Monday, November 30, 2009

St. Andrew's Day

Yes, it is the feast of Scotland's patron saint. I was surprised to find a fair bit on the tradition of St. Andrew's Day on the Taigh na Teud website--they're a very fine music publishing company in Skye (quite off the topic, they have some wonderfully exhaustive collections for fiddle), but who knew they had found time to compile articles as well? Anyway, here is the aforesaid article.
The Taigh na Teud article explains that St. Andrew's Day, "tends to be more popular with Scots who live abroad." Robert Service (of "The Cremation of Sam McGee" fame) wrote a poem about a group of Scots, very far abroad indeed--in the Yukon--who took their St. Andrew's celebrations quite seriously. I think John Ford should have made a film version. . .

The Ballad of How MacPherson Held the Floor

Said President MacConnachie to Treasurer MacCall:
"We ought to have a piper for our next Saint Andrew's Ball.
Yon squakin' saxophone gives me the syncopated gripes.
I'm sick of jazz, I want to hear the skirling of the pipes."
"Alas! it's true," said Tam MacCall. "The young folk of to-day
Are fox-trot mad and dinna ken a reel from a strathspey.
Now, what we want's a kiltie lad, primed up wi' mountain dew,
To strut the floor at supper time, and play a lilt or two.
In all the North there's only one; of him I've heard them speak:
His name is Jock MacPherson, and he lives on Boulder Creek;
An old-time hard-rock miner, and a wild and wastrel loon,
Who spends his nights in glory, playing pibrochs to the moon.
I'll seek him out; beyond a doubt on next Saint Andrew's night
We'll proudly hear the pipes to cheer and charm our appetite.

Oh lads were neat and lassies sweet who graced Saint Andrew's Ball;
But there was none so full of fun as Treasurer MacCall.
And as Maloney's rag-time bank struck up the newest hit,
He smiled a smile behind his hand, and chuckled: "Wait a bit."
And so with many a Celtic snort, with malice in his eye,
He watched the merry crowd cavort, till supper time drew nigh.
Then gleefully he seemed to steal, and sought the Nugget Bar,
Wherein there sat a tartaned chiel, as lonely as a star;
A huge and hairy Highlandman as hearty as a breeze,
A glass of whisky in his hand, his bag-pipes on his knees.

"Drink down your doch and doris, Jock," cried Treasurer MacCall;
"The time is ripe to up and pipe; they wait you in the hall.
Gird up your loins and grit your teeth, and here's a pint of hooch
To mind you of your native heath - jist pit it in your pooch.
Play on and on for all you're worth; you'll shame us if you stop.
Remember you're of Scottish birth - keep piping till you drop.
Aye, though a bunch of Willie boys should bluster and implore,
For the glory of the Highlands, lad, you've got to hold the floor."
The dancers were at supper, and the tables groaned with cheer,
When President MacConnachie exclaimed: "What do I hear?
Methinks it's like a chanter, and its coming from the hall."
"It's Jock MacPherson tuning up," cried Treasurer MacCall.

So up they jumped with shouts of glee, and gaily hurried forth.
Said they: "We never thought to see a piper in the North."
Aye, all the lads and lassies braw went buzzing out like bees,
And Jock MacPherson there they saw, with red and rugged knees.
Full six foot four he strode the floor, a grizzled son of Skye,
With glory in his whiskers and with whisky in his eye.
With skelping stride and Scottish pride he towered above them all:
"And is he no' a bonny sight?" said Treasurer MacCall.
While President MacConnachie was fairly daft with glee,
And there was jubilation in the Scottish Commy-tee.
But the dancers seemed uncertain, and they signified their doubt,
By dashing back to eat as fast as they had darted out.
And someone raised the question 'twixt the coffee and the cakes:
"Does the Piper walk to get away from all the noise he makes?"
Then reinforced with fancy food they slowly trickled forth,
And watching in patronizing mood the Piper of the North.

Proud, proud was Jock MacPherson, as he made his bag-pipes skirl,
And he set his sporran swinging, and he gave his kilts a whirl.
And President MacConnachie was jumping like a flea,
And there was joy and rapture in the Scottish Commy-tee.
"Jist let them have their saxophones wi' constipated squall;
We're having Heaven's music now," said Treasurer MacCall.
But the dancers waxed impatient, and they rather seemed to fret
For Maloney and the jazz of his Hibernian Quartette.
Yet little recked the Piper, as he swung with head on high,
Lamenting with MacCrimmon on the heather hill of Skye.
With Highland passion in his heart he held the centre floor;
Aye, Jock MacPherson played as he had never played before.

Maloney's Irish melodists were sitting in their place,
And as Maloney waited, there was wonder in his face.
'Twas sure the gorgeous music - Golly! wouldn't it be grand
If he could get MacPherson as a member of his band?
But the dancers moped and mumbled, as around the room they sat:
"We paid to dance," they grumbled; "But we cannot dance to that.
Of course we're not denying that it's really splendid stuff;
But it's mighty satisfying - don't you think we've had enough?"
"You've raised a pretty problem," answered Treasurer MacCall;
"For on Saint Andrew's Night, ye ken, the Piper rules the Ball."
Said President MacConnachie: "You've said a solemn thing.
Tradition holds him sacred, and he's got to have his fling.
But soon, no doubt, he'll weary out. Have patience; bide a wee."
"That's right. Respect the Piper," said the Scottish Commy-tee.
And so MacPherson stalked the floor, and fast the moments flew,
Till half an hour went past, as irritation grew and grew.
The dancers held a council, and with faces fiercely set,
They hailed Maloney, heading his Hibernian Quartette:
"It's long enough, we've waited. Come on, Mike, play up the Blues."
And Maloney hesitated, but he didn't dare refuse.
So banjo and piano, and guitar and saxophone
Contended with the shrilling of the chanter and the drone;
And the women's ears were muffled, so infernal was the din,
But MacPherson was unruffled, for he knew that he would win.
Then two bright boys jazzed round him, and they sought to play the clown,
But MacPherson jolted sideways, and the Sassenachs went down.
And as if it was a signal, with a wild and angry roar,
The gates of wrath were riven - yet MacPherson held the floor.

Aye, amid the rising tumult, still he strode with head on high,
With ribbands gaily streaming, yet with battle in his eye.
Amid the storm that gathered, still he stalked with Highland pride,
While President and Treasurer sprang bravely to his side.
And with ire and indignation that was glorious to see,
Around him in a body ringed the Scottish Commy-tee.
Their teeth were clenched with fury; their eyes with anger blazed:
"Ye manna touch the Piper," was the slogan that they raised.
Then blows were struck, and men went down; yet 'mid the rising fray
MacPherson towered in triumph - and he never ceased to play.

Alas! his faithful followers were but a gallant few,
And faced defeat, although they fought with all the skill they knew.
For President MacConnachie was seen to slip and fall,
And o'er his prostrate body stumbled Treasurer MacCall.
And as their foes with triumph roared, and leagured them about,
It looked as if their little band would soon be counted out.
For eyes were black and noses red, yet on that field of gore,
As resolute as Highland rock - MacPherson held the floor.

Maloney watched the battle, and his brows were bleakly set,
While with him paused and panted his Hibernian Quartette.
For sure it is an evil spite, and breaking to the heart,
For Irishman to watch a fight and not be taking part.
Then suddenly on high he soared, and tightened up his belt:
"And shall we see them crush," he roared, "a brother and a Celt?
A fellow artiste needs our aid. Come on, boys, take a hand."
Then down into the mêlée dashed Maloney and his band.

Now though it was Saint Andrew's Ball, yet men of every race,
That bow before the Great God Jazz were gathered in that place.
Yea, there were those who grunt: "Ya! Ya!" and those who squeak: "We! We!"
Likewise Dutch, Dago, Swede and Finn, Polack and Portugee.
Yet like ripe grain before the gale that national hotch-potch
Went down before the fury of the Irish and the Scotch.
Aye, though they closed their gaping ranks and rallied to the fray,
To the Shamrock and the Thistle went the glory of the day.

You should have seen the carnage in the drooling light of dawn,
Yet 'mid the scene of slaughter Jock MacPherson playing on.
Though all lay low about him, yet he held his head on high,
And piped ass if he stood upon the caller crags of Skye.
His face was grim as granite, and no favour did he ask,
Though weary were his mighty lungs and empty was his flask.
And when a fallen foe wailed out: "Say! when will you have done?"
MacPherson grinned and answered: "Hoots! She'll only haf' begun."
Aye, though his hands were bloody, and his knees were gay with gore,
A Grampian of Highland pride - MacPherson held the floor.

And still in Yukon valleys where the silent peaks look down,
They tell of how the Piper was invited up to town,
And he went in kilted glory, and he piped before them all,
But wouldn't stop his piping till busted up the Ball.
Of that Homeric scrap they speak, and how the fight went on,
With sally and with rally till the breaking of the dawn.
And how the Piper towered like a rock amid the fray,
And the battle surged about him, but he never ceased to play.
Aye, by the lonely camp-fires, still they tell the story o'er-
How the Sassenach was vanquished and - MacPherson held the floor.
This poem (and many others by the same author) can be found at RobertWService.Com.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Reel Piano

No particular reason for this clip from Comhaltas, other than that it's good music and one doesn't hear enough reels on the piano.

Friday, November 20, 2009

New Tunes

Some bluegrass-playing friends have invited me to join them in entertaining at a retirement home in a few days. We did a run-through of the proposed set yesterday afternoon before I went to work. For the most part the tunes were three- or four-chord melodies, fairly predictable, especially since I had a good view of the guitar players from where I was sitting, but there were a few worries when it came to instrumental selections, namely these three:

Dear Old Dixie (The musicians are Bill Wells and Blue Ridge Mountain Grass.)

Remington's Ride (The banjo player here is Jason Skinner, who has included the tune on an instructional video):

Santa Claus (I have no idea why "Santa Claus," therefore this tune does not awaken in me the same degree of antipathy that my neighbors' Christmas decorations-already-yet do. The banjo player here is Johnny Butten.):

An extra note for those of you who might like to try this at home: I ceased to think of "Tennessee Waltz" as an interesting tune a good fifteen years ago, until yesterday when the dobro player said in an offhand way, "Oh this is just the way I learned the chords. . ." Where most folks would play the first two measures: C_ _ C_ _, she plays C_ _ Cmaj7_ _, and it makes a world of difference. Exquisite might be a good description.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ditt Ditt Darium

Here's a folk group with a neat-and-tidy sound, and an unbearably cool name: Ditt Ditt Darium. The Sweden-based band consists of two fiddlers and two singers who specialize in mostly seafaring songs. Or, one is informed they are mostly seafaring songs; they are also mostly in Swedish, but the musical blend of voices and fiddles is mesmerizing enough that you don't necessarily need the words. In fact, they don't always need words themselves--have a look at the MySpace Page and listen to "Windy Gyle"--some mighty nice instrumental use of the voice there! Shorter clips of all the songs on their CD can be found at CD Baby.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Shot at Sundown

Yesterday afternoon I took a drive across the river to Folsom. Down along Sutter Street they have "historic Folsom" which is an eclectic conglomeration of businesses in some inarguably sightly old buildings. That street there below, people do indeed drive on it, but it was a wonderfully quiet afternoon, and despite the traffic pouring over the bridge a few hundred yards away, it was a peaceful place for a stroll. There is a small museum in Old Folsom, which I had hoped to peruse (the Pony Express had a terminal in the town, back in the day) but I dallied too long in the antique shops and it closed on me. I'm not a great antique shopper, by a long shot, but I could browse through those places for hours. They have many of the charms of a museum, though with some of the "do not touch" factor removed. The old books, of course, usually make the biggest impression, but I have a fascination with old saddles and tack. And glass of all descriptions, oh, yes, the glass. Which is not to say I have any great wish myself to own more glass, but I do find it fair to look upon, especially if the sun happens to be behind it.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

'Cause I Eats Me Spinach

Feeling rather recklessly extravagant on my way home from work the other night, I stopped and picked up a take-out dinner at an Indian restaurant. Indian food is something in which I cannot claim much expertise because of a misfortune that befell me when I was at university. I had a friend there who took me out to introduce me to Indian cuisine, and she suggested I try something called Saag Gosht, which is lamb cooked in spinach sauce. I say this is unfortunate because it was so delicious that I have never been able to persuade myself to order anything else when Saag Gosht is one of the choices on the menu, limiting myself as a rather one-dimensional (but appreciative) connoisseur of Indian food.

Anyway, I have tried making it myself in the past, but one thing I very much like about ordering it out is that they usually run the spinach and onions through a food processor at some point in the operation, resulting in a very smooth, well-blended sauce. Most of the recipes that I have Googled do not enlighten one on that process. I remember the one time I tried it, the spinach kept compacting in the bottom of the food processor, and very little of it ended up smaller than "chopped" anyway. Here is a recipe (sans the food processor) in case anyone else wants to give Saag Gosht a try. It would be just as nice a setting for beef as it is for lamb.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Cave of Gold, II

That video post of Margaret Bennett from last Sunday was meant to be a bittie longer, but I ran out of time. Anyway, to return to the subject of the Cave of Gold, she told a version of the story that had a MacArthur piper in the leading role. Ron MacLeod has compiled another short version of the story, featuring a fortunate-but-not-so-fortunate MacCrimmon piper who had a definite reason for going into the cave. You can find that here.

Also, there is a piobaireachd of the same title (in fact, Mr. MacLeod's story is associated with the piobaireachd), though to the best of my knowledge the song and the piobaireachd share nothing but the story, being two entirely different tunes. You can hear Murray Henderson play the piece on Lismor's Piobaireachd.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A Literary Interlude

I can't for the life of me remember where I came across the following poem, but it has been rattling around in my head for years. One might expect that the poet who could fit such an abundance of birds so tidily in a scarce four lines had dedicated a lifetime to perfecting his art. In fact, though Edward Thomas did earn his living as a prose writer, he only turned to poetry in the very last years of his life.

This poem is one of those cases where the "picture is worth a thousand words" saw is stood upon its head. No matter how luminous the picture, it would have been lacking without the invisible blackbirds.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veteran's Day

I'm on my way to work, but thought I should post a short something for Veteran's Day. Here's a collection of patriotic tunes played by various military bands. They don't clarify exactly who is playing what, no, but I found it via a link on the USMC San Diego Band's website.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Today was my "library day," upon which, I miraculously returned three volumes of poetry which were not even due for another two weeks. More to the point (but I was just so proud of the aforementioned feat, that I had to mention it. . .afore) I checked out The Illustrated History of Canada, perceiving that the obligation of carting it home would fit tidily into my new exercise regime, even if I never read it. Then again, it's illustrated. How can one not read it. . .or at least sip knowledge from the captions under the pictures?

Early on in the book, I was quite taken with a painting by an English artist named Frances Anne Hopkins. Her husband, Edward Martin Hopkins, was an official of the Hudson's Bay Company during the 1860's. She accompanied him on several of his. . .well, I suppose you could call them business trips, but it seems a very dry description of anything which might involve a group of canoes and the Great Lakes' region. On these trips, Mrs. Hopkins sketched and, when she returned home, painted some striking records of what she had seen.

Here are a couple of examples courtesy of the Library and Archives of Canada:

"Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall"

"Shooting the Rapids"

If you look closely, you can see the artist herself in the centre of the boat in both pictures, though she is mostly just hat in the lower one (over the shoulder of the fellow in the light blue shirt), in the waterfall piece, she is hard to miss in a white dress and hat (another hat).

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Cave of Gold

Folklorist Margaret Bennett tells the rather creepy story of the "The Cave of Gold," (Uamh an Oir) and sings the song in the video below.

If you don't have time to watch the whole thing, you can skip ahead to 6:57 where the song starts. The story is, in short, about a piper who decided to explore a mysterious cave in the Isle of Skye, and who fared rather badly in his venture. The song was his lament as he discovered the perils of the cave. (But if you have time to listen to the story here, you should. She tells it better.)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

"Read poetry every day of your life. Poetry is good because it flexes muscles you don't use often enough. Poetry expands the senses and keeps them in prime condition. It keeps you aware of your nose, your eye, your ear, your tongue, your hand."
--Ray Bradbury

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars

We met a professional photographer named Wally Pacholka down at the Death Valley 49ers Encampment a few years ago. This, in itself, was not so unusual, as there are photographers and artists galore down there over that weekend selling their various works. Even in such a crowd, however, Mr. Pacholka stood out. His specialty is photographs of the night sky, shot from angles which incorporate terrestrial landscapes. (You can read a bit about how he does it in the "About the Artist" section on his website, Astropics.) Perhaps even more remarkable than his exceptional photography, however, was his fervor for astronomy. He didn't discuss it as an expert propounding facts to an ignorant public; he just enthused, rather quietly, very selflessly, but with such single-minded attention that it recalled the first roots of the word "ardour" (fr. L ardor burning, as Webster's says). He was excited to point out the Orion Nebula to us, and even loaned us his binoculars so we could have a better look. I don't know what was better--noticing the nebula for the first time, or seeing a person who enjoyed its existence as much as Mr. Pacholka did.

It seems safe to say that his art transfers a degree of that zeal. All of his photographs are well calculated to make you take a second look upwards the next time you're under a night sky, but if I might play favourites, start by taking a look at this one.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Dies Irae (What Else?)

Yes, I would dearly love to be unpredictable, but I had the good fortune to hear an all-male schola sing the "Dies Irae" at Mass yesterday, and remembered just how much I liked it. Perhaps it is the rhyming scheme that sets it apart from most other long Gregorian pieces; this four-line structure makes it a bit more song-like, to my ears, rather than pure chant. Then again, there is the modal structure, which, I am told is a combination of the Dorian and Hypodorian modes. . .(Don't take this to mean I know the first thing about modes; I am just parroting what I read). Whatever the cause, I have always found it a most impressive piece. Sobering, to be sure, but impressive. Here is a solo version by an Italian singer named Giovanni Vianini who directs a Gregorian schola.