one of the first songs I learnt when I was whaling away on my old acoustic and dreaming of fame and fortune- as you do as a young’un. Later, after we moved to Australia, (me, my wife and daughter), we sang this song as part of our set as a folk duo in Wollongong at a couple of restaurants that were trialling folk music as part of their offering to the grazing public (though not our young daughter- we left her with a baby-sitter whenever we went out for such occasions).

When Bridie would sing this song she would gaze kindly at me when she sang the words, There is nothing in this wide world that would make me half so cheery/ As a wee, fat man who would call me his own deary Not that I minded- I got, by far, the better of the deal!

Now, almost fifty years down the track, Banter features this song with Sam the Man taking the vocal credits: but, were you there, you could hear me bellowing the two-line chorus with him- this was when there was such a thing as singing in pubs and clubs. Our coronavirus experts tell us that such singing  is really a virus firehose. So, even, the singing of hymns in church is strictly verboten!

I use a Country Outlaw vibe for the instrumentation behind this version, which is sort of out there in left-field, (to use a term from baseball). And because we are still in lockdown, I get to sing the song.

The Old Maid in the Garrett

A Bunch of Thyme

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

The Sprig of Thyme, The Seeds of Love, Maiden’s Lament, Garners Gay, Let No Man Steal Your Thyme or Rue (Roud #3) is a traditional British and Irish folk ballad that uses botanical and other symbolism to warn young people of the dangers in taking false lovers. The song was first documented in 1689 and the many variants go by a large number of titles.(from Wikipedia)

The metaphor of the garden within which are found, the herb- thyme, and the flower- the rose, are potent symbols in song and literature. One can find such metaphors in the Bible and other texts stretching back millennia. If you want to know more about the meaning of flowers, google Floriography; or just check it out on Wikipedia. You will sink into a thicket of references bewildering in number, scope and meaning. The scents will send your head spinning.

That such a sweet-sounding melody is undercut by the symbolism inherent in the plants mentioned gives the song its peculiar force. Thyme and time are obvious homophones and  the warning in the first verse is telling. Tending your garden- chastity, and keeping it fair- preserving your virginity, leads to the admonition to “Let no man steal away your thyme”.

Verse two is a wistful remembrance of how precious and unrecoverable is that which brings all things to her mind- thyme.

Enters a lusty sailor in verse three and what follows, hot on the heels of the warned-against deed, is the consequence in verse four. Some say that consequence is the canker or sore on the skin- the rose which never would decay which is a manifestation of the dire underlying condition: syphilis- an untreatable and sometimes fatal venereal disease typically carried by those sailors who were frequenters of low establishments in far-flung exotic ports.

I have an idea that Christy collected the version he sings from a woman in England. And, according to an internet source (so it must be true…) he gave it to Foster and Allen which kick-started their career. Be nice if it were true.

I first heard this on Christy Moore’s LP Whatever Tickles Your Fancy which sported a cover photo of a young Christy leaning against a dart-board. No fancy or fanciful artwork at play here at all! This would have been in 1976. I brought it back from a holiday in Northern Ireland to Australia along with a bunch of other great folk albums, and the band I was in then, Seannachie, started to feature it.

In the 1990s, our mandolin player, Jim, featured this song as part of Banter’s repertoire. We haven’t performed it in the latest iteration of the group in the past few years, but I think it’s worth a re-visit and I’ll sing it if Jim doesn’t feel the urge. And if the virus gives us peace (and I’m not referring to the REST IN sort!) You can find Banter’s recording of it, featuring Jim’s singing, on Banter I- song 2 which was done around the table and not in public performance.

This arrangement features a couple of guitars, bass, Nashville drums, organ, mandolin and fiddle in a soft folk-rock mode.

A Bunch of Thyme

O’Sullivan’s John

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

Patrick “Pecker” Dunne (1 April 1933 – 19 December 2012]) was an Irish musician and seanchaí. [storyteller]

Dunne was born in Castlebar, County Mayo, “in the old county home”. His family were Irish Travellers originally from County Wexford, where his father was a fiddle player. He was one of Ireland’s most noted banjo players and was also proficient on the fiddle, melodeon and guitar, and was among an elite of Traveller musicians.

Dunne became known to a wide Irish audience from his regular busking at GAA sporting fixtures, particularly in Munster. Later he played in England, France, Australia and New York City, where he appeared with The Dubliners. He also performed alongside Richard Harris and Stephen Rea in the 1996 feature film Trojan Eddie.

He lived in Killimer, County Clare with his wife and four children. He died there, aged 79, and is buried in Burrane, near Killimer. (Thanks to Wikipedia for the notes above.)

Gifted musician, storyteller and activist Paddy Pecker Dunne has died.

In a statement, the Temple Bar Company said it regretted to announce his death at the age of 80.

“We were honoured to work with Farcry productions to facilitate a gala benefit concert for Pecker Dunne during the 2012 Temple Bar Tradfestival,” it said. “Our thoughts are now with his wife and family at this sad time.”

Artistic director of the Tradfestival Kieran Hanrahan praised Dunne’s musical abilities.

“The Pecker mastered the art and craft of many an instrument, the mandolin, the fiddle and the banjo,” he said.

“He was distinctively known for his most precious of gifts, his voice, and what that voice could deliver. It was the envy of some of the world’s most renowned rock, pop, folk and traditional singers.”

Dunne, a traveller, wrote songs and music to describe injustices and prejudices he and his community faced.

He busked nationwide and played with The Dubliners, who covered his song Sullivans John, and he also played with Christy Moore and The Fureys.

Some of the exploits and anecdotes he was renowned for telling were his meeting Woody Guthrie in Boston, his friendship and work with Richard Harris and playing New York’s Carnegie Hall.

His music career was marked with a gala benefit night at Dublin City Hall last January. (The above is taken from an obituary published by the Belfast Telegraph on December 20, 2012.)

I first heard this song in Wollongong in 1974 when Joe Brown, Bertie McKnight, Tony Fitzgerald and I formed the group, Seannachie. Bertie told me he heard it from the writer, Pecker Dunne. Tony, a Londoner of Irish descent and our main singer,would belt this out at venues around the Illawarra.

But I like the song from first I heard it and would sing it- almost as a party piece- at informal gatherings in various places down the decades. I brought the song to Banter and look forward to being able to sing it at a pub or club in front of an audience-remember that phenomenon from pre-COVID times?

I only use two chords for this song, say, C and Bb, which swings along in 3/4 time. Quite a few Irish songs can be rendered with just two chords. I guess some of us might look at all those three-chord trickers as virtual demi-gods!

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is a song written by Robbie Robertson and originally recorded by the Canadian-American roots rock group The Band in 1969 and released on their eponymous second album. Levon Helm provided the lead vocals. The song is a first-person narrative relating the economic and social distress experienced by the protagonist, a poor white Southerner, during the last year of the American Civil War, when George Stoneman was raiding southwest Virginia. The song appeared at number 245 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time.

Joan Baez recorded a version of the song that became a top-five chart hit in late 1971.

Then the concept came to him and he researched the subject with help from the Band’s drummer Levon Helm, a native of Arkansas. In his 1993 autobiography, This Wheel’s on Fire, Helm wrote, “Robbie and I worked on ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’ up in Woodstock. I remember taking him to the library so he could research the history and geography of the era and make General Robert E. Lee come out with all due respect.”

The last time the song was performed by Helm was in The Last Waltz. Helm refused to play the song afterwards. Although it has long been believed that the reason for Helm’s refusal to play the song was a dispute with Robertson over songwriting credits; according to Garth Hudson, the refusal was due to Helm’s dislike for Joan Baez’s version.

Ralph J. Gleason (in the review in Rolling Stone (U.S. edition only) of October 1969) explains why this song has such an impact on listeners:

Nothing I have read … has brought home the overwhelming human sense of history that this song does. The only thing I can relate it to at all is The Red Badge of Courage. It’s a remarkable song, the rhythmic structure, the voice of Levon and the bass line with the drum accents and then the heavy close harmony of Levon, Richard and Rick in the theme, make it seem impossible that this isn’t some traditional material handed down from father to son straight from that winter of 1865 to today. It has that ring of truth and the whole aura of authenticity. (notes from Wikipedia- donate if you can)

I first heard the song in 1971- the Joan Baez version. It wasn’t until years later that I came across the original when I watched the documentary by Scorcese, The Last Waltz in the mid-80s when I was living in Ballymena, Co Antrim in Northern Ireland. When Banter was formed in the mid-90s in western Sydney, Big Geordie introduced his take on the song to the band and we performed it, off and on, for the few years he was part of the band. It wasn’t until 2015, when Banter re-formed after a decade+ hiatus that I picked the song up and started to perform it.

Levon Helm’s refusal, according to Garth Hudson, to play and sing the song because of his dislike of Baez’s version strikes me as odd. However, we can’t check with the source as, alas, Levon Helm is no longer with us.

The version set down here is probably situated somewhere between Baez and Helm. Johnny Cash recorded a version that is worth a listen.

The Night they Drove Old Dixie Down

I’m Missing You


There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

Jimmy McCarthy, born in Macroom, Co. Cork, in 1953 wrote this song. Others may claim the honours, (and I have come across an imposter or two on the internet) but it is clear to me that he is the guy!

MacCarthy left school at 15 where he was unhappy and became a stable boy at Vincent O’Brien‘s place in Ballydoyle, but after five years between Tipperary and Newmarket, Jimmy returned home to help his father whose bad heart had led to the end of the business. He then made a living out of singing at pubs and was later busking in the streets of London and doing occasional concerts, opening for other singers’ gigs in Ireland.

MacCarthy is best known as a songwriter. Composing since the late 1970s, his songs have been recorded by many Irish artists including Christy Moore, Mary Black, Finbar Wright, Maura O’Connell, the Corrs and Westlife. “Ride On”, recorded by Christy Moore, is one of his best-known compositions. Moore also recorded MacCarthy’s songs “Missing You”, “Bright Blue Rose” and “Mystic Lipstick”. Mary Black, Maura O’Connell and The Corrs have recorded MacCarthy’s “No Frontiers”, while Black has also recorded his songs “Katie”, “Adam at the Window”, “Diamond Days”, “As I Leave Behind Neidín”, “Shuffle of the Buckled” and “Another Day” (Thank you Wikipedia for the notes above.)

I first heard Missing You  over twenty-five years ago when Bobby, who used to play with the group, Banter, featured this song as part of his repertoire. He left after a couple of years to return to Belfast. However, I didn’t pick it up until about five years ago. The song, as performed by Christy Moore, was the template for Bobby’s version all those years ago, and I guess I kept to that template here.

Jimmy McCarthy has written some of the most important songs from the folk revival in Ireland from the late-1970s onward. Our group has featured Ride On for at least 25 years and songs such as Bright Blue Rose, Katie, As I Leave Behind Neidin, and No Frontiers feature regularly in the Irish program Sam the Man, Ann King and I host every other Sunday for two hours between 10:00 a.m. and noon. It’s called A Touch of Ireland, and is broadcast on WOW FM 100.7, discoverable on the internet, if you want to check it out. At the moment, COVID has us locked out- but I anticipate we’ll be back in action from end June, 2020, God willing.

 I do like to track down originals, so, today, when I heard Jimmy McCarthy’s version (check it out on You Tube) I realised that his was the best version of all! Originals are usually best. If the band, Banter, ever gets together for public performances in the post-COVID dispensation, I think I’ll re-work the arrangement of the song and use  McCarthy’s vision as my template. P.S. Wikipedia spells Jimmy’s surname Mac, but I see it mostly as Mc. Take your pick (or shovel, should you prefer…)

I’m Missing You

It’s Heaven Around Galway Bay

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

This song I came upon by accident a couple of years ago. I was on You Tube listening to music of various kinds and came upon a Dublin City Ramblers take on it. I have since, listened to several versions but reckon that the DCRs is the gun version. A couple of us in the band were going through songs one night and I pulled out this song thinking that it might suit Sam the Man. He did sing it once or twice in practice but nothing eventuated.

Still in Lockdown (though with restrictions easing here in NSW) I decided to give it a go as the first song on Banter’s ninth collection. I am still so stuck in the 20th Century that I think in terms of LPs or CDs with 12 songs per disc. Actually, Banter, as a group has only featured on the first five collections.

And this only happened because several years ago we were putting together a set of songs and tunes for a good friend and former member of the group who was returning to Ireland for a last look before Parkinson’s claimed him. He wanted to share with friends and relations the music scene he had been involved in out here in western Sydney. Since then I have put down demos thinking that I’ll get the group to record the songs. But, as they say, it’s like herding cats or folding smoke. And, don’t get me wrong, I’m one of the cats, too!

I don’t know much about this song. It was written by Eamon O’Shea (who, I found out, was a man called Herman Weight who lived in the west of Ireland) He adopted the name because it sounded more Irish! Apart from that, I found out that he is better known as the composer of the song, Come Down the Mountain, Katy Daly. This was after a lengthy and fruitless search for the history of the “Galway” song. In no time at all I came up with oodles of stuff on “Katy Daley” but very little authoritative stuff about Herman Weight himself and the provenance of this song.

However, on Mudcat.org there are threads that may interest those who might want to carry on where, clearly, I have given up- see references to herding cats etc, above. Some were surprised that the song was not an American home-grown product and questioned its Irish origins. Below I include some text that may clear this up.

Last year, Richard Hawkins of bluegrassireland.blogspot.com wrote, after nearly sixty years ‘Come down the mountain Katie Daly’ continues to be widely known and sung here; and at “Bluegrass Omagh” this coming weekend, audiences will be able to see a living link with the song’s continuing endurance as a bluegrass classic, when Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers come on stage.

The song, with that title, was written and recorded by ‘Eamon O’Shea’ (real name Herman Weight) on Walton’s Dublin-based Glenside label and issued in November 1961.

In 1962 the first American recording of the song was made by the Bluegrass Playboys from Kentucky, with Joe Mullins’s father, Paul (Moon) Mullins on fiddle and vocals. It was later released on the Playboys’ album The world of bluegrass (Briar M-108). The song was a hit for them, became a bluegrass favourite, and was later recorded on the Rebel label (as ‘Katy Daley’) by Ralf Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys., adding the word ‘on’ (‘come on down the mountain’).

Unfortunately, I can shed very little light on It’s Heaven Around Galway Bay, which does not seem to attract the same amount of critical attention as its sibling. Not that it matters all that much. If I like a song, I’ll sing it. In this arrangement, I pay tribute to transatlantic musical cross-fertilisation by including, courtesy of PG Music’s Band-in-a-Box, bluegrass mandolin fills and the swinging American waltz guitars. Cead mile failte!

It’s Heaven Around Galway Bay

Joe Hill






There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

Joe Hill (October 7, 1879 – November 19, 1915),  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. An appeal to the Utah Supreme Court was unsuccessful. Orrin N. Hilton, the lawyer representing Hill during the appeal, declared: “The main thing the state had on Hill was that he was an IWW and therefore sure to be guilty. In an article for the socialist newspaper Appeal to Reason, Hill wrote: “Owing to the prominence of Mr. Morrison, there had to be a ‘goat’ [scapegoat] and the undersigned being, as they thought, a friendless tramp, a Swede, and worst of all, an IWW, had no right to live anyway, and was therefore duly selected to be ‘the goat’.” Joe Hill was executed by firing squad on November 19, 1915 at Utah’s Sugar House Prison. When Deputy Shettler, who led the firing squad, called out the sequence of commands preparatory to firing (“Ready, aim,”) Hill shouted, “Fire — go on and fire!”

Just prior to his execution, Hill had written 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.”

It generated international union attention, and critics charged that the trial and conviction were unfair. More recently, Utah Phillips considers Joe Hill to have been a political prisoner who was executed for his political agitation through song-writing.

In a biography published in 2011, William M. Adler concludes that Hill was probably innocent of murder, but also suggests that Hill came to see himself as worth more to the labor movement as a dead martyr than he was alive, and that this understanding may have influenced his decisions not to testify at the trial and subsequently to spurn all chances of a pardon.

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

Hill’s body was sent to Chicago, where it was cremated; in accordance with his wishes, his ashes were placed into 600 small envelopes and sent around the world to be released to the winds. Delegates attending the Tenth Convention of the IWW in Chicago received envelopes November 19, 1916, one year to the day of Hill’s execution (and not on May Day 1916 as Wobbly lore claims). The rest of the 600 envelopes were sent to IWW locals, Wobblies and sympathizers around the world on January 3, 1917.

One small packet of ashes was scattered at a 1989 ceremony which unveiled a monument to six unarmed IWW coal miners buried in Lafayette, Colorado, who had been machine-gunned by Colorado state police in 1927 in the Columbine Mine massacre. Until 1989 the graves of five of these men were unmarked. Another famous Wobbly, Carlos Cortez, scattered Joe Hill’s ashes on the graves at the commemoration.

Hill was memorialized in a tribute poem written about him c. 1930 by Alfred Hayes titled “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” sometimes referred to simply as “Joe Hill”. The lyrics were turned into a song in 1936 by Earl Robinson, who wrote in 1986, “‘Joe Hill’ was written in Camp Unity in the summer of 1936 in New York State, for a campfire program celebrating him and his songs …” Hayes gave a copy of his poem to fellow camp staffer Robinson, who wrote the tune in 40 minutes. Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger performed this song and are associated with it, along with Irish folk group The Dubliners and Joan Baez. (The notes above taken from a lengthy Wikipedia article-donate!)

I first heard the song, sung by Joan Baez in 1970.  Banter, since its formation over 25 years ago, has been performing this great song. This is another song fronted by Sam the Man and which I have purloined for this post. But then  again- it’s impossible to steal a great song which belongs to the wider world.

Joe Hill

The Galway Races

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

The Galway Races” is a traditional Irish song. The song’s narrator is attending the eponymous annual event in Galway, a city in the west of Ireland. The song was made famous in the UK in 1967 by The Dubliners. It has been recorded by many artists since that time. This Irish horse-racing starts on the last Monday of July every year. Held at Ballybrit Racecourse in Galway, Ireland over seven days, it is one of the longest of all the race meets that occur in Ireland. The busiest days of the festival are Wednesday, when the Galway Plate is held, and Thursday, when the Galway Hurdle and Ladies’ Day take place. The summer festival is the highlight of the business year for most local businesses as crowds and horses flock from all over the world to attend one of the world’s biggest race meetings.

The pub underneath the Corrib Stand, built in 1955, was for many years the longest bar in the world. It was replaced by the Millennium Stand which opened in 1999. Thursday is traditionally the busiest and most stylish day of the week-long Galway Racing Festival. Ladies compete for the coveted title of Best Dressed Lady or Most Elegant Hat. (notes above adapted from Wikipedia- great resource-donate)

Throughout Ireland people of all ages and occupations prepare for the Galway Races with a fervour that is almost religious in its intensity ‘The apparel oft proclaims the man’, wrote the Bard of Avon. Shakespeare would surely have loved the Galway Races where ‘all the men and women are truly players’.

Galway is about voices past and present; those of the late Michael O’Hehir, and the late Luke Kelly singing “As I roved out through Galway to seek for recreation…”  Galway is about horses. Horses with nodding heads and swishing tails, contentedly circling the crowded parade ring before the shrewdly appraising eyes of gamblers and horse-lovers alike.

It is about men with caps pushed back off their foreheads to betoken astonishment at the peculiarities of racing form. Imperturbable men who, minutes after losing heavily on an odds-on certainty, will endeavour once more to prise reluctant secrets from the same specious form book that deceived them in the first place.

Galway race-goers will queue good-naturedly for smoked salmon, hamburgers or baked potatoes. Aromas of freshly mown grass, leather saddles and pipe tobacco will commingle agreeably with the bouquets of brandy and fine wines. Irish dancers will jig to a lone banjo player or the combined strains of fiddle, flute and accordion.  (notes above taken from irishcultureandcustoms.com)

The Galway Races are the subject of At Galway Races, a poem by W. B. YeatsThere where the racecourse is/Delight makes all of the one mind/The riders upon the swift horses/The field that closes in behind./We too had good attendance once,/Hearers, hearteners of the work,/Aye, horsemen for companions/Before the merchant and the clerk/Breathed on the world with timid breath;/But some day and at some new moon/We’ll learn that sleeping is not death/Hearing the whole earth change its tune,/Flesh being wild again, and it again/Crying aloud as the racecourse is;/And find hearteners among men/That ride upon horses. Yeats, with his aristocratic bent, loved the ideal of “the horse”

 Notice from the organisers: The 2020 Galway Races will no longer go ahead as originally planned due to government intervention. Michael Moloney described the Galway Race Committee’s decision as ‘unavoidable’. It read: ‘In light of the evolving situation regarding Covid-19, for public health and safety reasons Galway Race Committee has reached the difficult but unavoidable decision that the 2020 Galway Races Summer Festival, due to be held from Monday 27th July to Sunday 2nd August will not be able to take place.

That bloody virus gets in everywhere and stuffs everything! Is nothing sacred? In our group, Sam the Man usually sings this but, as I have said before, “Lockdown Rules!” So, I have put together this Band-in-a-Box version featuring guitar, drums, bass, mandolin, bouzouki and accordion. ( I couldn’t find a fiddle that sounded right, sorry Mark.) I supply a lone vocal (but I do double the chorus) over the 127- bpm swung instrumentation.

The Galway Races

The Curragh of Kildare

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

The Curragh of Kildare, also known as The Winter, it is Past, is a folk song particularly associated with the Irish tradition. Elements of some versions of the song suggest that it dates from at least the mid-18th century. In the 19th Century the Curragh was used to rally the British Army and then, in 1922 onwards, the Irish Army.

The 5,000-acre plain in County Kildare had, since the earliest times when the legendary men of the Fianna were believed to have trained there, been a welcoming sward to military men. From the end of the sixteenth century onwards there are records of encampment there.

The camp attracted thousands of spectators and camp followers; that is, prostitutes, who soon earned for themselves the sobriquet of wrens. This term was applied to the women as many of them lived all the year round in the furze bushes which are the only ground cover on the plain.

The Curragh was the place chosen by Richard Talbot, Earl of Tyreconnell to prepare his Army for the cause of James II. Wellington passed through here on his way to the peninsular wars. It was the Crimean War (1855-1856) which led to the construction of the first permanent camp at the Curragh. Queen Victoria visited in 1861 to visit her son the Prince of Wales (Edward VII), who was serving in the Curragh, and to inspect troops. 

The history of the text is rather complicated. Versions were taken down at different times in Ireland by  various collectors. The song has also been collected  in Scotland and England; the singer Frank Purslow collected a version (The Winter’s Gone and Past) in Dorset. Petrie thought that it was an “old Anglo-Irish song” and argued that the Scottish versions were most likely developed from it.

Several printed ballad versions exist, under titles such as The Lamenting Maid. The most well-known version of the text, usually referred to by the title The Winter it is Past, is attributed to Robert Burns. He appears to have developed it from a popular stall-ballad, The Lovesick Maid, which referred to a highwayman called Johnson, who was hanged in 1750 for robbery in the Curragh. Burns polished the original text considerably and removed two stanzas referring directly to Johnson. The resulting ballad was published in the collection of the Scots Musical Museum.

Different airs have been used for the song. Petrie suspected that one had been composed expressly for the stall-ballad, probably in Scotland around 1750, but expressed an opinion that “the same song united to a melody unquestionably Irish has been […] known in Ireland […] for an equal or much longer period”. The tune used for Burns’ version has been identified as a (distant) relative of that used for the American ballad Fare You Well, My Own True Love.

The song as currently performed was popularised by The Johnstons, who are said to have received it from Christy Moore, who uncovered a version in a Dublin library in 1961. (notes above taken from Wikipedia and historyireland.com )

Did I know anything of the tangled history of the song before indulging in a bit of online research? Not a bit of it. But I do remember clearly The Johnstons singing this in the late 1960s. In my view, no one has come close to their version of this song in the half century since they recorded their take on it.

IMHO, the song has in it that indefinable “something” that all great songs possess. I don’t attempt to compete with the luminaries who have recorded this song down the decades, but merely offer my interpretation of this classic. No chorusing, just a straight ballad.

The Curragh of Kildare

Deportees

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” is a protest song with lyrics by Woody Guthrie and music by Martin Hoffman detailing the January 28, 1948 crash of a plane near Los Gatos Canyon…Guthrie was inspired to write the song by what he considered the racist mistreatment of the passengers before and after the accident. The crash resulted in the deaths of 32 people, 4 Americans and 28 migrant farm workers who were being deported from California back to Mexico…

A decade later, Guthrie’s poem was set to music and given a haunting melody by a schoolteacher named Martin Hoffman. Shortly after, folk singer Pete Seeger, a friend of Woody Guthrie, began performing the song at concerts, and it was Seeger’s rendition that popularized the song…

“Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)” has been described by journalist Joe Klein as “the last great song he [Guthrie] would write, a memorial to the nameless migrants ‘all scattered like dry leaves’ in Los Gatos Canyon.” The song has been recorded many times, often under a variety of other titles, including “Deportees”, “Ballad of the Deportees”, “Deportee Song”, “Plane Crash at Los Gatos” and “Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)”.  (from Wikipedia- a great online resource-donate!)

I remember when I first sang this song: it was 1969 and a group of long-haired students from the college I was attending (after a fashion) carted their guitars from Belfast to the beach at Bangor, County Down. We had been asked to provide the “entertainment” for the occasion. This 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. Hey ho.

In our wee group, Sam the Man sings the verses and I chime in on the choruses. With Jim on mandolin and Mark weaving harmony magic on fiddle, this is one of our better arrangements.

But Lockdown Rules specify ( yes, I wrote the rules) that since Sam ain’t here, I get to do the vocal. This is nothing like the way we do it. Courtesy of Band-in-a-Box, this version features two session guitarist big guns, Brent Mason and Jason Roller, who take pride of place in the arrangement. I don’t double up in the chorus as I want to give full access to the great playing of these guys. I hope my rendition here is a bit better than the effort on Bangor beach fifty years ago…

Deportees

Murisheen Durkin

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

The Irish folk song “Murisheen Durkin” tells the story of an emigrant from Ireland who goes to mine for gold in California during the California Gold Rush, 1849. The song is about emigration, although atypically optimistic for the genre. The name “Muirsheen” is a good phonetic approximation to the pronunciation of “Máirtín” (Martin) in Connacht Irish; it could alternatively be construed as a diminutive of “Muiris” (Maurice). A pratie is a potato, the historical staple crop of Ireland. “America” is pronounced “Americay”, as was common among Gaelic peoples around Ireland

The air to which it is sung is “Cailíní deasa Mhuigheo” (pretty girls of Mayo), which is a popular reel dating from the 19th century. The song reached prominence when Johnny McEvoy’s recording reached no. 1 in Ireland in 1966. (notes above from Wikipedia, my favourite online resource, to which I donate periodically.) Johnny McEvoy’s version, which was on our turntables soon after its release, also spurred the showbands to make the song a staple of the music venues throughout Ireland.

It has been recorded by lots of artists since this time, including, Christy Moore, The Pogues, The Dubliners and The Wolfe Tones. Into that august company, the group Banter intends to venture (if I have anything to do with it!) A couple of years ago when Jim was off to Belfast to visit relatives, Sam, Mark and I had a couple of practices where we canvassed a few songs that were blasts from the past. We never got round to including the song in any of our sets after Jim’s return; however, it might well make an appearance, if and when the venues for music re-open here in western Sydney.

Murisheen Durkin

I Was Only Nineteen

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

Only 19“, “I Was Only 19” or “A Walk in the Light Green” is the most widely recognised song by Australian folk group Redgum. The song was released in March 1983. Royalties for the song go to the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia

The song is a first-person account of a typical Australian soldier’s experience in the Vietnam War, from training at a military academy in Australia to first hand exposure to military operations and combat and ultimately his return home disillusioned and suffering from both PTSD and, it is implied, the harmful effects of Agent Orange.

Contrary to popular belief, the subject of this song volunteered for service in the Australian Army and was not conscripted. During the Vietnam War, Australian men did not become eligible for conscription until the age of 20.

Redgum’s lead vocalist-guitarist, John Schumann, wrote the song based on experiences he heard from veterans, particularly Mick Storen (his brother in-law) and Frankie Hunt. Schumann has said that “the power derives from the detail, provided by my mate and brother-in-law, Mick Storen, who was brave and trusting enough to share his story with me.”

For the live version, Schumann explained the title, “A Walk in the Light Green”, as referring to operational patrols in areas marked light green on topographical maps, where dark green indicated thick jungle, plenty of cover and few land mines and light green indicated thinly wooded areas, little cover and a high likelihood of land mines.

The lyrics include words, terms and place names particular to Australia and Vietnam:

  • ANZAC: Australian and New Zealand soldiers who fought in the world wars.
  • Canungra jungle warfare training centre in Queensland
  • Channel Seven: Australian television network.
  • Chinook: Military helicopter.
  • Contact!: Military term indicating an encounter with the enemy.
  • Dustoff: Casualty evacuation by helicopter.
  • Greens: Jungle Green Working Dress, the field uniform worn by the Australian Army between the early 1960s and 1989.
  • The Grand Hotel: A hotel in Vung Tau that had been converted for Army use.
  • Light green: parts on a map which indicated supposedly more dangerous areas for soldiers to patrol as there was little dense foliage and cover and an area which was more likely to be mined.
  • Nui Dat: Village in Southern Vietnam, and the main base of the 1st Australian Task Force from 1965 to 1972.
  • Puckapunyal: Former Army enlisted soldier recruit training centre in Victoria.
  • Shoalwater: Military exercise area in Queensland.
  • Sixth Battalion:: (aka 6RAR) Australian army battalion, whose D Company had been involved in the Battle of Long Tan during a tour three years earlier.
  • Slouch hat:: Parade head-dress for the Australian army.
  • SLR:: Standard 7.62 mm semi-automatic rifle issued to Australian infantrymen during the Vietnam War.
  • Tinnies: Cans of beer.
  • Townsville: City in Queensland, home of the Australian Army’s 3rd Brigade & RAAF Base Townsville. Also at the time the embarkation point for troops shipping to Vietnam from all around Australia, because it was the biggest port in Northern Australia.
  • VB: Victoria Bitter (beer). Was also used as a reference to one’s comrades in arms aka “Venerable Brethren.” e.g: “We made our tents a home VB with pin-ups on the lockers, and an Asian orange sunset through the scrub.” (A reference to the defoliant, “Agent Orange” used prolifically in Vietnam).
  • Vung Tau:: Coastal city in Southern Vietnam which was the 1st Australian Logistics Support Group base and a rest area for troops based at Nui Dat.

( Thanks to Wikipedia for the notes above- I’ve included the glossary of terms to help non-Aussie listeners understand the lyrics)

Five years ago, in post on this site (SQ 6- A Touch of Ireland) I recorded the following about the small township of St Marys, as it then was, on the banks of South Creek, on the Cumberland Plain at the foot of the Blue Mountains in New South Wales: Lines of a local poet, George Sullivan, recall those idyllic days:

DC-1914-27-d-Sarajevo-cropped

If only Victoria Park could speak/ What wondrous tales from it you’d share, /About those careless, happy days/ When it was called ‘The Square’./ It could tell of all the bullocks/That were roasted on its green;/Of the glorious games of football/By sportsmen strong and clean./ It could tell of games of cricket,/ Of how the wickets soon did fall/When demon bowlers, Royal and Tolhurst,/Did send down the ball.

The names of all too many of those sportsmen strong and clean would be inscribed in bronze on tablets marking the fallen in the Great War, and subsequent wars, on the octagonal Rotunda. The phrase, strong and clean emerges 60 years later when  Redgum sang, This clipping from the paper shows us young and strong and clean/ And there’s me in me slouch hat and me SLR and greens/ God help me, I was only 19.

VietnamVung-Tauhelicopter_w

So, the tropes that helped describe the ANZACs of the Great War in 1914-1918, strong and clean, were also used fifty years later in Vietnam. And I’m sure they filtered down the decades into Iraq and Afghanistan

I first heard the song when I was teaching at a High School south of Townsville in 1989. The VP put the song on cassette as part of the ANZAC Day commemoration. The students just shuffled around a bit in the tropical heat- not their sort of music, I guess. But I was captivated by the detail in the lyrics as well as the melody.

When I got back to Sydney in the mid-1990s the group I helped form, Banter, made the song part of the repertoire. Big Geordie sang the song with real bite. Our interpretation speeded up the song, and with acoustic folk instrumentation supported by thumping bodhran, was quite distinct from Redgum’s more sombre, funereal original.

In 1997, during a performance of the song, at The Henry Lawson Club in western Sydney, I noticed a guy of fifty-something, bearded and with greying long hair, watching the group intently. In passing (on the way to the bar for a beer after the song) I casually asked him how he was enjoying the set. He looked at me for a while and said, “I thought at first you were taking the piss- but decided there was no disrespect intended.” He was a Vietnam Vet. I assured him that, far from dissing anyone, we were honouring the soldiers who served.

Big Geordie is no longer with the group and we have discussed, from time to time, restoring the song to our sets, but no one yet has volunteered to step up and take it on. Maybe…..

I Was Only Nineteen

The Green Glens of Antrim

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

Who wrote the damned thing? I thought I would just do a bit of an internet search, or, refer to my good mate Wikipedia, and be able to get out of here in a para or two!

Guess what? I discovered next to bugger-all. Now, I really don’t care if the tune and/or lyrics come from Timbuktu or Ulan Bator. My test is simple: if I like it, I sing it. If this makes me less than a purist- so be it, and, as and one of my Aussie mates might say, if you don’t like it: Go bury your head in a dead bear’s bum.

 I did get some somewhere by going to Mudcat.org, which is a great site that I have zoned into over the decades, in pursuit of various snippets: I discovered this: ‘The Green Glens of Antrim’ is a song I grew up with hearing regularly, in the heart of the Glens – Cushendall… The Green Glens of Antrim was written by Archie Montgomery (under the pseudonym of Kenneth North) and published in 1950. 

Now, Archie Montgomery sounds Scottish. From living in the Glens from 1964 to 1972 (off and on), I can attest that the Glens were a magnet for Scottish visitors in the 20th Century, right up until the time that the latest iteration of the  “Troubles” put paid to casual tourism.

For me, there is no problem about the provenance of a song: if there is a connection made, then it must be right! There is no doubt that this song resonates with many people down the years. It matters not a whit to me whether on not the composer was a native of the Glens of Antrim, or indeed, Ireland.

Maybe I can illustrate the point by reference to my own history and involvement in the Glens: I can remember that my father took his treasured AKAI reel-to-reel tape recorder down to a hotel where there would be a recital featuring the song. This would have been in the mid-1960s. He was proud as punch to be able to memorialise the event, as no one else in the village (Cushendall) has such equipment back then. I can remember him playing the tape for me in the front room of our home.

Now to me: in the early 1980s, after I had returned from Australia, I had the honour to direct a play by the local drama society which had been going for over 60 years- and for which my mother had been an early thespian in the 1920s. Obviously, I was good to go as director! It’s in the blood!

She tread the boards“, as one member said! “OK!” I said, “I’ll do it.” This, in spite of my having little to no experience of directing a bunch of headstrong actors. I learned later, that no one else was foolhardy enough to take on the challenge, and, a few had been approached! So, guess who was the bunny?

The play was Crime on Goat Island by Ugo Betti. Such outré choices are not unusual in Irish amateur dramatic circles, and I loved the play. I love literature and I recognised the quality of this play. I got a talented artist, Jimmy Crabbe, to design a fabulous poster. After heaps of rehearsals and competition, we got through to the All-Ireland Finals (confined section).

In other words, we didn’t have to compete against the big companies from Belfast, Dublin or Cork. But we were up against a lot of quality opposition from the rest of non-metropolitan Ireland: just ask around to see what the quality of Irish provincial amateur drama is (or was at that time). 

Anyway, we loaded up our sets and props and travelled south-west into the west of Ireland. We put on our dark, Italian drama. We got placed! Hey, did we want to celebrate? Of course. We chafed through the speeches and presentations and then…

We adjourned to the hotel in which a few of the travelling acts were billeted, and we started to drink to our successes (and near-successes). As the evening wore on, the Cushendall contingent grew more and more raucous. (We were, after all, from the Glens of Antrim…)

Someone, (it was not me, alas) started to sing: Far across yonder blue… within seconds, the actors, stage-hands, make-up artists, lighting and sound people, supporters,  and everyone else (including myself) associated with the Cushendall performance, began to sing, a capella, the quintessential song of the Glens, which is given below.

I have never heard a better rendition! What you hear here (do you like the homophone?) is a mild version, only. In my memory, the real thing would shatter your speakers and take the roof off your abode. Not Lying! Not Kidding! So, please, imagine the scene, and sing along.

The Green Glens of Antrim

The Augathella Drovers (Brisbane Ladies)

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

“The Long Paddock” is the colloquial name given to the historical travelling stock routes of Australia. “The Augathella Drovers”, also known as “Augathella Station”, “Farewell Brisbane Ladies”, or simply “The Drover’s Song” is an Australian folk song based on a well-known English original called “Ladies of Spain. The song bids farewell to the Ladies of Brisbane on the drovers’ departure and follows their journey along the stock route to the Augathella Station (nearly 800 kilometres inland) in much the same way that the English sailors bid farewell to the ladies of Spain. (notes above by Brett Thompson/fourandtwentymusic.com)

The lyric dates back to at least the 1880s and is credited to a jackaroo turned shopkeeper, named Saul Mendelsohn, who lived near Nanango. The place names used in the song were part of the route that cattle drovers used when returning from Brisbane to the cattle station at Augathella, which is located in west-central Queensland. 

Banter has gone over the song a few times in practice; however, we haven’t yet got the vocal and instrumental parts sufficiently together for public performance. I reckon it would go well with another great droving song, The Overlander, which is a staple of the group (have a listen to A Bit of Banter 41). If and when we emerge from lockdown to something approximating  the previously normal pub/club milieu, we may well rant and roar the song out…after a few soothing ales.  

The Augathella Drovers

The Sea Around Us

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

The Sea Around Us– Although he died over 30 year ago, the songs of Dominic Behan continue to be played around the world, especially by Irish bands and performers. Notable songs include, The Patriot Game (which he claimed, with much justification, was plaigarised by Bob Dylan for God On Our Side.), McAlpine’s Fusiliers, of which you’ll find a version elsewhere on the site, and Come Out Ye Black and Tans. He was a committed socialist and republican and he had a wide network of friends and collaborators in the media politics and arts. The verse below, from this song, demonstrates his acerbity and humour: Two foreign old monarchs in battle did join/Each wanting his head on the back of a coin;/If the Irish had sense they’d drowned both in the Boyne/And partition thrown into the ocean. One summer in the mid-sixties, my brother and I hitch-hiked to Bundoran, a holiday town on the Atlantic coast of Donegal. We stopped into a church hall to hear Dominic Behan perform: still a happy memory.

The notes above are taken from another version of the song on this site. A Bit of Banter- 63 features Sam the Man singing for a session we had almost a decade ago. Here, still in lockdown, I felt the urge to set it down again, and I think it can bear the repetition.

The Sea Around Us

Waltzing Matilda (Qld version)


There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

Waltzing Matilda” is Australia’s best-known bush ballad, and has been described as the country’s “unofficial national anthem”.

The title was Australian slang for travelling on foot (waltzing) with one’s belongings in a “matilda” (swag) slung over one’s back. The song narrates the story of an itinerant worker, or “swagman”, making a drink of billy tea at a bush camp and capturing a stray jumbuck (sheep) to eat. When the jumbuck’s owner, a squatter (landowner), and three troopers (mounted policemen) pursue the swagman for theft, he declares “You’ll never catch me alive!” and commits suicide by drowning himself in a nearby billabong (watering hole), after which his ghost haunts the site.

The original lyrics were written in 1895 by Australian poet Banjo Paterson, and were first published as sheet music in 1903

The Australian poet Banjo Paterson wrote the words to “Waltzing Matilda” in August 1895 while staying at Dagworth Station, near Winton owned by the Macpherson family.

It has been widely accepted that “Waltzing Matilda” is probably based on the following story:

In Queensland in 1891 the Great Shearers’ Strike brought the colony close to civil war and was broken only after the military were called in. In September 1894, some shearers at Dagworth Station were again on strike. The situation turned violent with the striking shearers firing their rifles and pistols in the air and setting fire to the woolshed at Dagworth, killing dozens of sheep. The owner of Dagworth Station and three policemen gave chase to a man named Samuel Hoffmeister, an immigrant said to have been born in Batavia also known as “Frenchy” Rather than be captured, Hoffmeister shot and killed himself at the 4 Mile Creek south of Kynuna at 12.30pm on 2 September, 1894.

In February 2010, ABC News reported an investigation by barrister Trevor Monti that the death of Hoffmeister was more akin to a gangland assassination than to suicide. The same report asserts, “Writer Matthew Richardson says the song was most likely written as a carefully worded political allegory to record and comment on the events of the shearers’ strike.” (Thanks to that great resource, Wikipedia for the notes above- donate if you can.)

On arriving in Australia, in 1972, this was one of the first Aussie songs I learned. In the mid-70s I played in a group called Currency and here’s where I learned the alternative music to the well-known lyrics. From lockdown, I present a version that has more than a trace of Country music in its iteration.

Waltzing Matilda (Qld version)

The Wild Rover


There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

Historically, the song has been referred to in Irish folklore and, since the late sixteenth century, it has been noted in written records—although it is likely that some northern Atlantic fishing crews knew the song before these historical accounts were made. The song is a staple for artists performing live music in Irish pubs. It is often considered to be a drinking song rather than a temperance song. For many people, the Wild Rover is the stereotypical Irish drinking song

“The Wild Rover” is the most widely performed Irish song, although its exact origins are unknown. The song tells the story of a young man who has been away from his hometown for many years. Returning to his former alehouse the landlady refuses him credit, until he presents the gold which he has gained while he has been away. He sings of how his days of roving are over and he intends to return to his home and settle down.

According to Professor T. M. Devine in his book The Scottish Nation 1700 – 2000 (Penguin, 2001) the song was written as a temperance song. The song is found printed in a book, The American Songster, printed in the USA by W.A. Leary in 1845, and spread from Scotland to America from the Temperance movement. There is another USA printed version in the “Forget-Me-Not Songster” (c 1850), published by Locke. An alternative history of the song is suggested by the fact that a collection of ballads, dated between 1813 and 1838, is held in the Bodleian Library

Raymond Daly and Derek Warfield of The Wolfe Tones describe how the fans of Celtic Football Club in Scotland  sing The Wild Rover at away matches. The chorus is well known throughout most English-speaking cultures, even among people who have no knowledge of the rest of the song. (Thanks to Wikipedia for the notes above. Do donate to a great site, if you can afford to.)

I first came across this song off the Dubliners 1964 LP and the song was a staple of the dance-halls in rural and metro Northern Ireland. The showbands of the time were nothing if not versatile: able to keep the punters entertained with songs from the Top of the Pops as well as Country staples from the USA. Add to the mix,  Irish folk songs and Ceili dance-tunes and you get the idea of what a night out was like in the mid-1960s in Ireland. It was a great time that has, alas, faded into the past.

Sam the Man helms the song in our wee group, Banter, but because the virus has us in lockdown, and, anyway, there are no venues open for live music yet, I get to sing it and share it!

The Wild Rover

Will You Come to the Bower

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

This patriotic song dates to the early 19th Century and thus is one of the earliest of the genre in English. On the surface it appears to be a love song. A bower is a seat found in leafy surrounds often used for romantic trysts or meetings- although this arrangement was usually found among the wealthy!

However, in the song, the bower is a symbol for Ireland herself, and the call in the song is for the Irish who have scattered to Europe and America as a result of British retribution during the rebellions in 1798 of the United Irishmen and the Emmet rebellion of 1803 to return to aid Ireland in her need- will you come to the bower.

This aid, according to some, would encompass armed insurrection as well as political agitation, which obviously had to be couched in code to escape the attention of the authorities. (Although, really, were the authorities so thick that they could not spot sedition in the lyrics!)

The song reached America by the 1830s because the tune was played as the Texan army, under General Sam Houston, marched against the Mexican forces led by Santa Anna, at the battle of San Jacinto on April 21st, 1836 which established the independence of Texas.  Remember the Alamo! the charging Texans yelled.

Over the years the song may have gained some overlays of reference as successive waves of Nationalists had to escape over the next fifty years. Nevertheless, it remains an early example in both its diction and melody of the patriotic impulse of the Irish and their love of Erin the Green.

The song references great Celtic heroes such as Brian Boru, who successfully repelled the Vikings; powerful clans, such as the O’Neills and O’Donnells as well as political figures such as Daniel O’Connell. It name- checks settlements throughout Ireland such as Dublin, Wexford and New Ross as well as bodies of water such as the lakes of Killarney and Lough Neagh; the rivers also get a mention, the Bann, the Boyne, the Liffey and the broad, majestic Shannon. And what broad-brush Irish song would fail to mention Ireland’s patron, St Patrick. (I am indebted to the website irishmusicdaily.com for some of the info above.)

The group Banter has yet to perform the song in public although it has had an outing in a couple of practices. When the virus thing is a pestilence past, we may well perform it, as it has great words and a rousing melody. I first heard this song from an early Dubliners LP in the late 1960s featuring the incomparable Luke Kelly on vocals. So, again, I here present a lockdown version featuring Band-in-a-Box etc.- which is great to have, but I would prefer having living, breathing musos behind me rather than the digital devices.

Will You Come To The Bower

Whiskey on a Sunday

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

Seth Davy with his dancing dolls,1900 A.D.

The song, written by Glyn Hughes around 1960, is also known as The Lament for Seth Davy, who died in 1902. Seth Davy was a Jamaican who performed in the square near the Bevington Bush Hotel. In the photograph above he can be seen with his dancing dolls entertaining a bunch of kids. The dolls were attached to a plank which he controlled by striking the plank with his hands.

I first heard the song in 1968, by Danny Doyle, who had a hit with it in Ireland. At that time, I was living between Belfast and the Glens of Antrim. I thought it was about Ireland, what with the mention of buttermilk and whiskey. But, when I started to sing the song a few years back I did a bit of research and discovered the true origin and context of the song. You are never to old to learn the truth about something!

The last three posts all cover songs about Liverpool but this is the only one that is native to Liverpool itself. The Leaving of Liverpool probably originates in America and Liverpool Lou was written by noted Irish songwriter, Dominic Behan.

Again, this is a lockdown version of the song. While I really rate the Band-in-a-Box and Real Band software as well as the n-Track recording app, I still prefer standing with my guitar onstage with Jim, my brother-in-law playing the mandolin, Mark, my nephew playing the fiddle and good friend Sam the Man, playing the bodhran. Our appearing in front of a pub or club crowd is still months in the future, I fear. In the meantime…

Whiskey On A Sunday

Liverpool Lou

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

The Liverpool folk/poetry band The Scaffold produced a version of Behan’s song “Liverpool Lou” in 1974 which became a top 10 hit in the UK and spawned covers in various languages across Europe. On the original Scaffold pressing, the writing credits were incorrectly attributed to Paul McCartney who had produced the record on behalf of his brother Mike McGear.

Behan advised the relevant authorities and had his rights to the song reinstated quickly receiving an apology from McCartney; Behan accepted McCartney’s explanation that his mother had sung the song and he thought it was a traditional work. Later pressings of the song were then correctly credited to Behan; the early McCartney-labelled pressings are particularly rare and collectible.

In a well-publicised interview, John Lennon dismissed the 1960s folk scene in his own country, describing it as “College students with pints of beer going hay-nonny nonny” but in the same breath, he praised Behan, from neighbouring Ireland, whom he said he liked. On Desert Island Discs in 2007, Yoko Ono selected Behan’s “Liverpool Lou” as her husband had sung it to their son as a lullaby. (notes above taken from that wonderful site, Wikipedia- donate, if you can.)

One of Banter’s main singers, Jim, usually fields this one, but, because of lockdown in force still here in Sydney, guess who ends up singing it on this release? By the way, I’ve recorded, more than one of the songs that are rightfully Jim’s or Sam the Man’s but I don’t know if I want to give them back now…

Liverpool Lou

The Leaving of Liverpool

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

“(The) Leaving of Liverpool” (Roud 9435), also known as “Fare Thee Well, My Own True Love”, is a folk song. Folklorists classify it as a lyrical lament and it was also used as a sea shanty, especially at the capstan.

It is very well known in Britain, Ireland, and America, despite the fact that it was collected only twice, from the Americans Richard Maitland and Captain Patrick Tayluer. It was collected from both singers by William Main Doerflinger, an American folk song collector particularly associated with sea songs in New York.

Maitland said he learned “The Leaving of Liverpool” from a Liverpudlian on board the General Knox around 1885. His version has the narrator leave Liverpool to be a professional sailor aboard a historical clipper ship, the David Crockett, under a real-life captain, Captain Burgess. This would date his version to between 1863, when John A. Burgess first sailed the David Crockett out of Liverpool, and 1874, when Burgess died at sea. 

Tayluer did not say exactly when he learned the song, but he was at sea by 1870, and Doerflinger generally thought his songs were older than Maitland’s. Tayluer did say that he believed the song originated during the Gold Rush, in 1849, and that it concerned a person leaving Liverpool to strike it rich in California and then return. 

“The Leaving of Liverpool” has been recorded by many popular folk singers and groups since the 1950s. The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem had a top 10 hit with the song in Ireland in 1964. The song has also been adapted by several artists, most notably The Dubliners and The Pogues. (The above info from the wonderful trove of stuff in Wikipedia. Donate to it, as I do, because it is worth preserving as one of the saner sources of knowledge among what you get on other free sites.)

I first heard the song in the mid-1960s from a Clancy Brothers record belonging to my parents. I have had a handwritten version of the lyrics in my song folder for over a quarter of a century and in all that time I have not sung it in public, nor has any of the group, Banter. Don’t ask me why, as it’s a great song. Maybe it is because it got over-sung and over-played in the folk revival in the British Isles in the 60s and 70s?

In any event, I was sitting in lockdown and happened across it as I was going through my folder. I think it deserves another airing- even though dozens of examples of the song are extant out there. I treat it as a lament, rather than the lustier versions that have been favoured by some artists.

The Leaving of Liverpool

The Lachlan Tigers

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

The Lachlan river runs through some of the best sheep raising areas of western NSW. To this region came the tigers of the shearing trade, the big gun shearers. This song pays tribute to their skill. Calling “tar” was not something you shouted out too loudly, according to Duke Tritton [the writer of The Sandy Hollow Line which I have recorded elsewhere on this site.] The tar was to stop the bleeding when a sheep was cut while being shorn. The same tune is used for ‘The Station Cook’ and ‘The Great Northern Line’ one of Sally Sloane’s songs. The tune is from the Scottish song ‘Musselburgh Fair’. From the singing of A.L. Lloyd. (notes taken from website folkstream.com)

Sheep shearing is probably the most iconic activity in rural Australia. At the start of the wool industry in the early 19th century, sheep were shorn with blade shears, similar to garden clippers. The first authenticated daily tally (amount of sheep shorn in a single day) was 30 sheep by Tome Merely in 1835. By 1892, Jack Howe managed a tally of 321 sheep at Alice Downs in Queensland.

In the intervening period, however, the rise of the wool industry meant that new inventions and processes were introduced to make shearing more time and cost efficient. Patents for shearing machines started to be granted from the 1860s and in 1882, a shearer called Jack Gray became the first man to completely shear a sheep using mechanical shears.

The method that most woolgrowers adopt was the Wolseley stand. Frederick Wolseley was an Irish-born pastoralist who had a sheep station near Sydney. His invention was a handpiece connected to a power source – originally driven by horse power, but later connected to an external engine. The handpiece relieved strain on the shearer’s hand and allowed the wool to be clipped up to three times closer to the skin than blade shearing. The new invention horrified thousands of shearers, who feared that the new efficient method would put many of them out of work. Powerful shearers’ unions were formed and a resolution forbidding union members to work in sheds with non-union workers led to a six-month shearers’ strike which crippled the wool industry in the eastern states of Australia. The woolgrowers held firm and eventually the shearers were forced to return to work, but the action laid the groundwork for the labour movement in Australia.

By 1900, machine shearing was the norm, although it was as late as 1949 when Jack Howe’s blade shearing tally was broken by a machine shearer when Dan Cooper achieved a total of 325 sheep by machine. (from the archives of The State Library of New South Wales)

My first encounter with Australian folk music was back in the mid-1970s when I was a part of a folk trio  named Currency Folk, with John Broomhall and Kevin Baker. We played a selection of Aussie folk songs here and there in the Wollongong area. On one notable occasion we played for an audience of wharfies at Port Kembla. They were a tolerant and somewhat amused audience as they watched three twenty-something middle-class teachers sing and emote about the struggles of the Australian worker!

From that time, I have grown to love Australian folk song and have sung a number from this vast repertoire in the decades since. At first, in my more ignorant phase as a twenty-something teacher, I thought that Australian folk music was derivative and inferior to the burgeoning Irish Folk revival that was headlined in the late 1950s with The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, continued with The Dubliners in the 1960s, then Planxty and The Fureys in the 1970s.

But, as I like to say, life is a learning process, or you are merely a dead man walking about and taking up valuable space. I have, over the decades, learned something of the subtleties and ingenious adaptations as words and music from other lands have made their way to Australia and been transformed into an authentic homegrown genre.

And talking about authenticity, this song was best performed, IMHO, by an Aussie called Big Geordie Muir, who sang with us in the mid-1990s at The Henry Lawson Club, in Werrington in western Sydney, of which he was the general manager. He hailed from out by Warragamba Dam, and his roots were proudly Scottish.  Here is my lockdown version which I present to you, without too much blushing, and only because of the exigencies caused by that bloody virus…

The Lachlan Tigers

The Jolly Beggarman

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

The Jolly Beggarman is believed to be King James V of Scotland, father of Mary, Queen of Scots. He was in the habit of wandering the countryside dressed as a beggar. There are lots of stories about various royals and members of the nobility roaming the roads, streets and lanes of their domain for a bit of excitement.

King James V actually wrote a poem in the 16th Century called The Jolly Beggar on which the verse of the song here is based. The chorus is inspired by the 19th Century Romantic poet, Lord Byron who was mad, bad and dangerous to know! He was one of my favourite poets when I was a teenager- and I still rate him highly today. Here is his exquisite and regretful lyric, We’ll Go No More a-Roving.

SO, we’ll go no more a-roving/So late into the night,/Though the heart be still as loving, And the moon be still as bright/.For the sword outwears its sheath,/And the soul wears out the breast,/And the heart must pause to breathe,/And love itself have rest./Though the night was made for loving,/And the day returns too soon,/Yet we’ll go no more a-roving/By the light of the moon. 

Jim, along with Sam the Man, are the main singers in Banter. I am content to be the Bronze Medallist, insofar as singing is concerned, within our group. But, here in lockdown, there is no competition! So, I have taken one of the songs that Jim habitually sings and unashamedly present it here.

There is an interesting contrast between the lusty verses inspired by King James V and the regretful chorus inspired by Lord Byron. I have sought to underpin this by having the vigorous instrumentation of the verse being undercut by the romantic strings in the chorus- see what you think.

The Jolly Beggarman

Her Father Didn’t Like Me, Anyway

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

I first heard this song from the singing of Eddie Furey and piping by Finbar, from, their Transatlantic LP The Dawning of the Day, released in 1972. Written by Gerry Rafferty (he wrote 1978s smash hit Baker Street from his LP City to City and Stuck in the Middle with You, later used in the film Reservoir Dogs.)

Rafferty was born on 16 April 1947 into a working-class family of Irish Catholic origin in Paisley, Scotland. He was a member of a folk-pop group, The Humblebums, along with comedian Billy Connolly who has often recalled this period, telling how Rafferty made him laugh and describing the crazy things they did while on tour. Once Rafferty decided to look in the Berlin telephone directory to see if any Hitlers were listed.

Rafferty went on to have a career that encompassed Britain, Europe, and America. He was widely admired  with many friends in the music industry. He died in 2011 after a varied and jam-packed career and, as happens to so many talented musos, after a long struggle with alcohol.

Speaking after the funeral, Charlie Reid of The Proclaimers said: “I think Gerry Rafferty was one of the few people who really successfully straddled the worlds of both folk and popular music. He did it really well and he was respected in both camps.” Barbara Dickson also paid tribute to her friend, whom she described as a “luminous, glorious Scottish musician”. 

Finbar Furey, who knew Rafferty for over 40 years, said he “was in a different league completely. He didn’t know how good he was. He was one of the most talented musicians and singers I ever knew but he completely underestimated his own talent. He was a very humble man.” I include the above, gleaned from Wikipedia as a tribute to a truly great talent. I have long sung this song as part of my repertoire.

Her father Didn’t Like Me Anyway

The Massacre at Glencoe

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

At the heart of Celtic beliefs is the sacred notion of hospitality. In Shakespeare’s Scottish Play,(I am not really superstitious but why take chances!) the protagonist ponders the breach of hospitality he is considering: He’s here in double trust:/First, as I am his kinsman and his subject,/Strong both against the deed; then, as his host,/Who should against his murderer shut the door,/Not bear the knife myself.

“The reigns of mythic kings were judged on their hospitality (or lack thereof). Once, when Bres, a warrior of the Fomorian people — the “bad guys” of Celtic myth — became king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, he quickly became renowned for his parsimony. Bards complained that visitors to his house could count on leaving with no smell of beer on their breath! Finally, a bard named Cairbre was fed up enough to write a satire about the ungenerous king—the first satire ever composed in Ireland. Its effect was blistering—literally—as it caused sores to burst forth on Bres’ face, blemishing him and making him unfit to rule.

Celtic hospitality is not just a matter of folklore and legend. One time I was in Banbridge, Co. Down, and couldn’t find lodging; I mentioned this to the owner of a pub and he spent the next half hour driving me around until I found a room for the night. An even better tale comes from a former student of mine, who had a flat tire once while traveling in rural Ireland. Stopping in front of a farmhouse and hoping to use the phone, he met the farmer who insisted on fixing the tire himself—and then the farmer’s wife invited my student and his family in for dinner. And of course, talk of payment was quickly squelched. “No need for that,” the farmer said simply.” (from a post by Carl McColman)

But we now travel back in time to the circumstances of the massacre. On the 13th of February, 1692, following the Jacobite uprising an estimated thirty-eight members and associates of Clan MacDonald of Glencoe were killed by government forces billeted with them on the grounds that they had not been prompt enough in pledging allegiance to the new monarchs, William of Orange and his queen, Mary.

Others are alleged to have died of exposure- estimates ranging from forty to one hundred. Many people think that this is a traditional song, including John McDermott, whose version I first heard, in the mid-1990s, on his double-platinum disc Danny Boy. Like so many mistaken claims made for songs being from the anonymous folk tradition, this song has, in fact, a known writer, Jim McClean, who wrote this moving ballad in 1963. I have performed this song at clubs in western Sydney over the years. Who knows when the virus will allow such gatherings to go ahead?

The Massacre at Glencoe

Fiddler’s Green

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

I first heard this song from the Dubliner’s album Plain and Simple in the mid-1970s. I do believe that Barney McKenna sang it- a rarity- for he usually just confined himself to being the best tenor banjo player in the known universe.

I learned from the Mainly Norfolk website that the song was, according to Danny Spooner, written by John Conolly in 1966, this song has become so much a part of the folksong culture that it’s often referred to as a traditional song—a great compliment indeed. Fiddler’s Green was a name for areas of docklands and ports frequented by sailors ashore. But over time the sailor’s imagination turned those districts into Utopia or even Heaven. Wouldn’t it be nice?”

Herman Melville describes Fiddler’s Green as a sailors’ term for the place on land “providentially set apart for dance-houses, doxies, and tapsters” in his novella Billy Budd, Sailor, in 1924.

Fiddler’s Green appears in Frederick Marryat’s novel The Dog Fiend,  published in 1856, as lyrics to a sailors’ song: At Fiddler’s Green, where seamen true/When here they’ve done their duty/The bowl of grog shall still renew/And pledge to love and beauty.

Many places associated with the U.S. Military have been named Fiddler’s Green, including:

  • The U.S. Marine Corps operated Firebase Fiddler’s Green  in the heart of the Helmand River Valley, in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
  • An artillery Fire Support Base in Military Region III in Vietnam  in 1972, occupied principally by elements of 2nd Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry.
  • The base pub at the Joint Forces Training Base, Los Alamitos, CA
  • Former dining facility used by 2nd Cavalry Regiment at Fort Polk, LA
  • An artillery only pub for the 10th Marine Regiment, Camp Lejeune, NC

The reason for this association is not immediately evident, but may stem from a poem The Cavalrymen’s Poem, also entitled “Fiddlers’ Green” which was published in the U.S. Army’s Cavalry Journal in 1923. Some of the lines are given below:

Halfway down the trail to Hell in a shady meadow green,/are the Souls of all dead troopers camped near a good old-time canteen,/and this eternal resting place is known as Fiddlers’ Green… Marching past, straight through to Hell, the Infantry are seen,/accompanied by the Engineers, Artillery and Marine,/for none but the shades of Cavalrymen dismount at Fiddlers’ Green. ( my thanks to Wikipedia for the information given above)

Now, this song is usually sung by Sam the Man, but, as we are all in lock-down I get to sing songs I like from both our main singers!

Fiddler’s Green

Come Up the Stairs

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

Come Up the Stairs A couple of years ago I attended a reunion, ninety minutes south of Sydney, in Wollongong of, Seannachie, the band I was part of in the 1970s. It was a memorable weekend starting with folk open-mic at a bowlo in North Wollongong at which I drank lots of Guinness and sang, The Streets of Forbes and Her Father Didn’t Like Me, Anyway. When asked for a few more songs later in the night, I had to demur, for obvious reasons.

I stayed with Joe Brown, the guitarist with the group. The next day we gathered at the house built by Bertie McKnight, the mandolin player. There, also, was Johnny Spillane, the whistle player and Tony Fitzgerald, the main singer of the group who had learned to play the guitar in the decades intervening.

We swapped songs and yarns all day and, after Joe and I  returned to his place, he found an old cassette and played this song from circa 1975 which I had learned from a Johnny McEvoy record a few years before. Anyone remember cassette players, apart from us oldies?

I had completely forgotten about it and determined to resurrect it for performance with the group I helped establish in western Sydney in the mid-1990s, Banter.

I placed a flamenco-flavoured introduction before the song proper and provided an outro of rolling chords, reminiscent of the sea- in my fancy- Am/C/F/E/Am/C/F/E/G…/Am… It has become one of the favourite songs in our repertoire. But this is only, as they say, a pale shadow of the live performance.

The song was written by Shay Healy, Irish broadcaster, songwriter, and journalist. He got the 9/8 tune from his mother who was a noted singer of old Irish traditional songs. This explains why so many people think this is an old song, but the lyrics were written by Healy sometime in the 1960s.

A piece of trivia- appropriate, perhaps, for this strange time of COVID lockdown: Shay Healy also wrote Ireland’s winning entry for the 1980 Eurovision Song Contest, sung by Aussie Johnny Logan. The song’s title: What’s Another Year? Oh Really? This year, 2020, will live in infamy- to quote FDR

Come Up the Stairs

Across the Western Plains

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

In the Irish tradition this is known as “All For Me Grog” and is sung with gusto. In Australia, having moved across the sea and moved inland, it slows down and becomes more wry and sombre. Here we find a swaggie, who has just sold his moke (a broken-down horse) for drinking money.

It was a feature of the various gold diggings in Australia for luckless scroungers to supplement their incomes by illegal fossicking on another’s claim. This was known as “plundering”. Our narrator is in an outback shanty bar where he has just spent all his money- or “plunder”. The subject of our song resolves to head back to the diggings and peg out a claim and settle down to some hard yakka (hard work).

The Dubliners’ 1967 version, is faster and jollier and features women. Alas, in 19th Century Australia, women were in short supply out in the bush, hence the difference in the second last line of the chorus where, instead of…I’ve spent all me tin with the ladies drinking gin, we get…I’ve spent all me tin in a shanty drinking gin. This may explain why the Aussie version is a lot more doleful.

You’ll also hear reference to the Darling Pea. This addictive plant is poisonous to livestock. A vet from that time describes the effects of Darling Pea on livestock, They lose the ability to judge where their feet are. They become wonky, fall over, appear to be blind, walking into things. Now what does that remind you of?

Across the Western Plains

Sweet Thames Flow Softly

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

I first heard the song in the early 70s from Planxty’s eponymous first album and determined to learn the song, adding an instrumental verse on Spanish guitar. Only last year, I re-visited the song with its instrumental adornment with the group, Banter. Here, though, is a Band-in-a-Box backing track with vocal. Who knows when we will be able to stand in front of a crowd (remember those times?) and do the band treatment of the ballad.

Robert Herrick’s 17thC poems say life is short, the world is beautiful, love is splendid, and we must use the short time we have to make the most of it. And he wrote that sentiment in lines we still recognise four centuries later: Gather ye rose-buds while ye may, /Old Time is still a-flying; /And this same flower that smiles today/ Tomorrow will be dying.// The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,/ The higher he’s a-getting,/ The sooner will his race be run,/ And nearer he’s to setting. I like to speculate that Ewan McColl was thinking of these lines when he wrote this song.

The Thames is one of the great rivers of the world, even though it is not very long in comparison the big rivers of this earth. It has history, romance, stories and poems galore, not to mention that it flows through London. Several times I have looked down on the bridges and Parliament as I have flown in to one or other of the big airports and never failed but be moved at the sight. Edmund Spenser the Elizabethan poet, in his poem, Prothalamion, ends each of the verses with the line, Sweet Thames flow softly till I end my song. T. S. Eliot, references this line in his modernist masterpiece, The Waste Land. McColl’s song has been covered by many, many artists and it is with great trepidation that I put my cover out there among such company. Anyway, have a listen to my version of Sweet Thames Flow Softly on SoundCloud and see what you think…

Sweet Thames, Flow Softly

North and South of the River

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

North and South of the River is a metaphor for the sectarian divide in Ireland which is over 400 years deep and still a factor in the life of that small island washed by the Atlantic waves. The divisions splitting our planet are various: religious, ideological, political, ecological, economic. You, too, can assuredly add to the tally.

Christy Moore wrote this with assistance from Bono and the Edge from U2. I first heard this sung at a club in Western Sydney in the mid-1990s. I took it up at about the same time and, a quarter of a century later, in lockdown, I present it here instead of at the same club, The Penrith Gaels, which is shuttered and, who knows when it will be open for business and live music.

North and South of the River

Moreton Bay

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

Patrick Logan became Commandant of the Moreton Bay penal settlement in 1826. He was hated by the convicts for his harsh methods. He did some exploring and was surveying the Upper Brisbane river when he was killed by Aborigines in 1830. Logan was a relentless flogger as shown in a sample record of his floggings that were noted in the diary of one of the prison clerks. This records 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, the convicts “manifested insane joy at the news of his murder, and sang and hoorayed all night, in defiance of the warders.” Bushranger Ned Kelly used lines from the ballad in his “Jerilderie Letter” in 1879 (“Port McQuarrie Toweringabbie Norfolk island and Emu plains and in those places of tyranny and condemnation many a blooming Irish man rather than subdue to the Saxon yoke were flogged to death and bravely died in servile chains.”)

In 1911, Bushranger Jack Bradshaw printed a version in his True History of the Australian Bushrangers . Bradshaw printed the song again in Twenty Years of Prison Life in the Gaols of NSW attributing it to “poor old Frank McNamara”. Francis MacNamara (Frank the Poet) recited it as he stepped off his convict ship in 1832 at Sydney Cove.

MacNamara was subjected to all the brutality of the convict system in Australia, and was to spend years in various penal settlements. He served time in Port Arthur in Van Diemen’s Land concurrently with John Kelly, Ned Kelly’s father. No doubt it was there that Kelly learnt MacNamara’s ‘The Convict’s Arrival’ or ‘The Convict’s Lament on the Death of Captain Logan’ which we now know as ‘Moreton Bay’. Francis MacNamara wrote many fine poems including ‘The Convict’s Tour of Hell’, ‘The Cyprus Brig’ and one of the many versions of ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’. He used to begin his recitals with the following verse: 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! My thanks to folkstream- Australian Folk Songs for the info above.

Moreton Bay borrows the tune of an old Irish air, Eochaill. As Frank the Poet wrote about his convict experience in or shortly after 1830, it precedes by seventy years or so, P. J. McCall’s borrowing of it for his well-known song Boolavogue, which commemorates the campaign of Father John Murphy and his army in County Wexford during the Irish Rebellion of 1798. It was composed in 1898, the centenary of the Rebellion.

The singer in our group, Sam the Man, will probably be irate that I am singing his song, here. However, he’s in lockdown miles away and I’m at a loose end, so…

Moreton Bay

Gentle Annie

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

Stephen Foster wrote this in 1856- based on an Irish melody. The song went to England, then, later, to Australia where it acquired these lyrics by Lame Jack Cousens of Springhurst, Victoria, who was a travelling thresher. I first heard this sung by Johnny McEvoy c. 1971 in Co. Cork at my brother Jim’s place. There is a different song of the same name by Tommy Makem which is also worth a listen.

Stephen Foster wrote over 200 songs. Among his best known are Oh! Susanna, Hard Times, Campdown Races, Old Folks at Home, My Old Kentucky Home, Jeannie with the Light Brown Hair, Old Black Joe, and Beautiful Dreamer.

He died early, of fever, at the age of 37. The wowsers of the time were quick with the label, drunkard, but somehow overlooked the quality and quantity of his song-writing. Thirty years after his death, one reporter described him as paying “the penalty of an irregular life, being “weak-willed”, and writing songs about people of “a pathetic character”.

So, you see, he had a lot of detractors, of a mind like that anonymous reporter. And, like that reporter, they are also now unknown nobodies while Stephen Foster lives on in his songs that we, and so many people of good heart, around this wonderful world, SING!

The ways that music and words travel across continents from culture to culture and change to suit the circumstances of the place and time attest to the strength of folk music as a genre. It took fifty years from the time I first heard the song in Co Cork to when I took it up as a part of our repertoire.

Again, this rendering is just a shadow of what a live performance with guitar, fiddle, bodhran, mandolin and voices in chorus can deliver. I am looking forward to the time when, along with the rest of the world, we can meet in convivial groupings in bars and pubs and clubs to enjoy the fellowship of others’ company

Gentle Annie

Rosalita and Jack Campbell

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

Rosalita and Jack Campbell was written twenty years ago or so by Sean Mone of Keady, Co Armagh about the terror of drive-bys and targeted assassinations in Belfast in the early 1970s. In it he presents us with a couple who live for country music, (then called country-and-western). Anita sings in a bar and Jack just loves to have a pint and listen to her perform. He channels the ethos of the southwest border territory of the US along the Rio Grande. The songs of Anita and the figurings of his imagination evoke dusty, sunlit vistas populated by Cowboys, Indians and heroic one-on-one gunfights.

One night, after Anita’s performance, they set off homewards and call into their local chippy for a takeaway meal where they entertain the queue by dancing around the joint and singing. This mundane scene transmogrifies to nightmare when “street demons come out to dance”; that is, a sectarian assassination squad in a car, looking for a victim, any victim, cruise by and shoot Jack Campbell dead.

Anita never recovers, spending the dwindling years in her room consuming Prozac and Gin. The song posits a more heartening coda where Rosalita (a.k.a. Anita) and Jack Campbell dance off into the sunset along the Rio Grande.

I first heard the song earlier this year from Christy Moore’s singing. It is far from the first song of his that I’ve covered and it won’t be the last, God willing.

It brought me back to my years in Belfast; first, as a teenager, from 1966 to mid-1968 when I spent weekends going to music venues with my girlfriend (later, wife); then, from late 1968- mid 1972 where I attended St Joseph’s College of Education, known colloquially as Trench House, for a teaching degree. I saw Belfast turn from a vibrant, modern city into a bitter, sectarian battleground in those short years. The descent into hell did not take very long at all.

From late 1969 to mid 1970, I lived in a dingy one-room bedsit near Carlisle Circus at the bottom of the Antrim Road. Across the landing lived a boozy journalist from The Belfast Telegraph who would regale me of tales of the dark doings of British special forces and various loyalist and republican groupings. The stuff he knew curdled my blood, even if he did, perhaps, exaggerate for effect.

In July 1971 I got married and, in 1972, moved into a small house in a lane just off the Whiterock Road with my wife and infant daughter. There, we experienced the increasing violence that internment without trial spawned and witnessed (but mostly heard) skirmishes between the IRA and British forces on that road where we could read, from our upstairs bedroom window, the graffito on the cemetery wall, Is There a Life Before Death? In answer to this question, we left the first setting of our married life for Australia in September 1972.

Hearing the song brought it all back, because, not just ourselves, but just about everybody in Belfast and Northern Ireland has been touched by such a shooting or other instance of violence associated with the “Troubles”. Anyway, here’s the song.

Rosalita and Jack Campbell

The Holy Ground

a-storm-image

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

It is 1816, a sailing ship limps past Roche’s Point, its rigging all torn. Exhausted mariners, returning after months at sea, perform their duties in desultory fashion but begin to perk up as they round Spike Island and spot the rows of terraces rising above the quay in Cove.

a-holy-ground-image

They swarm ashore and make for the places of entertainment for lonely and thirsty sailors in the section of town known as The Holy Ground. Soon they make the rafters roar with their shouts and songs, calling for strong ale and porter as the serving girls move among them, sometimes tumbling into the willing lap of a lusty tar. This is part of a post I published five years ago when the world was a different place.

The Holy Ground exists outside the lusty taverns of 19th Century, Cork. There is sacred ground everywhere, and some, say with the perspective of astronauts looking back at the blue dot from the vastness of space, would characterise all of this earth as holy or sacred ground. That so much of it (to say nothing of the waters around and flowing through it; or the air which passes over it) is despoiled by violence and pollution and injustice makes one wonder if Gaia herself is unleashing pestilence such as SARS-CoV-2 to teach us a salutary lesson.

And so, from lockdown, I present another song that, Deo volente, we, as the group, Banter, will be able to play again in public. These songs are nothing like the real songs which are played in front of crowds enjoying the moment- but, perhaps, it is better than silence.

The Holy Ground

Champion at Keeping Them Rolling

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

This song was written in the 1950s by Ewan McColl about the truckies who plied their trade throughout Britain before the advent of the motorways when roads were treacherous and rigs were prone to breakdowns. To wrangle the gears on these old beasts you needed finesse and strength. This particular version of the song I dedicate to the memory of John Reddington, married to my wife’s sister, who gave me, from time to time, employment on his lorry, when I was a teen, as he travelled around the place with a variety of loads. One of his son’s, named John also, kept up the family tradition by trucking around Ireland, Britain and Europe (or he used to).

Ewan McColl used the music of the Irish song, The Limerick Rake, for his account of the truck drivers of England in the decade after the end of the second world war.

Champion At Keeping Them Rolling

Down by the Glenside

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

Down by the Glenside (The Bold Fenian Men)” is an Irish rebel song written by Peadar Kearney, an Irish Republican and composer of numerous rebel songs, including “The Soldier’s Song” (“Amhrán na bhFiann“), now the Irish National Anthem and “The Tri-coloured Ribbon”.

Kearney was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, popularly known as the Fenians. He wrote the song about the time of the 1916 Rising. It evokes the memory of the freedom-fighters of the previous generation (strong, manly forms…eyes with hope gleaming), as recalled by an old woman down by the glenside. It is effectively a call to arms for a generation of Irishmen accustomed to political nationalism.

Three verses to this song were sung by Ken Curtis and The Sons of the Pioneers in the 1950 John Ford movie Rio Grande.

The song became popular again in the 1960s, when it was recorded by The Clancy Brothers. It has since been recorded by numerous artists, including The Dubliners, Cherish The Ladies, Omnia, Screaming Orphans, Jim McCann, Harry O’Donoghue, and The Wolfe Tones.

The song is also sung in the first episode of the BBC series Days of Hope, written by Jim Allen and directed by Ken Loach. An Irish barmaid is forced to sing after being sexually harassed by British soldiers and impresses them with her song.

The info here above courtesy of Wikipedia which I often access and donate to.

I have long admired the song, even though I omit the third, original verse which details the old woman’s thrill at seeing a previous generation of bold fenian men drilling when she was young.

Another member of the group usually sings this in our practices, but, as he is not here…

Down By the Glenside

Viva La Quinta Brigada

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

(Notes for VLQB taken from Wikipedia, a marvellous resource I urge everyone to support.)

Viva la Quinta Brigada  (listed as Viva la Quince Brigada in later recordings) is a Christy Moore song about the Irishmen who fought in the Spanish Civil War against Franco. The title was inspired by a Spanish song about the war,Viva la Quince Brigada.

Moore wrote this song choosing to focus on the Irish socialist volunteers (who in later years became known as the Connolly Column) who were a small contingent within the 15th International Brigade. The tune which he used was substantially similar to the version of Viva la Quince Brigada recorded by Pete Seeger and the Almanac Singers in the early 1940s.

The song was inspired by Spanish Civil War veteran Michael O’Riordan’s book Connolly Column.

Moore said: Without Michael O’Riordan I’d never have been able to write Viva la Quince Brigada. I must have performed the song over a thousand times and every single time I sing it I think of Mick and wonder how can I ever thank him enough. In Spain in 1983 I was reading his book, Connolly Column – the story of the Irishmen who fought for the Spanish Republic, and I began this song as I read on. The song was lifted entirely from his book.

Moore’s original song title – which translates as “Long live the Fifth Brigade” – was a slip due to the similarity in Spanish between “quinta” (fifth) and “quince” (fifteen). The bulk of Irish volunteers served with the XV (Fifteen) International Brigade; the “Fifth Brigade” was not one of the International Brigades. The song later appeared listed as Viva la Quince Brigada as Moore corrected the mistake in subsequent recordings. Both titles are correct however, originally there were ten brigades in the Spanish army, the five international brigades were then added to the list making the 5th International Brigade the 15th Brigade of the Spanish republic.

Robert Martin Hilliard (7 April 1904 – 22 February 1937) was an Olympic boxer, Irish republican, Church of Ireland minister and, later, communist. He was killed in the Spanish Civil War fighting in the International Brigades.

Name-checked were men from all parts of Ireland, Catholic, Protestant and of no faith, including Bob Hilliard who ended his life as an atheist. In later versions of the song, Christy amended locales of a couple of the people name-checked but I have stuck to the version I learned a quarter of a century ago.

Viva La Quinta Brigada

The Patriot Game

There’s no fool like an old fool, they say, so what happens when a bunch of oul’ coots gather together to make music? The next batch of posts may enlighten you as to the question just posed and may also, perhaps, enrage or entertain. Anything’s better than a yawn, I guess. And everything that is not that bloody virus is a plus. At the moment we can’t meet as a group, as we are in lockdown, so I have set out a version of songs that are in our repertoire but which have not yet been recorded. With any luck (and, as three of us are north of 70, we’ll need it!) we will be able to resume our normal practice of meeting weekly and playing tunes, singing songs and generally enjoying the crack.

The Patriot Game was written by Dominic Behan to the tune of an Irish traditional song, The Merry Month of May . Its narrator is Fergal O’Hanlon, who was a member of an IRA team who attacked the RUC barracks at Brookeborough, Co. Fermanagh on New Year’s Day, 1957. He, along with Sean South from Limerick, was killed; also killed in the attack was a young Catholic constable, John Scalley. I sang the song many years ago at a pub in western Sydney and a couple of blokes there objected to the “IRA song”. Yet, I view the song as an example of the tragic deaths fuelled by love of country, particularly of young men. Interestingly, Christy Moore notes that the song is often requested at his gigs by British soldiers. Dominic Behan once, in a phone conversation, furiously berated Bob Dylan who had used the song as a template for his composition, With God On Our Side”. Dylan suggested that their lawyers should meet to discuss the situation. Behan retorted that he only had two lawyers, and they were at the end of his wrists. The version I sing retains the slighting reference to the first Irish President, Eamon de Valera, but omits the verse that justifies the killing of police officers. Yes, it is a controversial song, but, IMHO, worth singing, nevertheless.

The Patriot Game

Take This Frame Away


In my first journal entry for the sequence The Summa Quotidian in 2015, I mentioned the fact that it had been fifty years since I had written my first song. For this concluding entry to the sequence, A Bit of Banter, I wish to record the fact that the song included here took me fifty years to complete. I wrote the first part as a 17-year-old, pimply, schoolboy on the inside cover of a Clancy Brothers songbook that I had been working my way through. I added to it over the years, putting a final touch to it

Clancy Bros

three years ago, when I was 67. A couple of other examples from the 120 songs in The Summa Quotidian, also underwent a similarly, leisurely (some might aver, slothfully) compositional process. By comparison, the 56 songs recorded over a period of three months during the pandemic achieved warp-speed!

Two days ago, before dawn on Anzac day, April 25th, I stood in my driveway and listened to the broadcast from the Australian War Memorial. I set a candle on my letterbox and, IMG_0011glancing up and down the street saw men and women, at the end of their driveways, paying silent tribute to the fallen. A 70-something veteran with a chest full of medals walked past and we nodded a greeting. After the ceremony, I returned to my home where we are in lockdown and thought, this was good, nothing like it before or, perhaps, after. The tens of thousands of Australians who shared in this experience will remember it for the rest of their lives- long or short. 

Some Millennial commentators have welcomed the advent of SARS-CoV-2 as an efficient CoViIDBoomer Remover. Unfortunately for them, it does not so finely discriminate. While those of retirement age are more heavily afflicted, the virus does strike down many of those in their demographic as well. Careful what you wish for, eh?

Have you noticed that the crisis engendered by the pandemic has brought people of real worth to the fore? Not the vain-glorious bloviating buffoons who, hitherto, pranced across the (inter)national stage. I’m thinking about media-hungry politicians and the gross (and grossly overpaid) shock jocks. But now, quietly spoken experts in epidemiology, nurses, doctors, check-out operators and shelf-stackers in supermarkets, paramedics, truck drivers and public transport employees-to name but a few- have engaged the respect of the public by their willingness to step forward in these strange time and do their duty, fully mindful of the potential consequences for themselves and their families. Meanwhile, the self-absorbed, pollies and celebs flout the regulations as if they don’t apply.

I’m now north of seventy years old with a handful of co-morbidities. My wife’s sister-in-law has died from coronavirus (on April 6, 2020, in Northern Ireland) and will be buried next to her mother in a small country graveyard in Rasharkin, County Antrim. celtic crossShe is the first person in our family circle to have been taken from us by the pandemic (May she rest in peace). Because her husband had pre-arranged their funeral-and-burial details some years previously, there have been no problems with the internment. Hitherto, some had felt that he was just too…what? Fastidious? Careful? Over-scrupulous?

What about, perspicacious! How many of us will follow her to a grave that will not be marked by the usual obsequies because of the overwhelming wave of deaths that will accompany the savagery of SARS-CoV-2 as it sweeps across the world as we NYC Covid burialsknow it. When I viewed the mass graves in New York City on April 10, it was with horror I asked, Are we living in the 21st Century? And then I reflected, this has been happening in all too many countries, without respite, for every year of this century (and the one before) while most of us were looking away, or at fatuous reality shows on TV… 

I do not know if I will survive this event. I may hope. I certainly will pray. I intend to persevere and endure. 

 

SQ 1 Everybody’s Story

 guitar-classicalEntry 1: Everybody’s Story: Fifty years ago I wrote my first song. I was 16. I had pimples, an ambition to be a songwriter, and a cheap, acoustic guitar with old strings and a high action. That first attempt was a parody of country music, which I secretly loved, along with folk music. I was torn between these genres, and the glamour of the rock and pop music of the 1960s and it would be some decades before I finished writing that first song.

If I were an ancient Greek, my name would be Procrastis: “Procrastis is my name and procrastination’s my game.” But I’m not going to play you that particular song- at least not yet. It’ll come later- the subject of another journal entry a bit further on down the line. I wrote the song which figures as the opening track of this audio journal when I was still quite a young man- somewhere in my mid-thirties.

Greek male

 Now I’m retired and an OLD AGE PENSIONER. I’m one of those hated baby boomers- the Gen X’s and subsequent generations will be at work until their seventies cursing my generation for having the good luck to miss the horrors of the Second World War while reaping the benefits accruing while the going was good. Back then, I was thinking about absent friends and thinking about stuff like- “I’m older than Jesus when he was crucified and I’m halfway towards threescore and ten- what’s it all about?” What, indeed!

audenAs W H Auden puts it in his wonderful poem inspired by Breughel the Elder’s The Fall of Icarus:

About suffering they were never wrong/The old Masters: how well they understood/Its human position: how it takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…

The Fall of Icarus

 It seems to me that I have been just walking dully along for an awfully long time- hence the title of my Journal, The Summa Quotidian. It is the summation of an ordinary life in the form of a journal rather than a diary. Each entry will comprise a song I have written over the past half century, supported by a commentary of sorts and a few lines of poetry or prose or drama from artists with the weight of Auden.

To make this point a little clearer, I refer the listener to that play by Aristophanes, The Frogs, where the great god Dionysus, who, according to our constant online oracle, Wikipedia, is the god of the grape harvest,frogs_nathan_lane_company winemaking, ritual madness, fertility, theatre and religious ecstasy: he adjudicates a debate in Hades to decide which poet was the worthier candidate to return to Athens in her time of greatest need- Euripides or Aeschylus.

Dionysus

To resolve the issue, each poet throws into a pan on a pair of scales a line of poetry to determine which has more heft. In the contest, the older poet, Aeschylus, prevails. In this analogy I see myself as a sort of Euripides, the loser in the contest, whose songs lasting minutes can be counterbalanced by lines of weightier poets lasting seconds.

Euripides was mocked mercilessly during his lifetime by the more conservative among the cultural arbiters of the time. If the term had been current then, they would have reviled him as a post-modernist. His reputation in later ages has not, in my opinion, been as shining as he deserves; Erasmus, according to a dubious source, has him being torn to pieces by dogs, set upon him by enemies. Poor old Euripides had two miserably unsuccessful marriages, and, ironically, another source has him being torn apart by women; although, this seems very close to a scene from his greatest play, The Bacchae, where the king of Thebes, Pentheus, is torn apart by his wife,euripides Agave, and her sister, Ino. Lord, oh Lord: Those ancient Greek women were surely a force to be reckoned with!

Now, some among my acquaintances have hung the label post-modern around my neck. Obviously, in their evaluation, I’m just “froth and bubble” while they, of course, have the solidity of “stone”. It doesn’t really matter which way the scales tip in this matter for judgement, one has to agree with that under-rated 19th Century Australian poet, Adam Lindsay Gordon, quoted by the British Queen in her speech to the Guildhall towards the end of her annus horribilis, of 1992, that “KINDNESS in another’s trouble, COURAGE in your own” is a worthy sentiment.

adam-lindsay-gordon

Narratives generally start at the beginning and move through a graceful arc to an inevitable but aesthetically pleasing denouement. This narrative, though, will avoid the pleasant lie that is the convention. It will start “in medias res” as the ancient Romans would have put it.

The song was written at the traditional halfway mark of life’s journey but imagines a time that is still ahead of me by a decade or two (I most sincerely hope that this is, in fact, the case). The persona in the song is of an advanced age and dwindling wit and may indeed be inhabiting his second childhood. He is speaking to his son.

 


	

SQ 2 Let Them Not Fade Away

Entry 2: Let Them Not Fade Away- In the previous entry, I stated that were I an ancient Greek, my name would be Procrastis but I’ve been wondering, in my usual desultory fashion, if I might not, with more accuracy, have taken the ancient Greek name of Procrustes.

And here I defer once more to the oracular Wikipedia: In the Greek myth, Procrustes was a son of Poseidon with a stronghold on Mount Korydallos at Erineus, on the sacred way between Athens and Eleusis There he had an iron bed, in which he invited every passer-by to spend the night, and where he set to work on them with his smith’s hammer, to stretch them to fit. In later tellings, if the

poseidon

guest proved too tall, Procrustes would amputate the excess length; nobody ever fit the bed exactly, because secretly Procrustes had two beds. Procrustes continued his reign of terror until he was captured by Theseus, travelling to Athens along the sacred way, who “fitted” Procrustes to his own bed: He killed Damastes, surnamed Procrustes, by compelling him to make his own body fit his bed, as he had been wont to do with those of strangers. And he did this in imitation of Heracles. For that hero punished those who offered him violence in the manner in which they had plotted to serve him.

Procrustes and Theseus

Are not all artists Procrustes? Here am I, shaping a journalistic narrative around a series of songs by selecting and editing bits and pieces from the world of letters. I suppose this is a cautionary note: don’t get seduced by the notion that any of this represents anything other than itself. On the other hand, unlike the original Procrustes, I hope that any idea for a song that is passing by survives the smith’s hammer of my imagination as I struggle to shape it into something pleasing.

I am a baby boomer as I mentioned before, and, as a teenager during the years 1963

St Pepper's Cover

through 1969, was staggered at the brilliance and variety of music being produced in this period. The Beatles, the Stones, the Beach Boys, the Who, Hendrix and Cream were among those who formed one pole of my musical life and I was reassured that my birthplace could supply artists such as Van Morrison with Them and Rory Gallagher with Taste who provided an Irish accent for the Rock/Pop pole of my life.

Also going on, was the folk revival and The Clancy Brothers with Tommy Makem, the Dubliners, the Chieftains, Planxty and the Fureys formed the other pole of my musical world. Linking both, I suppose was the towering figure of Bob Dylan, who remains, along with some of the artists listed, a formidable and forming influence to this day, as you will hear, no doubt as you listen to the songs at the core of each entry.

traditional-irish-music-session-with-structured-musicians-alan-kenny

The earth keeps some vibration going/There in your heart, and that is you./And if the people find you can fiddle,/Why fiddle you must for all of your life…

So writes Edgar Lee Masters, an American poet writing in the late 19th, early 20th Centuries. He writes about how this vibration prevents a man from doing anything with his forty-acre farm and how he, because of this vibration, missed out on the joys of everyday social interaction as a result. I, myself, don’t have a forty-acre farm, but a detached, suburban block in an outer suburb of Sydney.

I am often reminded that, rather than toiling in this 21st Century version of the smithy, which is a small box-room with its computer, printer, internet connection and assorted musical instruments, I should be outside cutting the grass, tidying the yard, painting the deck, planting a garden, clearing the gutters- and that’s just for starters!

NPG P1675; Philip Larkin by Rollie McKenna

Like most people, I was torn between what I wanted to do and what I had to do to keep the wolf from the door. For years, I felt the weight of Philip Larkin’s poem Toads: Why should I let the toad work/ Squat in my life and for well over four, long, decades I have known that something sufficiently toad-like/ Squats in me, too.

But back to the American poet, Masters: he is remembered today for a work that is an interesting amalgam of free verse, epitaphs and monologues from the dead in a cemetery in Illinois entitled Spoon River Anthology. The poem I am quoting from is called Fiddler Jones and I love the four lines with which he concludes his poem:

I ended up with forty acres; /I ended up with a broken fiddle-/and a broken laugh, and a thousand memories, /And not a single regret.

Edgar Lee Masters

In my mid-forties, I helped form a group called Banter playing folk music from Ireland, primarily; but there were lots of Australian songs and tunes in our repertoire, as well. We also featured music from elsewhere in the English-speaking world. From my mid-teens, I have felt, like Masters, that the earth keeps some vibration going there in your heart and that is you: and, despite a life lived under the toad squatting inexorably on my dreams, I wrote this song about my musical roots:

Let Them Not Fade Away (Acoustic version with guitar)
Let Them Not Fade Away (RealBand version)

SQ 3 Cannery Row

steinbeck1

Entry 3: Cannery Row I used the phrase” elsewhere in the English-speaking world” in my last entry. The listener may deduce also, from my last entry, that I was born in Ireland- Northern Ireland to be more precise, and in the small coastal village of Cushendall in County Antrim to be exact.

The short novel by John Steinbeck provides the title and is the starting point for this song. Juxtaposed with the rich engagement shown by the characters of the Monterrey wharves is the constrained and feeble

cannery-row

existence of the persona of this song who makes T.S. Eliot’s J Alfred Prufrock seem a dashing, devil-may-care figure in comparison.

Mobile_Library_Van_-_Old_Lane_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1029404

I began writing this song in 1982 after catching a glimpse of myself reflected in the windows of the brand-new library in Cushendall, where the line “.…my cheek on one shoulder I walk past the shelves of the library just before dark…” came unbidden into my mind. Before that, we booklovers had waited patiently for the mobile library van to arrive at the car-park beside the old watering trough from Ballymena, twenty-odd miles up the road and well outside the world of the Glens of Antrim. Then, we eagerly mounted the steps to peruse the few shelves where, perhaps, something of interest or value might hide.

You know, I felt a pang of loss when the mobile library van disappeared. I’m not sure the proliferation of books made possible by the permanent structure, compensated for the shared camaraderie of those diverse yet grimly determined people who gathered for years in stoical anticipation for the arrival of that magical van containing- books- from the

billy-elliot-9

outer world. A twinge of nostalgia swept over me when I saw the library van scene from the film Billy Elliot and I wonder what the future holds for libraries of the sort I grew up with in our brave new world of instant information.

Pheidippides

I feel much more comfortable in antiquity, where information was hard-won and is best embodied by the legend of the Greek messenger, Pheidippides, who ran the 26 miles from Marathon to Athens in 490 BC with the news of the Athenian victory over the Persian forces of Darius. Ten years later his son, Xerxes, attempted to avenge the defeat of Darius. His campaign gave rise to that iconic symbol of heroic resistance against overwhelming odds- the battle of Thermopylae- where, outnumbered 20 to 1, the Spartans held the Persians at bay to the last man, under the leadership of Leonidas, their king.

Leonidas

The poet Simonides has left us with a few terse lines of poetry which have been a reminder to generations ever since of the courage of men who make the ultimate sacrifice for their country: Stranger passing by, tell the Lakedaimonians/ Here we lie, having obeyed their orders. And, although the Greek forces lost the battle at Thermopylae, they defeated Xerxes fleet at the battle of Salamis and this ushered in the Classical Age on which so much of western civilisation is based. I’m pretty sure most males, like me, feel a certain loss, not to have experienced war. Is this an atavistic urge, I wonder?

But, back to the song, Cannery Row: it is inspired by the Steinbeck novel of the same name.

Canefields

The Moonglow Quintet, mentioned in the song, is based on a band, which played old standards and certainly nothing written after the year 1959. I heard them plying their trade, only once, in a small time-warped club among the cane fields of North Queensland in 1992 where, improbably, they became the inspiration for the bridge of the song which I had started writing a decade previously

Songwriting 101 tells us that you do not mix up tenses or pronouns but this song does all that- I knew it as I was writing it but I did not amend it as I felt the listener could navigate the switching points of view because we all do it all the time in the space inside the skull where past, present, future, I, you and they are swirling and churning all the time- or is it just me? In a novel, or even a short story, it would be annoying if not confusing. The miniature form that is the song can, at times, cope with shifting, lurching views.

I would like to preface the 6/8 tune you’re about to hear with a few lines from the poet

heaney

Seamus Heaney in his translation of the poem The Yellow Bittern from the Irish of the 18th Century poet with the splendidly euphonious name- Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna because, like Mack and the boys from Cannery Row, I find the prospect of life without the consolations of wine and its multifarious related potions unendurable:

 The woman I love says to give it up now/ Or else I’ll go to an early grave,/ But I say no and keep resisting/ For taking drink’s what prolongs your days./ You saw for yourself a while ago/ What happened to the bird when its throat went dry;/ So my friends and neighbours, let it flow: / You’ll be stood no rounds in eternity…

 

Cannery Row

SQ 4 Foss Hill (The Old Comedian)

Old Comedian

Entry 4: Foss Hill (The Old Comedian)- What happens when the ground shifts, when you misjudge your audience, when you fail to notice that the fashion has changed? Being a Baby Boomer and transitioning into the twilight, I feel particularly empathetic towards those old guys who wowed them at the pubs and clubs around the English-speaking world in the 60s and 70s: the old comedians.

Then things began to change: a certain correctness began to infiltrate. Is there anything more frightening or difficult than standing up in front of a crowd and trying to make them laugh? (Well, standing in front of a crowd and trying to get them to applaud your song maybe comes close). The ground has shifted under me from time to time but lately it has been happening more often than I would like.

Plato

Plato hadn’t much time for comedy: according to my trusty guide, Wikipedia- he asserted that the Guardians of the state should avoid laughter, “‘for ordinarily when one abandons himself to violent laughter, his condition provokes a violent reaction.’ “The po-faced philosopher goes on to say that comedy

should be tightly controlled if one wants to achieve the ideal state. I can think of a few politicians who would vote for that legislation.

Obviously, tyrants everywhere and at every time have followed his strictures. The earliest recollection I have of being reduced to violent spasms of laughter was when I was about twelve or so. I was

mad

reading one of the early editions of MAD magazine and I can’t recall now, what it was that set me off, but my mother rushed into the room to see what was wrong, dropping a casserole which shattered on the wooden floor. The noises I was making, she later said, were like nothing she had ever heard from me.

Why is it that I can remember details like the casserole dish but cannot, however much I try, recall the content of the magazine which had sent me into paroxysms of laughter? But I loved the irreverent attitude the comic adopted then, and wherever I encounter this attitude in print or broadcast or in a live venue, I am still prone to lose control. But, satire

Aristophanes

goes back a long way. My old mate, Aristophanes had this to say about the political leader of Athens, Cleon, in his play, The Knights

Hit him, hit him, hit the villain, hateful to the cavalry,/Tax-collecting, all-devouring monster of a lurking thief!/Villain, villain! I repeat it, I repeat it constantly, / With good reason since this thief reiterates his villainy. Old Comedy, eh!  

Dear listener, have you ever been at a boring “do” of one sort or another and, upon leaving, uttered the words “I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening” I know I have, but I’m too well-bred to imitate Groucho Marx by adding, “but this wasn’t it.” Of course, the Greeks have a word for it- paraprosdokian which means “against expectation”. We just call them “one-liners” and I can’t get enough of them. I’m probably too lazy to take the time to savour the subtleties of longer works such as Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the

homer-s

Lock but Homer Simpson I can cope with: “If I could just say a few words… I’d be a better public speaker.”

I can cope with couplets, too. A newspaper in England ran a competition asking for a rhyme with the most romantic first line… but the least romantic second line. Try these out for size: I love your smile, your face, and your eyes / Damn, I’m good at telling lies! Or My love, you take my breath away. /What have you stepped in to smell this way?

I know, I know, don’t give up my day job…mmm, hold on, I don’t have one anymore! So, I wrote a song about an old comedian: his name? I’ll spell it: F.O.S.S. H.I.L.L. Foss Hill. Fossil. Groan-worthy, isn’t it? The song was written in 1998 after I attended a show featuring several British comedians, all of them pretty long in the tooth, at The Henry Lawson Club, Werrington, in Sydney’s outer west. Now, coincidentally, Lawson was a wonderful comedic writer. In his poem St Peter he imagines himself in Heaven and knows that he’ll get a fair hearing from a bloke used to tramping round Palestine:

Henry Lawson

 He won’t try to get a chorus/ Out of lungs that’s worn to rags, /Or to graft the wings on shoulders/That is stiff with humpin’ swags. /But I’ll rest about the station/Where the work-bell never rings, /Till they blow the final trumpet/ And the Great Judge sees to things.

I’ve a good idea that Henry Lawson would have approved of the old comedians, as laughter echoed around the smoke-filled room in the club named in his honour. Such smoke-filled rooms are no longer widely available, alas, nor are comedians of the old school found any more in the comedy venues of this city. In the song coming up now, you will hear about a comedian who knows the time has come to give it all away. And, as I felt the ground shifting under me, I knew it was time, too, for me to gracefully (or grumpily) depart:

 

Foss Hill (The Old Comedian)

SQ 5 Changes

Entry 5: Changes- Don’t you love creation myths? The question, Where do we come from? is swiftly followed by Where are we going? The latter question may be addressed in a later

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entry but for now I’ll talk about beginnings. Genesis was the earliest myth I encountered, with its poetry and puzzles. Later, I found other accounts to puzzle and delight me.

The Chinese creation myth is one example. According to my muse, Wikipedia, the creator,

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a being named Pangu, slept on, or perhaps in, a black egg of chaos and when the principles of Ying and Yang were perfectly poised, the whole shebang kicked off. Somewhere in the mix, a bit later on I guess, were brother and sister, Fu Xi and Nü Wa who were the original humans.

One day, for reasons I couldn’t discover, they set up two separated piles of fire, and the fire eventually became one. Then, under the fire they decided to become husband and wife. Fu Xi subsequently observed the patterns of the world and created the eight trigrams, in order to become thoroughly conversant with the numinous and bright and to classify the myriad things.

This becomes the basis of Taoist and Confucian divination that we know as the I Ching, which is a canonical text among New Agers, but has a wider cultural currency. Most people know about the system for divination using the throwing of sticks to form a pattern or

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generating random numbers in a computer to access the 64 hexagrams- all very abstruse and interesting in its own way, but not really what I want to talk about- I was simply struck by the fact, as I was fossicking through the website, that I Ching translates as Changes– the name of my song.

I Ching

As Chrissie Hynde sings, in her composition, Hymn to Her “some things change, some stay the same” Change and Stasis- opposed yet linked concepts have intrigued people other than Chrissie from the beginning, I would wager. But, for my money, the best explication of this duality is John Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn. On the urn is depicted a scene from a Greek idyll featuring gods, perhaps, lovers and musicians trapped in time forever and the subject of future generations’ perusal and inquiry. The closing lines are among the most famous in all literature:

When old age shall this generation waste, /Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe/ Than ours, a

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friend to man, to whom thou say’st, /”Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

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Well, actually, we do need to know a bit more. But I applaud the genius that wrote those words and who perished way too early: which reminds me of Stephen Spender’s poem, I Think Continually of Those Who Were Truly Great He was only 21 and thinking about sex and Beethoven and Michelangelo when he wrote this poem containing the lines:

What is precious is never to forget/The essential delight of 
the blood drawn from ageless springs/ breaking through rocks in worlds before our earth…/Never to allow gradually the traffic to smother/with noise and fog the flowering of the spirit.

This echoes the great Wordsworth sonnet:

The world is too much with us; late and soon/ Getting and spending we lay waste our powers/ Little worldwe see in nature that is ours/ We have given our hearts away: a sordid boon!

God, how I love words such as these, used by those who are truly great. So this brings me back to where this entry started- The Bible: not the Old Testament, but the New, where the Gospel of John begins…here it is in Latin– In principio erat verbum et Verbum erat apud Deum et Deus erat Verbum: In the English of the King James Bible it renders as, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. But the Logos-which is Greek for Word– doesn’t originate with John but can be traced back to Heraclitus-

Heraclitus

you know, the dude who said you couldn’t step in the same stream twice.

Were I asked to give my tuppence worth, which, godlike, and within the confines of this journal, I can, I’d say something like “the Word, the Logos, is not passive; a mere spoken or written construct containing, signs, signals and information. Rather, it is like an utterance of power from a Bach chorale strung out eternally, sung by a chorus of angels with attendant seraphim ringing all the changes, and surpassing, to the nth degree, the music of the spheres.”

Lord, that exercise in verbosity has given me the head-staggers and while I would wish to

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be able, like Fu Xi, to study the patterns of the world in order to become thoroughly conversant with the numinous and bright, I think I’ll have to be content to pick up my guitar, strum a few chords, look at the ceiling and try to draw down inspiration from Calliope, Erato  and Euterpe, the three sisters who are daughters of mighty Zeus and the muses of poetry and music.

 

 

Changes

SQ 6 A Touch of Ireland

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Entry 6: A Touch of Ireland There is a small community radio station called WOW FM in St Marys, a suburb of Sydney’s outer west. It caters for a range of ethnic and community groups as well as individuals who have a yen for presenting and who can convince the board that what they have to offer is in harmony with the ethos and aims of the station.

St Marys, situated around South Creek which flows through the Cumberland plain at the foot of the Blue Mountains, was originally settled by the Commerigal-Tongarra tribe of the Dharug people about 45,000 years ago. But those vast swathes of time and all the men, women and children pouring down the generations are largely hidden to view: a not unusual consequence of European settlement and its aftermath.

We know the names of the invading overlords and their lackeys who were granted land by the English crown. The flogging parson, Samuel Marsden, for example, was given over aborigines1000 acres in the area by Governor King who also ensured that his own family got in on the land grab. Lots of details and names here, but I can’t find any of the names of the Aboriginal dispossessed.

I’ll have something to say about the dispossessed in a later entry, but for now, I want to get down from the soap-box I seem to have mounted and talk about the Irish connection.

Marsden

During the 19th Century as the Sydney basin was increasingly settled, convicts-Irish among them- provided an economic way of ensuring rapid development.

 And, no doubt confounding the shades of the likes of Samuel Marsden, the convicts, for most part, prospered and put their stamp on the region. The small settlement on the banks of South Creek continued to grow and, by the second decade of the 20th Century, a serene and prosperous township was dreaming in the Australian sun, entirely oblivious of the apocalypse hatching in the soul of a Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo. Lines of a local poet, George Sullivan, recall those idyllic days:

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If only Victoria Park could speak/ What wondrous tales from it you’d share, /About those careless, happy days/ When it was called ‘The Square’./ It could tell of all the bullocks/That were roasted on its green;/Of the glorious games of football/By sportsmen strong and clean./ It could tell of games of cricket,/ Of how the wickets soon did fall/When demon bowlers, Royal and Tolhurst,/Did send down the ball.

The names of all too many of those sportsmen strong and clean would be inscribed in bronze on tablets marking the fallen in the Great War, and subsequent wars, on the octagonal Rotunda. The phrase, strong and clean emerges 60 years later when  Redgum sang, This clipping from the paper shows us young and strong and clean/ And

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there’s me in me slouch hat and me SLR and greens/ God help me, I was only 19.

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The Irish love sport and having a flutter. They also love their culture and, in the mid-nineties, Jim Clarke and Noel O’Donohue started a radio program they called, A Touch of Ireland. For almost two decades they presented music, news and items of interest for their audience, largely, but not entirely, the Irish diaspora. From convict times to the present there have been waves of Irish migrants, among whom I would number myself, who have found in Australia a refuge from political and economic turmoil.

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I was a regular listener to the program and it struck me as a refreshing change from so much of the garbage spewing from the talkback stations by obscenely overpaid shock jocks. You know who I mean, those contemptible commentators who classify it as a missed opportunity if they can’t turn a radio listener from someone at peace with his or her world into a tightly wound xeno- or islamo- or homo-phobe, frothing at the mouth. I expect there is a special section of hell reserved for them.

I wrote the song, A Touch of Ireland, in gratitude to people like Jim and Noel that the airwaves were not the sole preserve of hate-mongers. This was shortly after the newireland millennium when planes should have been falling from the sky and energy grids collapsing- all because the computer geeks had not realised that two-digit year dates repeated every century. Weren’t we all so happy that the sky did not fall in courtesy of the millennium bug?

Of course, the sky didn’t fall in, but, from the sky, ushering in a change as profound as that caused by that bullet in Sarajevo, two planes struck the twin towers in New York City and- here we are. But life goes on, and, while Jim and Noel are no longer hosting the show they conceived all those years ago, I am happy to say that I, as one of the new presenters of the show, A Touch of Ireland, was able to dedicate the song you are about to wow-fm-logohear, to the men who brought a touch of Ireland to the people of the western plains of Sydney: well done, guys.

 

A Touch of Ireland

SQ 7 Old Dog

Entry 7: Old Dog- How did I get this far, shamelessly dropping famous names, wherever possible, across a half-dozen entries without mentioning Shakespeare? OK- it’s time.

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Let’s not mess around, but leap to the greatest play of them all, Hamlet, and leap, also, into the grave of the fair Ophelia who, driven mad with her love for Hamlet, has drowned herself. We see the Danish prince struggling with her brother, Laertes, who has his hands around Hamlet’s throat. Laertes, is mad with grief, blaming Hamlet for her death.

Ray Charles

From a distance they seem to be engaged in a macabre dance which brings to mind other connotations of the phrase “mess around” with Ray Charles singing Ah, you can talk about the pit, barbecue/The band was jumpin’, the people too/Ah, mess around/They doin’ the mess around. But that’s neither here nor there and I can hear you saying- hey, where’s the blank verse of Shakespeare we were expecting? Fair enough, now where were we?

Ah yes, in the grave with the two men fighting. Hamlet says to Laertes, What is the reason that you use me thus? /I loved you ever. But it is no matter. /Let Hercules himself do what he may, / The cat will mew and dog will have his day. Human relationships…it’ll do your head in! And talking about heads…not long before the kerfuffle with Laertes, Hamlet had been talking to a gravedigger who was holding a skull he had just dug up.

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You all know the scene, Hamlet takes the skull, which is that of the court jester of his boyhood, and declaims Alas, poor Yorrick, I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jestWhere be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?…Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come; make her laugh at that. People can be unpleasant. Wasn’t it Sartre who said- Hell is other people?

Give me a dog any day! Well, at times I feel like that…and anyway, what does it mean when you say that a dog will have his day? Two interpretations are common: first, that even the most powerless among us will get revenge one day (which seems to me to be another example of the triumph of hope over experience). The other popular meaning is that we will all experience good fortune at some time in our lives. But even the relatively uncomplicated universe of dogs is a place of conundrum and contradiction:

 To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring–it was peace.” Milan Kundera.kundera

twainOr: Heaven goes by favour. If it went by merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in. Mark Twain.

But: Throw a stick, and the servile dog wheezes and pants and stumbles to bring it to you Do the same before a cat, and he will eye you with coolly polite and somewhat bored amusement. And just as inferior people prefer the inferior animal which scampers excitedly because someone else wants something, so do superior people respect the superior animal which lives its own life and knows that the puerile stick-throwings of alien bipeds are none of its business and beneath its notice.… H. P. Lovecraft.lovecraft

So, which side are you on?

Or, would you agree with Winston Churchill: I am fond of pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals. For my part, I’ve never had a pig as a pet, although, being a huge fan of the Blandings castle tales of P.G Wodehouse, I fantasise that were I ever to inherit a stately pile in Shropshire, I, too, would the-empress-of-blandings-from-bbc-comedy-blandings-136387580503410401-140214161117have a majestic pig just like the Empress to cosset, pamper and primp in preparation for the fat pig section of the county fair in hopes of taking out the coveted silver medals. Chances are though, on the pet front- I’ll remain pigless. I’ve had cats and dogs as pets over the years and have appreciated the qualities of each.

Every dog will have his day, and my last pet, a miniature fox terrier, we named Maggs afterMiniature_Fox_Terrier the Peter Carey character who, in turn, was based on the Charles Dickens’ character Abel Magwitch from Great Expectations. Lots of people go to Dickens for dog names: Barley, Browdie, Dodger, Duff, Granger, Jasper, Nubbles, Fluff- that last one I made up for the euphony. But the rest are suggested as suitable labels for our canine companions. For ten years Maggs kept the family company before succumbing to heart problems. My grief for the dog was real and on his final day, I sat on the back step listening to his laboured breathing, watching the stars come out, stroking his bony head and recalling Hopkin’s Spring and Fall:

goldengroveMargaret, are you grieving/Over Goldengrove unleaving/Now no matter child the name/Sorrow’s springs are the same/Ah as the heart grows older/It will come to such sights colder/It is the blight man was born for/It is Margaret you mourn for.

 

Old Dog

SQ 8 Sylvia

Entry 8: Sylvia I first read The Savage God, by A. A. Alvarez, in 1974. This book was the first time I had encountered an examination of the subject of suicide which was actually readable and I found myself gripped by the long section on Sylvia Plath, the American poet

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who had married Ted Hughes. Now, Hughes I knew, from college lectures, to be a much-admired poet dealing with themes associated with nature and, in particular, the unreflecting savagery of animals- but I knew nothing of his wife’s work.

Seeking out a copy of Ariel, published posthumously in 1965, I started reading, and re-reading, those dark and brilliant poems. I also sought out other poems and works by her, including The Bell Jar, a novel which details the female protagonist’s inexorable mental decline, several suicide attempts, institutionalisation and Electro-Convulsive Therapy. The novel is, obviously, semi-autobiographical and after a year or so I felt impelled to write a song about her, using images from her poems to help construct the lyric.

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The Greek philosopher, Socrates, argued against suicide, for most part, but ended his life by drinking a hemlock-infused potion: a penalty for having been found guilty of corrupting the youth of Athens and impiety. He saw himself as a gadfly, someone who would sting the state into righteous action. Well, the state reacted as we all do when a stinging insect attacks. Kill it or shoo it away!

The Athenian jurors who voted for the death penalty probably thought that Socrates would take the opportunity to flee before the sentence was to be promulgated. Socrates, however, deeming himself to be a true citizen with a horror of life outside the city-state and obedient to the rule of law, drank the hemlock, turned to his friend, Crito, and said I owe a cock to Asclepius, see that the debt is paid.

He remains the true ideal of an Athenian citizen, reverencing the gods and punctilious about paying debts. Asclepius, is the god of healing and perhaps Socrates is intimating that death releases the soul from the body and its attendant ills, particularly as one ages. Four centuries later in Palestine, Judas flings the blood-money he has accepted for hisjudas betrayal of Jesus back at the temple priests and hangs himself in despair. They use the tainted money to buy a potter’s field and bury him there.

Dante, in The Inferno, places Judas in the deepest circle of hell where Satan chews on his

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head eternally. The Gnostics, on the other hand, reasoning that he set in train the salvation of the world, view him as the greatest of all the Apostles. Is there any surprise that one of the most compelling and enduring contemplations of suicide was written 400 years ago by William Shakespeare? You can count in the hundreds of millions the number of people who can complete the line: To be or not to be.

The absence of illness or adversity may not be sufficient to answer the question posed by Hamlet in the affirmative, but clearly if one is suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune one might choose to end the heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks that Flesh is heir to by taking arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them. But is it the end? For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause. Indeed, and in that pause do most of us not acquiesce and resign ourselves to grunt and sweat under a weary life because of the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will, and makes us rather bear those ills we have, than fly to others that we know not of.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says: Greater love hath no man than this; that a man lay down his life for his friends. Is this an invitation to martyrdom? A vindication of altruistic suicide? Itgreater-love is certainly a high bar, and one that many have cleared. The stories of soldiers throwing themselves on a grenade to save their comrades and similar tales of heroic self – sacrifice are seen as justifications for self-slaughter by most people. An example of this is

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Maximilian Kolbe, a Franciscan priest, who volunteered to take the place of a prisoner who was selected to die of starvation in an underground bunker with nine others as a reprisal for an escape from Auschwitz.

The swap was agreed and Francisek Gajowniczek, who had cried out in anguish for his wife and family, lived for a further 53 years, attending the beatification and later canonisation of Kolbe where the pope at the time, John Paul II, declared him to be a Christian martyr. In 2011, Jessica Council, a 30-year-old pregnant mother, refused cancer treatment in order to give her unborn child the best chance for survival; she died, leaving behind a husband, son and a newborn child who is alive today because of her sacrifice.

 

Sylvia

SQ 9 The Self-Unseeing

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Entry 9: The Self-Unseeing Back in the 1980s, I was teaching at a grammar school in Northern Ireland. The novels of Thomas Hardy were on the curriculum for O and A Levels as they had been when I was at school in the sixties. I was teaching the novels as opposed to learning about them from a teacher droning at the front of the room. Now I was the droner.

In a poll, taken in London at the time, Hardy emerged as the most popular author among senior students. I have a high regard for his novels but a higher regard for his poetry, which covers a wide range of forms and subjects. There can be little argument that he is among the greatest of the English poets of the 20th Century because of his adventurous and insightful exploration of what it is to be human.

Hardy

His poems about his first wife, Emma, were written after her death and an awkward estrangement of twenty long years. They are searing in their remorse and filled with regret and remembered love.

Although Hardy could, and did, write about the larger themes such as war, belief, the impact of technology, social constraints and class- it is when he examines the minutiae of family life and personal relationships that he comes into his own. His poem, The Self-Unseeing, deals with his remembrance of his mother and father and a scene from his boyhood when he was truly happy:

Here is the ancient floor, /Footworn and hollowed and thin, /Here was the former door/Where the dead feet walked in. //She sat here in her chair,/Smiling into

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the fire;/ He who played stood there, /Bowing it higher and higher.//Childlike, I danced in a dream; / Blessings emblazoned that day; / Everything glowed with a gleam; /Yet we were looking away!

It is only after the event that we can truly appreciate how happy we were. Hence the human predilection for rose-tinted glasses, sentimentality and nostalgia. But Hardy avoids the mawkish and the maudlin when he deals with these matters, and this, I suppose, is what makes him a great artist.

Aristotle explored in some detail the question of what it means to lead a fulfilled life. He

Aristotle

rejects the pursuit of a life of sensual gratification and, also, the pursuit of a life solely concerned with honour. He concludes that Eudaimonia or Happiness satisfies his criteria for the best life. But unpacking this term in prose would burst the constraints of this journal entry. I turn, instead, to Carl Sandburg, a 20th Century American poet, for his mischievous take on this question which he sets out in his poem entitled, Happiness

I asked the professors who teach the meaning of life to tell me what is happiness./And I went to famous executives who boss the work of thousands of men./They all shook their heads and gave me

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a smile as though I was trying to fool with them/And then one Sunday afternoon I wandered out along the Desplaines river/And I saw a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with their women and children and a keg of beer and an accordion.

This poem strongly resonates with me because it reflects an annual gathering where our family joins family groups of friends and relations for a fish barbecue at a local park. Several generations spend the day celebrating…what? Being alive and in Australia, remembering our culture and those who are absent through geographic separation, work commitments or death.

Shortly before my father died, thirty years ago, I was living and working in Ballymena, which is a market town in the centre of Northern Ireland. It was late December, just before Christmas, and it

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was dark and cold. My sister Mary and her husband, John with their two children, Krista and Monika, had driven across Europe from Munich to visit. The fire was blazing and all the Yuletide decorations were on display. With Mum and Dad, there were ten of us and, at one point in the evening, a guitar was produced and we sang Christmas carols.

Then, John taught my kids the verse of Silent Night in German and we listened, entranced, as the four kids sang that sublime song using the original words. At this time, 100 years7520c7ad-f994-49ad-ac39-ca572737bde8 (1) ago on the Western Front, all went quiet when the strains of this carol drifted across no man’s land and the fighting men on both sides declared a truce and for one day, a minor miracle. This was against the wishes of the superior officers on the British side. On the German side, a young corporal of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry, was also an opponent of the truce. His name: Adolph Hitler.

But on that section of those vast killing fields, peace reigned for a short while. But this being the world we live in, the fighting resumed and we can only mourn the loss of so many lives on both sides of the conflict. That night I recall clearly. In the unmistakeable diction of Hardy’s poem, The Self-Unseeing, blessings emblazoned that day. But I, too, was looking away. Until now.

 

The Self-Unseeing

SQ 10 Easter Rises

easter-lilyEntry 10: Easter Rises – I am quite taken by that thoughtful Quaker belief, “the testimony against the keeping of times and seasons” which states that all of life is sacramental; that since all times are therefore holy, no time should be marked out as more holy; that what God has done for us should always be remembered.

 Not that I have ever followed this practice: caught in the coils of commercialism; having been harried by the pester power of the kids over the years; having the state of my kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, laundry, study- let’s face it, every nook and cranny of my dwelling, not to mention the garden shed and garage- sneered at by renovation shows and lambasted by lifestyle mavens: in short- I have long since capitulated to capitalism’s handmaiden- commercialism.mammon

 There is scarcely a week in the year that is not marked by some “occasion” for marketing: New Year’s sales in January, Valentine’s Day in February, mad March sales, Easter eggs in April, Mother’s Day in May- the list goes on. Did I mention Father’s Day, Halloween and Christmas? I look in vain in the shopping centres for businesses that are not having a sale.

 Hang on a minute- I do believe that market forces are on the way to levelling the days and weeks of the year to the Quaker ideal of no day being marked out as more special than any other. Just one gigantic sales frenzy from January 1st through to December 31st.

 But, to tell you the truth, certain days have always been red-letter days for me, and I know, for most other people. Birthdays: one’s own and those of friends and those you love; anniversaries of one sort or another: weddings, deaths, and special events. For me, halloweenHalloween was special, not only because I got to go trick-or-treating as a child and came back with a bag stuffed full with goodies- but because it was also my birthday. Only Christmas loomed larger as a cornucopia from which myriad gifts spilled in glorious abundance before my childish, avaricious eyes. Then, later, as I watched our children’s glee on birthdays or Christmas over the years, I knew that the market-place was in no imminent danger of going out of business on my account.

 The song contrasts Easter in Northern Ireland with Easter in Sydney. The festival occurs in springtime in the northern hemisphere with the re-birth of life an annual miracle. In Sydney, it marks the change to less warm days and longer nights- nothing as dramatic as the fall of leaves which paints the eastern sea board of North America autumnal orange, red and brown.

In Sydney, the traditional four seasons most people in Europe or America, respond to just don’t cut it. Aboriginals will tell you that there are five or six distinct seasons here. Having lived, worked and enjoyed my recreation in largely air-conditioned environments, I have no expertise in this area.seasons

But even someone as desensitised as I am to the finer points of the natural world, cannot but be awestruck by the miracle of growth. The song you will hear at the end of the entry will deal, in part, with our younger, more faithful and innocent selves. Wordsworth captures this so beautifully in the majestic Immortality Ode:

There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,/ The earth, and every common sight, To me did seem Apparelled in celestial light,/ The glory and the freshness of a dream……Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:/ The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star, / Hath had elsewhere its setting, /And cometh from afar: / Not in entire forgetfulness,/And not in utter nakedness, But trailing clouds of trailingglory do we come/From God, who is our home:/Heaven lies about us in our infancy!/Shades of the prison-house begin to close/ Upon the growing Boy……Thanks to the human heart by which we live,/ Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,/ To me the meanest flower that blows can give/Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

How can you better that? This, of course, is the quandary faced by anyone who presumes to enter the lists against the giants of the Arts. And yet we do, knowing that we suffer by comparison. But, wouldn’t the world be a stranger and more barren place if only the very best in every field of endeavour bothered to show up for any contest?

That not everyone hits the heights or becomes a star should not prevent one from making the attempt. Having said this, I do think it’s a fraud on the young to suggest that they can do anything at all, if only they put their mind to it.

resurrectionThere is a bit more to it than wishful thinking, even if it is supported by ceaseless endeavour. Luck and superior, innate, gifts also play an important part. The bridge of the song describes the impact of the death of my first-born son and how the birth of my younger daughter at Easter-time two years later helped to alleviate the pain and assuage the bitterness and anger I felt:

 

Easter Rises

SQ 11 The Mark of Cain

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Entry 11: The Mark of Cain- The first crime recorded in Genesis is homicide or, more specifically, fratricide. But this is not the first sin: that preceded the crime. Milton puts it most memorably in the opening lines of the great Paradise Lost:

Of Man’s first disobedience, and the fruit Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste Brought death into the World, and all our woe, With loss of Eden, till one greater Man Restore us, and regain the blissful seat, Sing Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire That shepherd who first taught the chosen seed In the beginning how the heavens and earth rose out of Chaos.

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The mortal taste of the forbidden fruit results in the expulsion from Eden and we find Adam and Eve wandering east of Eden dressed in garments of skin. God places an angel with a flaming sword at the entrance to the garden to prevent the pair, who now have knowledge of good and evil, from returning to eat from the tree of life and thus become immortal. God had cursed the deceiving serpent and also the ground so that humanity would have to struggle against weeds and blight to bring forth sustenance: as the King James version puts it:

…cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also

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and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

Interesting, from the point of view of a contemporary audience, is the paucity of detail surrounding the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. We are used to printed and visual texts going into minute detail about motivation and the process leading up to the act of murder itself. Basically all we are told is that God accepted Abel’s offering over Cain’s. Cain gets in a snit. Then they go out into the field where, in the words of the King James Bible, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and slew him.

cain slays abel

That’s it. Nothing more. The aftermath is more detailed, of course. When God enquires after Abel, Cain replies with the famous line: Am I my brother’s keeper? God then condemns Cain to roam the earth as a fugitive and a vagabond, unable to till the ground as it has drunk the blood of his brother. When Cain complains that he will be a marked man (and here we need notcainjpg examine too closely where the other people who would harm Cain might have come from) God replies: Whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold. And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him. 

So, originally the mark of Cain was divine protection! Fratricide has been a feature of legend, history and society from this time: In The Antigone, by Sophocles, Eteocles and Polyneices kill each other by stabbing one another through the heart; Romulus kills Remus and founds the city of Rome- setting the stage for lots of family killings down through the claudiuscenturies. In Hamlet, Claudius kills his brother, the king to grab the throne and Queen Gertrude.

At about the same time as the composition of Hamlet, it was not a recipe for long life to be the brother of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. In the reign of Mehmet III, upon the birth

mehmet III

of a male heir to the throne, nineteen of his brothers were strangled with silk cords and buried with their father. In contemporary popular culture, Michael Coreleone kills his brother in The Godfather, Part Two and, in Disney’s The Lion King, Scar kills his brother Mufasa.

In the mid-1980s, I had been successful in writing a TV and a radio drama for the Irish broadcaster, RTE, both of which incorporated music as part of the drama. I then started to write a TV show for Ulster TV called The Last Country Band in Ireland, and as a preparation for this I had listened to countless hours of country music from Ireland and the US. The show was to open with a showdown using the duelcliché of two gunslingers facing one another in a western setting- saloon bar, horse stables, goods store, sheriff’s office and frontier damsels with handkerchiefs raised in horror to their faces.

The song would play over the opening sequence leading to the shoot-out, when the camera would pan back and we would see the backdrop to be a contemporary Ulster setting. I had a lunchtime meeting with one of the station’s producers and everything seemed promising.

Then, the opportunity to return to Australia fell in my lap and, with only six months to avail myself of this prospect, I did not have time to complete the script and the process and make the arrangements for the move back to Australia. But I did have the time to write a few songs in the genre. I had chosen this song to open the show, which, like too many other ideas, lies stillborn in a file somewhere in the loft or garage. But here’s the song:

 

The Mark of Cain

SQ 12 Surprised by Joy

Elegy_Peele_Castle_in_a_Storm_by_Sir_George_Beaumont
full metal jacket

Entry 12: Surprised by Joy– Elegiac song and verse have long exerted a fascination over me. Even before my life was touched by personal tragedy, I was drawn to artistic works that explored eschatological themes. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the word, I do not mean to be unduly obscurantist, nor should you confuse the term with scatological which deals with excremental matters; although, when I reflect upon it, there may be a connection.

Can you remember the film, Full Metal Jacket, at the very end, when Private Joker, surviving the horrors of Vietnam, says, “I’m in a world of shit”? So many traumatised people would echo his words: military men and women returned from conflict zones, paramedics, police officers, firies and emergency responders as well as those benighted individuals who do not have the excuse of having served in such capacities but who just have encountered the black dog in their lives and can’t get rid of it.

The four last things: death, judgement, heaven and hell are the territory of eschatology and

last things

really only an issue for believers who profess that there is meaning in this universe. Others would simply say it’s random and there’s nothing else. This view I respect even though I do not share it. For me, I have been surprised by joy too many times to feel otherwise. A formation of clouds, a smile, a kindly word, an unexpected compliment, a breath of fresh air, a hug from a child- on and on I could go, perhaps writing the hit lyrics of a saccharine country song.

But, instead, I turn to one of my literary heroes, William Wordsworth, to give these thoughts proper context when he reflects on what it is that is important in the larger

wordsworth

scheme of things. He talks about, that best portion of a good man’s life, / His little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love. What a dreadful proposition this would be to the players in today’s media circus. Good deeds unreported!

I cannot open a newspaper or magazine, switch on a current affairs or lifestyle show without being bombarded with a barrage of overwhelming acts of charity as homes are refurbished, holidays provided, reunions facilitated and medical miracles accomplished in the glare of publicity and attendant advertising.

Not that I begrudge, in any way, the recipients of this largesse. I do feel for the numberless and nameless who will never benefit. Name, fame, the celebrity game is just so much blather. We are all used to yet another icon exposed on the breakfast news as venal or sad or pathetic- just like us really. I remember when the great cynic of English poetry in the previous, century, Philip Larkin was taken off in one of those ships with black sails.

larkin

Almost before the vessel had vanished around a misty bend of the River Styx we were breathlessly informed that the poet had a collection of what was described as repulsive pornography, and as for the content of his diaries…well! But I will always think softly of him, not only because of his life and works but an anecdote concerning him. He was, as I

The_River_Styx_by_hungerartist

recall, driving back towards his home in Hull along the motorway, listening to the radio and tapping his fingers on the steering wheel in time with the windshield wipers when he had to pull onto the hard shoulder, blinded by tears, because, on the radio, someone had begun reciting a sonnet by Wordsworth:

surprised-by-joy

Surprised by joy- impatient as the Wind/I turned to share the transport- Oh! With whom/ But Thee, deep buried in the silent tomb, / that spot which no vicissitudes can find? / Love, faithful love, recalled thee to my mind-/But how could I forget thee? Through what power, / Even for the least division of an hour, /Have I been so beguiled as to be blind/to my most grievous loss! – That thought’s return/Was the worst pang that sorrow ever bore,/Save one, one only, when I stood forlorn,/Knowing my heart’s best treasure was no more;/That neither present time, nor years unborn/Could to my sight that heavenly face restore.

The song was performed only once in public, at the newly opened Penrith Gaels club in Sydney in 1997. Unfortunately, I had neglected to tell my wife about this song, which had

lake district

just been written. Indeed, the decision to sing it was spur-of-the-moment. As she listened to the lyrics, she realised the context and left the venue in tears.

When she asked me later if the dream detailed in the song, Surprised by Joy, had been a real dream, I admitted that, no, it was just an idea I had for writing a song- but true, just the same- truer, perhaps, because it was not dredged from the unconscious sludge of my mind but that I dreamed the whole thing consciously as I beat the red-hot iron in the smithy of my waking imagination, feeling with each blow, the pain of loss but persevering nonetheless to produce an elegy that would serve:

Surprised by Joy

SQ 13 Starting Over Again

Entry 13: Starting Over Again- Why we ever think about a new start must be hard-wired into the genome. The eternal optimists among us come up with phrases such as, This is the first day of the rest of your life and Every cloud has a silver lining. Which is as valid a philosophical

cloud

point of view as any, I suppose. But, if there are causal connections linking every aspect of existence then this view is nonsensical.Funny-Optimism-Drawing

To illustrate- let’s reduce the universe to your bare foot resting on the ground and a house brick poised thirty-two feet above it. Now, let the brick accelerate downwards subject to the earth’s normal gravitational force. In about one second you will be screaming in pain. Quantum mechanics, however, will rush into the fray to assure you that indeterminism is woven into the fabric of the universe, so, perhaps, that brick, which, when last we saw it, was hurtling towards your unprotected toes, gathering momentum and kinetic energy on its way, will transform into a shower of rose-petals just before impact.th

In which case, you may, and with some justice, feel inclined to take the time to smell the flowery fragments. Better this, than shelling out hard-won cash on diet books and self-help courses which sell in huge quantities as a testimonial to the optimistic hard-wiring of most of the human species.

Let us, then, turn to literature to expand on these matters. Professor Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide is definitely a glass-half-full kind of guy. He is the learned tutor to the eponymous hero. They live a blissful life until Candide makes the mistake of kissing, Cunegonde, the beautiful and desirable daughter of the owner of their DrPangloss_400x400luxurious castle and surrounding garden. In the time between their expulsion from their paradisial abode at the novella’s start and the garden in which they find themselves at the conclusion, Pangloss and, separately, his naïve charge, Candide, undergo a series of improbable adventures including a scene in Lisbon Harbour where the one-eyed-one-eared-syphilitic tutor, now reunited with his erstwhile pupil (didn’t I mention a series of improbable adventures?) assures Candide that the tragic drowning of a friend, Jacques, who had saved him from being lynched, was quite in keeping with the Panglossian world view, which is summed up in the words: we live in the best of all possiblebest-world worlds.

Pangloss goes on to state authoritatively that Lisbon Harbour was, in fact, created in order that Jacques could drown therein. Now I don’t want to place too many spoilers in the way of those who may wish to peruse the original work either in French or in translation but here are a few titbits to whet your appetite. Cunegonde and Candide are re-united where he learns she has survived rape and disembowelment (need I say “improbably”, again?). She incautiously whinges about this to an old woman who retorts that she had to sufferla_ruta_hacia_el_dorado loss of a buttock to feed some starving men. Candide, separated a second time from his love, finds himself in El Dorado where a life of fulfilment and riches are on offer. But Candide, pining for Cunegonde, sets out in search of her with lots of loot which, of course, he mostly loses along the way.

Learning of her location in Turkey where she is enslaved and hideously ugly because of the privations she has endured along the way, he proceeds there and purchases her freedom. With the last of his money, he buys a plot of land after seeking guidance from a Turkish farmer who tells him,“I have no more than twenty acres of ground, the whole of which I cultivate myself with the help of my children; and our labour keeps off from us three great evils — idleness, vice, and want.”

candide-garden

The Age of Enlightenment precedes the Romantic Era, but here we find a situation that would have appealed to Wordsworth. The last sight we have of Candide and his companions finds that they are tending their garden, leaving the concerns of the wider world to someone else.

However, the final word goes to another author, one Arnold Bennett, the author of the

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magnificently titled, The Grand Babylon Hotel. He has this to say about the nature of time:

The chief beauty about time/is that you cannot waste it in advance. /The next year, the next day, the next hour are lying ready for you,/as perfect, as unspoiled,/as if you had never wasted or misapplied a single moment in all your life./ You can turn over a new leaf every hour/if you choose.

I admit to being attracted to his views on life. He gives his writing formula, which also appeals, without demur: I put in genuine quantities of wealth, luxury, feminine beauty, surprise, catastrophe and genial incurable optimism. And, as to why he wrote so much: Am I to sit still and see other fellows pocketing two guineas apiece for stories which I can do better myself?

 

Starting Over Again

SQ 14 All the Women

th (1)Entry 14: All the Women- A circle with a small equilateral cross underneath, a stylised representation of the goddess Venus’s hand-mirror, is widely known as the symbol for woman.  There is also another association: with the element copper. Alchemists, or, at least, some among their number, represented this element by constructing the symbol from a circle (representing spirit) above an equilateral cross (representing matter). Spirit and matter: that covers all the bases, I would think.

The symbol for Man is not so interesting: the circle represents the shield of Mars, the god of war, with a spear pointing to the top-right quadrant typifies the male of the species. Men th (2)are associated, alchemically, with the element iron. Is this, I wonder, the origin of the saying Men are from Mars and Women from Venus? Such a citation may lead one to expect a dissertation on the battle of the sexes: sorry, ain’t happening. Furthermore, because this entry is entitled “All the Women”, the listener may be expecting a learned explication on the topic. Alas, my expertise, knowledgeability and experience of the gender is lamentably narrow and, therefore, such expectations will be disappointed.

My store of info on men is not much better but I do have the advantage of decades inhabiting the skin of one knowing what it means to grow through the feverish throes of adolescence into adulthood, trapped, as some theorists would assert, in the patriarchal paradigm. But this socio-babble is making me queasy so I’ll cease and desist, as the saying goes and retreat to the sane embrace of the Bard- Bill Shakes.

In the bloodiest and briefest of the great tragedies, the tyrant, Macbeth, mocks the manhood of the two murderers he has engaged to slay the most immediate threat to his ignobly obtained crown- his best friend, Banquo and Banquo’s son, Fleance. The first murderer tells Macbeth We are men, my liege./ Ay, in the catalogue ye go for men; Macbeth replies As hounds and greyhounds, mongrels, spaniels, curs,/ Shoughs, water-rugs and demi-macbeth1-2015wolves, are clept/ All by the name of dogs. Macbeth asks if they are true men and the second murderer replies I am one, my liege, /Whom the vile blows and buffets of the world/ Have so incensed that I am reckless what/ I do to spite the world. The first murderer agrees with his homicidal buddy, And I another/So weary with disasters, tugg’d with fortune, /That I would set my life on any chance, / To mend it, or be rid on’t. So, in the catalogue, to use Shakespeare’s phrase, I am a man. But of what sort?

My innate pusillanimity would prevent me from putting myself forward as the sort of person to undertake Macbeth’s fell purpose. Let’s be frank, and to wind the clock forward to the 21st Century- the tasks in the contemporary world that men are expected to

da-vinci

accomplish as a matter of course: fixing a leaking tap; changing a flat tire or clearing the gutters, stretch me more than somewhat. And much as I would like to bask in the reflected glory of men such as Leonardo, Albert and Amadeus by claiming shared species-hood, I retain enough self-awareness to reject such hubris and repeat the question: what sort of man am I?

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Lacking a hand-mirror and left with only a shield and spear, I move forward in the phalanx of my sex (gender, I suppose is the more fashionable term nowadays) …I move forward, unreflecting and ready for conflict, if only of the most metaphorical and non-physically threatening kind

amadeus

 The only respite I can imagine is if I come across a pair of copulating snakes and hit them with the wooden shaft of my spear in the hope of angering Hera the wife of Zeus. To be like Tiresias, transformed into a woman and having to live thus has been recorded in myth and literature from ancient times right down to the present where the redoubtable Carol Ann Duffy has sardonically traced the hapless transformation in her wonderful poem, Mrs Tiresias, I’ll read a few extracts- but get to it yourself for the full impact.

 All I know is this:/ he went out for his walk a man/ and came home female…Then he started his period./one week in bed./two doctors in/three painkillers four times a day…/ I see him now,/ his selfish pale face peering at the moon/ through the bathroom window.

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Less scathing about the male of the species is Lucian of Samosata who lived and wrote in the 2nd Century AD. He is, incidentally, one of the earliest commentators on the fledgling Christian movement, regarding them as misguided creatures who believed they would live for all time- hence their contempt for death and disdain for worldly goods. In his work Necyomantia, he places Tiresias in Hades responding to the question: What is the best way of life? His answer? The life of the ordinary man: forget about philosophers and their

luciano_samosatametaphysical junk.

 

 

 

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All the Women

SQ 15 Looked at my Stars

Entry 15: Looked at my Stars- The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, /But in ourselves, that webrutus-and-cassiusare underlings. Speaking, is the lean and envious Cassius as he urges Brutus to join the conspiracy to assassinate Julius Caesar. The remarkable Helena from All’s Well That Ends Well asserts, Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie, / Which we ascribe to heaven and the bastard Edmund from King Lear sneers This is the excellent foppery of the world, that, when we are sick in fortune, often the surfeit of our own behaviour, we make guilty of our disasters the sun, the moon, and the stars.astrology

So, then, why do most of us sneak a peek at our stars as we sit in a waiting-room idly flipping through the paper or magazine lying there? The yearning for meaning and connection tugs at us from the depths of our being- especially as we await the painful ministrations of the dentist- and no amount of logical argument will persuade us that randomness and meaninglessness are the foundations of our existence: a blindly spinning wheel elevating one while crushing another, dealing pleasure and pain without approbation or blame.

I think of Boethius the author of The Consolation of Philosophy, which has influenced theboethius great and the good, the venal and the humble across millennia. He stands balanced between the East and the West, the Platonists and the Christians, the Free and the Imprisoned, the Blissful and the Tortured. I think, next, of the protagonist of A Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius J Reilly, who is both a subversive, medievalist Don Quixote railing against the absurdities of the modern world and a fat, indolent slob, too timid to venture outside the confines of 1960s New Orleans.Confederacy of Dunces

And lastly, I think of the author of that wonderful novel: John Kennedy Toole, who committed suicide in 1969 at the age of 31, depressed at the rejection of his comic manuscript by those who should have known better. I wonder what he would have made of our world today had he not run a garden hose from the exhaust of his car into the cabin of his car in Biloxi, Mississippi, and I wonder what title he would have given to a 21st Century A Confederacy of Dunces- for he would have only been in his mid-sixties at the turn of the millennium.

So here we are in the tangled thorn-bush of the What Ifs. Like our itch to read what our whatif12stars reveal, we revel in the scratching of the What Ifs. “What if I had… what if I hadn’t…” haven’t we all been there? I have been careful, hitherto, about commenting too directly on the songs associated with particular entries, but here, with some trepidation, I’ll make an exception. In the early 1980s I submitted a script to RTE in Dublin-which was accepted. I had returned to Ireland from Australia at the beginning of 1979 and was dismayed to learn that the “Troubles” which had vexed Irish history for hundreds of years was still “alive and well” or should I say “suppurating and spreading”.

The script centred on a teacher who had been in Germany and returned to Northern Ireland to teach in a private school. I wrote a number of songs to accompany the script and one of them was a shorter version of this song. As a British soldier looked under my car and searched me, during one of my trips within Northern Ireland at that time, I recalled an earlier incident, more than a decade previously, when I had been walking up a back lane to the rented house of our first abode as a family, located in a side street off the Whiterock Road, lost in thought and dreaming of a future life, when a harsh, alien accent shattered my reverie: I’ll kill you, you Irish bastard, if you don’t stop now! I stopped. I looked.th (4)

There was a young guy, a British squaddie, my age if not younger, holding an SLR pointed at my head, shaking. I knew I was within a whisker of being shot dead. So, what do you do? I raised my hands and waited for further instructions. I survived that encounter with the emissary of Death, knowing that there would be a reckoning somewhere further on down the track, but I was relieved to know that the time was not just yet.

Which brings me to the present: I have, since the time I first wrote ta-sweet-nightmarehe lyrics of the original and shorter song, been swimming in the pond of a post-modern stew where bubbling up is the mephitic revelation of so much that was denied to an earlier, more innocent conception of what the world is really like. When it came the time to re-cast and elaborate on those more innocent words, I found myself inhabiting a darker space where the protagonist of the song has now become a malevolent entity rather than the pitiable person who sings the first part of the song. The coda, I added much later, when the song needed some expansion as it was, originally, less than two minutes long. Here, I cloak a nightmare in a sweet-sounding conclusion.

Looked At My Stars

SQ 16 Open Your Eyes

Entry 16: Open Your Eyes- Sometime in the early 1990s, I pitched a tent at a music festival in North Queensland at a place called Pangola Park, south of Townsville. You know, I keep getting it confused with another place we camped at around the same time called Paronella Park near Meena Creek, a bit further north. My eyes were not particularly open

paronella-park

at either venue in those years. However, as a forty-something aspirational counter-cultural fellow-traveller, I lugged my second-best guitar in a canvas case with me along with my kids and my wife, as I re-imagined, in however desultory a fashion, the day-glo dream of the sixties.

By this stage, there were no illusions as to the realities facing all of us. Remember, this was a decade before the twin towers- but we knew something was happening, that there were tectonic shifts readying themselves under our feet. You did not need to consult with one of the many crystal-gazing seers at the fair-tents set up around these festivals in order to know that something was happening. You didn’t even have to know the lyrics of “Ballad of a Thin Man” by Bob Dylan to understand that a new dispensation was forming somewhere out there beyond our knowing.

But the day after I pitched the tent… in the smoky dawn, a pleasant chill to the tropical morning, I heard a didgeridoo sounding among the palms and rain-forest remnants around us. It made me forget the images of the first Gulf War: American jets screaming off carriers, a seemingly endless line of oil wells burning, wrecked vehicles on the road back to Basra, the Highway of Death, torn apart by 20mm M61 Vulcan Gatling guns firing 6,000

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rounds a minute, mounted on lumbering Lockheed AC-130s as they performed pylon turns in the desert sky. It made me forget gung-ho reports of Coalition valour such as when those giant military bulldozers buried tens of thousands of Iraqi conscripts in their trenches.

For a while, I could believe I was somewhere in Eden, listening to the earth sing. And as I walked through the grove I came upon the young man playing that ancient aboriginal instrument in front of his tepee. But, before too long, the site started to stir; from a Kombi van behind me came the crackle of a radio, a 4WD rattled and roared along the grassy,

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rutted track leading to the venue and a couple of happy, shrieking kids ran past. I walked back to our tent, grabbed my guitar, a notebook and pen and wandered in through the trees to find a quiet spot to compose. (Oh, here I go again, getting all autobiographical: it must be a lingering effect from the last entry.)

There was a song-writing competition and the organisers were looking for entries. I knew, even as I sat there under a tree, that I would not bother entering the comp but that I would try to write something worthy- or even better, worthwhile. But how does inspiration

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come, I mused (ha!)? The first image to flit through my mind- and this might have been provoked by the sight and sound of the didge player earlier- was that of flute-carrying Euterpe who inspires music, song and lyrical poetry. Next, unfathomably, the ouroboros-a snake spinning in mid-air and eating its own tail.

Later, I tracked the image down: was it Kekule’s discovery of the benzene ring in a dream which unlocked the formula on which the oil industry is based that was the source of the spinning image under that tree? But such fleeting images did not result in the furor poeticus so beloved of Renaissance artists and I sat noodling away on the guitar hoping that the random chords and notes would give rise to something, anything. But, no…nothing, nada, zilch. Not for the first time, I wondered how ouroboros_by_chopit could be that even in the farthest reaches of interstellar space, there wasn’t “nothing”: Nature abhors a vacuum as we all know, and it will create fundamental particles rather than allow “nothing” to persist anywhere in vastness of the universe.

So, how to explain writer’s block? The human mind is definitely more mysterious than the physical universe. And don’t get me started on the soul! At any rate, my self-pitying interlude was interrupted by the two kids I had seen earlier. A boy and a girl aged about eight or nine -brother and sister by the look of them- walked up to me and started to chat- mostly an innocent inquisition- Who are you? What are you doing? Is that a good guitar?

Presently, their mother sauntered over and we had a pleasant chat about the festival venue, the acts, and the bastardry of the local politicians. Inter alia, I commented on the coolness of her kids’ shirts- brightly embroidered affairs that looked bespoke and,embroidered-shirt consequently, expensive. Nah, cheap as chips at the market, the Mum replied- and then the furor poeticus struck and I knew precisely why clothing in Australia was so modestly priced.

 

 

Open Your Eyes

SQ 17 Is it a Dream?

Entry 17: Is It a Dream? – I love Megastructures and all those other wonderful programs on The Discovery Channel and Nat Geo that explore the worlds of engineering, science and exploration. I have to watch these media offerings at times when my wife is not in the dreamsroom. Just as she has to watch her favourite lifestyle and reality programs when I am otherwise engaged. There is no animosity attached to this for we have a range of shared favourites at prime-time. (Although, in the splintering media landscape- if a landscape can be said to splinter- such a term as media landscape may seem as quaint as quilting before too long.)

patriarchyNow, I have referred to the patriarchal paradigm before in this series, and I would not be surprised if there is something in the idea that men and women are hard-wired to respond to differing ways of engaging with the world- but I am puzzled by the undoubted fact that I am, and always have been, a complete klutz when it comes to the more sophisticated operations in the area of fabrication, manufacture and the manipulation of the physical world. By more sophisticated, I refer to anything beyond replacing a light-bulb or putting up a shelf.lightbulg

And yet, here you will find me, a 19-year old student on vacation back at home in the Glens of Antrim in Northern Ireland watching enthralled as the live pictures of the Moon Landing on July 20, 1969 are relayed in glorious black and white to televisions around the world. Michael Collins, the command module pilot, had designed the insignia for the mission: an eagle holding an olive branch in its talons to signify the wish for peace to be a part of the moonlandingsymbolism of this historic event.

Oh! It was so good to get away from the tensions in Belfast where something wicked was building inexorably. Not much more than three weeks after what I consider the greatest achievement of human endeavour, a mob smashed through Bombay Street in West Belfast and the pogrom started: to quote from Belfast Galleries.com- on Saturday August 14 there were 65 occupied houses on Bombay Street, by Sunday night that figure was down to 20. Within weeks the impromptu barricades dividing the protestant Shankill from the catholic Falls had been replaced by corrugated iron peace walls. At the time Sir Ian Freeland, the British Army General in charge of operations, remarked that these barriers would be ‘a temporary affair’. Over 40 years on they have proved far more durable than that!peacewall

Now, you can take tours of the peace walls of Belfast, take selfies in front of graffiti and never think at all that there is something weird about the fact that these walls have outlasted that icon of division in the Western world- the Berlin Wall. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall wrote Robert Frost in his widely anthologised poem, Mending Wall, published back in 1914. But his spirits didn’t have to reckon with the intractability of Irish hatreds.

barricadesBack in 1969, I responded to a call which went out over the radio for boarding students at my college to return early to help the refugees from the burnt-out streets. We hastily set up a reception centre in the college hall and had a crash course in how to be bureaucrats as we helped the bewildered victims fill in emergency relief forms. As I walked down the Falls and Donegall Roads of an evening to visit my girlfriend I could see the corrugated iron barricades going up on the side streets. There was fear in the air and I could feel the prickles on the back of my neck as I imagined being tracked through gunsights from the murky alley-ways I passed.

I listened to Radio Free Belfast at night and wondered what I was doing here. Iradio-free-belfast remembered a schoolboy pact I had made with a friend, that we would visit Australia and watch the cane-fields burn as we worked our way across the exotic continent seemingly as distant as the moon. It wouldn’t be with my school buddy but my girlfriend who became my wife, with whom I would clamber aboard a QANTAS jet in September of 1972, our daughter of three months in our arms, and set off for Sydney.

Over forty years later, now retired, I sit on our back veranda in the winter sunshine and wonder whether ideas have the same solidity as steel, whether the imagery and imagination holding together my songs have the integrity of the International Space Station which journeyed past Venus and Jupiter between 5:31pm and 5:34pm on Wednesday last, another reminder of the astounding achievements possible when human beings work together and set aside ancient grudges to reach for the stars. But maybe we’ll ISSend up like the oysters in this poem:

“The time has come,” the Walrus said, /”To talk of many things:/Of shoes and ships and sealing-wax/Of cabbages and kings/And why the sea is boiling hot/And whether pigs have wings.”

 

Is It A Dream?

SQ 18 Diving for Pennies

JFKEntry 18: Diving for Pennies- Most people know the trope: I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when…(Here you can supply your own memorable event) Well, I can remember two such instances from my own life: the first is the assassination of JFK on November 22nd 1963. I was in Junior High at Seroe Colorado High School in Aruba, a small island in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Venezuela. Its claim to fame was that, at one time, it was the largest oil refinery in the world. It was afternoon and a girl came screaming from the student parking lot “They’ve killed Kennedy, they’ve killed Kennedy”. As you might imagine, the routine of the school-day was shattered- as was everybody, staff and students.

The other event was the destruction of the twin towers by terrorists on September 11th 2001. I was lying in bed preparing for sleep and listening to the radio when the first twintowersreports came through. I was tired, rather puzzled at how a pilot could fail to see such prominent edifices, and drifted off as the radio droned on. The next morning there was nothing on TV but reports of the atrocities involving those aircraft and I sat transfixed, watching the coverage all morning. That afternoon, I remember driving to Sydney airport in a daze to collect my brother-in-law and his wife who were returning from a holiday in Ireland.

It wasn’t until the February of 2002 that I was able to write a song connected with these events. I later put this song with others into a collection I entitled Letdowns: after the millennium. I wrote a post-apocalyptic message to accompany the collection. Like so muchi_love_letdowns_keychain-r133a89f01e334420b7390af792a3de7a_fupus_8byvr_512 else of my oeuvre, I put the idea in a drawer and forgot about it until I decided to write these journal entries. Here follows the overly-pessimistic text I wrote then and a song about letdowns from the collection:

Letdowns should be more poetic. But they’re not. Letdowns, if they are really doing their job, should let you down in every department or else they’re not really… Letdowns. Which leaves songwriters like me in a real quandary- why even bother? Are the songs Letdowns, too? In which case, why this gloss? In this the fifth, and (I would think, on the medical evidence available to me) final album (what a quaint word this is, don’t you think?) that I am likely to write to, perhaps, no one but a distant descendant eager for family-tree minutiae, what can I say?bonepoem Like a poem carved upon an ancient bone. So then, to the eye that may not ever be there to see, and the ear that may never be there to hear- Greetings! I don’t know if your age will be one that is keen on pinning down time; nevertheless, let me give you a point of reference. It is now my birthday- 10:30 p.m. on the 31st of October, 2001 A.D. (if such an hour-and-date nomenclature has meaning in your time). I am living in an outer-western suburb of Sydney, Australia called Werrrington (if such a geographical reference means anything to you).whiskey and coke And I have been drinking (I’m sure, however straitened your circumstances, some form of potable liquor still has a place at your tables or around the fires at your campsites.)- I have been drinking Scotch whisky mixed with Cola– a syrupy and fizzy soft drink popular at one time. As an anthropological aside may I say that many considered such a combination to be a barbarism in our era. To those arbiters of taste around me who made such disparaging references to my imbibing predilection, I answered, only, that, having lost sight of any civility around me, I couldn’t fail but to agree with them. Such was my attachment to the ironic voice. An antique relic of the 20th Century, alas. But this lapse in taste on my part was eclipsed by other departures from civility by others… so, unfortunately, this barbarism didn’t hold a candle to the sorts of atrocity that enveloped the world in the first year or two of the new millennium. Read your history books. If any exist. Of course, songs need no explanation. If they are sung they live. The words are only ash- smudges that are merely remnants of the real thing. However, if your era is anything like ours, we need the crutches of explication- if only to impress by our borrowed erudition. This process was miscalled education while I was alive. I leave, instead, a poem for your contemplation.

circle of starsExplication: Like a poem carved upon an ancient bone/Dug out of an ash-pit,/An outline of a heart in bog-oak/Dragged up and in to the open air,/The remnants of an ancient tune/Whistling through the shaking leaves/Of the last stand of native trees/Left on a fissured plain,/Let my voice, telling of love/And letdowns, carry across/ The fields of time spread/ To the shimmering edges/Of eternity fringed with/A sparkling circlet of stars/Before they wink out/One by one,/Swallowed by the incurious/Blankness beyond.” Dive with me.

 

 

SQ 19 The Goodtimes of Doris and Ronnie

Arial view: Barrow-in-Furness


Entry 19: The Goodtimes of Doris and Ronnie-
In my mid-teens I dated a witch, briefly. She was from Barrow-in-Furness, just across the Irish Sea from Douglas in the Isle of Man where I met her at a holiday camp at which I worked during the summer break of 1966. No Emos or Goths in those days; I was dressed like a Mod but spouting the verse of Lord Byron and waxing lyrical about the black magic novels of Dennis Wheatley made me a forerunner of the type.

So, we got talking and she revealed her interest in the occult confiding that she was a witch. Intrigued, I accepted an invitation to visit her in her home-town the next weekend. Catching the Douglas to Heysham ferry, that Friday, I made my way via rail and bus to that Cumbrian town stuck at the end of the Furness peninsula. We saw The Small Faces perform at a municipal hall and agreed that they were “Fab”.

Lord_Byron_in_Albanian_dress

Turns out I was bored by the semi-literate stuff she showed me and that was the start of my disengagement with matters magical and the world of Wicca. Still loved Byron, though: an affection that has persisted over the decades. I used the poem, Darkness, in a unit on Romantic Poetry featuring, among other works, My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade in 2009. (FYI: neither the poem nor the CD were part of the increasingly irksome curriculum prescription of recommended texts to be duly recorded in the college’s computer.)

Byron’s apocalyptic picture of the end of the world was inspired by the year without a summer in 1816, a couple of hundred years ago, which was caused by the eruption of Mt Tambora: the most massive volcanic event of the 19th Century which killed tens of thousands of people and wiped out for all time the island culture of Sumbawa in the Indonesian archipelago.

a-eruption

This was in the era before the telegraph and the later eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 has hogged the limelight: who now remembers Mt Tambora when its effects dumped snow in New England in June and famine in various parts of the world. An Italian so-called scientist’s prediction that the sun would go out on July 18th caused riots, suicides, and religious fervour all over Europe according to Jeffery Vail in “‘the Bright Sun was Extinguis’d’: The Bologna Prophecy and Byron’s ‘Darkness’.” 

 The poem deals with the sun going out and the chaos that inevitably ensues. Two foes survive at the end of the world and they meet beside /The dying embers of an altar-place/ Where had been heap’d a mass of holy things /For an unholy usage;

a-darkness-image

They blow on the embers and then, they lifted up/Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld/Each other’s aspects–saw, and shriek’d, and died /Even of their mutual hideousness they died,/Unknowing who he was upon whose brow/Famine had written Fiend. /The world was void/ Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless/The rivers, lakes, and ocean all stood still,/And nothing stirred within their silent depths; /The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave,/The moon their mistress had expir’d before;/ The winds were withered in the stagnant air,/And the clouds perish’d; Darkness had no need /Of aid from them-She was the Universe.

the-who

 Pretty grim stuff, but youth have always been avid consumers of horror, death and destruction. Which brings me to another pop band the Mods were mad about- The Who. I saw them in concert that same summer in the Palace Ballroom, Douglas. At the end, Pete Townsend smashed his guitar and amp to the outrage of some among the crowd; indeed, it got a few boos and I must admit that I looked on in anguish as an electric guitar splintered onstage- I would have given my eye-teeth to have had one like it.

a-rs-image

 That year, The Rolling Stones, too, were drawing from the well of dark Romanticism when they wrote Paint It Black which charted at number one for ten weeks that spring and summer. But it would be a mistake to represent that time as one unrelievedly drenched in gloom- it was shot through with a happy vibe that, when you are 16, just goes on and on as you listen to The Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon or The Hollies’ Bus-stop or The Beatles’ Paperback Writer.

antiwar1

 The Seekers, Australia’s super group, sang bright, up-tempo folk-rock while back home Robin Askin, Premier of NSW, exhorted his driver to “Run the bastards over”, as Vietnam War protesters chanted at his august guest, “Hey, Hey LBJ how many kids did you kill today!” I’ll conclude, though, with lines from what must be one of the quirkiest songs Pete Townsend ever wrote but which captures how I was feeling that wonderful summer:

 Happy Jack wasn’t old, but he was a man/He lived in the sand at the Isle of Man/The kids couldn’t hurt Jack/They tried, tried, tried…/But they couldn’t stop Jack, or the waters lapping/And they couldn’t prevent Jack from feeling happy.

The Goodtimes of Doris and Ronnie

SQ 20 Straight and True

Entry 20: Straight and True- It’s tough being a hero. Not that I claim this honorific for myself, I hasten to add. I think of poor old Heracles, whose name means “the glory of Hera”. Heracles, according to Wikipedia, was the product of what is known as zeusheteroparental superfecundation- where a woman carries twins sired by two different fathers. Randy old Zeus, the husband of the fanatically jealous Hera, disguised himself as the husband, impregnating Alcmene with Heracles before the real husband, Amphitryon, returned later that night to sire Heracles’ mortal twin, Iphicles.

 Hera made Heracles’ life miserable in spite of the name change from Alcides to placate her. She attempted to prevent his birth and, failing that, successfully connived to rob him of his high kingship. When he was only eight months of age she sent two giant serpentsharacles into the nursery, which he duly strangled.  Astonished, Amphitryon sent for the seer, Tiresias, who prophesied an unusual future for the boy. What a surprise! Perhaps more surprising is that Heracles, when presented with a choice between a life of indolent hedonism or severe but glorious virtue, chose the latter.

Most of us would choose the former- or is that just me? His exploits live in legend and he remains the gold standard of the type. If demi-gods such as Heracles find the hero business so fraught, what hope for mere mortals? We need our heroes but are uncomfortable with templates from the past. The democratic spirit in western countries generally, but more croc-dundeeparticularly in Australia, values the self-deprecating-aw-shucks-anyone-would’ve-done-what-I-did schtick adopted by those men and women who perform acts of heroism few of us could ever contemplate doing.

Every time I look at the Australian of the Year site with its categories-one even called “local hero”- I feel proud, on the one hand, that we have so many great role-models among us; but on the other hand (and there’s always that other hand, isn’t there?) I feel more than a bit inadequate that I can’t really measure up. Except to our kids- at least for a while.

mudieWhen I read South Australian poet Ian Mudie’s, My father began as a god the shock of recognition was immediate: I saw myself as the persona of the poem, first; that young boy thinking his father’s laws were as immutable/as if brought down from Sinai; then through the prism of adolescence his father becomes a foolish small old man/with silly and outmoded views; next, with life’s experience shifting the perspective, the flaws scaled away into the past,/ revealing virtues/ such as honesty, generosity, integrity. Finally, and strangest of all, the persona admits that the older he gets the more the image of the father re-asserts its heroic former stature while the son is left just one more of all the little men/who creep through life/not knee-high to this long-dead god.

 As I sit on the back veranda, again soaking up the evening winter sun, I reflect that I am now the same age as Ian Mudie was when he died in London. It is heartening to read that his ashes were brought back to Australia and scattered on the Murray River.

One of the decisions I made fairly early on was that that I would not seek the pedestal position some parents want; that yes, I would be as good a Dad as I could be to my kids but that I would let them see my feet of clay. Some would say that, in this, at least, I was an over-achiever.  The phrase, feet of clay, comes from the Book of Daniel in the Bible and I now realise that I should have chosen another metaphor to puncture childish idolatrydream because we are in the presence of yet another hero. Judaic rather than Greco-Roman, a seer and a prophet rather than a strong-man, Daniel divines and interprets the Dream of Nebuchadnezzar where a statue with a gold head, silver arms and breast, copper belly and thighs, iron legs and mixed iron and clay feet is destroyed by a rock.

The Babylonian seers were unable to achieve this and were put to death: Daniel, is raised to power. His companions Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego survive the fiery furnace. He is able to decipher the mysterious writing on the wall after Nebuchadnezzar’s son and successor Belshazzar has drunk from Jewish temple cups at his feast. The words, Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin, Daniel explains to Belshazzar,furnace means that God has numbered his days, he has been weighed and found wanting, and his kingdom will be given to his enemies.

eldersMy favourite Daniel story, though, is that of Susanna and the Elders. Two lecherous oldies, spying the naked woman bathing say they will accuse her of meeting with a lover unless she has sex with them. She refuses, is about to be put to death for promiscuity, when Daniel interrupts proceedings and by skilful cross-examination exposes the fraud. The lechers get their comeuppance. Virtue triumphs.

Straight and true (demo version)

SQ 21 When It Isn’t Heaven

Entry 21: When It Isn’t Heaven- (Howling-adjective-producing a long, doleful cry or wailing sound. Oxford Dictionaries) Now that I no longer have to join the stream of traffic down thehighway traffic Great Western Highway to access the means to keep the wolf from the door and a roof over our heads, I luxuriate in reading the books, listening to the music and indulging in those sundry, random activities I didn’t have the time or energy for in the “working” phase of my existence.

Leafing through a collection of Banjo Paterson’s verse the other day I came across the lines,  Just now there is a howling drought/That pretty near has starved us out.  OnTheRoadFromHayToBooligal The poem dealt with the hellish conditions in the environs of the western Riverina town of Booligal in the final decades of the 19th Century. A woodcut from The Illustrated Australian News of 1889 shows a barren plain bisected diagonally by a cracked dirt track where the carcasses of animals consumed by the drought lie scattered across this stark tableau. A lone tree on the horizon is etched against the sky where dark clouds mock the arid desolation below.

Paterson treats the subject semi-humorously by having a denizen of the benighted town opine that apart from the isolation, heat, sand, dust, flies, mozzies, snakes and a plague of rabbits…the place ain’t too bad! The speaker concludes by noting that, in the unlikely event of rain, the track would become impassable and they’d be stuck in Booligal. Those listening to him are horrified, ‘We’d have to stop!’ With bated breath/We prayed that both in life and death/Our fate in other lines might fall:/‘Oh, send us to our just reward/‘In Hay or Hell, but, gracious Lord,/‘Deliver us from Booligal!’

 For some reason I picture Paul Hogan as the speaker. Australians find humour in the grimmest of situations: the tragic aesthetic does not sit well in the island continent which was earmarked as the dumping ground for the worst elements of British society but which transformed in an astonishingly short time into one of the most desirable residences of the planet Earth. I put down the volume of Paterson’s verse and lifted a dictionary of quotations which opened at a page marked by a decades-old anniversary card from my wife to me.

As I was lifting it out, I read the lines: Howling is the noise of hell, singing the voice of heaven,STR17POET_331045k according to John Donne in his guise as a preacher rather than poet. Singing and howling exist on a continuum of sound: one person hears music where another hears a racket. Donne was well acquainted with both concepts, heaven and hell, in his life and work. A saturnine, handsome, young Elizabethan blade with the worlds of adventure, love and preferment in front of him as well as travels as a spy and battle experience with the likes of the Earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh, stares out from a portrait painted around 1595 when he was 24.

Fast forward 37 years to the months after his death and we find an engraving of a sunken-cheeked, grizzled, death’s head in a shroud: something to frighten children with. 453px-donne-shroudEngraved by Martin Droeshout, better known for the image of Shakespeare that adorns the First Folio, it is based on a portrait that Donne had commissioned and hung on his wall in his final years to remind him of the transience of life.

As I looked from one image to the other I was reminded of Miyazaki’s 2004 anime, Howl’s Moving Castle, where the 18-year-old protagonist, Sophie, is befriended by Howl, a strange, conflicted wizard, who lives in a magical moving castle. She is turned into an aged crone by the Witch of the Wastes. Perilous journeys, transformations and magical encounters within a surrealistic world lead in the end to Sophie and Howl at the bow of the flying castle sharing a tender kiss- oh, my God, shades of the movie, Titanic! And yet we are suckers for the happy ending, particularly onetitanic sealed with a loving kiss. Such a pity, isn’t it, that such endings are as rare as a blood-red diamond.

Or are they? Tragic love stories attract the limelight: who would rate R+J if the Capulets and Montagues reconciled in time for the young couple to move into a new apartment in Verona and start putting up pictures while arguing over the décor of the ensuite? So, probably, there are lots of happy endings out there, under the radar, under the doona…

The idea of a prescriptive pair-bonding, though, seems quaint in the 21st Century. The ideal nuclear family of the 20th Century has morphed into a range of relational paradigms and you can take your pick of which one suits you. Me? Born in the middle of the 20th Century and married for 44 years, I still look to the old paradigm and I find a surprisinglyandrewjackson poignant connection with Andrew Jackson, 7th President of the United States, when he said shortly before he died: Heaven will be no heaven to me if I do not meet my wife there.

When It Isn’t Heaven

SQ 22 Unhallowed Ground

uluruEntry 22: Unhallowed Ground- Comparisons are odious. Why? Hugh Mackay, a prominent Australian social commentator, makes the point, in a newspaper article from 2005, that to argue that only Aborigines have a genuine attachment to sacred sites as opposed to the inauthentic attachment of the Anglo-Celts to their footy grounds, war memorials and suburban plots is rubbish. He argues that a sense of place is essential to everyone’s identity. Uluru is gallipolisacred to its custodians and Gallipoli is holy ground for generations of Aussies.

Comparisons are odious is a saying which was in fairly common use at least five centuries ago, and not just in the English speaking world. Cervantes, in Spain, is credited with its use at about the same time as John Donne in England. In his poem The Comparison, Donne presents us with two women: the first is the mistress of the poet, where beads of sweat are compared to pearl carcanets. (Such as the jewelled chokers found enhancing the slender necks of aristocratic and royal ladies of the time) The second is the mistress of another where, instead, Rank sweaty froth thy mistress’ brow defiles,/Like spermatic issue of ripe menstruous boils…

He continues in this vein for more than two dozen lines and concludes; Leave her, and I will leave comparing thus/She and comparisons are odious.  This is not a man you would want to cross! But to uncover the origins of the saying, comparisons are odious, we will have to go back almost two hundred years before the Elizabethan Era to John Lydgate of Bury, a odiuscontemporary of Chaucer, who wrote a little-known but fascinating exploration of animals and their place in creation; in particular, their relationship to humankind.

The title of this obscure tome? The Debate of the Horse, Goose and Sheep. To the modern urbanised ear, this seems a slightly ridiculous title and so it did to mine until I began to explore it in more depth. I am indebted to Jeremy Withers of Iowa State University who wrote an engrossing commentary on the poem entitled The Ecology of Late Medieval Warfare in Lydgate’s The Debate of the Horse, Goose and Sheep. The subject of the debate is: which of these three animals was of most use to humans? The Horse claims pre-eminence because it is an emblem of chivalry: who cannot but thrill to the image of a knight in shining armour mounted upon a stately steed and advancing under fluttering banners into honourable hand-to-hand combat.

Reality was not so pleasant; war-horses and draft horses were killed in enormous numbers during the Hundred Years War. The Goose advanced its claim by reference to the supply of feathers to furnish the fletchings of the hundreds of thousands of arrows needed in the article-1201096-001418B61000044C-720_634x542seemingly unending conflict. The Battle of Agincourt proved in bloody detail the effectiveness of the English and Welsh bowmen against the aristocratic, mounted French knights who thought they would have easy game that day.

The Sheep, whose position was put by a Ram because the former was so meek, counters the military utility of the others by playing the Jesus card (Lamb of God, wouldn’t you know) and claiming that peace is superior to war. The Horse vehemently asserts that wool, as a premier commodity of the time, fuelled the war efforts of various protagonists. The poet, among all the contenting arguments, reveals the very large impact of human society, and particularly, warfare on the bodies of huge numbers of animals in the late Medieval period.

In this fable, a lion and an eagle act as judges and declare each of the animals should be deemed equal. This is not an idealistic, modern-seeming concern with animal rights or welfare but rather an affirmation of the medieval concept of knowing your place andlion-and-eagle keeping to it. But, to conclude, I will shift the animal metaphor to that of a large herbivorous ape which has a fearsome reputation that is not at all in keeping with its gentle nature and which, alas, is approaching extinction and may live on only figuratively for future generations: the 800-pound gorilla in the room is, as always, Shakespeare.sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?/ Thou art more lovely and more temperate:/Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,/And summer’s lease hath all too short a date: 

The sound and sense of Sonnet 18 has, it seems to me, quasi-magical powers. In fourteen lines we have been left one of the most affecting accounts of mortality where the preservation of beauty in the golden amber of verse is effortlessly described in the lines, But thy eternal summer shall not fade… So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee. He knew, didn’t he, that his lines would be read and revered long after he and the object of his admiration were dust.

 

Unhallowed Ground (alternative take)

SQ 23 Still on the Move

Entry 23: Still on the MoveZeno was a puzzling fellow: The hapless French knights in the previous entry would have been more than grateful had his arrow paradox been, in fact, true. I cannot improve on the account given in Wikipedia: In the arrow paradox (also known as the fletcher’s paradox), Zeno states that for motion to occur, an object must change the position which it occupies. He gives an example of an arrow in flight. He states that in any one (duration-less) instant of time, the arrow is neither moving to where it is, nor to where it is not. It cannotxeno move to where it is not, because no time elapses for it to move there; it cannot move to where it is, because it is already there. In other words, at every instant of time there is no motion occurring. If everything is motionless at every instant, and time is entirely composed of instants, then motion is impossible.

Diogenes of Sinope, also known as “Diogenes the Cynic”, is said to have replied to the argument that motion is unreal by standing up and walking away. This is known as solvitur ambulando which is Latin for, It is solved by ambulandowalking. Nonetheless, Bertrand Russell in the 20th Century has called the paradoxes of Zeno “immeasurably subtle and profound”. So why did he leave us such fiendish paradoxes to contemplate? Gazing at the idealised marble statues of the philosophers of antiquity may prompt us to ascribe the love of abstract thought as the motivation.

But I suspect it is in the heart rather than the head that we will find the true motive.  Plato reports that Zeno was “tall and fair to look upon” and was “in the days of his youth … to have been beloved by Parmenides”, his teacher. Crucially, according to Plato, the writings of Zeno, including the paradoxes were “meant to protect the arguments of Parmenides“.  Where do we look, then, for the philosophers who can tell us of the paradoxes of the human heart?

Thankfully, we don’t have to search too far in time or place. Carson McCullers at the age of 23, published her first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, in 1940. This frail, illness-wonderfulstricken young woman, had the constitution of a sickly bird but the heart of a classical hero. Her characters seek for meaning and connection in a hostile world within wonderfully titled works such as Reflections in a Golden Eye, The Ballad of the Sad Café and The Square Root of Wonderful.

She, herself, was like a character from her fiction. Married at age 20 to an ex-soldier, Reeves McCullers, who was also an aspiring writer, she began work on her first novel. The marriage didn’t last and in 1941 she left for New York to live with George Davis the editor of Harper’s Bazaar, becoming a member of an arts commune in Brooklyn. Her friends included W. H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Gypsy Rose Lee, and Paul and Jane Bowles. After World War II, McCullers lived mostly in Paris where she re-married Reeves nuestros_libros_carson_mccullersMcCullers. Her close friends during these years included Truman Capote and Tennessee Williams.

In 1948 she became severely depressed and attempted suicide. In 1953, Reeves tried to convince her to commit suicide with him, but she fled and Reeves killed himself in their Paris hotel with an overdose of sleeping pills. She returned to the US and lived her final years in Nyack, a small town outside New York City where she died of a brain haemorrhage at age 50 in 1967. Had she lived another 40 years to reveal, perhaps, a prequel to her most famous novel, who knows, she might have had to endure the damning with faint praise I witnessed recently on the ABC’s premier TV book show where her near-contemporary, Harper Lee’s book, Go Set a Watchman, was reviewed.

She is buried in Oak Hill cemetery where you will also find Edward Hopper, the artist who nighthawkspainted one of the great scenes of 20th Century American Art in his picture Nighthawks, set in an all-night diner on a street corner in New York City. I’ll conclude by quoting from the poem where, on the advice of her editor, Carson McCullers found the title for her first novel. The poem, The Lonely Hunter, is by Scottish writer William Sharpe, who, as a member of the Celtic Revival of the 1890s, wrote under the pseudonym, Fiona McCloud.

This he kept a closely-held secret. Yeats, (in a literary irony or, at least, curiosity,) found the work of McCloud acceptable but not that of Sharpe. He later worked out that Sharpe and McCloud were, in fact, the same person.

SharpeWhat are all songs for me, now, who no more care to sing?/Deep in the heart of Summer, sweet is life to me still,/But my heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill./Green is that hill and lonely, set far in a shadowy place;/White is the hunter’s quarry, a lost-loved human face:/O hunting heart, shall you find it, with arrow of failing breath,/Led o’er a green hill lonely by the shadowy hound of Death?

 

 

Still On The Move

SQ 24 Just For You and Me

irish-wolfhoundEntry 24: Just For You and Me- The shadowy hound of death in the poem by Fiona McCloud a.k.a. William Sharp is a wonderful construct where the spectre of mortality is not a grim reaper with hapless humankind withering in helpless stands like the grass and flowers of Isaiah and 1 Peter, All flesh is like grass,/and all its glory like the flowers of the field./The grass withers and the flowers/ fall,  but, instead, we find a questing hound leading the lonely hunter, pursuing the lost-loved face, over a green hill. And what lies over that green hill?

 Perhaps Aristophanes can give part of the answer. In The Birds, we see two middle-agedccland men, lost in a hilly wilderness looking for a land where the strife and privation found in Athens are absent. And what do they find? Cloud-cuckoo-land. One of the themes of the play is a revolt against conventional power-structures and this thread comes down through the centuries to us today. In the Middle-Ages we find the Goliardic tradition where the powerful institution of the Roman Church is mocked mercilessly and finds its apotheosis in The Feast of Fools where licentious behaviour scandalised the sober and pointed to the contradictions between the theory and practice of many of the clergy.

 The Carmina Burana is the best known artefact from those times. In 1567, Breughel the cockaigneElder’s painting of The Land of Cockaigne shows us stock contemporary figures such as a peasant, a soldier and a clerk, semi-comatose from the effects of gluttony. Cockaigne, Wikipedia tells me, was an imaginary place of extreme luxury and ease where physical comforts and pleasures are always immediately at hand and where the harshness of medieval peasant life does not exist…a land of contraries, where all the restrictions of society are defied (abbots beaten by their monks), sexual liberty is open (nuns flipped over to show their bottoms), and food is plentiful (skies that rain cheeses).

 In the great depression of the 20th Century, the same impulse is at work in songs such as The Big Rock Candy Mountain where the promise of cigarette trees, chocolate heights and lemonade springs lures a naïve young farmer’s son to follow the burly hobo to search for the land of ease. The denouement of the original song is not the sanitised version thatShangriLa_detail2 children sing in school performances. At about the same time as the song was being popularised in the 1930s we find Shangri-La, a mystical valley utopia in the Kunlun Mountains, which was long believed to be a paradise of Taoism.

The word, utopia, was coined by Sir Thomas Moore in 1516 from the Greek words not and place or, colloquially, nowhere. What is implied by the etymology of the word has not prevented a host of visionary dreamers, both the benign and the psychopathic, from instituting their version of a heaven on earth. Manson’s family, Jonestown and Pol Pot’s Cambodia come to mind more readily than, say, the Oneida Community that lasted from 1848 to 1881 and which left us a legacy of stylish silverware-much preferable to the mountains of dead bodies and myriad shattered lives left by the others mentioned before.

Which brings me to The Garden of Earthly Delights, a triptych by Hieronymous Bosch, painted around 1500. Depicted are three locales, first; on the left-hand panel, we are in Eden with God presenting Eve to Adam, second; in the larger middle panel we could be in a gedregion of Cockaigne where nude men and women cavort among a selection of oversized birds and fruit; finally, in the panel on the right of the triptych, we are in a chamber of hell where the torments of damnation are vividly on show. We pursue our utopias, wherever they lead us. E.E. Cummings wrote a brilliant poem about this in 1944 during the horrors of World War II, pity this busy monster, manunkind, not/…pity poor flesh and trees…but never this fine specimen of hypermagical/ ultraomnipotence/…listen: there’s a hell of a good universe next door; let’s go.

 There is learned speculation about the multiverse where every conceivable story and outcome is endlessly played out. Where, in one iteration of existence, you rule the big rock candy mountain; in another, you are a tortured soul endlessly enacting a scene from the right-hand panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights, and so on, and on. In episode 4, Season 6, of Through the Wormhole, Morgan Freeman discusses the view of theorists from a number of scientific fields who wonder if this universe of ours is not just a vast video game and we are pre-programmed elements within it.cosmic joke

These guys, presumably, don’t wear hats made of tinfoil but they are actively looking for glitches in the program that will prove that we are just epiphenomena inside, it may be, the latest fad of some alien teenage emo gamer. Now, wouldn’t that be something?

 

Just For You and Me

SQ 25 Belfast Calling

Belfast City Hall

Entry 25: Belfast Calling-There are places of wonder, splendour, adventure and transcendence, I suppose. Most Saturday mornings, I sit on the northeast corner of our veranda and flip through the travel supplement of The Sydney Morning Herald as I sip coffee and listen to the radio. In winter, the sun is low enough to stream under the roof and warm my blood as well as that of the small lizards that bask on the red-brick wall opposite.

In summer, the sun is higher and the same corner is shaded and open to the cooling breeze. Why, then, would I want to be anywhere else? I notice that the grey dollar is avidly sought as cruise operators, glamping spruikers as well as the more traditional bus touring companies display their dream destinations in extravagant, adjective-strewn purple prose promising fulfilment of various kinds…of-a-lifetime, of course. To over-promise and under-deliver seems a feature of life today. Does “awesome” retain even a sliver of its original heft?

My dyspeptic cast of thought is not solely due to the advertising copy before me (some of it masquerading as travel writing) but the thought that I must return to the small box-room that I use as a writing post. There, I’ve left an excerpt from Letter III of a Congregationalist minister writing, in 1852, an account of his meeting with some of my forbears in a small house at the entry of a cul-de-sac in the slums of Belfast. Entitled Walks Among the Poor of Belfast…, it is one of the many printed exposés of the effects of extreme poverty in the industrial cities of the UK at the time.

slum

The Reverend W. M. O’Hanlon recounts, the first house we entered was filled with sweeps…it is seldom that even one or two of these dusky ones cross our path without exciting…pity for them…as among the semi-barbarous thralls of society…a conclave of some ten or twelve of them, all duly begrimed, and by no means ashamed to shew their colours, is not an every-day sight. My ancestors of less than two centuries ago reminded the reverend person of, a Pandemonium, only very completely shorn of its terrible sublimity and partaking largely of the burlesque. Deep ignorance is, of course, the prevailing characteristic of this class.

Hardly surprising, if the following testimony is typical, inquiring of one, about eighteen years

chimney sweeps

of age, if he had ever been at school, his reply was, that he had gone to school when a child, for a few days, but, not being able to make anything of it, he had given it up and ever since he had looked upon “the larnin’ as a mighty strange thing.” George Bernard Shaw, in Pygmalion, has Eliza Doolittle’s father make the ironic distinction between the “deserving” poor and the “undeserving” poor and I wonder if the well-meaning O’Hanlon felt he had discovered one of the former in this next extract:

In this singular group, however, we did find one lad able to read a little, and, having furnished him with the means, we set him to work, for his own benefit and that of his black brethren. What means? What work? I ask myself 163 years later, and I have a feeling there

th (8)Chimney Sweep

may be a script, poem, song or short story here. But I must put it on the long finger, to use an Irish expression from the time, because I would like to share with you the fact that the straitened circumstances in which the charitable Reverend found members of my clan were a des res in comparison to what was found in a nearby lane,

in truth, no pure breath of heaven ever enters here; it is tainted and loaded by the most noisome reeking feculence. Surely, we’ve reached the bottom of the pit? But no, there is yet a lower circle in this suburb of hell, still more narrow and wretched containing, I think, nine houses, seven of which, are the abodes of guilt…here every kind of profligacy and crime is carried on…passers of base coin, thieves and prostitutes all herd together…and sounds of blasphemy, shouts of mad debauch, and cries of quarrel and blood are frequently heard here through the livelong night to the annoyance and terror of the neighbourhood…it is the practice of these miscreants to frequent the docks, and, having caught sailors, like unwary birds, in their toils, to allure them into their pitfalls, where they are soon peeled and plundered.

Sounds a bit like Kings Cross of a Saturday night, doesn’t it? O’Hanlon did not live much longer after his encounter with my black brethren and I honour his memory. But, out here on the veranda, as I gaze at the artfully cropped photographs of tourist destinations far and near, I ponder on the images and accounts that are not submitted for my weekend perusal but that would replicate in substance what the Reverend W. M. O’Hanlon Ireland_Belfast_ire1_largediscovered in the city that was my first abode when I left my parents and began my tentative steps as a new husband, a new father and teacher-in-waiting as I dreamt of a new life in Australia:QANTAS 707

 

SQ 26 Penelope’s Song

Entry 26: Penelope’s Song- In the Glens of Antrim, where I was born, the sea has been aglens powerful shaping force throughout history and, indeed, pre-history. For 10,000 years people have walked through the glens, many having arrived by sea over the millennia and just as many having left by the same means. My father and grandfather were the latest in a long line of Glensmen who sought a livelihood across the sea stretching back to the Neolithic exporters of porcellanite axe heads found the length and breadth of the British Isles and much further afield.

masefieldJohn Masefield has set out in a poem, published in 1902, the allure of the sea-faring life to many a sailor; an allure as powerful as the attractions of the girls from the Belfast brothels of the previous entry.

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,/And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,/And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,/And a grey mist on the sea’s face and a grey dawn breaking.

 For most part, the womenfolk stayed at home and waited and waited; expected to emulate Penelope, spouse of the Greek hero Odysseus who warded off 108 suitors for twenty years by saying she would entertain their suit when she had finished her weaving, an appropriate wifely task. At night, she would undo what she had done the previous day. This embodiment of uxorial decorum is represented in artpenelope by her modest pose of leaning her cheek on her hand, and by her protectively crossed knees, reflecting her long chastity in Odysseus’s absence.

Her name has traditionally been associated with marital faithfulness, unlike her contemporary, Helen, who represents the fatal attraction of faithless beauty: Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships/And burnt the topless towers of Ilium? But some recent readings offer a more ambiguous interpretation of Penelope, the wifely paragon.

 As Margaret Attwood has Penelope observe in The Penelopiad, when she recognises her husband’s beggarly disguise but refrains from calling him on it: it’s always an imprudence to odysseusstep between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness.  Continuing the deflation of the legend, she further assets that Odysseus was a liar and drunkard who had fought a one-eyed bartender then boasted it was a giant, cannibalistic Cyclops he had bested through his guile and strength.

 Other, ancient sources including Duris of Samos and Servius, the Virgilian commentator, report that Penelope slept with all 108 suitors in Odysseus’ absence, and gave birth to Pan as a result. One wonders if, in fact, the song of the Sirens that tormented Odysseus was suspicious thoughts of what his wife was up to back in Ithaca.  

 In the early 7th Century, St Isidore, patron saint of the Internet, who is said to have been the last true scholar of the ancient world, asserted in his  Etomologaie that there wereisidore three Sirens…One of them sang, another played the flute, the third the lyre. They drew sailors, decoyed by song, to shipwreck… According to the truth, he asserts, they were prostitutes who led travellers down to poverty.

 In 1917, Franz Kafka writing about these creatures has this to say:  Now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence. And though admittedly kafkasuch a thing never happened, it is still conceivable that someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence certainly never.

But we don’t have to put up with their silence, thankfully. In my head I hear a partial roll-call of those intrepid men who heeded the summons of the sea and helped shape modern Australia, the place where I now live and call home: Bass, Baudin, Cook, Dampier, D’Entrecasteaux, Flinders, Frecinyet, Furneaux, La Perouse, Tasman, Torres. They all undertook voyages as legendary as that of Odysseus in the Bronze Age. The age of exploration across the vastness of land and sea has passed.australia

I think, instead, of an Irish writer who took on the immense themes found in the Odyssey and presents us with one day in the life of an unremarkable Dubliner as he wanders around his city on the 16th of June, 1904; a most propitious date that is still celebrated in cities around the world as Bloomsday where readings from the text take pride of place. In Sydney, it has been celebrated in a variety of venues including Bondi Beach where Irish backpackers congregate in large numbers in order to redden their pale Celtic backs in the sun and to redden their pale Celtic faces at the pub afterwards.

molly-bloomSome of them may even take part in marking the composition of Ulysses by James Joyce where we find Molly Bloom, who represents Penelope, lying in bed with her husband Leopold Bloom, who is Odysseus. The novel concludes with Molly’s remembrance of Bloom’s marriage proposal. And her reply? …yes I said yes I will Yes.

 

Penelope’s Song

SQ 27 Paddy Went Home Today

Entry 27: Paddy Went Home Today- In Australia, those men, who enter apprenticeships to become plumbers, electricians, carpenters, mechanics and a host of other trades that construct the protective carapaces in which we exist are designated “tradies” and theytradie have an honoured place in the pantheon of occupations in this land that was dismissively labelled a bricklayer’s paradise in the 1960s when so many found a place in the sun and started to build a new life for themselves and their families.

Even in the early 70s when I first arrived on these shores, the shortage of skilled labour ensured that anyone with a modicum of skill in any trade could walk out of one job in the morning and have another job that afternoon. Advertising reflected this by, for instance, contrasting the pasty-faced white-collar workers glumly eating a business lunch in a restaurant with young, bronzed, muscled office-drudgebuilders happily eating a meat pie outside in the cabin of their Ute. This image has persisted over the decades, even though their golden age has passed and the new economy has its own young guns slinging code and establishing start-ups which are worth millions within a year.

There are lots of paeans to those inhabiting the upper-crust of society- Kings and Queens and the like, and also to those inhabiting the base of the human pie- the peasantry and the proletariat. This entry, though, deals with those who inhabit that special place that will not see them loaded onto tumbrils on the way to the greedy guillotine or consigned to be factory-and-cannon fodder.

But we can’t comfortably categorise them as petit bourgeois either. Soren Kierkegaardkierkegaard wrote, “the petty bourgeois is spiritless…devoid of imagination… he lives within a certain orbit of trivial experiences as to how things come about, what is possible, what usually happens… this is the way the petty bourgeois has lost himself and God This scornful depiction owes more to the prejudices of the philosophical Dane’s affluent middle-class upbringing than any thoroughgoing analysis.

It seems to me that human progress has been accomplished by men and women looking at how things come about, what is possible workersand what usually happens. From pre-historic times, the work and innovation of stone-masons, carpenters, tool-makers, and metalworkers have added to the utility and aesthetics of human existence. From classical times, the ingenuity of plumbers, ship-builders, aqueduct engineers and road-makers has ensured the spread of civilisation.

Modern times owes much of its definition to electricity on demand and, now, the sparkie joins the ranks tradespeople who keep our lives on its comfortable track. Think of the last time your toilet was blocked, or there was a power outage, or the ceiling leaked or if this happened at once- as it might in thehouse aftermath of a storm. Then, you, too, would be singing paeans those who would fix the problems.

Paean is such a strange word- it means enthusiastic praise and derives from a hymn to Apollo, who was physician to the gods. I am reminded of a relatively obscure incident from the Cold War where this word was used in an interesting way. In 1968, the USS Pueblo, an American Naval spy ship, was captured after being fired upon by North Korean navy ships killing fireman Duane Hodges and wounding uss-puebloa third of the contingent. 82 officers and crew were imprisoned and tortured physically and mentally for 11 months.

As part of the conditions for release the captain and officers had to sign an admission crewof guilt. The captain gamed his tormentors, using the word paean to do so. Skip Schumacher, interviewed for the BBC program Witness in 2012, recalls with humour and pride their final act of resistance as the men walked to freedom across the “bridge of no return” at butcherPanmunjom. “Blasted on the loud speakers for all to hear came the booming voice of Commander Bucher wishing to pee on the North Korean navy and most of all pee on Premier Kim ll-sung!”

The crew members, too, were defiant as demonstrated by, on one occasion a group of eight sailors were photographed by the North Koreans to show how well the crew was being treated. In the photograph every sailor held up his middle finger – a lewd gesture that was not recognised by their captors. “We told them the finger was a Hawaiian good luck sign so they thought that was wonderful,” Lt Schumacher remembers.

So, then, what follows is a song of praise- a paean, to the tradies who work long hours for little in the way of glory. I heard about the protagonist of the song when the members of the folk band I was playing in were talking about big drinkers we had encountered duringsheetmetal-worker our working lives. Paddy is based on a sheet-metal worker from inner Sydney, during the boom times of the mid-70s.

 

Paddy Went Home Today (alternative take)

SQ 28 Mountains and Trees

Entry 28: Mountains and Trees- I worked a summer job in 1970 at a fish-and-chip shop in Donaghadee, County Down in Northern Ireland. I was trying to gather a few shekels together to get married the following year. There I met an acquaintance from schooldays who was in training to accompany the Queens University Mountaineering Club for an attempt on K2, second highest mountain in the world the following summer break.k2

The Savage Mountain, as K2 is known, has the second highest fatality rate among the eight-thousanders (that is-those 14 mountains above 8,000 metres or 26,247 feet) Their summits are in the death zone which  refers to altitudes above a certain point where the amount of oxygen is deemed insufficient to sustain human life. Yet 33 people have climbed all 14 peaks without extra oxygen. Hundreds have died in the attempt, so death zone seems accurate enough.

messnerWikipedia has a great story concerning ace mountaineer, Reinhold Messner, renowned for making the first ascent of Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen and for being the first climber to ascend all fourteen “eight-thousanders: he was given the opportunity by the Chinese government to climb kailash, a mountain sacred to four religions, in the mid-1980s but he declined. In 2001 the Chinese gave permission for a Spanish team to climb the peak, but in the face of international disapproval the Chinese decided to ban all attempts to climb the mountain. Messner, referring to the Spanish plans, said, “If we conquer this mountain, then we conquer something in people’s souls … I would suggest they go and climb something a little harder. Kailash is not so high and not so hard.

Well, at almost 22,000 feet it is no mean mountain, thought by earlier mountaineers to be unclimbable, so Messner’s not so high and not so hard has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Still, it’s good to know that there is a sacred site that has not been trashed by tourists of uluru-lightingone kind or another; unlike Uluru, also known as Ayer’s Rock, in central Australia where visitors regularly ignore requests that the sacred rock is not climbed as are requests that certain sections are not photographed.

Of course, I have climbed nothing much higher than the flat-topped mountain of some eleven hundred feet which towered over my childhood home. I had always regarded it with awe as a child and I finally climbed it in the company of my to-be wife in the spring of 1968. I experienced that senselurig
of exaltation that so many of us report when at the summit of a high place. It’s something to do with being able to see for miles and miles; looking down at the insignificance of humans and their achievements.

You can also lose yourself, in a different sort of way, among the trees. Although limited theoretically to growing less than 130 metres or 430 feet tall, we feel dwarfed by these towering plants that can outlive us by thousands of years as well. Near Bulahdelah, northern NSW in the Myall Lakes National park is the aptly named the Grandis, a 400-year-old gum which soars 76 metres among the surrounding grandisforest.

This area is home, as well, to Australia’s greatest poet, Les Murray, who writes in Noonday les-murray-1Axeman, about his forbears who came here from Scotland to work the timber…my great-great grandfather here with his first sons,/who would grow old, still speaking with his Scots accent, /never having seen those highlands that they sang of. As humans we measure ourselves against just about everything we experience but to compare ourselves to trees is more comprehensible than to set a measure against the mountains of the world, large or small. A. E. Housman, does so in one of his best-known poems,

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now/Is hung with bloom along the bough,/And stands about thecherry-blossom woodland ride/Wearing white for Eastertide./Now, of my threescore years and ten,/Twenty will not come again,/And take from seventy springs a score,/It only leaves me fifty more./And since to look at things in bloom/Fifty springs are little room,/About the woodlands I will go/To see the cherry hung with snow.

Compare this to Basho’s terse comment, The oak oaktree:/not interested/in cherry blossoms.

In 1972, we set up home in Wollongong, between the heavily wooded Illawarra Range and the long white beaches washed by the surf sets of the South Pacific Ocean. In 1974 we moved just across from the city’s Botanic Gardens and we would often take the kids to the duck pond or rose garden. I would, on occasion, sit under a tree, reading poetry, strumming my guitar or learning how to play the tin-whistle. During that year, apart from annoying the ducks bybotanical-garden over-blowing, I wrote the song, Mountains and Trees, there; comparing the scenes of my youth in Northern Ireland to the strange and compelling vistas around me.

 

SQ 29 Home

Entry 29: Home- Let’s start big. We are star-stuff. The heavy elements that make us possible started in stellar furnaces and were blasted across the universe by super-novae and here we are. Our home is the universe. But I wonder how consoling that thought is tosupernova the 100 million plus people on this planet who are categorised as homeless or the 1.6 billion who are inadequately housed according to standards established by the UN?

 Some people live in the one spot, the one dwelling, their whole lives as have their parents and grandparents before them and they, in turn, expect to hand on the home to one or more of their children- but such instances must be rare today. For instance, in the first 45 years of my life, I had lived in twenty different places on three continents. However, for the past twenty years I have lived at the same address.

On those desk calendars with a quote-a-day you will find sentiments such as, home attributed to Pliny the Elder. The Germans have a word for it- Heimat. Wikipedia says, People are bound to their heimat by their birth and their childhood, their language, their earliest experiences or acquired affinity. Heimat as a trinity of descendance, community and tradition highly affects a person’s identity. Historically, it found strength as an instrument of self-assurance and orientation in an increasingly alienating world. It was a reaction to the onset of modernity, loss of individuality and intimate community.

 Heimat is also the overall title of several series of films in 32 episodes written and directed by Edgar Reitz which view life in Germany between 1919 and 2000 through the eyes of a family from the Hunsruck area of the Rhineland. Personal and domestic life is set againstheimaat glimpses of wider social and political events. The combined length of the 32 films is 53 hours and 25 minutes, making it one of the longest series of feature-length films in cinema history.

 A related concept, Heimweh or homesickness, has deep roots and is an ancient phenomenon, mentioned in both Homer’s The Odyssey, where we find Athena arguing with Zeus to bring Odysseus home because he is homesick. “…longing for his wife and his homecoming…” and the Old Testament (Exodus and Psalm 137) “By the rivers of Babylon, babylonthere we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

 But if I started big, I’d like to modulate to something smaller now by taking us to a modest homestead in New England in the opening years of the 20th Century, where a woman, Mary, is waiting for her husband, Warren. She has taken in an old man, Silas, who used to work for them but left over a dispute about money. Warren says bitterly, at one point, Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/They have to take you in. This is from a long, conversational poem byfarmhouse Robert Frost- a wonderful exploration of the concept of home. It touches upon several other themes including family, power, justice, mercy, age, death, friendship, redemption, guilt and belonging. Warren wants to know why Silas didn’t just walk the extra thirteen miles to his well-heeled brother’s place. Mary replies, Worthless though he is,/He won’t be made ashamed to please his brother.

As with all Robert Frost’s long conversational poems, this one is deceptively simple in its structure and language. Warren is reluctant to take his former worker back, and not just because Silas left him at an inopportune time. Mary knows her husband well and she says to him, ‘Warren,’ she said, ‘he has come home to die:/You needn’t be afraid he’ll leave you this time.’/‘Home,’ he mocked gently./‘Yes, what else but home? Mary persuades her husband to go and see Silas whom she had left resting on a chair by the stove.

clouds-and-moonI’ll sit and see if that small sailing cloud/Will hit or miss the moon.’ /It hit the moon./Then there were three there, making a dim row,/The moon, the little silver cloud, and she.

 Now, isn’t that breathtaking! The way in which a real poet moves from the mundane to the sublime in an instant and then back again Warren returned—too soon, it seemed to her, /Slipped to her side, caught up her hand and waited./‘Warren,’ she questioned. /‘Dead,’ was all he answered. Dear Listener, please read the complete poem, The Death of the Hired Man where you will experience it in its proper order and complexity.

 On New Year’s Eve, 1999, I was relaxing in my backyard with a beer in my hand and my guitar by my side. My family were all in residence and the sun was shining. The heat of the Australian summer was tempered by a cool breeze. I realised that, for the first time in overbackyard thirty years, I was in a place that I could call home without demur. Usually I wouldn’t have registered the thought but, that day, I wandered inside, collected a pen and notebook and, calling for another beer, I wrote this song:

 

 

SQ 30 Perfect (as you can be)

a-chineses-imageEntry 30: Perfect (as you can be)- Sometime in the middle of the 17th Century, somewhere in China, after the fall of the Ming Dynasty, a former mandarin official, Zha Shibiao, found something else to do with his life. He became one of the Four Masters of Anhui and one of the few capable of attaining the three perfections. This title goes back to the 8th Century when the Emperor Xuanzong, delighted by a painting given him, inscribed
xuanzong the words “three perfections” on it.

Since that time the three elements: painting, poetry and calligraphy have been appreciated as the ultimate expression of the visual arts. The calligraphy, in itself of the highest aesthetic value, is further enhanced by the formal beauty of the poem, which comments of the subject-matter of the painting. The complex interplay of these elements, as mediated in the informed mind of the observer of the art-work, results in an increasingly sophisticated appreciation of the composition upon repeated viewings.zha-shibiao

On the western fringe of Sydney, hanging on a wall of the box-room I use for writing, above the printer, is a reproduction of an exemplar of the three perfections. The original: a hanging scroll, ink on paper, measuring 97 inches tall by 28.5 inches wide. The sheer verticality of the format lends itself to the steep cliffs, distant mountains and forest trees depicted. A solitary figure, surrounded by tall trees and standing at the edge of a stream, looks out across the water and up the steep rock face. As we follow his gaze, our eyes are drawn along the gully to a temple which peeks out from behind a vertiginous bluff, one of several, which are surmounted by stands of trees. Our eyes travel ever upwards to view the conical mountains in the distance.

Zha Shibiao, signing himself, The Taoist of Plum Gully, composed the following poem for the landscape (maybe he painted the scene after writing the poem):

A clear stream at the gully’s mouth,/On the stone path I enter the cold forest./It is late as I approach the front of the mountain,/The stream flows off into the distance.

There is a sort of perfection found near running water under trees which are sighing in the breeze, surrounded by steep, wooded slopes flooded by summer sunlight. There’s another sort of perfection found in numbers. Mathematicians claim that beauty, similar to that to be found in painting or literature or music, resides in the rarefied upper reaches of their discipline.